Romania's huge communist-era palace now a tourist draw

Described by some as a giant Stalinist wedding cake, Romania's Palace of Parliament is the world's second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon. Former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu enlisted a million Romanians for its construction.

 Romanian Parliament Palace: Twenty-three years after communism collapsed, the Palace of the Parliament, a gargantuan Stalinist symbol and the most concrete legacy of ex-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, draws tens of thousands of tourists every year. IMAGEAP Photo: File

BUCHAREST, Romania  — Twenty-three years 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.

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, 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, at 3.77 million square feet.

Parliament and the Constitutional Court are housed inside, along with the South-East European Law Enforcement Center, which fights crime, smuggling and fraud. 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 press conference, Colombian pop star Shakira sang outside in the pouring rain and Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke attended a ball there to raise money for disadvantaged children. Visiting politicians have included Russia's Vladimir Putin, and in October, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who made a speech to 16 European prime ministers.

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 275-foot- high palace to be built.

Ceausescu designed the palace to house the government and Parliament after a devastating earthquake in 1977, when swaths of buildings crumbled in the capital and more than1,500 people died. A semi-literate son of a peasant, Ceausescu was nothing if not ambitious: He wanted the new building to withstand any earthquake and last 500 years.

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, but it would take a day to visit all the rooms and almost an hour just to walk around the perimeter.

Anca Petrescu, who was appointed chief architect of the project in 1978, recalled Ceausescu visiting one day, looking at some columns inside the building, and saying, "Those flowers decorating the columns are not equal."

"I never noticed that," Petrescu recalled. "I was exhausted and the others were petrified." The men in Ceausescu's entourage assured him that the columns were identical, and Petrescu added, "We all swore that it was OK." But Ceausescu ordered someone to climb a ladder and measure them, and determined that one flower "was 1 centimeter (half an inch) shorter than the others. We could not believe our ears."

Petrescu says Buckingham Palace and Versailles were her artistic inspirations, not North Korean architecture, even though Ceausescu sent architects on a visit to Pyongyang to study architecture there after he was inspired during a 1971 visit. Petrescu says it's neo-classic in in style, while others diplomatically call the style "eclectic."

She said that if Ceausescu, who was tried and executed on Dec. 25, 1989,  were alive to see what had become of the building, he "would make the sign of the cross," meaning he would be horrified.

But Valentina Lupan, one of 2,000 architects who worked on the project, says Ceausescu "was demented. Why did he want the biggest building? Like Hitler, like Mussolini, 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 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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