Bucharest Old City Center (OCC) is the place where everybody wants to go when visiting the town.The ever popular destination is a mix of history, legends, bars, food, entertainment, basically a fast ticket to fun. It has something for every taste and tourists are dazzled by the contrasting images characteristic to Bucharest.
Historically, the OCC has been a place for trade between the 15th and the 18th century. Romanian lands were considered the doors to the Eastern World and traders used to stop here on their way to or from the Ottoman Empire. Good business attracted tradesmen from all the neighboring countries in a cocktail of Bulgarians, Armenian, Albanian, Serbians and Greek.
A lot of streets got their names from the craftsmen that had their shops there: Blanari-the furriers, Selari-the saddlers, Sticlari-the glass blowers. Today, you can still spot here and there tiny glass or fur shops.
During the Communist regime the OCC went through a period of downfall and the plan was to completely demolish it because it was old and therefore not acceptable. The intention was to build a city appropriate for the ” new and improved socialist man”. The plan was never executed because the Revolution came before the destruction of this beautiful piece of history.
A place so old and tumultuous could not be missing a handful of morbid legends, the thrill of ghost busters. The cry of children heard in the black of night, stories on human meat pies and the ghost of Dracula are just a few of the long list of secrets hidden in the dark corners of these streets.
Since I mentioned Dracula or Vlad the Impaler,how we like to call him, he is the one that established Bucharest as the capital city of Wallachia and the ruins of the first royal fortress can be seen here. Legend has it that Vlad’s ghost wanders through the tunnels under the fortress, tunnels considered to be the passage way to the other world. Quite spooky but no need to worry, Dracula had a problem with wrongdoers and impaled only traitors, thieves and other sorts of criminals. Cruel but honest and so deeply loved by Romanians that he is viewed as a symbol of fairness and order. The question: “Vlad, where are you now?” is used whenever a shenanigan is not correctly addressed.
Near the ruins there are other two important landmarks: one is the church of Saint Anton, the oldest in Bucharest. The building that we see today is however from the 19th century as the first construction perished in a fire.
The second one is Manuc’s Inn dating back to 1808. The inn is an example of Romanian architecture and workmanship. Take a moment and observe the roof and the wooden details used for decorations. These were problematic during restorations because it was difficult to find craftsmen able to work in this manner.
The first owner, Manuc-bei, was of Armenian origin born in the Ottoman Empire. In order to keep its link to the Eastern World, the inn serves both Lebanese and traditional Romanian dishes. It has several chambers, suitable for various events and a large yard transformed into a terrace. Summer evenings on the inn’s terrace can turn into delightful dinners as they often have live instrumental music and the tall, closed walls shelter the terrace from the rattle outside. I do have to note that if they are crowded you might wait a while for the food.
We move on the lovely Franceza Street (the French Street). This is the oldest street in Bucharest dated for the first time in a document from 1649 when it was called the Big Street. The present name comes from the French Consulate that had its headquarters here in the 19th century. The Romanian version of the dandy, the filfizon, was born here. In the 1850s, whenever the guards of the French consulate went partying they sang a revolutionary song, La Carmagnole:
Dansons la Carmagnole
Vive le son
Vive le son
Dansons la Carmagnole
For the people who did not speak French Vive le son became filfizon– a term to describe a pretentious man.
From the Franceza Street go right on the Postei Street where, at the end, on the right, you find Stavropoleos Monastery.
Built around the year 1780 in Romanian Brancovenesc style, the monastery is a contrasting presence in the OCC. Outside its premise are the restless, noisy streets with people partying and having fun and inside everything is peaceful and calm. The yard is a charming ensemble of flowers, arcades and columns. The stone blocks exhibited along the walls are pieces belonging to the churches demolished during the regime.
The tour continues with an evergreen destination, the restaurant Caru` cu bere, the winner of the Best Romanian Restaurant 2013. Open since 1879, the restaurant stands apart due to their homemade beer, brewed in their own brewery, the 100% traditional menu and the marvelous interiors. Eating here is a must-have experience when in Bucharest.
On the logo of the restaurant sit a cat and a rooster that became the image of the nightlife in the OCC because we start partying when the cats come out at night and finish only when the rooster sings at dawn.
Next step takes us to the CEC Palace. The eclectic building hosts the oldest Romanian Bank and in my personal opinion is one of the most beautiful in Bucharest, next to Cantacuzino Palace and Cretulescu Palace.
Going a bit uphill from the CEC we enter the Macca-Villacrosse passage way. The first time I’ve entered this area was as if I crossed the border to another world: the dim lights, the yellow glass ceiling, the sweet-everlasting smell of the hooka’s, loud conversations, locals and foreigners together. I recommend an evening visit to catch the spirit of the place and do try one of the many sorts of hooka’s.
After the Macca-Villacrosse stop we continue to the last building on this route on Selari Street: The Palace of the Lady and the Infants, now hosting a medieval restaurant. It might not look like an actual palace but it was designed to accommodate the ruler’s wife and their children and it is the oldest non-religious building in the OCC (1715).
This was a brief tour of some favored historical attractions in Bucharest’s Old City Centre but wandering the old streets is the best way to discover this area. My suggestion is to visit it during the week days or week end mornings before it gets too crowded.
Metro stations: Piata Unirii, Universitate, Piata Romana (15 min walk)
What are your favorite spots in Bucharest’s Old City Center?