Amid the scorched earth of an oppressive and destructive communist regime, a flower blooms in the east. Bucharest, Romania, is home to a colorful, wacky, integrated culture that has flourished in spite of adversity. The word București has its roots in the Romanian word bucurie, meaning joy and happiness. These feelings were on full display for my weekend in Romania’s capital.
My first full day in Bucharest began with a hangover. Still feeling drowsy despite it being past noon, coffee and a crepe were necessary.
Belly full and reinvigorated, I make the trek back to Parliament building to tour the second largest building in the world. Arriving to the physical building is an easy 15 minutes walk, but it takes another 15 minutes just to walk around the exterior to the visitor entrance. It is that big.
I show up around 2:30 and am disappointed to learn the next English tour isn’t until 4:00, so I pass the time by touring the flower gardens and checking out the accompanying exhibition/gallery.
The gallery featured some odd statues which, I would find, are littered all over Bucharest.
A little before 4:00 a rather large group gathers in the lobby for the tour. The guards take all of our passports in exchange for visitor badges. We then go through a security checkpoint akin to that of an airport. Getting in was more intense than I anticipated.
Soon enough we are on our way. Our guide’s name is Elena, the second tour guide named Elena I’ve had in as many days, and the third guide I’ve had to bear the name in the last 2 weeks. Starting to think the universe is messing with me.
This latest Elena leads us into the heart of building, taking us through a series of ridiculously elegant hallways. Red carpets line the floors, towering wooden doors lead us through the rooms, tall windows provide abundant natural light, massive corinthian columns stretch to the ceiling, and tons of beautiful (and sometimes weird) works of art are featured on the walls.
We eventually arrive at a theater, where Elena begins to tell us more about the history of the building.
In 1977 the Palace was commissioned by Nicolae Ceaușescu (pronounced chow-chess-coh), the President of the Romanian Communist Party. Ceaușescu sought to rebuild Bucharest after a devastating earthquake wreaked havoc on the city in March 1977. He spearheaded “Project Bucharest”, an infrastructure initiative designed to create jobs and boost morale, centered around the Palace and a long, wide highway leading up to it.
By many accounts this was the beginning of a repressive, brutal communist state under the leadership of Ceaușescu.
My walking tour guide from the previous day (henceforth known as Elena 1.0) mentioned that several monasteries and thousands of apartment-style residences were leveled to make room for the Palace and highway. Upwards of 40,000 people were displaced, and many were left without a place to pray. Moreover, as many as 100,000 people worked tirelessly on the project, Elena 1.0 claims that thousands died due to poor work safety conditions.
As these things usually go under Communist regimes, it gets worse. In 1982 Ceaușescu was faced with a massive foreign debt. To pay it off, he exported much of Romania’s agricultural and industrial production, leading to huge shortages in food, fuel, medicine, just about everything important. Civil unrest spread like wildfire. Ceaușescu installed a secret police to carry out unlawful arrests, tortures, even killings, to keep unruly citizens afraid and in check.
Ceaușescu’s regime would ultimately collapse in 1989, when he ordered his police force to open fire on anti-government protestors. The people rose up, the non-secret police force joined them, and eventually rank-and-file military members followed suit, forming the Romanian Revolution.
Riots and violence broke out across several Romanian cities. Eventually Ceaușescu’s forces were overwhelmed. On Christmas day in 1989, he was tried by Military Tribunal and found guilty of genocide and sabotage of the Romanian economy. Ceaușescu was then shot and killed by a firing squad.
Of course, I heard all this from Elena 1.0. My palace guide, Elena 2.0, is not quite so detailed on the whole communism thing. It’s probably in her best interest not to be, given that the building we are walking through was built on the blood and sweat of the oppressed.
To be clear, it is a magnificent building. Setting the horrific past aside, it is undeniably a wonder to behold and a profound display of ornate architecture.
Elena 2.0 explains to us that it is the heaviest building in the world; it is comprised of materials that are incredibly dense. She also adds that each component of the building is Romanian made. Everything from the chandeliers, to the tile, to the rugs, marble, and mortar, were crafted with Romanian hands.
Elena 2.0 leads us through many more amazing rooms. Most are still in use, for governmental meetings, conferences, public forums, social banquets, and even wedding receptions (for a pretty penny, I assume).
For the last bit of our tour we are led to a terrace overlooking the gardens and the highway leading up to the Palace.
After Ceaușescu’s execution, construction on the Palace continued until it was finally completed in 1997. As it turns out, Michael Jackson was the first to speak in front of a large crowd from the terrace I was standing on. He stopped in Bucharest during his European tour that year. The inaugural address from MJ was cringe-worthy.
(Palm, meet face)
Jackson was not alone in his error. Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Lenny Kravitz, and others have made similar mistakes. Hopefully the world can come to know and appreciate the distinction!
