Dâmbovița River, Bucharest

In the years prior to the Second World War, my grandfather lived in Bucharest where he worked at his uncle’s workshop. In contrast to his humble hometown, the Romanian capital aspired to be the Paris of Eastern Europe with its wide boulevards, triumphal arch, majestic palaces, and an urban waterway lined with trees and benches.

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In the postcard above, found on a local history blog, we see the Dâmbovița River flowing straight through the city, with neatly planted trees on either bank. In the corner is a postage stamp featuring the country’s boy-king Mihai (Michael), who first sat on his throne at age five. The river has seen plenty of changes in its host city since the founding of the country.

Where it Flows

The river originates on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. Although it flows through the country’s most important city, it is not a navigable river, nor does it reach the sea. It flows into the Argeș River, which in turn flows into the mighty Danube that takes its water to the Black Sea. In the Middle Ages, the river flowed with plenty of oxbow turns past the garrison settlement first mentioned under its name in 1459.

published_in_Leipzig_in_1717.jpg On this 1717 woodcut of the city, the Dâmbovița is seen flowing on the city’s south. At the time, it was the capital of Wallachia, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. The principality lay at the front lines of the Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, subject to wars and the whims of the regional powers. It was notable regional market, with a diverse population and maze of tight streets within its walls.

Building a Country, Taming a River

In the mid-19th century, nationalism was sweeping across eastern Europe from Finland to Greece as ethnic minorities demanded greater autonomy and outright independence from the empires that ruled the continent. Wallachia united with Moldavia into a unified principality as a first step towards the Romanian nation-state. As Bucharest developed, the occasional flooding of the Dâmbovița River was becoming less tolerable.


Above, Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza and Dr. Carol Davila are shown personally visaiting the flooded Tabaci district, in an 1864 Theodor Aman illustration. Prince Alexandru ordered milldams on the river removed and approved plans to straighten its course into a manageable canal. Although Cuza was overthrown in favor of Prince Carol I in 1866, the work continued until completion in 1880.

Fine Art on the Dâmbovița 

As a newly formed nation, Romania strove to compete with older nations on the continent by selecting a respected royal family, raising an army, and classically-inspired architecture, it also invited a polymath artist to depict the country in paintings. That artist was the Malta-born Amedeo Preziosi, whom Carol I met on a visit to Istanbul shortly after his coronation. The prince invited Preziosi to Romania, where he created nearly 250 oil paintings, watercolors and sketches of portraits and landscapes. Preziosi captured the Dâmbovița as it was about to be transformed into a managed channel.


One scene has nude women bathing in the river, a scene difficult to imagine considering the proximity of horses to them, and by then the river already had a reputation for pollution from the runoff flowing into it. The church steeples in the background remind viewers that this was Bucharest. Preziosi is associated with the romanticism genre, which depicted idealized scenery in art.


Preziosi spoke Maltese, Italian, English, French, Greek, Turkish, and Romanian. He lived most of his life in Istanbul, attracted by its east-meet-west ambiance, an ideal setting for orientalist romanticist scenes in art.

Transforming the Course

In 1878, Romania’s independence from Turkey became official. Under Carol I, Bucharest was envisioned as the Paris of Eastern Europe with lengthy boulevards slashing through the medieval maze in the same way that Baron Haussmann had done for Paris under Napoleon III. In the following century, the changes that the Bucharest had witnessed would have made it nearly unrecognizable to Cuza.

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On the 1853 and 2013 comparison above, other than the river, only the institutions of the Romanian Orthodox Church can be seen on both maps. They are the Antim monastery, St. Anthony’s Church, and the Patriarchal Cathedral, the seat of the national church. Everything else on the map, including the river had been altered by Cuza, the Hohenzollern dynasty, and the communist regimes. In particular, communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled from 1965 until his overthrow in 1989. Inspired by his 1971 visit to Pyongyang, he razed nearly a quarter of the city in his last ruling decade. His monuments are gone, but not the Union Boulevard and the Palace of the Parliament.

My Grandfather’s Bucharest

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My grandfather was born in the province of Bessarabia, which Romania controlled between the world wars. At age 14, the impoverished lad took a train to the capital in search of work. The above photo was taken in 1927, seven years before his arrival in the city. By then, the Dâmbovița was lined by boulevards along its banks from one end of the city to the other.

