The studio apartment I rented in Bucharest was in a funky area, tucked behind the Old Town, just across from Strada Lipscani. My friend and guide in Bucharest told me it was named after merchants from Leipzig, Lipscani being the noun (the Leipzigers). The apartment was opposite the not-quite-featureless though somewhat intimidating massive dark brown block of the police headquarters, but just beyond this block, only one street away, were opulent old buildings where I imagined the grand monied residents of pre-second world war Bucharest used to live.
Many of these buildings – and others in the older part of the city too – were empty and badly in need of repair. But throughout the city centre there were scaffolds covered by giant cloth facades, behind which repair and reconstruction work was going on. My friend noted this with approval and said that this repair work was very recent.
There were several small shops in the vicinity – tailors and hat and dressmakers, as well as a cinema which my friend remembered from her childhood; it used to show only old black and white films. Calea Victoriei, full of sumptuous and historical buildings, was only a few metres away. One of the most spectacular of these is now a museum in memory of the musician George Enescu, whose home it had been. It was built in the early 1900s by Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino (the architect was Ioan D Berindei). Patrick Leigh Fermor in The Broken Road
describes it as 'a vast stucco palace... and in mid-air on either side of an ornate gateway two enormous puissant lions'.
There were two others I particularly enjoyed. An opulent old building, almost hidden behind trees and bushes in a large garden, used to house the Writers Union, in communist times. The wrought iron gates are closed, and it is undergoing renovation, with scaffolding on the roof. The other one is next to a beautiful old red brick church where swifts wheel and call. It's the Humanitas bookshop with a cafe under the arcades. The shop has a section of books in English and I bought Robert Kaplan's book on the history of Romania, In Europe's Shadow
. This cafe became my favourite spot to drink coffee, listen to the wheeling swifts and read Robert Kaplan's book.
In the north of the city, the open-air Village Museum has replicas of peasant houses, in styles traditional to different parts of the country. Some are made entirely of wood, with thatched and conical roofs; some go underground, to keep them cool; others are raised on stones, against the possibility of flooding; and still others have steep roofs that have turned into moss and gardens, floreate roofs, keeping out the heat and feeding nectar to the bees. They seem to me like mansions, adapted to the climate and to the world of grass and trees, to blend in with nature and work with it.
There's a wine press made out of massive blocks of wood, with its wooden vats and barrels placed next to it. Wooden troughs too, for the horses, with equine heads carved at each end (so the horses know that it's for them) and a traditional cart painted in patterns of red and turquoise. Black and tawny cats sit in the shade and scrutinise us as we walk through the boundaries, marked by miniature wooden benches (stiles) where you could sit perhaps and contemplate what it might mean to cross from one territory to another. Or there's a two-step stile where you can swing your leg across a fence without another thought – except the grass is long here and the clover's thick. There is no beaten path and you cannot know what's round the corner.
The open-air museum adjoins the large Herăstrău Park which is bordered by a lake. There are various busts of famous people, mainly Romanians, scattered throughout this park – it was a pleasant surprise to come across a bust of Mark Twain.
However, my favourite statues are in the small back garden of the National Museum of Romanian Language. They are an illustrious trio of friends – Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Eugene Ionescu (see photo below). The statues of all three writers are long, thin and angular – their matchstick minimalism wrenches (particularly with Emil Cioran) mood and expression out of the metalwork, sharpening their features into dramatic points.