Retro: Bucharest, Romania

Holy crap this city is overwhelming.

I don’t mean overwhelming as in “I can’t handle it” or “I want to get out” or even “This is the most awesome place I’ve every been.” I mean overwhelming in terms of size.

I can’t think of a single place I’ve been where everything has been on such a massive scale. Buildings are huge and seem to go on for blocks without end. Roads are highway-wide. Squares and plazas are ridiculously big, some of the bigger ones taking about five or ten minutes just to walk across. Insane.

On our first night, we tried to walk to one of the squares and it took about half an hour to get there from our hotel.  It was dark and the wolves were after us.  I mean that kind of literally, as Bucharest has one of the largest stray dog populations in all of Europe and, even though they don’t usually bite, having packs of four or five mutts run by you as the sun is setting is a bit disconcerting to say the least.

On the bright side, mom wrecked a pair of shoes she should never have brought and now they won’t show up when we’re doing something important or physically demanding.  We ended up walking ot one of the less impressive squares (the better one was closer and in the other direction) but going up and down the road was… I can’t even describe it other than to say “massive.”

So obviously there would be no walking tours.

We did manage to get this great nighttime shot of the Ateneul Roman (Romanian Athenaeum) ((Big Freaking Concert Hall))(((There’s No English Translation for “Athenaeum?”))).  The building is over a hundred years old and was saved from collapse due to some extensive renovations in the 90s, which I found kind of interesting considering how much building was done by Ceausecu during his reign.  Most of the massive buildings are due to him, so you’d almost think the Athenaeum would have either been restored earlier, folded into something else or just torn down for a different, Soviet-style monstrosity.

More on that later.

Our first day featured a driver, which in this case, may just be the best way to see most of this city if time is an issue.  We checked out where Nikolae Ceausecu’s last speech was, wandered the streets in the old town where we saw some cute little churches and more culinary options than you’d think a place like Romania would have to offer.  All around, there were massive buildings that could be anything from a bank to a library.  

The big stop of the day was the Palace of Parliament.

Remember those “Soviet-Style Monstrosities” I mentioned earlier?  Well, I have a confession to make.  I’m no architect, but I know what I like, and I like Soviet-Style Monstrosities.  I kind of like the starkness and the fact that they’re trying to intimidate you through sheer size.  The Palace of Parliament manages to capture all of that. 

It’s both the world’s largest non-military building and the heaviest building in the world.  It has a floor space of nearly four million square feet, 1100 rooms and is made mostly of Transylvanian marble.  In order to build it, 30 000 houses were torn down, as well as over thirty religious buildings.

Then, Ceausecu named it the “People’s Palace.”

You know, instead of “F You”. 

When you’re a dictator, you can do things like that.

It also sits at the end of the Bucharest equivalent of the Champs D’Elysees in Paris, a street named “Victory of Socialism”.  Because nothing says “socialism” like taking the design of one of the most expensive and luxurious streets in the world and extending it by 1 meter each way in width and making it six metres longer, and destroying 30000 homes to do it.

Again, because “F You”. 

The inside of the palace is spectacular and meets all your palatial size requirements, as well as your crystal, gold and expensive wood quotas.  In a way, it’s unfortunate that the people of Bucharest have this insane reminder of this complete and total tyrant taking up so much of their landscape, but considering how much of the city was rebuilt by this guy, tearing it all down seems like a much less attractive option.  It’s interesting walking around a place that, if most Romanians had their choice, probably wouldn’t be there anymore.

The Palace was our last “guided” stop of the day and, remembering how well the walking adventure didn’t work out for us last time, we decided we’d opt for the Metro to get around Bucharest.  Keeping up with the “F You Paris” theme, we went to visit Bucharest’s Arcul de Triumf (figure it out).  In its defense, it was built in the 1930s, probably helped Bucharest get its nickname “The Paris of the East”, which Ceausecu then took too far with his Victory of Socialism road.  Again, not something you’d think would be here, but there it is.

In a botched “F You” to religion, the old, historic churches were never torn down, but rather “hidden.”  The Soviets were tricky with tearing down churches, as they didn’t particularly like religion but also got the fact that actually tearing the physical church down would do more harm than good from a PR perspective.  The end result is old churches tucked away between massive buildings, or hidden in courtyards. 

More massive buildings were seen throughout the day, including a former Communist Party building that had been turned into a mall which was happily selling blue jeans and McDonald’s.  We would have dinner the first night in a traditional Romanian restaurant, complete with wild game meats like boar sausage and, after a run through Transylvania (more on that later), our final dinner was in a Moroccan restaurant, of all places.  Both were in the Old Town.  We also managed to get a good view of the Palace of the Press (lots of Palaces that weren’t palaces) and I took the last afternoon to check out some of the now-functioning monasteries and churches near the Bucharest Champs.

I think Transylvania is (deservedly) the big draw in Romania, so I’d imagine most people just give Bucharest a day, mostly to get themselves settled.  You could “do” the sights in the city in a day, but it’s so big, so fascinating and so much more interesting than you might have originally thought, I’d give yourself at least a couple of days to really get a sense of the place.  Due to time restrictions, we didn’t really get to go into any of the museums of the city and, apart from the People’s Palace, were on the “outside looking in”. 

And it’s a really tall view.

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