Văcărești Nature Park (Parcul Natural Văcărești), Bucharest’s Largest Natural Enclave

Lake Văcărești as seen from the embankment wall

photography by: Omri Westmark

It all started as an incredibly ambitious plan to create a direct water link between the Romanian capital and the Danube River. However, when the communist regime was toppled in the late 1980's, the hydrological project was subsequently abandoned. In the years that followed, the area was reclaimed by nature, ultimately becoming the city's largest and most impressive nature reserve.

History

During the mid-1980’s, when Romania was a communist country, the then president Nicolae Ceaușescu commissioned the construction of multiple grand-scale projects across Bucharest as part of his endeavor to cement his legacy, literally. One of which was the creation of Lake Văcărești, about 3 kilometers southeast of Bucharest’s old town.

 

In 1986, the previously swampy area was drained while all existing buildings were demolished to make room for the future reservoir, including the historically significant Văcărești Monastery. The artificial lake was supposed to link Bucharest’s Dâmbovița River with the Danube River through a series of local waterways and lakes as well as providing a countermeasure against massive floods.

 

A gargantuan concrete embankment was constructed around the area that would later become Lake Văcărești, at least according to plan. Following the Romanian Revolution and the subsequent fall of Ceaușescu, the project was abandoned and never fully came into fruition.

 

By the turn of the 21st century, there were several attempts to convert the area into a recreational complex with its own golf course, convention center, hotel and a couple of casinos, but none of which was ever materialized. As time passed and all redevelopment plans failed one after another, nature regained a full control over the territory.

 

A series of underground springs replenished the drained wetlands with plenty of water, consequently attracting myriads of animals, including numerous bird species. As the area became wilder and wilder, it caught the attention of fervent environmental activists, who launched a public campaign to protect it from any future encroachments by real-estate developers. In 2014, their determination and resilience forced the government to designate the pseudo-lake as a protected reserve, appropriately named Văcărești Nature Park.

The field of semi dried reeds, dotted with fruit trees, poplars, willows and other trees


Separating the park from the city, the concrete embankment

photography by: Omri Westmark


The walkway atop the embankment

photography by: Omri Westmark


A viewpoint along the way

photography by: Omri Westmark


Several trees amid the swampy vegetation

photography by: Omri Westmark


A view of Bucharest's new apartment blocks looming over the verdant landscape

photography by: Omri Westmark


Flora and Fauna

Thanks to its decades-long abandonment, much of Văcărești Park was reconquered by nature, becoming one of Romania’s most bio-diverse places. With over 300 species of plants, the reserve is divided to two main sections, an open grassland with large trees and a swampy terrain, dominated by dense carpet of reeds, water lilies and other aquatic plants. Whereas some of the plant species here are extremely rare, others are far more familiar, including a plethora of fruit trees such as walnut, cherry plum and white mulberry trees.

 

As you can imagine, the sheer diversity of vegetation and landscape is also translated to an incredibly rich fauna. 138 species of birds make up almost half of all animals across the park, with many of which being water birds such as mallards, ferruginous ducks, egrets and swans, the latter can be spotted wading as a string of their puffy cygnets charmingly follow them. Alongside Văcărești’s all-year-round dwellers are also dozens of migratory birds who make this park a favorite spot among enthusiastic bird lovers, who often carry a pair of binoculars to have a closer glimpse of the winged critters.

 

If you get lucky enough, you might even spot reptiles and mammals as well, as the park is teeming with water snakes, black lizards, rabbits, foxes and otters, just to name a few. The presence of some mammals like lutras baffled scientists, who couldn’t trace back their exact origins, prompting a host of speculations as to how a population of aquatic mammals has shown up in the middle of an urban area.

A glimpse of one of the ponds where wildlife is abundant

photography by: Omri Westmark


A mother swan and her offspring gently wading across the swampy pool

photography by: Omri Westmark


A white blossom

photography by: Omri Westmark


The murky waters are teeming with aquatic life, ranging from native fish to amphibians

photography by: Omri Westmark


A view of the lake from the first lookout tower, at the park's eastern segment

photography by: Omri Westmark


Trails and Points of Interest

Spanning across 183 hectares, Văcărești Nature Park is awash with mesmerizing sights to behold. As you carefully step down along the concrete slope that surrounds the reserve, you’ll find yourself in a verdant grassland, dotted with honey locusts and poplars. The park is interlaced with several dirt paths that provide visitors with access to all the highlights throughout the area, albeit there is no strict obligation to stick to the main trails.

 

Nestled right next to the main pathway that crosses the park from east to west, a ramshackle wooden tower gives visitors an opportunity to witness the reserve at its fullest glory, otherwise obscured by the sea of tall reeds. Following a short ladder climb, you’ll be endowed with a panoramic view of Lake Văcărești, as well as a distant glimpse of Bucharest downtown from afar. This fascinating mosaic of African-savannah-like landscape and soviet architecture is incessantly accompanied by a clamorous orchestra of birds.

 

At approximately midway, the trail meets with the main pathway that traverses Văcărești from south to north. If you opt to turn northwards, you’ll soon reach the park’s visitor center, where you can learn about the area’s ample ecosystem and the ongoing efforts to preserve it. If you proceed even further along the track, you’ll find a series of swampy ponds, where mute swans, cormorants and terns scamper as they look for their next unlucky meal. The south to north trail culminates at the second lookout tower, from where one can gaze at the lake and its flying dwellers taking off and landing at any given moment.

One of the main trails, stretching through the open grassland

photography by: Omri Westmark


The first lookout tower, located along the east to west main trail

photography by: Omri Westmark


The park's visitor center

photography by: Omri Westmark


The second lookout tower, situated along the main south to north trail

photography by: Omri Westmark


Lake Văcărești as seen from the second observation tower

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Embankment and Nearby Places

Perhaps the most prominent feature of our protagonist, the concrete embankment wall that engulfs the park was originally constructed as part of the communist regime’s plan to create an artificial reservoir, where excess water would be stored whenever the Dâmbovița River is flooded. While as you’ve already learned, the massive wall never lived up to its role, it did insulate Văcărești’s sheer wilderness from the rest of the city, and by doing so, it sped up even further the place’s reconquest by nature.

 

Today, the 5-kilometer-long embankment is not only a crucial defense measure against human encroachment, but also a favorite spot among joggers and strollers who circuit the downhill park along the walkway atop the concrete wall. As you walk across the narrow path, you’ll have a fascinating glimpse of Bucharest’s city center as well as nearby places such as the C.E.T. Sud Power Plant, Vitan Apartment Hotel, La Cocoș Supermarket and its chicken-shaped logo, and a smattering of modern residential towers.

 

The concrete embankment has several staircases along the way, whereby visitors can go down to the nature reserve. Nevertheless, its relatively mild slope makes the downhill park accessible from practically any point. As Văcărești has enough trails and things to see for at least half a day, you might want to finish your visit here with typical Romanian eats in the close-by Sun Plaza shopping mall, easily accessible from the embankment’s trail.

The massive concrete embankment features a mild slope

photography by: Omri Westmark


Parts of its hilltop walkway is paved, while the rest is covered by sand or soil

photography by: Omri Westmark


The embankment's low slant makes the park below accessible from every point along the way

photography by: Omri Westmark


Albeit, it is far easier to access the park via one of the more regulated entry points

photography by: Omri Westmark


The pathway atop the concrete dyke is popular among local joggers and bikers

photography by: Omri Westmark


The pathway atop the concrete dyke is popular among local joggers and bikers

photography by: Omri Westmark


A couple of brand-new residential buildings overlooking the reserve

photography by: Omri Westmark