By Lucas McCallum Suarez
Image above by Arthur Tintu
Walking down the derelict side streets off the main Calea Victoriei, you will come across disheveled houses with broken windows and dilapidated shops strewn with graffiti. Yet there is an immersive charm as you become drawn into these quirky streets, an eerie sense of wonder beckons the curious to delve deeper as the poorly restored grand old buildings display impressive examples of great architecture, and a glimpse into the city’s dystopian history.
If you find yourself on Clădirea Pasajul Englez between the hours of 09:00 and 14:00, and follow the music of an old radio, you will discover one of the last remaining hat-makers of Bucharest, the oldest master milner who goes by the name of Master Nicu. His workshop is located in the shadows of the English Passage between Calea Victoriei and Str. Academiei, under the English Hotel, a place of ill-repute… It paints a surreal atmosphere of balconies wrought with iron frames, clothes hanging up to dry on the various levels and columns of sunlight breaking through the cracks of the faded coloured glass roof.
Master Nea Nicu is 92 years young, and has been wearing a hat all his life, “I like to wear the things that I’ve given life to with my own hands.” He has been working his craft since he left Gorj and came to Bucharest to work as an apprentice when he was just 14. “I had ten siblings and we would have to walk four kilometres to school, in the winter we would often steal and break wooden fences to use as firewood. We had to carry wood to school in order to keep warm, whoever didn’t bring any was noted on a piece of paper and beaten with a stick.”
“I came to Bucharest and stayed with my step-uncle who was a postman. We lived in a small cramped house with six tenants, one of whom told my uncle ‘Mr. Grigore, let me take Nicolae to my brother-in-law, he’ll teach him how to make hats.’ At that point I’d never thought that I would spend my life making hats, I didn’t even know what one was!” He had a difficult start, and faced much humiliation being so young and competing with the other five apprentices. Surviving off bread and milk, he worked hard and quickly became proficient in the art, earning himself a good reputation. “I liked it so much that I became attached, and in two years, I learned the trade. I had clients who even preferred me. Many times customers would come and buy something and say: ‘Mr. Popa, give it to the kid to do it for me’. After a while, I worked at three different stores every day and received nice tips from customers, that in the end, I could invite all my friends to drinks at the local bars, where all the waiters knew me.”
The majority of his creations are made for locals who make custom orders. “I can make all kinds of hats!” And from looking around his shop, he most certainly was telling the truth, with a large variety on display from Bowler hats, Berets, Fedoras, Stingy Brims, Top hats, Flat caps, Tonaks, Karakuls, Homburgs, Jobens, Porkpies and lastly, Akubras. The latter being his most popular. He also makes reparations, and custom hats for theatre productions and the opera. He has seen a resurgence in hat fashion, particularly amongst women, and he’s confident that “hats are in”, however his only regret is that “Today’s young people don’t know how to wear a hat. And no one has the patience to learn the job.”
So next time you find yourself walking down the bustling street of Calea Victoriei, and you’ve admired the Macca Vilacrosse, the Stirbei Palace and the museums, why not meander a little and explore the hidden gems that this city has to offer.
For more information please visit Palarii La Mesterul Nicu, located on the Clădirea Pasajul Englez in Bucharest.