Photo Essay: Bucharest, Romania

Calea Victoriei, one of the main streets in Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest was my gateway into Romania and I was eager to see this city that has always -for some strange reason- been an object of my curiosity.  The capital of Romania has been called the “Paris of the east” due to French architecture influence  – but perhaps also because the pre-communist elite had the airs?  I am not really sure but it definitelyhas  architecture reminiscent of the French capital.  In any case, Bucharest is a relative newcomer as a capital city having been picked as capital of Romania only in 1862.  It is a city of over 1.6 million inhabitants – and it feels that way:  a city with the weight of any capital city, with all the attributes of a European city, yet not quite a megalopolis or an international center.

There are too many photos to share so I will place them here in a gallery at the end so you can see some of what caught my eye in terms of architecture, monuments (especially to the 1989 revolution), streets, etc.  Just click on the images to enlarge them!  But first some thoughts on the city…

Architectural potpourri

It is very interesting to see this architecture in Bucharest because it usually is mixed in with very different styles. It almost feels that either construction in the city skipped a few periods or styles as some parts have very different styled buildings next to each other.  Maybe that is what some communism legacy does and what a deliberate demolition of old portions of a city will do (Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator, razed parts of the city for his grandiose building, now the Parliament).  I don’t know as I am not an expert either in architecture or Romania!   This cacophony of styles gives it an interesting air…  And/or perhaps, I needed to see more of the city than I got to?

Old Town Bucharest

Old Town Bucharest is charming like the older part of a any city and, at night, is very lively and a great place to go to have dinner, watching folks go by, and then stay for drinks and more people watching.  We enjoyed a night out on a nice summer evening the night before our return home – good food, good wine, and lots of good laughs.

Not far from Old Town you encounter the grandiose communist buildings sponsored by Ceausescu – a madman of sorts yet independent enough to say no to the USSR whenever he felt like it.  (How DID he get away with it??!!)  In any case as I mentioned earlier, much of the older city was destroyed by him to pave way for these new buildings.  It is sad to think that, until the early 1980s, the old district was much larger and probably containing some gems that are now lost.

Sights around Bucharest

Bucharest has a canal going through it (the Dâmboviţa river that goes through town was channelized in the late 1800s to prevent the flooding that the city suffered periodically) and nice parks, especially near the Romanian Arc de Triomphe.  In that area you will tend to see foreign embassies and it seems a nice place to be if you live in Bucharest.  The most grandiose building of the communist period already has an entire post to itself here so I will not add those pictures to the gallery here.  Just know that around it are similar though slightly smaller buildings also built as part of Ceausescu’s grand plan.  One of those was built to house guests of Mr. Ceausescu and now serves as a magnificent J.W. Marriott!

Unfortunately, I did not get to spend much time in Bucharest as the focus of my trip was elsewhere.  However, I did get to see some of the key places around town, such as the former royal palace, a few churches, the monument to the revolution (eerie), and the balcony where Ceausescu stood in his final days trying to give a speech but, in a crucial moment in history, the crowd turned on him and the whole thing unraveled for Nicky  (I remember watching that in the US in the news the day it happened!).  I will end the post with the gallery of sights around Bucharest – enjoy!

(Click on the thumbnail to see the entire photo!)

A Big Ego Needs A Big Building: the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest

For me, visiting any city in the world means seeking to know its unique character, exploring the different types of neighborhoods, visiting some of the key sites (monuments, museums, grand boulevards, riversides, etc.), sampling its food, and watching life go by when time allows it.  Paris has the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter, and the omni-present cafés.  Rome has Roman ruins galore, the Trastevere, and the Campo de Fiore.  Santiago has the Cerro Santa Lucia and the Barrio Bellavista.  And, as I have recently learned, Bucharest has the Palace of Parliament and Old Town.

The Palace of Parliament (“Parliament”) is such a massive building and its story equally massive in the insanity of the project that it is worth its own writeup.  It is the second largest building in the world (after the U.S. Pentagon) and, ergo, the largest civilian building the world.  And it certainly is a great way to understand recent Romanian history and the mental health, perhaps, of its long-in-power, last communist leader, Ceausescu.

Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania. Ceausescu's legacy.

Visiting Parliament

Seeing the building from the outside is quite a sight.  It is HUGE.  But to best appreciate the scale of the structure and the ego that drove its construction, one MUST see it from the inside.  This means going for a tour.  There are a couple of options, one that covers the main rooms and another that adds to that visiting the main balcony and the basement.  I highly recommend the latter and it only takes about 2 hrs for the longer tour (hours are 10AM – 4PM as of July 2012).

North entrance to the Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

Entrance for visitors is along the north side of the building shown here

I was surprised to learn that it has 12 stories.  It just seems so much more monumental from the outside!  It also has:

  • 340,000 sq m or 3,700,000 sq ft (the Pentagon, as a comparison, has 600,000 sq m or 6,500,000 sq ft)
  • 1,100 rooms
  • 1,000,000 cubic m of marble
  • 480 chandeliers
  • 200,000 sq m of woolen carpets (some sown on-site so they could be installed as they were so big!)
  • and so on…

Get the picture?  It is worth noting that about 95% of all materials were sourced within Romania itself.

Seeing the land around the building (the tour takes you to the roof terrace, the best platform for the 360 degree view) also gives a sense of the massive destruction that was required in order to clear the way for its construction.   In fact, such is the extent of the land around the Parliament building that the largest Orthodox church in southeastern Europe is being built in a corner of its grounds!!  (picture that follows)

Palace of Parliaments grounds in Bucharest, Romania. Future site of church.

The History behind Parliament

Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were, to put it simply, megalomaniacs.  Crazy, narcissist, cruel, and all such words would apply as well.  Maverick applies too as he was able to keep the USSR at bay; but that is another story.  The point is that they saw the need for a monumentally-scaled building to house all of the key government bodies (to be called the “House of the People”), including serving as his residence (and bunker).  One can see easily how it would help them better control government as just being in the building would give one a sense of their (Nicolae’s and Elena’s) power and omnipresence as opposed to feeling semi-secure and semi-removed a few blocks away from them.  The new construction (though in neoclassical style) also helped drive forward the battle between the old and new which was not about aesthetics or modernity but the battle to cement communism over past systems and regimes.

So one of the most historic parts of Bucharest (with over 20 churches and 30,000 residences) was destroyed and a major hill was razed in order to clear the land for this building and other structures.  What shocked me was to learn this all happened in the 1980s!  Somehow that blew me away:  that in such “modern times”, what is called the largest peacetime (willful) destruction of a city in recent history took place.

The Ceausescus, poor them, did not get to see the building finished (it is still not finished!).  The revolution swept them out of power and out of this life in 1989.  Sweet revenge by karma, I say.

Parliament’s Indoors

The tour will take you from meeting rooms to large halls to massive hallways to ballrooms to grand staircases and everything else needed to convince people of someone’s greatness.  Even the chamber that serves as preamble to the grand ballroom was designed so that as the Ceausescus’ approached the grand ballroom, the clapping of people in the ante-chamber got acoustically magnified by the room’s design so the people waiting in the grand ballroom heard an even louder reception for them before they walked in to the grand ballroom.  (Mental note:  consider that for a future renovation of my home’s foyer…)

The grand ballroom is of great scale and the other rooms not too shabby either.  Some of them have big open spaces on the walls – were portraits of the grand couple were supposed to be hanged…

(Source: http://www.marriott.com/hotels/photo-tours.mi?marshaCode=buhro&pageID=HWPEM&imageID=0)

The meeting rooms had everything you may expect including hidden doors behind the chair Ceausescu would use in case he had to make an emergency exit.  The hall (music hall, theater, whatever you want to call it) has what has to be one of the largest chandeliers in the world (per an article in Wikipedia, the largest chandelier in the world is in the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul – who knew).  Some of the chandeliers have over 7,000 light bulbs!  For the chandelier below, there is actually a hidden room or passageway above that is used to access the light bulbs when they need to be changed!   I imagine that STILL does not make it an easy endeavor…

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Palace_of_the_parliament_Chandelier.JPG. Author: Ferran Cornellà)

The rooms in the building are not all alike.  The styles vary based on purpose, location, etc.  As I mentioned before, the building actually is not yet finished.  In fact, there are a lot of unfinished spaces.  Curiously, the original main architect, Anca Petrescu, (there was a rather large team of architects involved – about 700!) is still the main architect today.

Ceiling in the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

The grand balcony is worth stepping into.  The scale of the building carries onto the balcony and its columns.  Also, a little secret is that the balcony railing is shorter than normal because Mr. Ceausescu was a short man and he wanted to make sure that the “adulating crowds” saw him as tall.  Were there no psychotherapists in communist Romania??  LOL.

Balcony of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

So – What to Make of this One HUMONGOUS Building in Bucharest??

A few pictures do not do this building justice.  I am sure there are thousands out there.  But, of course, the best is seeing in for oneself.

It is hard to be happy with the destruction of a historic city quarter to satisfy someone’s ego.  Having said that, the building is already there and it is something to see if travels take you to Bucharest.  The scale and grandeur of this structure should put it on everyone’s must-see list for sure!

Have you been to the Palace of Parliament?  What were your thoughts as you saw it?