Queen Elisabeta of Romania on Bucharest ©Diana Mandache
Elizabeth of Wied (Carmen Sylva) married King Carol in November 1869 in Germany. Shortly after, they came to Romania. Here are some of the first impressions of Elizabeth about Bucharest, the capital of her new country:
Tens of thousands of new houses have been added to the city. The thatched roofs are things of the past, the streets are paved with granite blocks, and electric lights have taken the place of the torches and lanterns of the night-watchman. The palace has been completely transformed. The same old walls, it is true, are standing, but the interior has been entirely remodelled and rebuilt. It is now a palace in very truth, a regular domicile of rare beauty. The Throne-Room has been transformed into a library, the cabinet of the king into a veritable museum of art, while my own apartments have been adorned with choice paintings and rich furnishings, in which I delight…. The city then was a constant surprise to me. The streets were picturesque, and entirely unlike any others I had ever seen. In one portion of the town the houses seemed more fit for dolls than human beings, dainty and inviting, nestled among the trees… The streets have a decidedly Oriental appearance which renders them both novel and bizarre to the traveller. Amusements are plenty among these people, who are very sociable and hospitable; almost every family has two or three extra covers laid at each meal for any chance guest that may drop in. All are cordially invited to share the repast even of the poorest labourer, be it only two onions or a dish of watery stew, although social gayety and hilarity are rarely seen. Never in my life have I observed a people so sad as are the Romanians at heart. The children even have an air of gravity and sadness far beyond their tender years; their little figures are frequently pale and wan; their great eyes, fringed with long silken lashes, beam with intelligence, but also with a glance of unaccountable melancholy.
But during King Carol’s reign Bucharest became a modern city, as Elisabeta noted: “Bucharest has been transformed into a modern metropolis, and one of the scientific centres of the world. Our government has, I am proud and happy to say, been successful, for we have accomplished in twenty five years what our predecessors failed to do in centuries. When my husband ascended the throne there was but one battery of artillery; now there are seven hundred cannon. Railways and bridges have been built all over the country and its riches have increased ten-fold. Still we push on to further progress, for Romania is a country of the future as well as of the past.”
Contemporary Bucharest has lost the old royal lustre, going backward in many aspects, like in 1854, before the modernisation undertaken by the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty. The journalists of the period describe mid-19th century Bucharest in the following words:
“Though the residence of the Prince and the seat of Government, as well as of a Greek Archbishopric, and covering a considerable space, measuring four miles from north to south, and three from east to west, it is, in appearance, little better than an overgrown and straggling village. The dwelling, with few exceptions, are mud and brick cabins, of the most barbarous construction; and the streets are unpaved, but many of them rudely crossed by trunks of trees. The Princes’ palaces, and many of the residences of the boyards, or nobles, are handsome structures of stone, which contrast strangely with the wretched hovels by which they are surrounded”.
What remained from the old Bucharest now is in very bad state, deteriorating continously because of by the indifference of the authorities. The irony is that the communit regime managed to preserve, even in less than prime state, many of the buildings of the old royal Bucharest, which is now crumbling right before our eyes in a time when Romania is supposed to adhere to the heritage conservation ethos of the other European Union countries. ©Diana Mandache
For further reading I recommend a well documented material about the Victorian era Bucharest publised by Valentin Mandache on his weblog at the folloing address: “The Iron Balconies of Bucharest“