Tag Archives: Bucharest

Ateneul Roman or the Romanian Athenaeum, a gem of a concert hall. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


Bucharest is not a place you fall in love with straight away. It might take a few days. Or, as in my case, a return visit.

Seventy years ago the monarchy was abolished and instead a Romanian People’s Republic was proclaimed. 43 years later the first democratic elections were held in Romania. The communist era had a devastating effect on Bucharest and many other cities and villages.  Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship  (1965-’89) initially could count on tacit support from the West. But as the leader’s policies  became more and more outlandish  and the secret police secured an iron grip on every aspect of society,  it seemed only a matter of time before something had to give. Ceaușescu ordered the destruction of thousands of villages and flattened whole neighbourhoods in Bucharest, replacing them with soulless blocks of flats and offices. It will take at least another generation before the ugliest edifices have been pulled down. Meanwhile they have a function in housing people and gathering pollution.

There is one fantastic exception from the communist era that deserves to be preserved: the Palace of Parliament, Ceaușescu’s crazy project that was started in 1984 and never finished. There may be no administrative buildings (technically it should not be classified as a palace, as it has no bedrooms) on you bucket list, but this has to be seen to be believed. There are more than 3000 rooms, taking up 330.000 sq. metres. Only the Pentagon is bigger. But only a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex could have ordered a building like  Palatul Parlamentului. Yes, Nicolae and his horror of a wife both were very involved in the design and many of the details. Book the full tour and take some time to contemplate the  views from the balcony. This could be the HQ of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World.

There are a number of other places in Bucharest that are well worth a visit. No, I am not very keen on the Historic Centre and the Old Princely Court area with all its restaurants and bars. The streets are narrow and during the summer months the terraces take up half the space. During the weekend the throng of tourists and locals pushing through this area I find unbearable.

to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest.Photo;Albert Ehrnrooth
to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest. Photo; Albert Ehrnrooth

For a more relaxed atmosphere I recommend the area between the Romanian Athenaeum and Bulevardul General Gheorghe Magheru. Here you will find several good restaurants serving ‘honest’ Romanian food (La Mama is a good example).

I do have a soft spot for the National Art Museum which used to be a ‘real’ Royal Palace. It houses the country’s largest art collection in two separate galleries. I particularly recommend the medieval collection. The 19th century palace, with a 1930s façade stuck on to it, looks out over the Revolution Square. Cross the busy Calea Victoriei, walk past the Rebirth Memorial without reflecting too much on the quality of the work and pause a moment in front of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building. This is where more than 100, 000 Romanians in December 1989 were forced to listen to, what turned out to be, Ceaușescu’s very last speech. The masses quickly became unruly and the leader was completely taken by surprise by the people’s loud protestations. It all happened on live television. Nicolae and his wife Elena had to withdraw while the police and the military that night mowed down more than 1000 demonstrators. The next day the dictator again tried to address the crowd but was jeered and fled in a helicopter with his wife. Four days later they were executed after an unanimous and anonymous court decision.

The Rebirth memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The Rebirth Memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

To the west of the Interior Ministry (the former Central Committee building) you will find the very impressive Romanian Athenaeum (1888), which probably is Bucharest’s finest building. Reading about it, I get the impression that it was designed by a whole host of architects and advisers. But the Frenchman Albert Galleron gets the final credit. A number of different styles have been incorporated for good measure. Amazingly it is a very good mix. The façade with its lean ionic columns supporting the pediment suggests Greek temple, the dome says baroque and the circular auditorium seems to indicate that we are in a circus. This is Romania’s premier concert hall. The impressive marble entrance hall is spacious and palatial. Four spiral staircases made of Carrara marble lead up to the concert hall on the first floor. There is seating for nearly 900 people and the acoustics are surprisingly good for this slightly odd concert space. The richly decorated vaulted ceiling and the monumental fresco on the circular wall certainly will keep you occupied should the performance not capture your imagination. The fresco (1933), relating the history of Romanian peoples in 25 painted scenes, is hardly a masterpiece, but certainly worth a few glances during a concert. The fresco starts with the Romans and the Dacians reminding us of the roots and rich heritage of the Romanians. The 75 metres long and 3 metres high painting ens with the unification of the Romanians.

During the biennial Enescu festival this is definitely my favourite concert venue. There is much to be said for a visually attractive venue . It enhances the musical experience.

