“Imi place foarte mult sa ma plimb prin Bucuresti, am avut o perioada in care am mers foarte mult pe jos si mi-am dat seama ca Bucurestiul are o arhitectura extraordinara ce trebuie pusa in evidenta. Sunt o gramada de zone faine, mai ales in zonele dintre cartiere si centru.”
If you believe in the power of serendipity Bucharest is the place to be: here the music of chance may easily lead you to discover something intriguing just round the corner. If you can afford to invest some of your time in random walks, then just go for it. At times you may even experience shy forms of travel in time.
Adding up to your playlist
When on a stroll down Bucharest streets, once you have skipped the challenging gaps and holes of most of its sidewalks, watch around for clues. Say, you walk along Boulevard Dacia, your eye catches the sign of a small museum which, like a Theatre in Magheru, is dedicated to a Nottara: no time to pop in? Just take a note to look it up later and you will have added a charming piece to your Romanian music playlist: Siciliana, composed by Constantin C., actor Constantin I. Nottara’s son. If you head centre you may then stop to observe the elegant peacefulness emanating from the historic villas surrounding park Ioanid – these days mostly turned into diplomatic residences; you muse on all the secrets those windows and gardens have been guarding since their first appearance on the city map.
Contemplating new forms of barbarism
You decide to turn into a smaller lateral street – it never really matters which – and walk past the remains of a rusted iron fence containing a garden grown wild around an old villa on the verge of vanishing. Most of these fading buildings belong to a sophisticated and – curiously enough, for quite many Romanians today – to a nostalgic past. With a good help of your imagination – here comes the travel in time – you catch a glance of what, several decades back, must have been an aristocratic residence with its framed windows, its richly decorated iron bars, its glass-paneled winter garden… At their latest, these villas date back to the so called interbelic period. Shortly after WWII the new communist lords methodically destroyed as much as possible of all the past elites’ symbols: from impalpable aspects such as their social status and lifestyle down to their homes and very material existence, in an attempt at wiping them out of the urban landscape. Yet history repeat itself. Not ideology, rather a get-rich-quick mentality nowadays threatens to wipe out what survives of the architectural heritage. Critics say a significant number of these historic buildings could be strengthened, rejuvenated and saved – but that the owners prefer to leave them empty, waiting until it is necessary to tear them down for safety reasons and then, in their place, building a modern high-rise. Over the last decade the historic centre of Lipscani has undergone a massive renovation effort which not always has preserved all the charme of the original places.
New tenants for old buildings
As you walk down less central areas you are more likely to discover other interesting buildings. Hidden behind wooden boards and remains of deftly wrought iron fences, they seem almost claimed back by chaos. Yet, to a closer look, quite often these houses in complete shambles are not neglected at all and have rather ended up hosting a whole new set of tenants. They often happen to be Roma families that, having no other place to go, have installed themselves there, until local authorities, on behalf of legitimate owners who have finally regained their property rights after decades of legal fights, kick them out. Paradoxically enough, such a phenomenon did not exist in Ceausescu’s days. Back then the Roma community was integrated – though forcibly – in the Romanian society, both by being assigned a regular job and housing in the very same blocs along with all other Romanian citizens. After the collapse of the regime, that fragile social balance broke down for good, with democratically elected governments regularly failing at envisaging any kind of social inclusion policy, triggering – instead – new waves of racial discrimination toward the Roma citizens. Now back to the street. You can tell the Romas’ presence from the colourful mess of clothes hanging out to dry in the sun along makeshift laundry wires, or from the vibrant frames perceived through the palisades: dirty toddlers watching older peers’ skilful ballgames, cute girls laughing on thresholds, older women in their chenille bathrobes sweeping dusty courtyards – a minor rite which assimilates them to gadji housewives, reminding us that true, whole world is country. Most times, should you pass by over weekends, the scene would be enriched with manele tunes magically rising up from nowhere, electricity being somehow provided for in a place where regular utility bills stopped being mailed ages ago.
Bucharest live show
Leaving behind this layer of urban life, you recover your adventurous walk along a typical street with clusters of wild car-parking: no sidewalks for you, the only option being to keep going along the carriage way beside high-speed cars (the bigger, the speedier). Few more strides ahead and in front of an unexpected art noveau building you run into a TV crew arranging its equipment for an interview to someone hot expected to emerge any minute from his/her lawyer, as the elegant brass plaque suggests. Citizens must be informed: be it a football player signing a new contract, a vedeta divorcing from his third husband, a politician just charged with plagiarism of his university degree or, more simply, for yet another bribe scandal. As you observe the calm professionalism of the young TV crew operating amid the traffic, the notion that the world is a stage here appears reinforced with the idea of a dangerous stage.
Surprises are in store even when walking along more peripheral quarters like Colentina or Pantelimon. There, on each side you are surmounted by gigantic ten-storey residential buildings Romanians call bloc. You stroll far away from picturesque neighbourhoods still you never give up and continue your quest for useful clues to understand more of this big city. They could be found in the icons worshipped in candle lit silence inside an orthodox church squeezed amid the blocs and the traffic, or amid the surreal silence circulating amid the tombstones of those resting in peace in cemeteries surrounded by beehive bloc. Take the almost abstract address of cimitir Progresul 2: Strada Eternitatii, Eternity Street. Definitely yet another layer of this big city.
Me and the rapper
I stop walking and head home. Serendipity does not stop operating its charms though. Checking out facts and information, I find out that Omu Gnom, a young underground rapper born and raised in the Drumul Taberei quarter – not suspected of indulging in the picturesque like a middle-aged Italian expat – also finds walking down Bucharest streets a unique experience. That is easily explained because all parallel worlds pass through Bucharest, somehow.
This post is also available in: Italian