Friday, May 24, 2013

Romania: Communist palace draws celebs, kings

Ceausescu-era building a pillar of democracy


BUCHAREST — More than two decades after communism collapsed, the Palace of the Parliament, a gargantuan Stalinist symbol and the most concrete legacy of ex-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, has emerged as an unlikely pillar of Romania’s nascent democracy.

And while it remains one of the most controversial projects of Ceausescu’s 25-year rule — albeit one that has gradually found a place in the nation’s psyche — it’s also now a tourist attraction, visited by tens of thousands of Romanians and foreigners every year.

The palace, so big it can be seen from space, tentatively opened its doors in early-1990 when Romanians were still raw from the trauma of communism. Described by some as a giant Stalinist wedding cake, it’s the world’s second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon.

Parliament and the constitutional court are housed inside, along with the South-East European Law Enforcement Center, which fights crime, smuggling and fraud. Just days before Christmas, parliament members met inside to vote on a new government. But over time, the palace has become as much a magnet for glamorous events and celebrity photo ops as it is a site for government affairs.

Brides pose in front of the yellow-stoned facade while weddings, balls, movies and fashion shows and shoots take place inside. It’s hosted celebrities — Michael Jackson moonwalked in front of the building after a news conference, Colombian pop star Shakira sang outside in the pouring rain and actor Ethan Hawke attended a ball there to raise money for disadvantaged children.

Visiting politicians have included former U.S. president George W. Bush, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made a speech to 16 European prime ministers there in October.

On his 90th birthday in October 2011, former King Michael attended his first parliament sitting there in six decades, calling on Romanians to continue to build democracy. British TV producers even drove cars in the palace’s underground tunnels to show how cavernous it was.

Construction on the grandiose project began in the early-1980s, when food rationing and power cuts were common. Some 9,000 homes were demolished, residents were given just days to vacate their homes, churches and synagogues were razed or moved and two mountains of marble were hacked down for the 84-metre-high palace to be built.

Ceausescu designed the palace to house the government and parliament after the devastating earthquake of 1977, when swaths of buildings crumbled in the capital and more than 1,500 people died.

A million Romanians, including thousands of soldiers, were enlisted to work around the clock on the construction, painstakingly carving huge oak, elm and cherry doors and sculpting giant crystal chandeliers for marble rooms almost as big as athletic fields.

Today’s tours sample only parts of the building and last just one to two hours. It would take a day to visit all the rooms and almost an hour just to walk around the perimeter.

The palace is perched atop a human-made hill at the end of a boulevard that is deliberately one metre wider than Paris’ famous Champs Élysées. Outside, European Union, NATO and Romanian flags flutter.

Valentina Lupan, one of 2,000 architects who worked on the project, says Ceausescu “was demented. Why did he want the biggest building? … dictators love architects. Trust me on this. They, the dictators, imagine themselves as architects of the new world.”

Tourists tend to rave about the sheer scale of the building rather than the architectural beauty.

“The inside is fabulous,” said Dean Edgar, a resident British businessman. “You have no idea the immense size of the rooms inside. There’s marble everywhere, ornate furnishing, ornate tapestry, truly an incredible building. I don’t think it’s particular pretty, but it’s big, it’s impressive.”

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