We started our day as planned with a Free Walking Tour. Our tour guide Șerban led us through the city centre. It was perfect to get a first impression of the old town and a short reminder of the history of Bucharest. We saw the last caravanserai in Bucharest, Hanul Manuc, where the peace treaty between the Russian and the Ottoman Empire was famously negotiated in the 19th century. Interestingly, it serves as a fancy restaurant today, which goes to show that the commercialization of history is rampant.
Walking through ‘the little Paris of the East’, as Bucharest was called before the Communist era, we stopped at Calea Victoriei, Bucharest’s most famous street, at an old church, saved from Ceaușescus mega-city-project by getting slided a few meters out of the demolition zone, and we also walked by the Czech Centre, where they remembered the anniversary of the Prague spring in 1968.
Ending our tour at Piața Universității, we got in a conversation with Șerban about protests and public space and he turned out to be our first spontaneous interview partner. Talking about his friends and their use of public space, he pointed out that the need for public space in Bucharest is developing. He also told us that he doesn’t like to go to protests anymore, because lately politicians have been trying to instrumentalize the protests to their advantage.
Next up was Piața Victoriei, but see for yourself:
We were so shocked, overwhelmed and speechless upon seeing and experiencing this space. This is why we decided to meet with our first contact in this exact space the next day to try and get her take on it.
After we gave up on trying to understand Piața Victoriei, we stopped by Parcul Izvor, right next to the parliament. The park was very animated and underlined Serbans statement about the need for public space. Children played at the playground, teenagers met at the benches, people were taking their dogs out for walks.
The parliament, or former House of the People, as Ceaușescu called it, seems like the end of the world to us due to its sheer dimensions and because it conceals completely the city that is behind it.
Piața Constituției, which is facing the parliament, is a perfect example of a large square that could – mostly for its size – be a public space but isn’t, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was of course never envisioned as a public space by Ceaușescu. Instead it was supposed to be another one of those spaces for people to gather and listen to the regime’s speeches. Today it functions mostly as a huge parking lot and we’ve also heard from our interview partners that it is being used for concerts, car exhibitions and similarly flashy events. Secondly, the parliament looms right before it – probably not the prettiest sight for the people of Bucharest and still very much connected to Ceaușescu. What’s more, there is no public and social infrastructure – the metro doesn’t stop there, neither do busses or trams -, there are only very narrow strips of grass that function as dividing lines between the big space in the middle that is being used as a parking lot by everyone, and the tall buildings that serves as government ministries today.
What makes the space even less inviting is the fact that there is absolutely no pedestrian crossing connecting the sidewalk in front of the parliament and the Piața, and the very busy traffic that makes it very difficult to cross.
We briefly thought of ways to turn this huge square into a real, accessible and attractive public space – by using the obvious tools for activating this huge space: rolling out grass, bringing benches, maybe even housing a small café and using it for small cultural events.
But then we dismissed this idea because we came to the realization that for all the reasons listed above and because there are so many other spaces that have much more potential, Piața Constituției just isn’t working as a public space. It would need a much deeper transformation – not just of the square itself but of its surroundings.
Building of the day: Empty building on Calea Victoriei
Insider joke of the day: Fun Fact! (The phrase Șerban, our guide, always uses when he talks about Vlad the Impaler and impaling)
GIF of the day: #caravan #seeightseeingtour #caravanserai