While Elena 1.0 seemed to hold disdain for the Palace, Elena 2.0 breaks with her. I ask 2.0 what the public opinion is of this marvel of a building, given that communism ended over 25 years ago. She says they are split, that many appreciate if for the wonder it is, while others would sooner see it torn down. She laments that the building is still not considered a national landmark, and that the ministry of culture does not provide nearly enough funding to maintain it. They are understaffed, and her worry is that within a decade many of the under-maintained facilities will start to wither.
“Communism is still very fresh in Romania”
Though the Elena’s may have differing opinions on the Palace, they both agree that things in Romania are much better than they were. “People are happy here now” says Elena 1.0. It certainly seems like it. Their economy is flourishing, their society is generally thriving, and the future looks optimistic for Romania.
Back in the hostel I meet Dave, a talkative and friendly irishman. He offers me a rum and coke, which I dare not refuse. Dave has traveled all over the world, including off the beaten path to places like Kosovo and Ukraine. He is a pleasure to talk to and we exchange many stories.
A few drinks later, our conversation is cut short as Dave heads off to meet some friends. I then join Holly, Pippa, and Annelies for some food and (more) drinks in Old Town. But first, we had to pose for a pic with the giant Instagram poster in the hostel.
The four of us head out and find a prime spot to watch the Romania vs. France game.
It is so much fun watching high-stakes football (soccer for all ya scrummy Americans) while in the country that happens to be playing. Watching the game surrounded by rowdy Romanians brought me back to Spain six years ago, when the Spaniards took the World Cup while I was studying in Salamanca. Every time Romania would mount an attack, you could feel the energy level rise as people got loud. Since the TV was outside the bar, we could hear the cheers and such from all up and down the cobblestone streets.
We watch a scoreless first half while sipping on beers and Long Island’s. At halftime we get to talking about “Brexit”, the colloquial term for Britain’s potential exit from the EU. I ask them how they plan to vote (it’s happening on the 23rd). Two of them are voting to remain, the third is the lone dissenter (names redacted!). She explains that the current immigration policy of the EU has put pressure on Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) such that they must treat foreigners regardless of their ability to pay. Immigrants are apparently abusing this system, and the cost is levied to the taxpayer and medical professionals.
She presents a compelling case for leaving, but there are arguments on both sides. I did some follow up research and found this article if anyone is interested in learning more on Brexit and its impact on the medical field.
Early in the second half France takes a 1-0 lead. Shortly after, Romania earns a penalty kick, which is converted. The street erupts in excitement as the game is knotted at 1-1. I am more than happy to join in on the cheers, high-fives, and fist bumps all around.
For the rest of the second half we drink and converse while keenly hoping Romania can put another one in, or at least maintain the draw. Sadly, French midfielder Dimitri Payet scored a rocket of a goal in the 86th minute to give France the lead and the win.
Dejected yet happily buzzed, we head to another bar for a couple drinks. Around midnight we are eager for an adventure, so we decide to go to a club which a local had recommended to us the night before, Bamboo. After a fifteen minute taxi ride we arrive to a building that looks way too small to be a club. I was skeptical, given that the local we met had hyped it up so much, but was quickly dissuaded when we are led down several staircases to the main area.
I’ve been to my share of European clubs, this was among the best. The venue is huge – there are a dozen bars and lounge areas surrounding a dancing/mingling area. Multicolored lasers flash throughout, cutting through wafts of hookah smoke lingering in the air. Massive screens on the walls display trippy and colorful patterns. Presiding over it all is a larger platform overlooking the club, on top of which scantily-clad go-go dancers are doing their thing.
The craziest thing is undoubtably the round crystal ball suspended from the ceiling that randomly moves into my field of vision. It slowly crawls across the ceiling through the club, pivoting and turning, before descending to a table. It then opens up, presenting the (high paying) customer with liquor in a jar of ice. Coolest bottle service ever.
They play an array of pop and electronic music as we drink, dance, and party the night away. Definitely did not expect Romania to have such a righteous night life.
We must have staggered out of the club around 8 AM with the sun fully out and about.
I woke up past noon, predictably. After some nourishment I rallied and made it over to the Natural History Museum, which was interesting. But the real highlight of the day was a theater festival that was taking place in the streets of old town. Instead of explaining everything, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Every street corner I turn there is another wacky display, another individual or group dressed in crazy attire, or a performance! So much fun!
(Yes, that is a parade of ducks at the top of this post. Check out my Instagram for a video of these glorious birds of my kinship, waddling down the streets like total bosses)
Despite a horrific communist regime still very fresh in the minds of many, Bucharest has blossomed into a lively and well-adjusted community. I was lucky to have experienced so many wonderful parts of the Romanian culture: their wacky love of the arts, fanaticism for football, and excellent nightlife.
Still considered “exotic” by many Westerners, Romania proved to be exactly that, in all the right ways.