Bucharest: Romania’s parliament attests to an ambitious national spirit
Stars and Stripes June 7, 2007
Imagine representatives from L’Oreal, Revlon and Max Factor setting up stands to hawk cosmetics in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol. Think young women in Saturday-night short skirts and bored- looking men escaping to a hidden corner for a quick smoke.
That’s a quick but apt description of the scene inside the Romanian Parliament building in Bucharest during a recent Sunday afternoon tour.
But after little more than an hour or two in this capital city, it’s difficult to find the mini make-up convention in the hallway leading to the Senate chamber as anything more than just another odd event in a city oscillating comfortably between European grandeur and illicit hideaway.
In many ways an hourlong tour of the Parliament building provides a weekend visitor to this city of 2.1 million with a very tangible if not absurdly profound understanding of the mind-set of a nation transitioning from Eastern bloc backwater to newest European Union member.
The Parliament building is the second largest office building on Earth — behind only the Pentagon — and was built during the final years of the reign of communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu, when national pomposity was surpassed only by paranoia and opulence could never fall victim to overkill.
Ceausescu employed 700 architects and 20,000 builders working in shifts around the clock for five years starting in 1984, and yet the building was still not finished by the time a popular revolt overthrew and executed Ceausescu in December 1989.
But the laborers did have time to complete a series of grand ballrooms designed to rival those found in London, Paris and Moscow, complete with holes in the ceiling pumping in fresh oxygen to avert the risk of poisoning.
With its position at the center of Bucharest and its overwhelming size, it’s impossible to ignore the building’s borderline obscene stature. There was a heated national debate concerning the future of the massive structure in the early 1990s, when the unstable nation was unsure of its place in a rapidly changing Europe.
Some argued the building should be destroyed to vanquish all symbols of communism. Others suggested the building should be converted into a casino.
But in the end, more pragmatic heads less concerned with correcting past abuses of power or transforming Bucharest into a gambler’s paradise prevailed, and the democratic idealists opted to rename the building the “People’s Palace.”
It was, after all, designed entirely by Romanian engineers, built entirely by Romanian labor and constructed entirely from Romania’s natural resources. It is proof, despite all the nation’s other shortcomings, that Romanians can indeed strive for architectural greatness on par with their European neighbors.
The building took on its current name in the mid-1990s when Parliament moved in. Today, however, much of the building can still be rented — for the right price — for just about any event.
Hence, not far from where Romanian senators meet to chart the country’s path forward on Monday, a team of unapologetically gorgeous young beauty professionals dispense advice on the trendiest combinations of blush, mascara and eyeliner.
The tour also provides visitors a breathtaking view of the city from the Senate chamber’s balcony. From the grand balcony, visitors enjoy an unobstructed vista down onto the fountain-laced Boulevard Unirii, designed to mirror Paris’ famed Champs-Élysées but constructed exactly one meter wider.
The Romanians might not enjoy the terrific property values France’s most famous avenue produces, but it’s proof again of a nation not afraid to aspire to greatness.
Visitors can tour the Parliament Building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Enter near the gated parking lot on the side of the building. Tours are offered in several languages and run roughly one hour. Cost is 15 lei (about $7) with an extra 15 lei fee to take a camera. Only a small portion of the building is included in the tour.
To see more of the city, take a quick walk toward the Unirii Plaza and meet up with Calea Victorei, an impressive old city center street that runs from the heart of Bucharest out to the Arc de Triumph, a gift from the French that very closely resembles Paris’ arch.
The walk takes you to a memorial in honor of the men and women who died during Romania’s 1989 uprising to overthrow the communists, and passes some of the city’s most impressive architectural gems.
Alluring in a traditionally consumer-oriented manner is the adjacent and fashionably chic Pasajul Villacross, an ancient alleyway turned bohemian hangout, courtesy of a glass roof that filters natural light to give a warm, inviting glow to what could be a dark series of shortcuts.
Stroll in around dinner time to find young natives sharing puffs on a hookah pipe and downing local brew. There are a handful of trendy cafes similar to what you might find in Barcelona or Prague, but also some truly authentic Romanian ma-and-pa eateries where you can enjoy indigenous food at a reasonable price.
Two tall-boy beers, a green salad and chicken and dumplings cost less than $12. At that price, you can afford to stay a few more days, discovering more about this intriguing city that is moving rapidly toward full Westernization while still clinging to its roots with far more pride than regret.
For more on the city, and Romania in general, see the Web site www.romaniatourism.com.