Bucharest old town. Photo: farainspiratie/Pixabay

Wonders and curse of Bucharest

Why is it worth visiting, specifically, Bucharest, or other Romanian cities? Only the rare pleasure of spending a few hours under the lime trees of some charming, secret bistro of the stately district of Cotroceni is worth the trip. No other country has chalets, private houses, palaces and palaces in a particular style called 'neoromanesc' or 'neobrancovenesc'. Wonders and curse.

ack in Bucharest I have noticed, as in every trip, the deep and rapid transformation of this city that owns a splendid architectural heritage -though somewhat fanatical- the restoration of monuments and unique buildings, the proliferation of pleasant corners and bars, cafes, restaurants and leisure spaces. The quality of the air that is now breathed, like that of the fuel that is burned, has also been purified a lot since those first years of post-communism when I started to visit it regularly and in which I could chew the smog impregnated with coal particles and other toxic substances, in an urban environment uniformly gray and dilapidated. Everything changes for good, except for a sign of delay that portrays a society: the persistence of that damn desire for the so-called “light music” -it turns out to be very heavy- in public spaces. Indeed, the primitivism of any society can be measured by the omnipresence of that noise. And in Bucharest you can still hear it in taxis, airport lobbies, non-luxury restaurants. Here, as in any other place, the greatest luxury is silence.

But there are other signs in the opposite direction, everywhere. The people of Bucharest love their city permanently blocked by chaotic and desperate traffic. There is, for example, an association called ARCEN -Romanian Association for Culture, Education and Normality- that among other imaginative initiatives of rediscovery and recovery of splendid buildings organizes the so-called “walking with sticks”, in which participants are taken to visit through the city by guides who discover the treasure of wonderful spaces and less known, less obvious architectural gems of the city. The “lesson” is taught in the Romanian language, so that those who sign up for it are neighbours of the same city, and therefore they learn about it. The amazing thing about these strolls is that they sign up to a thousand, two thousand and up to three thousand “strollers”, looking like a spontaneous and peripatetic urban party: in the background a celebration of self-celebration of this new reunion of the neighbours with their city.

Of course, the mass gathering on the street is not a rare phenomenon in Bucharest in recent years. A hundred demonstrations have been held calling for a regeneration of national political life that neither the authorities of the European Union nor the Romanians themselves see anywhere. The last demonstration, in protest, was the cessation of Laura Covesi, chief prosecutor of the National Directorate against Corruption from the year 2013 until last July of 2018, and that has literally brought to trial hundreds of ex-judges and politicians. Covesi had become a kind of Joan of Arc in the eyes of the Romanians but, being out of play, will not delve into the latest and amazing government measure that gives public representatives from a certain level a daily allowance of 300 euros for accommodation in foreign hotels. Up to 300 euros, no justification with receipts or invoices is required for these daily expenses for accommodation. In this way, the high officials should become a wandering Romanian, be on a permanent trip, settling in hotels of one hundred euros a night and reserving the other two hundred for their trinkets.

It is the typically Levantine picaresque that the Romanian elites have demonstrated to circumvent the law and that has made popular the joke that says that the judicious politicians must at the beginning of their career dedicate themselves to the municipal management, and only when they are already veterans aspire to a seat in Parliament; and that is because the young politician must dedicate himself to making money -that is, to stealing it, and the money is in the administration of the cities- and once he has amassed a fortune, he can avail himself of the parliamentary immunity provided by Congress.

In this way, it is not strange that a kind of national despair is felt among the youth after two winters of repeated but sterile mass protests against the attempts of the political class to escape the investigations of some incriminating elements of the judicial power. At the same time, it continues to function in the Romanian mentality -psychological legacy of the times of the dictatorship- a conspiratorial sense of history that makes some, like my friend the erudite political scientist Mircdea Popa -a mature man, of Marxist convictions even if he is counsellor of a nationalist deputy- be convinced that corruption is nothing but a legend spread by the Western powers to snatch the national economy from the hands of Romanian citizens and pass it on to multinationals and powerful European companies.

I have found that even now, exactly as in the communist era that ended almost thirty years ago, when you go to the hospital, if you want the doctor to treat you, it is better to take with you a bottle or some other gift. The most curious thing is that people accept logic, or resign themselves to that toll, and some justify it in the ridiculously low salaries of health personnel.

I spoke with the philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici, director since 2004 of the magazine Ideas in Dialogue, which defends liberal economic policy, being considered “the best tradition against laziness of thought”. He has published several books in Spain, for instance Beatrice’s eyes -an essay on the world of Dante and the continuity between the medieval conception of the universe and the theories of quantum physics and the Big Bang- and The recent man, a critique of modernity. I met him when he was the very efficient director of the Institute of Romanian Culture (ICR), equivalent to the Cervantes Institute, with the difference that the Spanish language and Hispanic culture spread almost alone while the Romanian culture is isolated in a sea of ​​other languages ​​and cultures of a power of very superior expansion, the Italian, the German, the Russian. Patapievici is a liberal intellectual, of right, who claims above all the cultural tradition of the interwar period and specifically the figure of Mircea Eliade. Patapievici won many enemies who, when he fell from the ICR, tried to accuse him but they could not find anything. I do not wonder at all, because I remember a conversation we had when corruption was already a serious problem in Spanish politics, but it was not yet perceived as a scandal of colossal dimensions in Romania. He maintained that a bit of corruption is not necessarily bad, that it is like the oil that spins in a smoother, more fluid way, the gears of the economy and that the State must resign itself to it as to the minor defect of a friend or of a neighbour. Now, the serious thing is when it is installed as a state system in itself, when it has colonized the institutions, when it replaces, by a moral weakness of the politicians and the officials, the loyalty of the holders of the power towards the citizenship and they become its parasites; then, it drains the energies of the whole society, which sickens.

