Old Town gets new lease of life

After surviving the communist era, the once-popular district in Bucharest is buzzing with new bars and restaurants

On a recent warm evening, the cobbled lanes around Strada Lipscani in the historical heart of Bucharest were bustling as young Romanians and tourists filled the many bars and restaurants in this once-dilapidated part of the city.

Music blared from packed venues where crowds spilled out onto terraces, while buskers sang on the pedestrian streets in front of the National Bank of Romania, an ornate, 125-year-old building in the centre of the capital city.

Like Romania itself, which joined the European Union in 2007, Bucharest has slowly been emerging from the shadows of its communist past.

And nowhere is this more visible than on the streets where the youthful population and a strong artist and music scene blend with 19th-century French-inspired architecture and monolithic relics of the communist period.

Until a few years ago, visitors to Bucharest's Old Town would have found themselves in an area of potholes and badly lit alleys with crumbling 19th- and early 20th- century buildings, many inhabited by squatters.

Yet after years of stop-start refurbishment by the local authorities, the Old Town has come back to life.

Mr Jerry van Schaik, a Dutch entrepreneur who has lived in the city since 2001, recalled the height of the Old Town's redevelopment, from 2010 to 2012, when teams from big companies such as Heineken scoured the streets to negotiate contracts with all the new bars popping up.

"There was this craziness," he said over coffee in Grand Cafe Van Gogh, a laid-back cafe in the Old Town that he owned until recently. Next door is the Rembrandt Hotel, a boutique hotel he opened in 2005.

He began his first venture, Amsterdam Cafe, in the area in 2002 when the Old Town was not a hot destination for most locals. "At that time it was more of a village feel," he said.

"But it was lively, with a lot of cars and a lot of business going on."

The Old Town, less than 2.5 sq km of neo-Classical and neo-Baroque buildings, was traditionally one of the city's main areas of commerce, occupied by merchants, beautiful churches and traditional inns.

But the area fell into disrepair during the communist era that ended in 1989, with many businesses moving out and poorer families moving in.

"This area was totally derelict and nobody particularly wanted to go there," said Mr Corvin Cristian, a young Romanian architect and designer who created the interiors of some of the trendiest establishments today in the Old Town, including Divan, a Turkish restaurant, and Lacrimi si Sfinti, a restaurant that specialises in modern takes on traditional Romanian dishes.

The Old Town barely survived the communist period, as Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist-era dictator who ruled Romania from the late 1960s to 1989, embarked on his mass project to redesign the city, tearing down old neighbourhoods to construct a new civic centre and his grandiose Palace of the People, one of the world's largest administration buildings, which still dominates the area south-west of the Old Town.

About a decade ago, in an effort to restore the historic Old Town to its former prominence, local authorities embarked on a project that turned the area into a construction site.

Many businesses did not survive the infrastructure overhaul, including Mr van Schaik's Amsterdam Cafe.

Slowly, however, the now pedestrian-only streets were repaved and bars and restaurants began moving back in.

Traditional spots such as Caru' cu Bere, a 19th-century beer house with stained-glass windows, have been joined by upscale restaurants such as the Artist, a high-end concept restaurant opened in 2012 by the Dutch chef Paul Oppenkamp, and Lacrimi si Sfinti, which opened four years ago.

Late last year, Gabroveni Inn, an early 19th-century inn on Strada Lipscani, was reopened following a six-year, multimillion-dollar renovation as a cultural centre hosting art exhibitions, concerts and talks, while Carturesti Carusel, a cavernous six-story bookstore in a former 19th-century bank, was opened with great fanfare in February.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Old Town gets new lease of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe