Imagine you go looking at a house or an apartment, and it’s nice, but it needs work. The ceiling in the living room has a water spot, the roof needs to be replaced and the kitchen needs a complete overhaul. The bathroom is functional, but a little dingy. That’s the impression I get about Bucharest. It has some amazing old buildings, beautiful architecture and vast green spaces, but it could use some work. Some of the buildings have been kept up with vigor and look like they did on they day they were built, but determining which ones will be kept up seems a bit random. Much of the architecture is dirty, with busted windows and scattered graffiti. And there are lots of parks. Big, spread out parks which encourage outdoor activities. The one across the street from our hotel is always filled with people and is kept up nicely. Well, pretty nice. There is bird poop covering pretty much everything. While this park is maintained pretty well, the park that sits outside of the Parliament building looks like it hasn’t had any real landscaping done in over a year. It is this paradox that seems to define Bucharest. On the one hand it is beautiful, but turn a corner and you have to dodge the stray dogs wandering the street and beware the loose wires hanging low over the sidewalks.
All this being said, we have really enjoyed discovering this city and learning about a part of the world whose history is incredibly complex and interconnected to the surrounding nations. Our main event for today was a visit to the Parliamentary Palace, home to both chambers of the Romanian Parliament. This building is absolutely gigantic–actually, it is the second largest government building behind the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.. It looks like an old building, but it has actually been less than 20 years since its construction was completed. The former Romanian Communist Dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, built it as a part of his “reconstruction” of Bucharest. After visits to North Korea and China, he was inspired to raze a stunning 90% of the historic center of the city, destroying monasteries, museums, hospitals and thousands of residences displacing over 40,000 people. Not only did he build the Parliament building, but also a huge main boulevard meant to outshine the Champs de Elysees in Paris. It does look rather grand now, but so many people were displaced from their homes during this time that many people resorted to suicide. The entire area was made over and the centerpiece is definitely the parliamentary building. It required 700 architects to design and building began in 1985. Its design centered around the whims of Ceausescu, however he did not live to see it completed.
Romania was a tough place to be in the 1980’s. Ceausescu limited electricity, food, water and all basic supplies. Schools shut down because they did not have enough electricity to run. People didn’t work because they spent their days in lines for their ration of food. The people got to a breaking point in December of 1989. There were protests in central Bucharest, Ceausescu and his family fled but were hunted down and assassinated on Christmas Day. After that, the new government decided to finish the Parliamentary Palace so the man power and resources which had already been put into it would not go to waste. When we took the tour, it was very interesting to hear all of the parts of the building that Ceausescu designed just for himself. For example, he was only 5’2″, so he wanted the stairs to fit his footsteps perfectly. He made them rebuild the marble staircase 3 times. He also left huge frames on walls where his portrait would have hung. He has an entrance that was designed for his use only–of course, that was just a plan which he never lived to see through.
The building itself is really something special. It is constructed entirely of Romanian materials, from the marble to the carpet. Some of the drapes were hand embroidered by nuns at a local monastery. Our guide told us they didn’t want to do this work, but Ceausescu said he would destroy their monastery if they refused. I think there was a lot of that kind of coerced work which was done for this project. It looks more like a royal palace than a state government building with over the top opulence clearly having greater importance than functionality. The rooms now largely sit empty, waiting for conferences or other corporate events. We were shown to the beautiful terrace which looks out on the main boulevard. The first person ever to look out onto an adoring crowd from this terrace was none other than Michael Jackson. This is where he famously said he was happy to be in Budapest–whoops! Wrong city, but an easy mistake to make. It must be since George Bush made the same mistake from the same spot some years later.
When we finished the tour, we had walked approximately 1.5 kilometers and had only seen 5% of the building. It goes 12 floors above ground and 7 floors below. It has a bunker suited for nuclear war. This place is truly massive. It seems as though much of it is empty or rarely used, and they keep lights off and elevators out of service in order to save on electricity.
Things in Bucharest certainly seem to be better than they were in the 1980’s, but there still seems to be a long way to go. This city has all the necessary infrastructure–highways, bridges, metro stations–but it could use a face lift. It needs some people to really invest themselves in cleaning it up. I’m not sure if that will happen anytime soon. The man working the front desk at our hotel told us that their current president, Basescu, was just voted out by a majority of the Romanian people. However, due to a loophole in the constitution regarding low voter turn-out, he will maintain his office despite the wishes of the people. It reminds us a bit of Russia–is it a democracy? Not really.