Friday, October 24, 2014

The Lipscani District of Bucharest

Strada Smardan in Lipscani District
Thanks to my Romanian friend SF writer Nina Munteanu, I found myself flying into Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest last week. We came to attend the Gaudeamus Book Fair at Romexpo where Editura Paralela 45 was launching the Romanian version of Nina’s writing guidebook The Fiction Writer (Scriitorul de Fictiune).

Dr. Florin Munteanu, respected scientist in Complexity Theory, picked us up at the airport and took us to the Phoenicia Grand Hotel, a rather posh spacious hotel that lived up to its name. We relaxed in the lounge, discussing fractal geometry and the Fibonacci Golden Ratio over café crèmes. It was a very civilized introduction to this eclectic “city of joy” (bucurie means joy in Romanian) and I felt strangely at home.

Alexander Lobrano of the New York Times heralded Bucharest as “one of the last European cities that hasn’t been pasteurized by gentrification or lost its soul to mass tourism. It’s an odd but lively mutt of a city—one that’s clearly seen better days but where something is also suddenly stirring. The locals love to have a good time, and the Romanian economy is chugging along pretty nicely.” I’m not sure I agree with calling Bucharest a “mutt of a city”; although Bucharest does exude eccentricity in style and form, spanning the baroque to neo-gothic style of the Lipscani District to the eclectic opulence of the CEC Bank building to the insane self-indulgent extravagance of Ceauşescu’s Casa Popurului (House of the People). Parisianne-inspired Arcul de Triumf and the Odean Theatre are reasons why Bucharest is sometimes referred to as Little Paris of the East. The historic Lipscani District in Old Town Bucharest (in the heart of the city), provides an authentic medieval setting — complete with pedestrian cobbled lanes — that includes stunning baroque, renaissance and neo-classical architecture dating back to medieval times. It is all that remains of a previously vibrant commercial centre (much of which was destroyed during Ceauşescu’s reign).

Long before the official founding of the city of Bucharest in 1459, the Lipscani area was already an important commercial centre. It got its name from the German town of Leipzig, because during the 1600s and 1700s many traders from Leipzig came to sell their wares to the locals and the Turks. Lipscani flourished in the 1600s after Vlad Tepes (the Turk impaler) chose it for his Princely Court. Craftsmen and merchants from all over settled there and many of Lipscani’s streets still retain the names of these trades. The diverse mix of Romanian, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Armenian, Jewish, Albanian and Austrians mingled and clashed in a vibrant mix of culture and contrast.

The general decay of the historic centre following successive bombings by the Allies and the Luftwaffe during World War II, then a devastating earthquake in 1977, rendered it vulnerable to communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu's maniacal vision of a concrete, communist Utopia. Ceauşescu ordered Bucharest's historic centre demolished to make way for his Civic Centre project, which included the massive Palace of Parliament, and replaced a section of the historic district larger than New York's Central Park with unimaginative grotesque imitations of palatial elegance. Somehow, the Lipscani District managed to survive to see the 1989 Romanian Revolution and Ceausescu's execution.

George Kudor, one of Dr. Munteanu’s brilliant students, took me to the Lipsani District where we wandered the pedestrian cobbled streets, along Strada. Smardan, the first street to be completely repaved and renovated, past sushi bars, shops, Irish pubs, nightclubs and cafes like the Dutch-owned Grand Café Van Gogh, which according to Lobrano serves awesome coffee. 
I found us wandering down Stavropoleos Street. George led me to an old monastery built in the Brâncovenesc style where he said he often came to listen to the Byzantine music of the small choir. The church holds the largest collection of Byzantine music books in Romania. Built in 1724, the Stavropoleos monastery was dedicated to St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The name Stavropoleos is a Romanian rendition of a Greek word (Stauropolis), which means “the city of the Cross”.