Patapievici told me: “Look, I, as director of the ICR, have the legal right to travel by air in business class. But I always fly in tourist class. Do you know why? For the same reason that, having a new high-end car, which is my responsibility, I prefer to continue with my predecessor’s car, which is already some years old but still works. Because I am a liberal and therefore I don’t find it appropriate for taxpayers to pay for my comfortableness. I respect too much the taxes they pay, and I aspire that they may pay less. And that naturally excludes the unnecessary luxuries of managers and senior officials”.

I was quite impressed by Patapievici, although perhaps someone will say that he is a wretch, a candid one. Anyway, none of those miseries is visible while you go for a walk in the centre, in the area of ​​the old town brimming with golden youth and tourists, whose buildings were previously marked by a red plaque that warned something like “this building can suffer earthquakes”. They have reinforced hundreds of buildings, urbanized and pedestrianized some streets, monumentalized the most unique buildings of the Curtea Veche, which precisely suffered the effects of a devastating earthquake centuries after Vlad Tepes -the famous Count Dracula of literature, who had installed there his royal residence- left in a tactical retreat before the arrival of the overwhelmingly superior armies of the Ottoman Empire. When the Janissaries of the Sacred Gate arrived at these suburbs of Bucharest -back then- they were surprised by the unbearable stench of thousands of enemies that Vlad had ordered impale and leave there as a welcome gift. The Ottomans, specialists in state terrorism, were highly admired for the cruelty of Vlad, the Impaler. Five centuries later, restored the royal residence, by the urban area shines the attractions as the old Hanul cu Tei -posted with linden trees- that is presented exactly as it was the day of its inauguration, in 1833, but now houses a series of galleries of art and trifles and a popular winery, although I prefer the not less popular Care Cu Bere beer tank, brewery and restaurant just a little less old, lined with wood entirely, of colossal dimensions, where while you eat or drink you can attend a more or less folkloric show: the other day in the middle of the room there was a chamber orchestra of four girls dressed in pink tulle and gauze, like crazy virgins, playing Maria Tanase’s repertoire -most venerated singer of the national folklore, the Romanian Amália Rodrigues. That same day had I had the occasion to listen, close to the place, a mass sung according to the Byzantine rite by the choir of the old monastery Stavropoulos, while I enjoyed the contemplation of its frescoes. Works of great artistic value, although the truth is that they have been extensively restored. And that same day I visited, also very close, on Lipscani street, the Carturesti bookshop, one of the best in Europe, which honours the formidable Romanian literary tradition and its powerful current list of prose writers and poets.

Carturesti book store. Photo: Marius George Oprea / unsplash

Now, if you ask me: Why is it worth visiting, specifically, Bucharest, or other Romanian cities? What do they have, that cities in other countries don’t? I would reply that only the rare pleasure of spending a few hours under the lime trees of some lovely, secret bistro of the stately district of Cotroceni is worth the trip. And if that did not seem to my interlocutor a reason convincing enough to take a plane, I would add that, just like other European cities there one can enjoy the interior design and rationalist architectures, and that brutalism of Soviet influence -that the next course will be consecrated by an exhibition in the New York MOMA- but no other country has chalets, private houses, palaces and palaces in a particular style called neoromanesc or neobrancovenesc. A style of late nineteenth century designed by Ion Mincu as a Proto Art Nouveau that in the interwar period -a triumphant period for Romania, which at the expense of Hungary and the destruction of the Habsburg Empire had incorporated into the national territory the lands with which it formed the “Great Romania”- the architect Petre Antonescu -not to be confused with the dictator Ion Antonescu- spread with a charming revision of the style of brancoveanu; the valaco prince that at the end of century XVII and beginning of the XVIII, under the Ottoman dominion, named that hybrid style, with Balkan and Italo-Venetian influences.

Everything there, in the endless garland of villas, chalets and public buildings in neo-Rumanian style -that sensuality of stone, that fusion between modern style and orientalism, that diffuse celebration of the joie de vivre- contradicts, in Bucharest as in nowhere else, the pompous monumentalism of the huge People’s Palace. Therfe flows the immense Unification Boulevard (Unirii), formerly called the Victory of Socialism, that the dictator Ceaucescu ordered to be built in the mid-1980s, destroying churches, monasteries, synagogues, palaces, and imposing on the logic of organic development of the urban plot a completely opposite mold and direction, unacceptable for any harmonious urbanism, even the eclectic ones. That monumental ugliness, of a monotony without palliatives, without rest, without remedy, is perhaps the sign of a curse on Bucharest, undeserved as the one that hangs over all of us.