I always described Bucharest as this dingy old Communist-era city struggling to find its way into the 21st century. Each previous visit was for business and I seemed to only notice dark aging historical buildings and American fast food restaurants. I badly wanted to know the real Bucharest during some leisure time. Only liberated 23 years ago (in 1989), who can fault Romania for taking time to show its full potential to the world? Romanian people are some of the most welcoming, curious and passionate people we’ve visited this year. After Communism, there was a conscious effort to teach English as its second language and embrace American Capitalism and pop culture. We walked the streets of Bucharest searching for a deeper explanation into its past to uncover current barriers to the future. Our old friends were excited to spend quality time for my birthday in Bucharest……… then, travel with us toward Transylvania and to the Black Sea. Their genuineness, passion for a brighter future and persistant smile didn’t disappoint.
How can we give a proper portrayal of Bucharest without discussing Romania’s Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989)? I mean, the guy demolished much of the historic centre and built the largest Parliament building and boulevard in the world. He paid off the country’s debt and physically moved Churches to hide them from street view……. all at the expense of his Romanian people.
The “Palace of the Parliament” is 270m wide, 240m deep, 82m tall and 92m underground. Rumor has it that Ceausescu visited North Korea, saw their Parliament building and wanted a bigger one. Construction took a major toll from the city. It basically took four years of slave labor to complete the project. And, constructing the Palace and Centrul Civic destroyed 19 Orthodox Christian churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and displaced 30,000 residences.
Today, the building in Bucharest is mostly empty and used sparcely by government. It is open for banquets, graduations and as a museum. Ironically, Ceausescu never got the chance to speak from its large balcony facing Boulevard Unirii. Boulevard Unirii was extended to 30 meters after Ceausescu visited Paris and heard that Champs-Elysées was 27 meters wide. Bucharest became the “Little Paris of the East” during the early 20th century. For all his big ideas, all of Ceausescu’s irresponsible uses of public office led to deep resentment amongst his poor people. By 1989, the Romanian people were tired of waiting in line for basic things like food, milk and water. They were tired of hearing stories about products like Western music, Coca Cola and Levi’s Jeans. On December 21, 1989, students in Timisoara (Western Romania near Hungary) protested the Communist regime.
Widespread street violence from protests around key Romanian cities forced Ceauşescu to flee Bucharest with his wife, Deputy Prime Minister Elena Ceauşescu. They were quickly captured, tried and found guilty of several crimes by a military tribunal. The charges included genocide, damage to the national economy and abuse of power to execute military actions against the Romanian people. Both were found guilty of all charges, and executed on 25 December 1989.
The Romanian Revolution came at a high cost with over one thousand deaths and over three thousand injuries recorded. The revolution took several years to unfold as the National Salvation Front met continued protests. Most deaths occurred in cities such as Timişoara, Bucharest, Sibiu and Arad. Two thirds of the injuries occured after the seizure of power by the National Salvation Front.
We stayed at the new Umbrella Hostel near Piata Unirli close to the main thoroughfare of Victoriei Street. This street runs through the centre and was previously reserved exclusively for Ceausescu to drive to and from home. It was filled with SS men keeping order as citizens lined the streets in queues for food. This street is also important for connecting Piata Victoriei and Piata Revolutiei where Ceausescu ironically met his fate. We tagged along with a walking tour group to see tons of old churches and French architecture. In between important structures stands new banks and businesses. My favorite building is the Palace of Telephone. It was once the tallest building in the city and constructed without an elevator. The builders later decided to add a tiny three person elevator starting on the first floor. The old bank “CEC Palace” stands in remarkable shape as a good attempt to replicate early 20th century French architecture. Across the street we viewed the old building where politicians and businessmen would socialize over French sweets.
An ongoing question for Bucharest is how to leverage its dark Communist past to showcase its resilience and vibrant modern culture. We have several Romanian friends uber-passionate about life and new ideas. For every positive development, there is a stretch of Victorei Street without sidewalks and basic infrastructure to support mass tourism. The buildings are dark and lack the colorful smile that most Romanians post on their faces each day. We couldn’t help but notice the government’s lack of ability to make Bucharest a proud capital city like Budapest or Warsaw. We learned that corruption still exists as Romania clears new stages within the European Union. In fact, an important vote to impeach current President Traian Basescu failed because the Romanian people did not meet the 50% of eligible voter requirement. There is much controversy over this situation and some believe the Prime Minister Victor Ponta is engineering a power grab. All this said, construction continues on the Palace of the Parliament and several Northern Districts are being restored. In addition to the historic stuff, Bucharest is known for its great club scene and should attract more young people like we experienced in Budapest.
We believe now is a great time to see Bucharest before it fully embraces tourism and all the distractions that come along with it.
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