If I were to make a top of hidden treasures of Bucharest, I’d place Bellu Cemetery on the first position. Definitely not as famous as Pere- Lachaise, Recoleta, St’ Louise or even Sapanta-The Happy Cemetery, Bellu has a lot of surprises in store for the ones who venture to cross its gates.
The story begins somewhere in the 1830s when the authorities decided that it was necessary to move the graves outside of living areas as means of reducing the outbursts of cholera and plague. Baron Bellu, from a family of great fortune and wealth, chose to donate the land where he had an orange orchid so Bucharest could have a proper cemetery.The first unofficial burial was the one of nobleman Constantine Cantacuzino in 1852 when his Slavic-written gravestone was brought to Bellu. His coffin was moved only 25 years later.
In time, Bellu became the resting place of nobility, artists and politicians altogether. Basically, everybody of importance was buried here. Architects like Ion Mincu and sculptors like Raffaello Romanelli and the Storcks were commissioned to design and dress up the mausolea, turning Bellu in an open air funerary art exhibition. A handful of spooky legends and tragic stories accompany the 300 monuments on display, out of which, three are widely popular.
On a tour of the cemetery, one of the first stops is at the grave of the Poroineanu’s. The sculpture representing a young lady laid on her deathbed with a grieving man besides her is the work of the Florentine Raffaello Romanelli. Around this grave hovers a tragic love story that we might expect to find in romance novels, not real life.
At the end of the 19th century, Constantin Poroineanu went to Paris to complete his studies as it was fitting for a young man of his birth and fortune. He met a beautiful French girl at a students ball and fell in love with her. Unfortunately, his father did not accept their union and threatening to cut him off with a shilling, he forced Constantin to leave the girl and return home. The boy grew into a prosperous life, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the country, notorious for his acts of charity.
Twenty years later, one of his sons left to study in Paris. He, too, met a French girl at a student soiree with whom he fell in love. Unlike his father, he did not inform his parents and got married. After introducing her to his family, the father put the story together and realized that the girl was actually his daughter. The spouses were brother and sister. The horror of the situation was unbearable pushing the lovers to death. It is believed that young Poroineanu shot the girl and then himself, making him a suicidal case thus not suited for a proper Orthodox burial. Supposedly, only the girl is in the family tomb and the boy is buried somewhere at the end of the cemetery. The father, Constantin, completed his will leaving the entire family wealth to the town of Caracal and committed suicide as well.
This Shakespearean-like family tragedy is, however, challenged by historians. They believe that people needed a bizarre story to justify the work of Romanelli. The 1900s newspapers were happy to oblige and fabricated the incestuous love of the Poroineanu`s. Of course, the romantics at heart do not accept this variant and affirm that only a tragedy this big would explain the heavy sadness projected by the statue.
Legend has it, that the ones who love most deeply and passionately can hear the desperate cry of the lovers around the grave.
Lady In White
Going deeper in the old part of the cemetery we find the Lady In White or the Lady with Umbrella, another work by Romanelli. The statue is a real-life, detailed, representation of a Belgian foreign languages teacher, Katalina Boschott. She is a character in her own love story, surrounded just as much by mysteries and suppositions.
What we know about her is that she worked as a governess for a wealthy man, they fell in love and she became his mistress. In 1906, the lovers went on vacation to Baile Herculane where Katalina suffered from peritonitis. The doctors could not save her. Her dying words, engraved on her tombstone were: Cet animal de medecin m’a tuee! (This animal of a doctor killed me!).
This is where the guessing starts. Traditionally, it is believed that the words were meant for the doctor that was not able to cure her. Another version of the story is that her lover was a doctor and he was actually the root cause of her death. A third story says that Katalina’s statue is looking towards the man who killed her. If one checks the direction of her gaze, one finds the grave of Mina Minovici, a famous doctor, the founder of Romanian forensic medicine. Nevertheless, there are no records that show a link between these two, only sheer speculations. Most probable, the truth will forever be concealed behind the enigmatic green eyes of Katalina.
The Temple of Iulia Hasdeu
The third notorious story in Bellu takes us to the central alley in front of the tomb of Iulia Hasdeu. Daughter of a prolific Romanian writer, B.P. Hasdeu, she proved to be a wonder-child, being able to read at the age of two and having her first novel written by the age of 7. She could speak German, French, English and while in Paris, she studied Greek and Latin as well. By the age of 20 she would have become the first woman doctor in letters to graduate from Sorbonne . Unfortunately she died of tuberculosis just before turning 19 leaving her father unable to recover from the loss of his beloved Iulia.
Six months after her death, B.P. Hasdeu recounts that Iulia’s spirit approached him with the following message: Je suis heureuse; je t’aime; nous nous reverrons; cela doit te suffire. Julie Hasdeu (I am happy; I love you; we will meet again; this should be enough for you. Julie Hasdeu). This triggered her father dedication in the study of spiritualism and communicating with the dead. It is believed that he had spiritualism sessions every night, talking to his daughter.
The design for the odd ensemble that is her mausoleum is said to have been dictated by Iulia herself during a spiritualism session. Instead of a traditional funerary cross we find a mix of elements with deep symbolic meaning: sphinxes, the trinity, a bible, books on philosophy, all merged in a shrine pledged to Iulia’s genius. A Murano glass and the statues of Victor Hugo, Jesus Christ and Shakespeare were used to decorate the crypt but have been stolen along the years together with the family portraits, the stained glasses and, sadly, the remains of Iulia.
Sometime in the 1930s her skull was taken by a group of students who wanted to use it for spiritualist practices. The authorities have not been able to retrieve it ever since.
On a personal note, Bellu is one of my favorite sites in Bucharest. It’s the fusion of crazy stories, incredible artworks and the stillness of the place that gives Bellu an enchanted aura making it a must see while visiting the city.
Metro Station: Eroii Revolutiei
Chapel Opening Hours: 08:00-16:00 from Monday to Sunday
For a guided tour of Bellu Cemetery please contact me at roaring[dot]romania[at]gmail[dot]com