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In many places, wide bridges and plazas hid the river beneath them. It was never a navigable stream, so it offered no practical benefits for the city, as its planners thought at the time. Below is a 1938 view of a bridge constructed on the river.

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It was an uncertain time in the city as fascist gangs roamed its streets as Europe was heading towards another world war. One of the positive memories he had of that time was King Michael’s birthday, when anyone who was born on the same day as him was entitled to a free drink. Although he was born a month before the king, he felt a relation to him as they were the same age. Both men’s lives were later disrupted by the war and the subsequent imposition of communism.

The River Today

The most detailed source on the history and current conditions of the Dâmbovița River can be found in the Ecological Society of America‘s open access journal, a peer-reviewed publication. In its November 2016 edition, authors Liliana Zaharia, Gabriela Ioana-Toroimac, Octavian Cocoş, Florin Adrian Ghiţă, and Emanuel Mailat, examine the Dâmbovița River in Bucharest. The article features a detailed map comparing the natural course of the river with its present channel.

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It also has fascinating before and after photos of places along the river in the city showing how unrecognizable today’s Bucharest would appear for Prince Alexandru Cuza.

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Along the Way

buchar-1The urban section of the Dâmbovița begins at Lacul Moriii (Mill Lake), a reservoir completed in 1986 that was designed to hold back the spring floods coming down the river from its snow melt sources in the Carpathian Mountains. The lake is used for a variety of sports and recreational activities, an inland sea for a city that is three hours by train from the Black Sea port of Constanta.
At Șoseaua Virtuții (Virtue Highway), the water passes through a dam and enters the city, flowing past the Polytechnical University.
Basarab Overpass
Being narrow and largely hidden from view, the river did not have any distinguished crossings until 2011, when a viaduct was constructed across eastern Bucharest to speed up the travel time on its inner ring road network. At the river, the Basarab Overpass relies on an arch bridge that is lit up at night in a variety of colors. Beneath the postmodern arch bridge is the older and barely noticeable General Vasile Milea Boulevard running across the river. Basarab Overpass received its name from its destination, Basarab Station.
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Union Square
For all the disruptions that the river has faced since Bucharest became a capital city, its water is nearly entirely uninterrupted in its exposure to daylight. The widest overpass that could also be considered a tunnel for the river is Union Square, which touches on Union, Regina Maria, Independence, and Corneliu Coposu, Cantermir and Bratianu boulevards- basically all the major thoroughfares leading into the city center. The park is also the intersection of city sectors 1, 2, 3, and 4. No place on the river has seen as much alteration in the past century as Union Square.
Above, the Romanian Art History blog shows the transformation of Union Square since 1857, with nothing in the present site relating to the way it has been for centuries, a lively marketplace in the city’s center. In 1872 and 1906, it was organized with stalls and shops based on their merchandise. By the time that my grandfather has arrived in Bucharest, King Carol II had already transformed a portion of the site into the Bibescu Plaza.
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To the northeast of the marketplace was the Vacaresti neighborhood, the historic Jewish Quarter of Bucharest. It was a familiar place for my grandfather, where Yiddish was heard on the streets. Although Bucharest was spared from the atrocities of the holocaust, its residents lived in fear knowing that Jews on the periphery of the country were subject to deportations and massacres. Most of the survivors fled to Israel after the war. In the 1980s, most of the neighborhood was demolished by Ceausescu in favor of Unity Boulevard as its row of apartments.
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Today’s Union Square is a testament to Ceausescu’s attempt to make the Paris of Eastern Europe into his own Pyongyang. Its gigantic scale speaks of a totalitarianism that makes the individual appear insignificant, an ideal space for a parade of tanks but not for informal commerce. It is decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly. It is a space sorely in need of a transformation to make it human scale again. What I would like to see is a return of the market stalls skin to how Manhattan’s Union Square appears in the holiday season; and of course the daylighting of the Dâmbovița flowing through this park.
National Library of Romania
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Every European capital worth its reputation has not only the requisite parliament, supreme court, and royal palace (these days usually a museum or presidential residence), but also an opera hall, palatial train station, and a national library.
