I finally visited the Cotroceni Palace after 14 years in Bucharest. I cannot imagine why I did not do so before or rather I do understand – I imagined it was merely a museum within the palace which was open to the public, but in fact the museum is most of the palace.
Prince Serban Cantecuzino built the original palace-monastery and, sadly, King Carol I rebuilt in the late nineteenth century. Unlike in President Emil Constantinescu’s time, the section where the President has his offices is not open to the public and nor are the seventeenth century monastic quarters or the cellars which date from the same period.
It is a dull house, although the rooms decorated by Queen Marie are pleasant, unlike those furnished in dark and heavy Wilhelmine taste by King Carol I. I am a passionate monarchist and wish everywhere in the world was a monarchy, excepting ancient republics like San Marino and Venice, but I have little interest in monarchs or princes. It is the monarchy as institution and principle which commands my assent. I therefore am not terribly interested in knowing what King Carol I’s and Queen Elizabeth’s bed is like. Though my interest awoke. The bed was rather short and the guide, Anca, told us that this was because the royal couple slept sitting down, resting their heads on big cushions, rather than lying down. This was considered to be healthier. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown indeed.
Here in the council chamber in 1914 Carol I was unable to persuade his ministers to honor their secret alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and go to war on their side. This decision was said to have broken the King’s heart and caused his death later in that year. Here too, in 1916, Ferdinand and his ministers took the fateful decision to go to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, a decision which resulted in the defeat and occupation of Romania, a great loss of Romanian blood and treasure and, according to Norman Stone, allowed Germany to continue the war for another two years.
After King Carol I and Queen Elizabeth, King Ferdinand and Queen Marie lived in the palace. Queen Marie wrote that she loved the odd combination of palace and monastery. King Carol II and the present King did not live there. After his enforced abdication, it became a ‘palace’ for children, meaning the ‘Pioneers’ (the Communist youth organization) and then, in the 1970s, a palace for Nicolae Ceausescu.
The skins of the bears he shot adorn some of the floors. Apparently the hunts were carefully staged so that the president could kill the bears, something that journalists asserted was done for Mr. Adrian Nastase when he was Prime Minister between 2000 and 2004. One of the more tasteful rooms, very surprisingly, was designed by the Communists in the style of Louis XIV, because they expected that Queen Elizabeth II would repay the state visit by Nicolae Ceausescu.
I felt an urge to leave before the tour ended, but I stayed for the church, which is the best reason for visiting the palace. It was built twenty years ago as a replica of the monastery church built by Prince Serban Cantecuzino and demolished in 1984. It contains handsome pillars from the old church, made in a style which pointed towards the Brâncovenesc style of a few years later, and some (far too few) very lovely wall paintings that survived from the old church. I loved the use of space in the inner courtyards, especially the square around the church. The trees could not have looked lovelier than on a cold bright November afternoon. I found the church, though new, very beautiful and of course very, very sad.
By Paul Wood, Guest Writer
Paul Wood is the owner of Apple Search, the executive search company, and is writing a book about Bucharest where he has lived since 1998. His personal blog is here. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania Insider.com.
(photos: Cotroceni Museum website)