Caru cu Bere on Str. Stavropoleos
We continued down Str. Stavropoleos with a view of the CEC Palace Romanian Savings Bank, an eclectic building with a monumental central dome and entrance archway supported by pillars. We walked along neo-gothic facades to one of Lipscani’s best known and popular restaurants, Caru’ cu Bere (cart of beer), which brews its own beer in a stunning Bell Epoque cathedral-like setting of high vaulted ceilings with painted ceilings, balconies, chandeliers, stained glass, and frescoes and ornate woodwork. One patron from London remarked, “It was like having a meal at Cardiff Castle!” The decadently opulent neo-gothic interior was designed by the Austrian architect Zigrid Kofczinsky in 1875 as a beer hall (they certainly had interesting ideas of what a beer hall should look like then!). The service has apparently vastly improved from its former Sovietsky days. Our waitress was friendly and prompt. Caru’ cu Bere has a menu the size of a newspaper and celebrates a diversity of traditional Romanian food like mamaliga (polenta-like dish), carnaţi şi fasole (sausage and beans), dovlecei umpluţi cu carne (squash stuffed with minced meat), varzǎ acrǎ cǎlitǎ cu cǎrnaţi bine afumaţi (sauerkraut with smoked sausage) and sarmale (cabbage rolls) to a juicy T-bone steak. The banner outside the restaurant proclaims in English: “Possibly the Best Restaurant in Town.” For its combination of atmosphere, good local food and price, they might be right.

Neo-gothic interior of Caru cu Bere
George then took me through the Macca-Villacrosse Passage, an odd little U-shaped passageway linking Streets Lipscani and Eugen Carada with Calea Victoriei. This jewel of 19th century architecture is a year-round haven for coffee drinkers and shoppers beneath amber-tinted glass roof. Named “Valley of the Kings”, the passage was renovated in 1989 and contains small stores, a bistro, Chinese restaurant and cafes. Among them is the Cafenea Egipleana, an Egyptian-themed café and hookah lounge, where patrons share shisha or flavored tobacco from a communal hookah or nargile, placed at each table.

After meeting Dr. Munteanu at the Centre for Complexity on Jean-Louis Calderan, we walked to Burebista Vanatoresc (Str. Batistei) a local medieval-themed restaurant where we enjoyed another hearty traditional Romanian meal (Romanians like to eat—my kind of people!) to the piano music of a local artist. I saw dishes like carnati de oaie (mutton sausages) and mititei (grilled links of mixed ground meat seasoned with garlic, thyme and anise). Specialties include bear paws and civet; spicy crispy pork ribs, filet of wild boar in red wine and brandy sauce. I had ciorbă de perişoare (meatball soup), which came with hearty bread and a bracing Romanian beer. 

Macca-Villacrosse Passage
Bucharest is Europe’s sixth largest city and a three-hour flight from most western European capitals, adds Lobrano. I saw obvious influences of western (particularly North American) consumerism and pop culture (e.g., apparel, modern architecture, fast-food places like KFC, Pizza Hut; English spoken everywhere)—no doubt a visceral reaction of a culture emerging from the oppressive Ceauşescu reign. I also recognized the influence of the east in the foods, dress, Byzantine architecture, music and comportment of the locals. 

Florin Munteanu said it perfectly: “Romania is the corpus callosum of the world,” where east and west converge, mingle and learn. It’s no wonder that Romania is one of the leading countries in work on complexity theory, a science that embraces the “collision” of different “worlds” to create more than the sum of its parts. I look forward to coming back to this vibrant city and its countryside. When I return I will make sure to visit Bucharest’s excellent museums, particularly the Muzeul Taranului Roman (Peasant Museum) and the Muzeul Naţional al Satului Diminitrie Gusti (Village Museum). Both are not far from the Lipscani District.


  1. Wonderful post! I'm looking forward to visiting Bucharest myself in two months, and you've whetted my appetite. And what a great line: "Romania is the corpus callosum of the world." Perfect!

    1. Thanks, Rob! Romania is many things and among them certainly a nation of writers and poets.
      ton ami,