Traveling To Bucharest Between The Wars

A French historian said once that the work you would best like to dedicate your time to is the one that seems to compel you to do so. This is what happens to me right now. Urged by a real passion for knowing the events and forerunners that once lived in this place, I have been gathering a wealth of documents about the image of Bucharest seen by visiting foreigners, with its cliches and stereotypes, but also about its, say, inconspicuous realities, as they were revealed to me over the years spent reading Romanian and foreign archives in Bonn, Vienna and other places.How did one travel to Bucharest between the two World Wars? The world seemed more dilated then, distances longer, and means of transport slower.I am looking at a brochure edited in New York by ITT, the American company that built the Telephone Palace in Bucharest, named Rumania, the contents of which gives some hints about the data supplied: general information about this country, its past, Bucharest and a few other cities, the Romanian economy and the telephone network, Bucharest hotels, and so on. Likewise, details on how one could travel from America to Romania. By sea, the trip from New York to Constanţa took between 19 and 21 days. Boeings did not exist yet, and perhaps they weren't even dreamt of.A volume of the famous collection Les guides bleus, published by Hachette in 1933, informs us that three fast luxury means of transport existed that connected Paris and Bucharest: the Orient Express, the Arlberg Orient Express, and the Simplon Orient Express. The trip took 53 to 64 hours, depending on the itinerary that could run through Budapest, Czechoslovakia, or Poland.Bucharest's only airport at the time was Băneasa, where Air France planes would land that made the connection to Western Europe, as well as Polish airline Lot, linking the Romanian capital to the Mediterranean and Baltic regions. The Paris-Bucharest air courier flew daily, except Sundays, and the flight took one day, with stopovers in Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade.Finally, those who would rather drive from Bucharest to Paris or back were told that the shortest route was 2400 kilometers long and, of course, no estimate of the duration was supplied.Visitors with good contacts in Bucharest's high society (or just well-to-do) headed straight for Athénée Palace Hotel, allegedly the most prestigious in these parts of Europe, built in 1910 to the blueprints of French architect Théophile Bradeau and inspired by the famous Parisian hotels Meurice and Ritz. After 1930, its façade underwent significant changes, being rid of its caryatids and turrets that lent it an antiquated look. The furniture in the rooms, however, remained pseudo-Louis XV, surrounded by blue curtains, and the restaurant – in red and white – reminded of the Second Empire French ones.Its name came from the Romanian Athenaeum, another edifice that confers a particular air to Bucharest, which made Countess Rosie Waldeck, author of a book named Athénée Palace (London, 1943), remark that in order to understand what Athenaeum Plaza meant to Romanians one had to imagine the White House, Waldorf-Astoria, Carnegie Hall, Colany restaurant and the Lincoln Memorial all put together, as it symbolized the heart of Bucharest topographically, artistically, politically, and perhaps spiritually. It was a flattering remark, but a little amendment must be made. The Countess arrived in the capital in 1940, whereas ten years earlier the architectonic equilibrium that made such a good impression on her was unfinished yet, hence the reservation expressed by previous observers. In 1926, the central wing of the RoyalPalace had burnt down in a fire and the reconstruction and enlargement works gave the same plaza an aspect of incomplete ensemble, a promise that had yet to be fulfilled.As a little digression, I would point out that the AthénéePalace was not the only landmark of inter-war Bucharest erected by French architects; there were also the Deposit (Savings) Bank, the University, the Law Courts (Palace of Justice), and many more.Aside from Athénée Palace, visitors could be hosted by many other hotels with a good reputation, such as Splendid (across Athénée Palace), Bulevard, Capşa, Continental, Esplanade (in Academiei St.), Majestic, Grand Hotel (corner of Calea Victoriei and Elisabeta Boulevard), or Union. Prices varied with status and degree of comfort, between 120 and 500 lei per night. Second-rate, yet honorable hotels included Marna (Buzeşti St.), RoyalPalace (Sărindar St.), or Emperor Trajan (Griviţei St., nearby North Railway Station).For trips in the city there were tramways and, occasionally, buses. But foreigners, as local residents especially after World War I, preferred coaches. The horses, in white harness, were driven by Russian eunuchs in specific costumes: long caftans hanging down to their heels, colored waistbands, and round caps with small peaks. White or red ribbons were attached to the horses' ears to prevent the evil eye. The ride cost 20 lei a quarter of an hour.Year by year, however, taxicabs visibly increased in number. The fashionable makes were Rolls Royce, Hispano-Suiza and Packard, equipped with meters, and charging decent prices.Eating out suited both any income and taste, whether in ordinary restaurants or classy ones such as Athénée Palace, Elisée (Calea Victoriei, next to the National Theater), Enescu (St. Ionică St., behind the Royal Palace), Bulevard, Continental, Modern (Sărindar St.), or Tivoli on Elisabeta Blvd. at the Military Circle (officers' club). During the hot season (summers seemed sweltering compared to our days), summer restaurants with gardens were very much in demand: Chateaubriand, Flora, Iordache, Suzana, or the Lion and Sausage on 11th of June St.

by Dumitru Hîncu