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A Short History of Bucharest

The beginnings

The legend has it that the Romanian capital was founded by a shepherd called Bucur (bucurie = joy) who brought his sheep in the area, but the official and more likely version invokes Radu Voda (aka Radu Negru) as the true founder of the city.

The first written attestation of Bucharest belongs to Vlad the Impaler in 1459. He was the ruler of Wallachia (included Bucharest area) and due to its commercial position between the Ottoman Empire and central Europe, Bucharest started developing at a rapid pace. Vlad used Bucharest as the site for his court, and you can visit the remains of the Princely Court in the Old Town.

Vlad Tepes, called the Impaler

There was a lot of turmoil back then, and Bucharest got sacked by the Moldavian ruler, Stephen the Great, then by the Turks, to be eventually destroyed in 1594. It was under the reign of Matei Basarab that Bucharest started flourishing again. It became capital of Southern Romania in the middle of the 17th century, and the old centre got shaped according to merchants’ activities in the streets we have today. However, generally speaking, this was a dark time for Bucharest, filled with famine and spoiled land.

The Princely Court;

The long line of Ottoman rule didn’t stop. Suspicious about the Wallachian princes, the Turks appointed a long line of Greek administrators (known as Phanariots) to rule the principality until 1821. Thus, during this time, Bucharest looked a lot like an Oriental capital.

Good times and bad times

The real facelift of Bucharest took place under the rule of King Carol I, who came to power in 1866. With the help of the political elites, the king brought an infusion of freshness and modernity that conferred Bucharest a more Occidental look. It is by that time that the city flourished, and electricity was introduced. Also, the capital grew richer with some iconic buildings: CEC Palace, the Athenaeum, the National Museum of History, the Arch of Triumph, the royal palaces, the National Bank of Romania or the former Chamber of commerce. This was the time when Bucharest gained recognition as little Paris.

The Romanian Athenaeum on the outside and inside: a true gem

Good times soon came to an end with the Second World War. Bucharest was bombed by the Allies and the Germans, and many buildings were damaged. However, compared to other European capitals, Bucharest came out of the war relatively intact. Still, there was no time to recover because communism put its claw on Romania and its capital. This time evolution was not measured in quality, but quantity, new neighbourhoods emerged, and Bucharest gained considerably in surface.

In 1977, Bucharest was hit by a huge 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed many lives and destroyed numerous buildings. It was a good opportunity for Ceausescu to remodel the city according to his whim. He demolished parts of the city to reshape the capital and create the new Civic Centre, many communist blocks (grey austere buildings that stand out on the boulevard as concrete curtains) to culminate with The Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in the world.

Communism came to an end in 1989. People couldn’t stand any more the deprivation of basic goods and conditions, and the revolution that started in Timisoara soon spread to Bucharest. Here, the city witnessed several heavy fights and many emblematic buildings were set on fire.

Typical communist block of flats
The Palace of Parliament

Today’s Bucharest

Nowadays, Bucharest is part of an urban planning renewal and lives a good life. The capital stopped weeping after the old name of little Paris and slowly, but surely is showing its modern and lively side, coming closer to little Berlin this time.

There have been many positive changes lately that will make you fall in love with Bucharest: the former old centre underwent thorough changes being transformed radically from a deserted place to one of the main attractions; street art examples have multiplied and alternative art feels comfortable in the city, in fact, it boasts a private museum of recent art; many small and independent theatres delight their audience on a regular basis; the concept of converting industrial spaces into cultural centres is common nowadays.

Museum of Recent Art

Architecturally, Bucharest is the surprising and controversial symbiosis between classic beautiful buildings, modern glass structures and grey communist constructions, but all these elements have come to coexist peacefully in Romania’s capital city, one you will most certainly enjoy!

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