With more and more embassies resembling fortified car parks, the Insider visits a classic of bygone times: the Romanian Embassy…
There’s something about them that fascinates me: raised on a diet of Graham Greene novels, I can’t pass an embassy without checking my pace a little and pausing to consider what secrets lie behind the gates. Of course in Bristol, where I grew up, you don’t get many foreign ministries, so when I first landed in Warsaw I was thrilled to discover I’d inadvertently moved into the heart of the diplomatic district.
In those days the British mission was based in a sumptuous wedding cake of a palace, and an on-site bar was open to all us humble subjects of the Queen – all you had to do was ring the buzzer before exchanging money for a chit that allowed you to buy drinks for the rest of the night. It wasn’t quite the den of Cold War chicanery I’d expected, but the crisps were ace and the beer was subsidized. Since then the Brits have long since relocated to a custom-built HQ and so, unfortunately, have many other nations. With more and more embassies looking like slit-windowed blocks of concrete, that mysterious glamour that first enraptured me has dissipated. Yet while they’re fewer in number, architectural gems still exist: take the Romanian Embassy.
Situated at ul. Chopina 10, facing the charming sunken garden that is the Dolina Szwajczarska park, it’s everything an embassy should be: fronted by shaded colonnades, intricate latticework and a big, heavy door that’s both grand and glorious. With its honey-colored stonework and neatly trimmed shield of shrubs, entering through the gate you’re left in no doubt that this is no longer Warsaw.
Diplomatic relations between Romania and Poland were initiated in 1919, with the original embassy located on ul. Frascati. Numerous moves followed until the realities of war forced the embassy to close in 1940. Ties were revived in peacetime, though the widespread annihilation of Warsaw meant that suitable real estate was gold dust. As a stop-gap measure well over a dozen embassies took quarters in the Polonia Palace Hotel, and the Romanians were amongst them.
This was purely temporary, and in 1949 work began on the current property on Chopina. Designed by architect Duiliu Marcu, his renderings were inspired by the Romanian architecture of the 16th century. In a city increasingly drawn towards homogenization and standardization, the magic of Marcu’s work resonates as loudly today as it must have done when the project was first completed.
But if the exterior feels a little imposing the interior is less so. Having patiently listened to our pleas for a look around, the Insider has been granted an audience with First Secretary Catalin Radoi and Bogdan Ionescu, program coordinator of the cultural institute, and they are on hand to act as our guides. Surprisingly light inside, we are taken through marble clad interiors up to the first floor where the principal reception halls are located. Much of the decorations have been here since Day 1, with the embellishments celebrating Romania’s rich folk heritage: handwoven tapestries and oil paintings of rural scenes.
“The embassy was built for the times,” says Ionescu, “so you can definitely say the interior has austerity in mind.” The corridors we walk down are quieter than anticipated, but that wasn’t always the case. “Back in the old days,” remarks Radoi, “you’d have found representatives from the national airline, the car company Dacia and many more working here – but now, beyond embassy employees, it’s just the Cultural Institute here.”
This means around 20 people in all, with the staff looking after the interests of the Romanian nationals based in Poland. “There’s 2,500 officially registered with us,” says Radoi, “though the true number is probably closer to 5,000.” Whilst the biggest concentration of Romanians is found in the capital, Kraków and Wrocław also boast small but vibrant communities. Elsewhere, the region of Lubelskie is home to 60 or ethnic Romanians with distant ties to the area of Bucovina.
That Romanian cultural life continues to flourish – despite the lack of a single Romanian church, school or even restaurant – is largely thanks to the endeavors of the Cultural Institute (icr.ro/varsovia). Organizing everything from exhibitions and film screenings to live cooking shows and theater performances, their nationwide efforts have helped maintain a buoyant spirit in the community, not to mention nurture links with the native population.
As our traipse around the corridors of power comes to
its conclusion it does so outside, in a tranquil courtyard garden featuring outsized decorative pots, a kiln and tall trees shooting into the sky. For reasons of security everything bar everything was imported from Romania when the embassy was under construction, and that included the young seedlings for the trees. As they sway gently in the wind you’d give a penny for their thoughts – what stories could they tell? View them yourself by peering through the fence on ul. Armanda Calinescu – itself named after a former Romanian Prime Minister assassinated in 1939.