Imagine waking up one morning with a knock on the door and being told by your government that you have just one day to leave your house. That’s what happened in the heart of Bucharest in 1984, when megalomaniac communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu decided to build the Centrul Civic (Civic Center). 40,000 people were displaced from their homes with one day’s notice in order for the government to go ahead with this project.
Neither Allied bombings in WWII nor a devastating earthquake in 1977 had as much of a negative impact on the cityscape as this redevelopment project did. Over 8 square km and hundreds of historic buildings were destroyed, including several churches, synagogues, and much of the historic Jewish Quarter. The empty spaces were quickly nicknamed “Ceaușima” – a combination of Ceaușescu and Hiroshima.
The project centered on a boulevard meant to rival the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The now-named Bulevardul Unirii is actually wider and 6m longer than its French counterpart. It’s lined with ugly concrete buildings with marble façades that were supposed to be used as government buildings and apartments for the Communist elite. The buildings may look elegant from the front but go behind them and you’ll quickly see how much of a farce this project really was.
At the center of the boulevard is Piața Unirii (Union Square). It’s filled with several huge fountains and a park in the middle, and all kinds of roads criss-crossing it. It’s massive and you have to be there to truly appreciate the size of the place. It’s so big it even covers the Dâmbovița River, which flows underneath the square.
The crown jewel of the project was the Palace of Parliament. Again, something so huge you have to see it in person. Construction started in 1984 and was completed in 1997, although there were still several details not yet finished at the time of my visit. The Palace is the second largest building in the world by volume behind the Pentagon and the world’s largest civilian building. It stands 12 stories high, counts around 3,100 rooms, and has 340,000 m² (1.7 million ft²) of floor space. It was originally intended for the Communist Party, but after the revolution, the Romanian democracy moved in. The architect was Anca Petrescu.
Tours of the Palace of Parliament are highly recommended. The average tour runs about 45 minutes. There are several tour options and combinations, with a standard tour tour of the building, the terrace, and basement. I did the standard tour plus the terrace and basement for 45 lei. A photo pass cost an additional 30 lei. Tours run daily from 10am to 4pm and a passport or ID is required for entry. Click here for the most up to date info.
Highlights of the standard tour include the theatre, which is used as a meeting room. It has the largest chandelier in the building, weighing five tons.
The press hall, where members of the press can mingle with dignitaries.
A meeting room, which has translation booths in the back and elegant trim.
Nicolae Bălcescu Hall, a conference room with pink marble pillars and translation booths.
A room with a huge circular table intended for meetings of the communist party but now used as a regular conference room. A huge space on the wall was supposed to contain a giant map of Romania (reminds me of something out of a Bond movie).
Unification Hall, the largest room in the building. Two empty panels at either end were supposed to contain portraits of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena.
Alexandru Ioan Cuza Hall, an auditorium that leads to the central balcony.
A 100m long corridor with staircases and three sets of huge wooden sliding doors.
Even the simple corridors were incredible.
The standard tour finishes at the central balcony, which views Bulevardul Unirii. It was built with the intention that Nicolae Ceaușescu would address crowds from it. He never got to speak from it because he was executed before it was finished.
The other tour options take visitors up to the terrace, which has sweeping views of the whole city, and the basement, which really isn’t interesting.
At the time of my visit, a gigantic Orthodox cathedral, the Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral, was being built behind the Palace of Parliament. It will be the new patriarchal cathedral of the Romanian Orthodox Church and the tallest Orthodox church in the world. It has been criticized as a megalomaniacal project similar to those of Ceaușescu’s.