Sunday 2 September 2012

Books, jazz and a touch of the Dada's... bit more on Bucharest

Bucharest has several very good book shops. For book fanatics, such as me, the galleried building next to the Cretulsecu Church is a little slice of heaven (note reference to cake). Entering from Calea Victoriei, you come first to a small souvenir shop linked to the church, but then comes the real treat - the flagship branch of the book shop Humanitas. Humanitas is arranged on two levels with fiction (including some English language titles), popular non-fiction including some good photographic books on Bucharest past and present, other parts of Romania and some niche art books on the ground floor. Upstairs you can browse through (mainly classical) CDs and DVDs and find text books for various courses. The ground floor also has postcards, calendars and "gifts" as well as a small but good cafe with seats on the terrace.  I spent some money here.

Next door to Humanitas, is the smaller Anthony Frost, English language book shop which holds a good range of fiction, books about Romania and some translations of Romanian writers into English. Like its neighbour, it is a friendly and welcoming place. I also spent money here!

Food is usually an important part of my travels and Bucharest was no exception. During the inter-war years, Bucharest had a thriving cafe society frequented by artists, musicians and writers. Unlike in Budapest where at least a few of the much loved cafes survived through the Communist period, this doesn't seem to have been the case here. However, the good news is that a new cafe culture is developing, with several different approaches being taken. I especially liked the Dutch owned Grand Cafe Van Gogh, adjacent to the Rembrandt Hotel (and owned by the same people) on Smardan. It is housed in a fin de siecle building, has friendly staff, interesting art on display and of course a range of good coffees, alcoholic drinks, pastries, ice creams and light meals. Its a good place to take a rest from exploring the historical Lipscani district and I stopped there a few times during my short visit.

A few doors away from Cafe Van Gogh, you can find a branch of the American owned French Bakery cafe. Again, its in an old building with (probably "new-old") nice furnishings, smiley staff and a good menu. The wild mushroom pasta went down very nicely. There are other branches around the city too.

A little away from the historical centre and further up Calea Victoriei you can find the Green Hours 22 Club. This is an interesting pace which houses a basement jazz club with nightly performances which move to the courtyard during the summer. I caught part of a concert by an Austrian group that mixed klezmer, gypsy music, jazz and funk to the enjoyment of a full courtyard. There is also a small branch of Humanitas in the courtyard as well as a tiny music store specialising in jazz. I managed to pick up two excellent Romanian jazz CDs, one by pianist Johnny Raducanu and the other by vocalist Teodora Enache. Both have been on my CD player fairly continuously since I got home. You can hear a little of Mr Raducanu's music by clicking on the video below. The cafe serves alcohol and coffee as well as salads, pastas and pizzas - although not during the performance. For a few extra lei you can have a big bowl of pistachios to eat with your drink. Be careful, they are addictive!

A little different to all of this is Caru' cu Bere, which is a Bucharest institution. Situated on Stavropoleos street, which is adjacent to Lipscani and extremely central, this huge dining hall features high Gothic vaulted ceilings and ornate decoration. In the evenings its not unusual to see a queue for tables, despite the huge capacity of the restaurant  which also offers al fresco dining in the summer. I wanted to eat inside to enjoy the loud, convivial atmosphere and appreciate the decoration, but I was unprepared for what was to take place. Whilst browsing the menu, I noticed that the restaurant provides nightly entertainment. Expecting music - perhaps a gypsy orchestra or some folk music, I was taken aback when a fanfare announced a march of about 50 hand clapping staff who were clapped and cheered by the guests before taking a bow to the left and then to the right at the end of their performance. Their faces were a picture - some smiling and clearly enjoying the fun, others looking mortified at what must have felt like their evening's dose of humiliation.

I placed my order thinking it was a short but strange show, when another fanfare announced the arrival of the first of several couples of ballroom dancers in full dinner suites and frilly frocks who proceeded to thrash around in a suitably dramatic, histrionic and borderline threatening manner. A health and safety nightmare, this was in the middle of a completely packed restaurant with many staff rushing backwards and forwards with plates of hot food and trays of drinks. The diners were loving the performance which would not have disgraced the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing and a number jumped out of their seats to get a better view. This added to the challenge of serving dinner as the waiting staff had to negotiate between dancers, groups of enthusiastic viewers and eventually more tetchy diners who got to their feet to complain that they couldn't see anything because of the people who were already standing. As our friend Valentin pointed out, this was somehow appropriate in a city that had given birth to some of the biggest movers and shakers of the Dada movement. Tristan Tzara would have been inspired. Cabaret Voltaire eat your heart out.

