This large square was made famous around the world when television channels broadcast the final moments in power of Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on 21 December 1989.
It was here, on the balcony of the old Communist Party Headquarters, that Nicolae Ceausescu looked out in amazement on how the people gathered in the square turned against him and he fled the angry crowd in his white helicopter, only to be captured outside of the city a few hours later.
The importance of the square dates much further back than the dramatic events of the 1989 Revolution. It is a central location where a bit of all the city’s history can be found. On the other side of the square is the oldRoyal Palace, now the headquarters of the National Art Museum, the impressive Romanian Athenaeumand the historic Athenee Palace Hotel. The small and beautiful Kretzulescu Church can be visited at the southern end of the square.
Picture by CristianChirita
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National Art Museum
The largest art museum in Rumania was set up in 1948 and includes both Rumanian and European art from the 15th to the 20th centuries. The museum houses the most complete collection of Rumanian art in the country and possibly in the world.
Located in the old Neo-classical Royal Palace surrounded by a large number of historic buildings, such as the Romanian Athenaeum, Kretzulescu Church and the Hotel Hilton Athenee Palace, the museum currently exhibits more than 100,000 pieces divided between two main sections. Its National Gallery houses the works of great Rumanian artists, including Grigorescu, Aman and Andreescu. There is also a hall full of the early sculptures by Brancusi (hard to find anywhere else) that show how he surpassed his master, Rodin, towards a more advanced form of expression. The European Gallery Space, which consists of 15 rooms, houses the jewels of lesser-known art by such great artists as El Greco, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, Breughels (father and son), Cezanne and Rubens.
Theatre at its Best, Set in the Streets of Old Bucharest
B-FIT in the streetor D’ale Bucureştilor, is held in the streets of Bucharest’s old city from late May to early June each year. This admission-free festival features a host of events, including theatre stagings, open-air cinema, music performances and parades, attended by thousands of festival-goers. No other place is so evocative for enjoying the folk music and medieval traditions of the B-Fit festival as the narrow backstreets of the area. So, now that we find ourselves in the picturesque historic centre of the Romanian capital, let’s wander through the area to soak up its charm.
A City with a Parisian Air
Bucharest was once known as the “little Paris of the East” for its French influences, still noticeable in its wide avenues and, like the French capital, a striking triumphal arch at the entrance to Kisseleff Avenue. This grand avenue was the megalomaniacal dream of Ceauşescu, who wanted to better the Champs Elysées by making it a few metres longer than the original model. Under his rule, a large part of the city centre was demolished to make way for ugly Communist-era buildings.
Piața Unirii (Unification Square), one of the largest in the city, is also reminiscent of the grand squares of Paris. It is intersected by Unirii Boulevard, which marks the divide between old and new Bucharest, affording comparative views of the contrast between the two.
Lipscani – A Historical, Lively District
North ofUniriisquare,after crossing the Dâmboviţa river canal, lies Lipscani, the centrul vechi (historic centre) of Bucharest. This is one of the most interesting areas as, fortunately, it managed to elude Ceauşescu city plans. It is a lively quarter, packed with bars, restaurants and modern pubs throbbing with activity.
Also fronting Unirii Square is Manuc's Inn (Hanul lui Manuc),a centuries-old inn architecturally way ahead of its time. Its magnificent inner court, which was once a staging area for the throngs of carriages that plied across Europe in the mid-19th century, now accommodates charming terrace cafés.
Well worth visiting is the Curtea Veche archaeological excavation which houses the residence commissioned by the 15th-century ruler, Vlad III Dracula or Vlad Țepeș the Impaler, the Transylvanian nobleman whose legend was immortalised in the novel, “Dracula”, by Bram Stoker. A visit of Curtea Veche might include venturing into some of its underground halls, browsing through its museum and taking vampirish shots of Vlad’s bust.
Prominent among the jewels of religious architecture in Lipscani is the priceless Stavropoleos Orthodox church, built in response to the call of numerous Greek merchants resident in Bucharest for a place of worship.
Eating at Historical Restaurants and Modern Terrace Cafés
The above Orthodox church is usually stumbled on by tourists heading to the restaurant known as Caru' cu bere (Beer Cart), a veritable institution in the city. It is housed in a neo-Gothic building listed as a historic monument, and its interior boasts numerous art nouveau adornments. Although it includes a terrace, we recommend eating indoors to admire the murals, mosaics and stained-glass windows, and soak up part of the history that has played out between its walls. Since it was first opened in 1899, it has been a meeting place for Romanian artists and writers.
