be able to miss the stunning St. Nicholas Students’ Church (often called
the Russian Church, thanks to its onion domes) at the entrance to the
city’s Old Town district — yet the same Orthodox faith worships in both.
The Russian Church understandably attracts plenty of attention from
casual visitors taking a stroll around the Old Town — a small area of
central Bucharest that survived the bulldozers of the 1980s. But the
Stavropoleos Monastery and Church are just as deserving of your time.
The church was constructed in 1724 on the initiative of a Greek monk,
Ioanikie Stratonikeas, and boasts a number of gorgeous stone and wood
carvings, notably those on the main doors. The cooling, secluded courtyard is quite beautiful on a sunny afternoon, and hosts a curious collection
of tombstones dating from the 18th century. If you’re lucky, you may see
skilled craftsmen working on a restoration.
The Old Town is also Bucharest’s busiest nightlife district and a hub of
activity on warm summer nights. The area is no longer as representative of
the capital as once it was, despite being very much where Bucharest began
(Curtea Veche, or the Old Princely Court, was the residence of Vlad III
Dracula — the infamous Vlad the Impaler — in the 15th century).
A more authentic dose of Bucharest can be found at the city’s oldest house,
the Casa Melik, built around 1750 by the wealthy Armenian merchant Hagi
Kevork Nazaretoglu. An outstanding example of what would become the
definitive Romanian style, both its sublime exterior and colorfully decorated
ceilings are among the city’s least-known pleasures — despite the fact that
the building houses a museum dedicated to Theodor Pallady, an early Cubist
artist widely regarded as Romania’s most influential 20th century painter.
Yet even the Casa Melik, for all its history, pales in comparison to the
little-explored yet quintessential Cotroceni district. Located directly
behind the JW MARRIOTT BUCHAREST GRAND, Cotroceni is a
leafy haven of smart houses and villas built in an eclectic mix of styles,
from starkly Modernist and Art Deco to Cubist and neo-Romanian, each
with well-tended gardens and courtyards.
This is the authentic Bucharest, the city as it used to be and an area
that, like Bucharest itself, is rediscovering its pre-World War II elegance.
The streets are lined with linden trees that provide welcome respite from
the summer heat. To explore Cotroceni is to explore a Bucharest that has
all but ceased to exist. Getting pleasantly lost is easy. You may even end
up at the Cotroceni Palace, today the home of Romania’s president. Built
on the site of a former monastery, the palace was designed by a team of
French architects led by Paul Gottereau. The design would form something
of a blueprint for domestic Romanian architecture for years to come. Part
of the palace is open to the public and can be visited on guided tours that
take place every day. In the 1920s, Romania’s Queen Marie, the English wife
of King Ferdinand, decorated many of the rooms on display. Her astonishingly eclectic art collection is also on view— she had an eye for the unusual.
When exploring Bucharest, take a cue from her playbook: Look beyond
the obvious, and you’ll find treasures galore. p
“TO EXPLORE COTROCENI IS TO
EXPLORE A BUCHAREST THAT HAS
ALL BUT CEASED TO EXIST.”