It had to happen. There was a terrific crash, a shout, a smash of glass and a gasp from the diners. One of the dancers threw her arm back in theatrical style and knocked a full tray of drinks - mainly huge glasses of beer - from the hands of a waiter.  But guess what? The show went on, she didn't let it put her off. People moved their seats so as to allow the long suffering waiter to clear up and the evening's terror continued as the dancers separated and alighted on, I must admit, willing victims from the tables to join them on the floor. I felt a slight panic and sweat formed on my neck and upper lip whilst I wondered what suitable excuse I could make should I be picked. Thankfully I wasn't. The food? Well the food was OK - hearty portions of meaty dishes, not the best, but the star of the show is obviously the show itself. I had dessert at Grand Cafe van Gogh - familiarity sometimes breeds contentment!

Next door to Caru' ce Bere you can find a completely different experience. Negresco is housed in a building originating in the 1880's and which is signed as an historic monument by the city authority. The interior is beautiful, again with Gothic style stained glass windows and murals. More intimate (and more expensive) than its larger neighbour, Negresco has a very good menu with a range of meat dishes, some Romanian specialities such as mititei, best described as lightly spiced Romanian kebabs as well as a good range of desserts including a cinnamon flavoured creme brûlée. Much recommended.

I have already written here about Marcel Janco and his contribution to Bucharest's built legacy, but he was also a leading artist. A number of his works can be seen at the National Art Museum on Calea Victoriei which houses a huge collection of European and Romanian art from earliest times. As this was a short visit I headed directly for the Romanian art. There is a collection of religious art on the first floor of the museum which includes many wonderful icons, but the highlight is the modern Romanian art on the top floor. There is a real treasure trove here and I discovered many artists I had not come across before as well as a number of works from the Dadaists.

I loved Janco's "Peasant woman with eggs" from 1930 and his cubist inspired "Portrait of a woman" from 1934. Arthur Segal, another leading Dadaist is well represented, including with some works from his earlier period, 1909-11, most interestingly a portrait of his wife in pointillist style! I also enjoyed the sculptures of Janco's friend Milita Petrascu, who contributed to his Imobilul Jacques Costin building with a doorway relief panel, a wonderful art nouveau freeze, called Spring, dating from 1901 by Stefan Louchian and the Gauguin inspired "Nude with a bowl of flowers" from 1920 by Cecelia Cutescu-storck.

The Museum holds at least one work by Nadia Bulighin (1892-1930) - another artist I had not come across before. Her "The samovar" from 1928 held me for some time. The painting is a still life dominated by a large samovar and a glass of hot tea, perhaps symbolising physical sustenance, whilst on the wall behind there are religious images - symbolising spiritual sustenance and on the table, books  representing intellectual sustenance. What more could we want or need?

Pictură - Bulighin, NadiaSamovarul - Muzeul Naţional de Artă al României - BUCUREŞTI (Patrimoniul Cultural National Mobil din Romania. Ordin de clasare: 2257/17.05.2004 - Tezaur)

The Samovar - Nadia Bulighin

The building that houses the museum is the former Royal Palace and gives on to Piati Revolutiei. The palace, the square and indeed the whole of Calea Victoriei features strongly in Olivia Manning's "Balkan Trilogy" set in the period immediately prior to the Second World War. Its main characters are not especially sympathetic, indeed several of the diplomats are downright annoying, but the story captures the chaotic atmosphere of pre-war central Europe - the rise of fascism, virulent anti-Semitism, regimes hedging their bets on the anticipated scramble for territory and of course the resentment felt in neighbouring Hungary over the 1920 Treaty of Trianon which awarded Transylvania to Romania and which to this day remains a bone of contention. Well worth a read.

I have already written about Bucharest's modernist buildings of the 1920's and 1930's but there are many more architectural gems including some beautiful churches. Two of them stand out for me. First the Stavropoleous Church in the street of the same name. Built between 1724 and 1730 the facade is stunning with a columned portico carved with stalks, leaves and flowers whilst the interior is covered in depictions of the saints and other important historical figures of the Greek Orthodox Church. The church is very small and the interior is tiny. Its best to visit in the early evening when there are fewer visitors. I had the place almost to myself.

Finally, and just a few streets away just off University Square, is the Russian Church, dedicated to Saint Nicolae. Looking at this magnificent structure with its Russian Orthodox onion domes and brightly coloured exterior, it is easy to believe that you could be in St. Petersburg or Moscow. There are scant details available about the architect or artists who produced this masterpiece which is faced with yellow brick and green art nouveau tiling, but visiting the church was a real cultural highlight of my short time in Bucharest. I will be back.

And one last very big "thanks" to Valentin Mandache, our guide who made sure we saw everything we wanted to see on the architectural tours. You can keep up to date with him here.


  1. Do you know where can be seen (online) Janco's paintings that you mentioned about? ("Peasant woman with eggs" from 1930 and his cubist inspired "Portrait of a woman" from 1934)
    Thank you.

    1. I have searched extensively on-line but haven't been able to locate these images.However, there is a full page reproduction of Peasant Woman With Eggs in the exhibition catalogue for "Faces of Modernism" an exhibition held at the National Museum of Art of Romania a couple of years ago. The catalogue is still available from the museum - you may be able to buy it from the website.