November 6, 2009 / 3:46 PM / 8 years ago

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Bucharest for architecture buffs

<p>View of the Curtea Veche, the 15th century residence of Vlad Tepes, a bloodthirsty ruler who inspired Bram Stokers' Dracula, in downtown Bucharest, November 6, 2009.Bogdan Cristel</p>

BUCHAREST (Reuters Life!) - Got 48 hours to explore Bucharest, with its rare mixture of western architectural ideas, eastern imagery and 20th century totalitarian megalomania?

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors map the city's shift from one of Europe's most progressive urban centres at the start of the 20th century to a chaotic maze of dusty boulevards and quaint neighborhoods bearing the scars of brutal communist policies.

FRIDAY

4 p.m. - Follow road signs for historic center, but watch out, it's easy to miss. Nestled between two major avenues, the medieval merchant district of Lipscani is in fact a tiny fraction of Bucharest's former old city.

Its meandering, cobblestoned streets survived demolitions ordered by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980s that buried Bucharest's oldest sections, or a fifth of the city.

After massive renovations in recent years, Lipscani teems with bars and restaurants and is a popular weekend hangout for the city's partygoers.

Stop for a drink but make sure to wander into one of the side streets. Lined with tiny textile or antique shops, the crumbling tenements bear witness to communist-era neglect.

7 p.m. - Dinner at Caru cu Bere, a 19th century brewery that serves traditional Romanian fare under impressive vaulted ceilings. Try sarmale, minced meat wrapped in sour cabbage, or mamaliga, a cornmeal dish often served with cream and cheese.

On the way out don't miss Stavropoleos Monastery. Built in 1724, it is a great example of Brancovenesc style of Romanian architecture, a rich mix of Byzantine and baroque motifs.

Stop also by Curtea Veche, the 15th century residence of Vlad Tepes -- also known as "Vlad the Impaler" -- a bloodthirsty ruler who inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula.

9 p.m. - Walk off dinner with a short stroll north on Calea Victoriei, Bucharest's fashion street, toward Cercul Militar National, an impressive Beaux Arts structure.

SATURDAY

10 a.m. - Have a pastry at a traditional Bucharest market, Piata Matache near strada Buzesti. Tucked behind modern office buildings alongside government headquarters, Piata Matache still attracts villagers selling their produce and local winemakers.

For the tougher crowd, go to a "mici si bere" vendor, where traditional garlic meat rolls can be washed down with a pint of beer.

11 p.m. - Head toward Piata Victoriei and the Romanian Peasant Museum. The building is an essential example of Neo-Romanian architecture, a trend contemporary of Art Nouveau and Antoni Gaudi's Modernism.

Pioneered by Ion Mincu, the style adapted historic church architecture to secular buildings, mixing in Oriental and folklore ornaments such as pumpkin flowers.

<p>The statue of Vlad Tepes, a bloodthirsty ruler who inspired Bram Stokers' Dracula, is pictured at Curtea Veche residence, in downtown Bucharest November 6, 2009.Bogdan Cristel</p>

The museum houses a collection of folk art and a shop with embroidered belts, copper pots and glass paintings.

2 p.m. - Lunch at Casa Doina, a landmark Bucharest restaurant (www.casadoina.ro) designed by Ion Mincu. Try a selection of Romanian eggplant and roasted bell pepper salads.

4 p.m. - Cross a small park toward Bulevardul Aviatorilor and a tangle of leafy streets behind it. Hunt for spectacular modernist and Art Deco villas that earned Bucharest the name of Paris of the East at the turn of the 20th century.

But hurry. Many gems of modernist architecture are disappearing, left to rot by developers who want to construct high-rise apartment blocs on prime real estate.

7 p.m. - Dinner at another reconstructed villa. Serving French fare, Ici et La has a secret. Ask the owner for a selection of his homemade sorbets.

10 p.m. - If you still can, check out the modernist hotels and housing blocs lining Bulevardul Magheru. Modeled after Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, it was a gem of early 20th century urban planning.

Slideshow (6 Images)

SUNDAY

10 a.m. - Get ready for a day's walking with brunch at the Athenee Palace Hilton. Built at the start of the 20th century, the hotel was a notorious meeting spot for spies in the 1930s.

Under communism, rooms were said to be bugged and many staff on the payroll of the pervasive secret service, the Securitate.

12.00 p.m. - Take a taxi to Casa Poporului or Palace of the People, the monstrous building concocted by Ceausescu in the late 1970s. Now housing parliament, it looms over Bucharest.

Don't go by foot, you will need energy to walk through its cavernous halls and seemingly endless corridors. Ceausescu hoped the building, made with thousands of tonnes of crystal, marble and wood, would become Romania's "Acropolis," but it came to symbolize the destructiveness of his social policies.

Construction devoured large chunks of the state budget at a time when food and energy rationing tormented much of the population.

15.00 p.m. - In the back of the building, find the Contemporary Art Museum, with a cafe overlooking the city.

17.00 p.m. - Hop in a taxi again toward the Armenian Church on Bulevardul Carol II. Stroll through a picturesque district of French-style villas, modernist apartment blocs and tiny Neo-Romanian castles complete with vine-covered turrets.

Look for villas designed by Marcel Iancu, one of the founders of the Dada movement, or find a map of his designs on www.e-cart.ro.

If you see someone going into a modernist bloc, make friends quickly. Interiors in some of the stern-looking buildings can look like film sets from 1930s Hollywood.

In the autumn, the smell of burning leaves emanates from the gardens. Behind the area, starts a chaotic expanse of drab apartment blocs, Bucharest's communist legacy.

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