Bucharest and Ceaușescu’s Massive Palace
Untouristy Bucharest is up-and-coming, lucky to survive the communist period and dictator Ceaușescu, who built an immense palace as Romanians starved. In 1989, the people won their freedom and haven’t looked back.
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Romania’s capital, Bucharest — with about two million people — is a sprawling tangle of buildings. It’s muscular and gritty — hard to like at first glance. But with a thoughtful look, it reveals its charms.
Bucharest has a raw and bracing urban energy. First-time visitors are struck by its eclectic mix of architecture. Just wandering the streets with your neck craned up is entertaining. The foundation of this architectural jumble dates from the late 19th century. That’s just after Romania became a unified country for the first time.
In the 1860s, without a royal family to call their own, the Romanians went shopping for a king who could connect them with the European mainstream. They found one in Germany, where a prince looking for a throne agreed to become King Carol I of Romania.
King Carol embraced his new homeland while bringing Western reforms and securing true independence for Romania.
Under King Carol, Bucharest blossomed. He imported French architects to give Bucharest a romantic allure. Today, Victory Avenue is a showcase of the city’s belle époque, when Bucharest was nicknamed the “Little Paris of the East.”
The avenue rumbles toward the recently rejuvenated Old Town. Under more stately architecture, you’ll find inviting pedestrian lanes. This is the traffic-free heart of town. Locals enjoy a fun and relaxing scene, and there’s almost no tourists in sight.
And the nightlife scene is on the rise. Formerly abandoned shopping galleries are now sweet with hookah smoke. Food trucks fill a vacant lot with late-night sipping and socializing. If you’re looking for fun after dark, this part of Bucharest can feel like one big, sprawling cocktail party.
Thriving as it is today, Bucharest’s Old Town was lucky to survive the communist period. Most of the historic center was wiped out by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu so he could build a grandiose New Town perfect for a megalomaniac.
Ceaușescu took power in 1965, and through his 24-year dictatorship his ego ballooned. He became addicted to massive projects without budgets.
After a visit to North Korea, Ceaușescu returned inspired to transform his city. He ripped out most of Bucharest’s historical core to create this, his enormous Civic Center. Its wide boulevards and stone-faced apartment blocks all have a distinctive Pyongyang aesthetic.
The culmination of his master plan was an immense palace with more than a thousand rooms, fit for a dictator gone wild.
Ceaușescu literally starved his people to build his dream. Over six years, from 1983 to ’89, thousands of laborers worked on it 24/7.
When it finally opened to the public in 1994 — that five years after Ceaușescu died — the Romanian people were both wonderstruck and repulsed.
Today, guided tours lead gawking visitors around these vast and empty spaces. You feel small exploring its grand halls, huge staircases, and mega-ballrooms.
Ceaușescu demanded the ideal balcony from which to deliver speeches… while looking out over his new town and a boulevard grand enough to match his ego. This palace, and similarly extravagant projects around the downtrodden country, created a powerful anti-Ceaușescu sentiment that ultimately led to his downfall.
In late 1989, with winds of change sweeping the Eastern Bloc, armed revolution spread across Romania. An angry populace filled the square here, in front of the Communist Party Headquarters. They arrested their dictator and shot him on Christmas Day.
This monument honors more than a thousand Romanians who died in the struggle to overthrow the tyrant and free their country.
Today, Ceaușescu feels like ancient history, and Romania is proud to be part of the European Union. Joining local families on a Saturday morning in the park, you feel optimistic. While Romania’s challenges are significant, it’s clear the country is moving in the right direction.