A stroll through the Neighborhoods of Bucharest
By Bogdan Popa
Some ten years ago, I found out that my home district had moved suddenly to the North-American West Coast. It was still lying in the greenish North-Eastern part of Bucharest, but hip-hop bands were the new thing in the Capital and, based on their style and lyrics, a district would automatically become an East/West Coast “hood”. I must confess that I did not pay much attention to it, until a friend from outside of Bucharest began asking me questions about what seemed to be a really serious problem!
However, when it comes to the districts of Bucharest, there are other things, besides hip-hop music, which describe them. Some would go for football; others would choose architecture or history.
But take a ride with tram number 41, for instance. It connects the Press Square with Ghencea Stadium, in other words: the North with the West of Bucharest. The full ride goes through Giuleşti, Crângaşi, Militari and Drumul Taberei. Or, as some would put it, tramway 41 take you on a journey into territories defined by the football stadiums of “Rapid” and “Steaua”.
When boarding at Piaţa Presei (Press Square), remember that the huge building called the House of the Printing Press was built in the 1950s. It neighbours the Bucharest Exhibition Centre, built on the spot of the former hippodrome, and the wonderful Herăstrău Park. On a Saturday afternoon, 41 is full of passengers heading for the park, aiming to row on the lake, stroll along the romantic hidden alleys, try the new bicycle lanes or simply searching for playgrounds for their kids.
Soon after leaving the departure terminal, tramway 41 crosses Grant Bridge. Originally built out of wood, connecting the northern districts built in the 1920s and the 1930s, until 2011 Grant Bridge was the only connection between two parts of the city divided by railway tracks. While on the bridge, take a look at the football stadium on the right, the very temple of the Giuleşti district. Note that next to it there is still a hall that belongs to the Odeon theatre.
Giuleşti was originally a village, integrated into the municipality of Bucharest in the 1950s. Back then, the decision was taken due to the need for creating space for new buildings as well as green areas. Blocks of flats were built in order to accommodate inhabitants. Some streets in Giuleşti, however, are still full of small family houses. Most of the people living in Giuleşti were employees of the Romanian Railways (C.F.R.), and many of the streets in this district are actually perpendicular to the railway. However, the “rule” (if there every was any) was quickly broken and the new-comers integrated perfectly into a friendly neighborhood. The teenagers of the late 1960s could spend hours telling you about their daily walks in the park, movies at the district cinema and Sundays with radios tuned to football and folk-music stations, while enjoying chats and large portions of apple pie. Do not expect many fancy shops in this area, as a few years ago old firms were still common in this district.
Crângaşi, the district which begins the very moment 41 gets to the end of Grant Bridge, is also a “new” addition to Bucharest. It consists mainly of blocks of flats. The open air market, one of the most famous in Bucharest, was recently modernized, yet it is still one of the places where you can find more than just fruits and vegetables. It does not, however, have the same tradition and flavour of Obor Market. As you move through Crangasi, you will see Lacul Morii (Mill Lake) to your right, which prevents the Dâmboviţa River from flooding Bucharest. Many legends surround the place (a former cemetery for plague victims of 1813, they say), still, locals like taking an afternoon walk along its banks. The small park next to it has artificial football fields and some nice alleys and there is an outdoor swimming pool available for use in the summer time. There is something about Crângaşi which is worth knowing: good sweets and pastry shops can be found in this district, sometimes offering really great surprises!
Believe it or not, at Piaţa Crângaşi, tram 41 meets the underground. If you are familiar with the Bucharest “Metrou”, you have certainly noticed the dotted lines which announce new lines planned for the future, or those under construction. Though many people live in districts like Giuleşti, Crângaşi and Drumul Taberei, the public transportation is a bit behind the times. Militari district is a little different, the next destination of our tram.
After leaving Mill Lake on the right and catching a glimpse of the Parliament Palace of the left, 41 reaches Militari district. Just as the name says (“Militari” means “Soldiers”), the area used to be inhabited mostly by members of the military. The district features a combination of large blocks of flats with houses and villas. It is a very populated and animated area, so expect a lot of small shops and a few cheap open-air markets. Shopping malls and hypermarkets are rather new there. An industrial railway used to be both the terror and joy of local children. The Militari district is home to one of the most interesting and vivid theatres in Bucharest. The “Masca” theatre is famous for public space appearances (underground stations, parks) and wonderful displays of commedia dell’arte. It is worth an evening visit, at least to experience one of the most enthusiastic audiences imagineable.
If you decide to break the journey at Lujerului Underpass and take a left onto Iuliu Maniu Boulevard, you will reach the Politechnical University of Bucharest’s compound. On the other side of the street, the famous APACA textile factory still stands the test of time. The Presidential Palace is next in line, with the Bucharest Botanical Garden as its neighbour across the street. From the famous “Lion” (a monument dedicated to the soldiers from the engineers brigades) a large and pleasant street takes you along to the Military Academy.
Drumul Taberei district ends at this point, which is one of the largest in Bucharest, and consists overwhelmingly of blocks of flats. These were quite carefully planned, however, with lots of green space built in between them. The name comes from the military camp set up outside the city during the 1821 revolution against the Ottoman-imposed princes of Wallachia. But if you continue towards Drumul Taberei district by tram, you will be met by the new Sf. Vineri Church, one of the newest and largest in Bucharest. The original church was demolished during the systematization of Bucharest in the 1980s. When you reach Ghencea stadium, tram 41 reaches the end of the journey.
Not the districts of Bucharest, however. Let us say a few words about some others. If you have already taken the “City Compass Communism to Democracy Tour”, you will have already visited Ferentari district, perhaps not a place to recommend to your everyday tourist! The nearby Rahova district has a similar renown, not entirely deserved, however. Viilor (The Vineyards district) harks back to the days when wine-making was the main business of the area. Bellu Cemetery (the biggest of Bucharest) is currently its main attraction, part of Romania’s collection of national heritage buildings. Tineretului district is centered around the park with the same name. Cotroceni district is famous for its quiet streets of beautiful villas built in the 19th and 20th Century. The name Colentina was given to the distict through which flows Colentina river. In Fundeni, try finding the “Fundenii Doamnei” church, an extraordinary example of oriental architecture. Vatra Luminoasă district was originally a settlement built as a charitable donation to the visually impaired. The new “National Arena” overshadows its interesting streets. Back north, Floreasca, Primăverii, Domenii and Kiseleff districts are greener, with more villas and houses than blocks of flats and a lot of interesting corners and side streets.