It was perhaps the decades spent under the mysterious communist dictatorship or the country’s somewhat low profile accession into the EU that has led to the Eastern European capital of Bucharest being labelled ‘undiscovered’. The capital at Romania’s core does have pockets of beauty amongst the vast Soviet-inspired state buildings but it is other parts of the country which are more known for the castles and ethnic diversity.
Bucharest is now safely stepping out of the shadow of the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and emerging alongside Riga, Prague, Tallinn and Ljubljana as a hotspot for those seeking more an alternative destination.
Once it had been regarded as ‘little Paris’, a playground with an unusual Royal family and rich aristocracy where musicals and theatre were played and performed. The architecture of the city seemed to co-ordinate perfectly with this cultural high water mark with grand baroque palaces and delightful art-deco mansions.
Then came the war, Soviet occupation and the Communist era post-1946. After a brief period of relatively moderate rule, the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party oversaw a brutal regime that became increasingly repressive. By some accounts Stalinist, his rule maintained control over speech and the media until he was eventually shot following a kangaroo court sitting. By the end of his term of office the country had extreme shortages of food, fuel, energy, medicines and other basic necessities.
This served to drastically lower living standards and intensify social unrest culminating in the revolution of 1989.
Given the conflicting economic and political periods Romania came through during the 20th century (not to mention years as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) reminders of both the Communist and earlier ‘Little Paris’ periods remain everywhere in Bucharest. Far from a concrete jungle, the city has numerous parks from which to escape the very busy yet dirty roads.
Its possible to find a former factory turned into a new business with bars, restaurants, quirky shops and everything you have come to expect from an East Berlin or Ljubljana.
What Bucharest has then is a very interesting mix of old and new.
It is easy to find a 300-year-old place of worship, cold office building and Communist-era apartment block in close proximity to one another. Bucharest offers some attractions from its past but with EU membership it has cultivated a sophisticated yet trendy vibe.
Perhaps the most significant building is Parliament Palace located in the centre of the city. Formerly known as ‘Casa Poporului’ the (People’s House) the building was built in 1984 by Nicolae Ceauşescu and spans 3100 rooms as well as 12 floors. The historical heart of the city meanwhile was saved by the Ceauşescu, in contrast to the hundreds of other buildings that were demolished in Stalinist fashion to allow the Parliament Palace to be erected. The old town area today contains an assortment of middle 19th-century buildings, ruins of the Wallachian princes’ medieval court, churches, a few hotels, restaurants and shops.
Narrow cobblestoned streets meanwhile remain to make the area distinct and welcoming.
Of more modern note Revolution Square (Piaţa Revoluţiei) was the main site of the Romanian Revolution of 1989. A somewhat uninspiring square there is a tall monument in the centre of this square in memory of those who died during the revolution.
Unsurprisingly, given the timeline of 20th century Romanian history, football in Bucharest retains many reminders of its Communist past.
Some clubs were that of the workers, namely ‘cultural and sporting Associations’ which grew out of industry or workshops. One of this club was Rapid Bucharest formed by railroad workers following a fusion of earlier clubs.
Despite its modern open appearance the Giuleşti-Valentin Stănescu Stadium still retains reminders of its earlier years being located near the railway yards. Construction booms have seen it change drastically since its inauguration in the 1930’s with recent renovations in 2003.
Safety concerns do remain yet Rapid’s stadium remains a place with neat ornate ironwork on its exteriors. Its interiors are dominated by colour coded seating arrangements not to mention the numerous stray dogs that use the stadium stairwells as a home.
Similar cultural contrasts are visible at Steaua Bucharest, although the club currently plays their home games at the new Arena Nationala having moved from the communist era Stadionul Ghencea. The Ghencea is part of Complexul Sportiv Steaua, a vast military style sports complex that was inaugurated on 9 April 1974. This area contains numerous reminders of the secret communist past amongst the facilities – at least if you explore close enough past the football ground.
Steaua is historically known as the Romanian Army Sports Club (Army Sports Club Steaua) and they were highly successful during the 1980’s. With the separation of a football only section from the army, the status of the club in popular culture has changed drastically. Recent years have seen a legal dispute with the Ministry of National Defence emerge principally over the use of the club name and iconic logo.
As a consequence of these arguments, a new club badge emerged in 2015 but the Steaua București club name and shirt colours of red and blue remain.
While a variety of clubs played in Bucharest before the war and the Romanian national team were participants in the 1930 FIFA World Cup, people did not really get round to creating proper clubs until the post-war period. Dinamo Bucharest was founded on 14 May 1948 and fell under the umbrella of the Communist regime’s Internal Affairs Ministry namely the Police.
The Dinamo Stadium was built in 1952 and retains its communist look and feel with the lack of renovation some indication of how far the club has fallen behind Steaua.
If neither the Ghencea, Dinamo or Rapid Stadiums look places benefitting of illustrious clubs, the new Arena Națională can hardly be titled, communist.
The old communist Stadionul 23 August stadium was demolished in 2008 and all of the great detail and symbolic ornament of the stadium were largely removed. This was a typical Eastern European stadium; a natural hollow open bowl. Its ornamental columns and domineering tall leaning floodlights were all benefitting the party political leaders who congregated here for games involving the Romanian national teams.
There you have it.
Bucharest for football tourists is a replica of the wider status of this fascinating city – an eye-catching contrast of old and new. So move fast, as in the next 15 years it is entirely realistic to think that both the Ghencea and Dinamo stadiums will disappear as extensive periods of renovation occur just as is happening in Budapest.