Cafeneaua Veche (Old Café), on Covaci Street, is another venue you must see. It is Bucharest’s oldest café, dating from 1812, and is a heritage site listed by UNESCO. Later on you could spend some time listening to music in one of the many lively pubs along Covaci Street, notably the 1974 or the Underworld.
Another traditional restaurant in the old city is Crama Domnaesca, on Strada Selari. This is the perfect place for splashing out on a fully-fledged banquet, to try the main dishes in Romanian cuisine in a setting with medieval décor. Price is no object, as they are generally laughable in comparison to restaurants in other European countries.
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Transylvania – More Than Just Dracula
Whenever Transylvania is mentioned, the name Dracula springs to mind. Whether for better or for worse, that’s the way it is. Bram Stoker couldn’t have suspected what he was about to unleash when he wrote Dracula, a novel that would go down in history, inspired by the figure of Vlad Tepes. Neither would he have imagined he was going to turn Transylvania – where part of the story unfolds – into a tourist destination for vampire enthusiasts, particularly since his writing was based on literary sources, as he never actually visited the region.
However, when considering a trip to Transylvania, we need to lift the Gothic veil from our eyes and look further afield. Granted, reminders of Vlad Tepes are present, but there are also magnificent landscapes awaiting us, as well as medieval towns with priceless coloured houses, friendly people and the odd medieval castle, which would only conjure up horror stories with a concerted flight of the imagination.
Transylvania is famed for having the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, so make sure you visit the historic town of Brasov, packed with charming spots. A major landmark is the Old Town Square (Piata Sfatului), where you can visit the History Museum, housed in the old Town Hall. Another must-see is the Biserica Neagră or Black Church, so called on account of the blackened walls caused by a fire there in 1689. This huge Gothic church, one of the largest in south-eastern Europe, houses an important collection of Turkish rugs hanging from its galleries.
The Fortified Church of Prejmer
This original monument, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, lies some 18 km from Brasov in Prejmer, a place marked by protracted wars during the Middle Ages, owing to its proximity to the border. The fortified church, dating from the 13th century, attests to the turmoil of those times. It has 4-metre-thick walls rising 12 metres, rendering it impregnable to the 50 times it was besieged. The precinct provided shelter for the townsfolk during military assaults, with rooms to lodge in and defensive towers which also acted as storage areas for provisions.
In the mountains of Bucegi and Piatra Craiului, some 30 km from Brasov, stands one of the most visited landmarks in Transylvania. This castle is usually associated with the figure of Vlad Tepes, and it was mistakenly said to be his place of residence. We owe this confusion to Bram Stoker, who turned it into Dracula’s residence in his novel. That is why it is popularly thought to be Dracula’s castle. Aside from the world of vampires, this castle, built by the Saxons in 1382, is well worth the visit, with much of its splendour remaining intact.
Those who wish to see the true place of residence of Vlad the Impaler should visit this castle. It was built in the early-13th century and abandoned in the mid-17th. Unlike the previous castle, this one lies partly in ruins and access is rather more difficult, as you have walk up no less than 1,500 stairs! However, once at the top, the spectacular view of the Carpathian Mountains more than makes up for the effort.
Situated in the centre of Romania, in the Transylvanian Carpathians, this is a popular tourist resort, and not only for being the birthplace of Vlad Tepes. Sighisoara has a well preserved, fortified medieval citadel, which has deservedly earned its designation as a World Heritage site. Fourteen of the original fortified towers are still standing. You should also visit the Clocktower, and go up to the top to see the view over the town. And, needless to say, those in search of the gruesome past can visit what is believed to be the house where Vlad the Impaler was born.
Founded by Saxon settlers in the 12th century, it is one of Transylvania’s major economic and cultural hubs. Sited on the banks of the river Cibin, it has an Old Town redolent with cobbled streets, medieval houses, large squares, cafés and remains of the original fortified wall. Sibiu is divided into the Upper Town and Lower Town, the latter featuring the most interesting landmarks. Make sure you visit the Piaţa Mare or Great Square, housing one of Romania’s paramount Baroque monuments, the Brukenthal Palace. Other sights include the Piaţa Mică or Small Square, and the Huet Square, surrounded by mainly Gothic buildings, most notably the Lutheran Evangelical Cathedral.
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