No trip to Bucharest would be complete without a trip to the former dictator Caucescu’s palace. Standing imposingly on a small hill near the centre of the city, this permanent reminder of the profligacy of the old Romanian ruling family is now used as the parliament.
The first lesson we learned about the place was that its very unlikely you can turn up and add yourself onto a tour. Go the day before to reserve your place. We hadn’t , so the following day we found ourselves heading back to the palace for my trip round this piece of living history. We walked past the front:
and into the back:
We joined the rest of the group, our tour guide, the lovely Lydia, came to fetch us from the lobby and the tour and the history lesson started.
I think its the sheer scale of the place that blows you away. Such a humble wordsmith as I is finding it difficult to portray the vastness of the corridors, the vacuous spaces in the rooms, even the amount of carpet is staggering. I wasn’t surprised when Lydia announced that we were in the second biggest building in the world, the Pentagon being the first. This may no longer be the case, and I’m sure there was some form of caveat there, as having seen some quite humungous places in my time I found it hard to believe, but the fact remains, its a behemoth.
Every single thing in the palace, from top to bottom was sourced locally. Just think about that. There are over 400 crystal chandeliers in the place, all sourced locally. The staircases (of which there are many) and the wall coverings (ditto) are all made from marble, sourced from the north of the country.
The entire building is naturally ventilated. Huge holes (I suspect that’s not an architectural term, but its what they are) run from bottom to top bringing in clean air from outside. Green before we even knew green existed.
The day I was there, the staff were actually fairly sombre as the chief architect of the whole project had just died in a car accident. Caucescu had (allegedly) taken a shine to the young architect, Anca Petrescu, and she was given the job to build the palace. Mountains were demolished to furnish the marble, over 3 square miles of the city was demolished, over 40,000 houses were flattened, with some owners only having 48 hours notice to pack up and move out and entire forests were cut down to provide the wood.
Once Caucescu was overthrown and killed, Petrescu found herself a pariah in her own country, and escaped, in genuine fear of her life, to France, only to be invited back in 2002 when the state decided to install a new glass cupola.
Standing on a terrace overlooking the city, this view makes me laugh. A lot. This road, stretching away in front of you is exactly one metre wider than the Champs Elysee in Paris.
Bombast of the highest order.
As you walk through the corridors, there are paintings on the walls that have a greater surface area than my house. It truly is a grandiose building.
The tour only takes in a very small amount of the Palace, I think something like 5% but you’re still there a good couple of hours. The rest of it is in use by the government of the day. After the revolution, the Palace risked falling into disrepair, or even being demolished altogether, such was the disgust of the locals, but after four years it was decided that the building would stay in the public domain, government would be seated here, and it would stay as a monument to the past, whilst the country looked forwards.
If you’re in Bucharest, even if its only for a day, try, try and try again to come here. Its big, its strange, its quirky, its decadent, its disgustingly gauche, but its one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, if only for its sheer presence. To paraphrase a rather large eared British OAP, its a monstrous carbuncle, but for me, its one worth visiting.
EDIT: One thing I forgot to say, at the end of our tour, I asked Lydia if I could speak to her for a few minutes more, which she was happy to do. I asked her “What do Romanians think of Caucescu now?” Her reply surprised me somewhat, she said “I think most of us would like Communism back. Probably not as Caucescu enforced it, but things were definitely better back then.”