The National Library of Romania was founded in 1859, but its current facility is another legacy of Ceausescu as it stands between Union Boulevard and the Dâmbovița River. At the time of the dictator’s overthrow on Christmas Day 1989, it was not finished. Exemplifying the country’s embrace of the western-based postmodern style, the neoclassical entrance is flanked by glassy building wings that opened to the public in 2012. Its appearance suggests Stalinism meeting liberal democracy. The river widens into a basin by the library. Enveloped in concrete it appears as artificial as the Reflecting Pool in Washington rather than as a natural stream.
Edge of the City
The Union Embankment follows the river for another eight miles to the city’s eastern border. Along the way, it passes by an unbuilt reservoir turned nature preserve. Vacaresti Nature Park, like the National Library was an unfinished Ceausescu project that would have unwisely turned a former dumping ground into a reservoir.
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Following the downfall of communism, a hyper capitalist proposal was floated for the basin by Australian developer Tony Mikhael, envisioning a district comprising of a stadium, golf course, conference center, exhibition center, hotel, and residences. While the Mikhael plan was debated, nature returned to the site as did calls to let it be. Locals compared it to the Danube Delta., but as a New Yorker this story reminds me of the Ridgewood Reservoir  on the Brooklyn-Queens border, where a decommissioned reservoir became a de facto nature preserve. 
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In the May 2012 Romanian edition of National Geographic, photographer Helmut Ignat captured on film the diverse wildlife living on the disputed site. More than 90 species of birds were identified by researchers at this location. In the following month, Environment Minister Rovana Plumb declared the “Vacaresti pit” as a nature preserve. On May 11, 2016, the designation became official.
The Vacaresti wetland is not connected to the river but it lies next to it, separated by an embankment. If one is curious as to how the Mikhael proposal would have looked, consider the Sun Plaza Mall on the edge of the nature park. For centuries, this parcel was the site of Vacaresti Monastery, demolished despite a preservationist outcry in 1987. Adding to the insult, a war movie was filmed on site while it was being demolished. It made for an ideal urban battlefield scene.
Out of the City
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A few feet past the city line, the Liberty Highway crosses the Dâmbovița. Beyond city limits, it continues flowing in its canalized course towards Budesti, where the Dâmbovița empties into the Arges River. After 30 kilometers in winding oxbows on a plain, it enters the mighty Danube on the Bulgarian border. After another 500 kilometers, the water that flowed through the Romanian capital city finally meets the Black Sea.
A final word
Across eastern Europe, cities ravaged by the Second World War and revamped with uninspiring communist designs are reclaiming their heritage. Historical structures that were neglected are being restored. In a few cases buildings that were entirely demolished by communist rulers are returning to the cityscape, such as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the Dresden Cathedral, and the City Palace in Berlin. For Bucharest, there is plenty of room and imagination to restore elements of the city’s pre-war royal look. It can start with the Dâmbovița River, its embankments, and buildings that face its water. One way to bring attention to the river is through public art as had been done in 2014 with a floating lighthouse. The piece is reminiscent of the floating tree that was installed in 2007 at Anable Basin in Queens.
I was not sure whether the Dâmbovița qualifies as a hidden waterway as it flows through the center of the city and has its own song by Tudor Gheorghe. At the same time, the great alterations and neglect that it has been subject to puts it in the same category as the Ribeirao Arrudas in Belo Horizonte, Manzanares River in Madrid, and the Ayalon River in Tel Aviv, which I had previously documented.
Long Live the King
King_Michael.jpgOn a similar note, I’ve wondered for a long time what ever happened to King Michael after he was forced to flee the country in 1947. He returned in 1989 to a crowd of supporters but was too humble to ask for the crown. He lives as an influential public citizen. Like many former monarchs, he has suggested that if the public wills it, he will accept the crown again.
At age 95, the public has little time left to give Michael a third chance at the throne. While Michael is not a reigning king, in July 2016, the crown was restored to the national coat of arms, as had been done in Russia, Georgia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro.
Having lived through some of the most crucial events of the past century, if he doesn’t deserve the crown, the least that he should receive is a movie or documentary on his life.

In the News:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle visits the hidden waterfront neighborhood of Georgetown in Brooklyn.

New York Times examines some of the unusual destinations along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, such as an indoor shuffleboard court.

Bronx Times reports on the proposed development of the rail yard on the Bronx Kill at the southern tip of the borough. A place that can accurately be described by KRS-One as the South South Bronx.

New Yorker reports on the condition of Mosul Dam in Iraq and the danger that its rupture could cause to that country.

New Yorker also covers the topic of dams with a report on wildlife on the restored Elwha River in Washington.

6 thoughts on “Dâmbovița River, Bucharest

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