Bucharest ‘khans’ reborn after decades of neglect

This picture taken on May 22, 2014 shows an interior courtyard of almost restored "Hanul Gabroveni" khan, which used to accommodate merchants coming from the Bulgarian town of Gabrovo, hence its name, in Bucharest.

BUCHAREST - Sweaty merchants have given way to trendy tourists and horses to flashy cars, but roadside inns known as "khans" in the heart of Bucharest are getting a new lease on life after marathon restoration works.

Khans flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries in Romania, as the country at the crossroads of East and West attracted merchants from across Europe.

The fortified structures built around a square courtyard comprised trader stalls, stables, and accommodation on the upper floor.

But they were more than inns.

"The khans were a melting pot, the place where foreign merchants and Romanian ones returning from journeys abroad imported modern architectural ideas," art historian Cezara Mucenic told AFP.

Most khan owners were themselves travelling merchants who worked foreign features into the design of their inns to make them more alluring, influencing the city's architecture as a whole.

Little by little though, as travellers became more choosy, khans were replaced by hotels offering modern amenities, she added.

Hanging by a thread 

For decades, these architectural gems battled chronic neglect and some narrowly escaped a move by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed in 1989, to raze three quarters of Bucharest's historical centre to build a gigantic palace.

In the late 1970s, the fate of Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc's Khan), one of the most picturesque buildings in Bucharest, hung by a thread.

"Luckily, the city's architect-in-chief had the inspiration to tell Ceausescu that Hanul lui Manuc had hosted the communist workers' meetings back in 1920 and so it was spared," said Serban Cantacuzino, the descendant of a Romanian princely family who recovered the building in court in 2007.

Cantacuzino, 58, put all his passion - and money - into restoration works.

"Before embarking on the project I thought a layer of paint, maybe six months of work, would do the trick," he said.

Seven years and nearly two million euros (S$3.42 million) later the building first built in 1808 is still not completely renovated, even if several restaurants and the courtyard have reopened to the public.

"This is a unique place, with many interesting features," said Dimitrios Rutis, a 27-year-old Greek engineer, pointing to its wooden balconies and oak-paved alley.

Close by, the cafes and art shops lining another khan, Hanul cu Tei, attract hundreds of tourists daily.

Sensing the potential, the municipality decided to save another such inn, Hanul Gabroveni, which used to accommodate merchants coming from the Bulgarian town of Gabrovo, hence its name.

A team of architects was tasked with restoring it in 2012.

"When we first entered we found an enormous amount of garbage and rubble," architect Mihai Antoniu said.

"The walls were falling to pieces and several vaults had already collapsed."

Forming a passageway between two major shopping streets, Hanul Gabroveni was erected at the turn of the 18th century but had to be rebuilt after it burned down in what became known as the great fire of Bucharest in 1847.

In the 1970s a project to renovate it was abruptly brought to a halt on the orders of Ceausescu, who demanded that all construction efforts be devoted to his megalomaniac palace.

"For decades Hanul Gabroveni was like a sick person abandoned in the operating theatre," said Mucenic.

Renaissance of a city 

Since 2012, some seven million euros - a combination of Romanian public funds and European grants - have been invested in bringing the khan back to life.

"This is an unprecedented, extremely complex project," said Antoniu, adding that steel pillars had to be added to support the construction while preserving all its features, including the original bricks.

In a few months, the monumental wooden gates, replicas of the originals destroyed in the 1990s, will reopen to reveal the shops that once offered fancy merchandise from Leipzig or Istanbul, and impressive cellars once full of wine barrels.

The new site will include shops, cafes and exhibition halls.

"Hanul Gabroveni will symbolise the renaissance of the old city," said Antoniu. "And projects like this will help Bucharest recover its former grandeur."