September 6, 2014 – September 8, 2014
Day 165 of our travels we found ourselves in Bucharest, Romania. Working our way south through eastern Europe to the middle east, we stopped in Bucharest, a place that was never part of our original plan. We wanted to stay in one spot for awhile in order to relax and not feel the pressures of constantly repacking our stuff and traveling. After some research in eastern Europe for a nice place to call home for a few weeks we discovered Romania, specifically the small town of Brasov. Before making the trip to the small city of Brasov we first flew into Romania’s capital Bucharest, and decided to check out the city for a couple days before heading north by train into central Romania.
Bucharest is a large city with a lot of history, both old and new, such as the era of Vlad the Impaler, rapid growth of medieval cities and castles and Turkish expansion further into Europe, as well as important recent history with the Soviet occupation and the return of democracy. The city has many great sites to visit in their ‘old downtown’ as well as newer city projects like the Presidential Palace (now the Palace of Parliament), an enormous palace that was commissioned and built with squandered money by Romania’s last communist leader during the country’s time behind the iron curtain.
We arrived very early in the morning around 2am, and the buses were not yet running into town. That meant sleeping (or attempting something reminiscent of it) in the airport’s less than comfortable chairs until 5:30am when the buses would begin running again. After a very long night in which we got very little sleep we finally boarded the bus into town and walked to our hostel which was about a dozen blocks from the ‘Old Downtown’ Bucharest.
Free Walking Tour
Despite being still very tired we decided to take yet another free walking tour of the city. Walking to the meeting point through the still very early hours on a Saturday morning, in which the streets were eerily empty, we discovered that despite Romanian being a romance language, our knowledge of Spanish, while helpful in Portuguese speaking Brazil, would help very little in Romania. Written Romanian is about as far from Spanish as you can get in a romance language and listening to it was hopeless. Luckily most Romanians, particularly the younger generation in the capital city speak at least a little English.
We struggled through the language gaps, ordering some terrible coffee and some decent pastries and met in the park near the center of the city for the Free Walking Tour. We learned about the Palace of Parliament (which we would visit later on our own) and the city’s history. We toured through the ‘Old Downtown’ section of the city with its historic buildings and historic sites of the city’s fight to free itself from communism and corrupt leadership.
In the 15th century Vlad Tepes (known as Vlad the Impaler) ruled part of the area now known as Romania with brutal severity and was known to intimidate his enemies by impaling them alive on long wooden poles. His brutal tactics have lead to many myths and stories about the man over the centuries and directly influenced Bram Stoker’s creation Dracula.
The Palace of Parliament
This massive building with a sorted past looms high above most of the city. It is both one of the largest buildings and also one of the most expensive. Second only to the Pentagon in the USA for total volume. The palace was the dream of the country’s last Communist President Nicolae Ceausescu, considered a dictator and overly brutal by even Russian leadership in Moscow. Inspired by the genius he saw in a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu had a vision of ruling with complete control and modeled his leadership in the same fashion as the ‘personality cult’ of North Korea.
Wanting a palace worthy of his high position and loftier ego he commissioned the People’s Palace. The winning design for the massive palace was proposed by Anca Petrescu when she was only 28 years old. This was because she understood what he was looking for, and presented by far the largest and most expensive design.
Costing 3% of the country’s GDP, construction started right away. He needed to demolish entire city blocks of buildings in order to find the space for the huge building and gave the residents there 24 hours to move out. Some older residents refused and were still in the buildings when they were knocked down the next morning. Construction began June 25, 1984, and progress was made rapidly as under the Communist system workers could be taken at will from anywhere and assigned to the massive project with little warning, and even less choice.
The People’s Palace rose to 12 stories, with four additional underground stories and a proposed network of underground tunnels leading to the airport and to Ceausescu’s villa, among other places. The palace has 1,100 rooms with 3,700,000 sq ft of space.
Ceausescu never lived to see it finished, with somewhere around 90% of the building complete. Ceausescu gave his final speech to his people on December 21, 1989. He believed that he was loved by his people and was surprised that he heard boo’s and criticism during this speech. The very next day a rebellion started and he was forced to flee by helicopter but was later captured and put to a quick trial, found guilty and executed by firing squad on December 25, 1989.
At the time of Ceausescu’s death, the palace was not complete and many Romanians wanted it torn down. A study was done and found that it would be cheaper to complete the almost finished structure rather than tear it down. So it was completed and re-purposed and renamed to the Palace of Parliament.
With the fall of communism in Romania the country has spent the last 25 years rebuilding and growing. There are still many reminders of the Soviet Occupation, but the country has benefited greatly from and integrated itself into the West.
Most of the sites in Bucharest can be seen in a few days, and a longer stay is not necessary. The real jewels of Romania are away from the big cities in the small ancient towns and castles of Transylvania, and we boarded a train to head there next.