In Bucharest stunning buildings are few and far between, but the Ateneul Roman is a gem and a gift to all the people who are looking for a holistic concert experience.


Many concerts at the Enescu Festival take place in the magnificent Romanian Athenaeum.Photo: Andrei Gindac


The Enescu Festival, 2-24 September, Bucharest, Romania

The 23rd edition of the George Enescu festival has just finished. This biennial event held in the Romanian capital Bucharest manages to be both bizarre and totally marvelous. Bizarre because when it comes to classical music there is no other event in Eastern Europe  on this massive scale . Come to think of it, I don’t think there is any other classical music festival in the whole of Europe that can come up with a line-up as impressive as the Enescu Festival. What is admirable is that over a period of 23 days the organisers manage to pack in 80 events.  Local orchestras and soloists certainly feature and there is even ample room for new music, but the Romanians  clearly favour the big-ticket names. The first week saw visits by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This star-studded week also featured conductors like Marc Minkowski, Michael Pletnev and Vladimir Jurowski (who is also the new artistic director of the festival). Oh, and then there were performances by soloists like Lang Lang, Nikolaj Znaider, Philippe Jaroussky, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Nikolaj Lugansky.

But where does the money come from?  To be able to invite many of the world’s highest paid classical artists and orchestras you need deep pockets. Bucharest doesn’t look like it’s awash with dosh. Far from it, and I can’t say that I noticed any major improvements since I last visited the city two years ago. But perhaps I should be glad that some money is directed towards the arts instead of ending up in the pockets of corrupt councilors and politicians.

The George Enescu Museum, formerly known as the Cantacuzino Palace. This was never really the composer's home but he stayed here after 1939 whenever he was in Bucharest.
The George Enescu Museum, formerly known as the Cantacuzino Palace. This was never really the composer’s home but he stayed here after 1939 whenever he was in Bucharest.

Internationally the festival is already making a name for itself and I heard many different languages spoken among the audience members. I genuinely believe George Enescu (1881-1955) deserves to be even better known. He was an excellent violinist, teacher, pianist and a decent enough conductor to be asked by the New York Philharmonic to replace Arturo Toscanini as chief conductor (he turned the offer down). Today he is mainly remembered as a composer of the two Romanian rhapsodies. But Enescu had many strings to his bow and that also goes for his compositions. He was taught composition by no less teachers than Gabriel Fauré and Jules Massenet, who both declared that he was one of the best pupils they had had ever had. Enescu wrote in many different styles which makes it difficult to categorise his music. I have been told that his individuality is one of the reasons why it is so tricky to fit his music into a symphony orchestra’s concert programme. Another contributing factor is that many of his finest works are quite complex and challenging and would probably require extra rehearsals. The brilliant Spanish cellist Pablo Casals called Enescu “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”. George Enescu remains Romania’s most prominent musical genius. His best works deserve to be heard more often in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin.

George Enescu was also a well-respected teacher and mentor. He taught both Arthur Grumiaux and Ida Haendel and his very first pupil was the teenaged Yehudi Menuhin. Yehudi managed to persuade Enescu to take him on after his studies with Ysaÿe had gone awry. Menuhin remained a life-long friend and one of his greatest admirers. They performed a number of times together and particularly their 1937 recording of the Bach Concerto for two violins has lost none of its lustre and perfect interplay.

Zubin Menta visited the fetival with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta was also the event's Honorary President.
Zubin Menta visited the fetival with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta was also the event’s Honorary President. foto: Alex Damian

The first festival in 1958,  organised three years after the composer’s death,  was an initiative by Enescu’s good friend George Georgescu. He was a respected conductor and international stars were eager to play in Bucharest. But by the 1970s the fine arts were no longer appreciated by the party hierarchy.  The communists cut the budget and were now mainly keen to invite artists and orchestras from countries that were friendly towards the Ceaușescu regime. By the end of the 80s the festival was more a nationalistic event with very few visiting stars.  After the 1989 revolution the festival surprisingly quickly took on an international character again. The Romanian government came on board in the mid 90s with some generous funding and nowadays the Ministry of Culture is responsible for 70% of the total budget! Most of the concerts with major artists are televised by Romanian TV.  Music students and many schoolchildren are offered free tickets or at greatly reduced prices. The concerts with renowned orchestras tend to sell out very quickly and the organisers claim that the interest in classical music is slowly but surely growing.