02 June 2009

"Trail Of The Unexpected: Ceausescu's Bucharest" By Tessa Dunlop

The dictator's legacy lives on in Romania's capital city

Not many Romanians like talking about Nicolae Ceausescu. Twenty years after the downfall of the tyrant's despised regime, the memories are too close for comfort. But come to their capital and you will have questions.

Bucharest's mono-toned tonnes of asphalt, concrete and marble, the hallmarks of this small man with big ideas and no taste, are overwhelming. Ceausescu's legacy is more than communist blocks and mock symmetry; he has left a huge kitsch question mark in the city centre.

To rediscover the dictator who ate from nine menus while his people went hungry, frugality is not the order of the day. I stayed in Bucharest's first five-star hotel. Architecturally, the Intercontinental is a communist thoroughbred. Completed in 1971 by an all-Romanian workforce, its balconies later provided the world's media with a bird's eye view of Eastern Europe's most bloody revolution. Two decades on I drank my coffee looking across at the building project that decimated one-third of old Bucharest and left the capital with the world's largest white elephant.

The metro at Piata Universitatii is on the hotel's doorstep but the cheap, efficient underground network was not how Ceausescu got from A to B. He had a nine-car fleet. With this in mind I hailed a cab. Taxis with a meter are generally a safe bet in Bucharest – and a bargain at 30p per km. Minutes away is Piata Unirii where the tower blocks now sport a crude crown of colourful Coca-Cola and beer adverts. Not what the leader had in mind when he ordered the destruction of the city, including 7,000 houses and 26 churches (Ceausescu refused to compete with God). The square is the halfway point along what was once called Victory of Socialism Boulevard. Now renamed Boulevard Unirii, this vast avenue is deliberately wider and longer than the Champs Elysées and with its eerie dead fountains it is an appropriate front path for the Palace of Parliament; tasteless and pointless, oversized and underused.

The Palace, once intended as Ceausescu's administrative and symbolic headquarters, is now the centre of Romania's fledgling democracy and its most visited tourist attraction. The building is pharaonic in scale, like being inside the world's largest wedding cake: 12 storeys high, 270m long, with 1,100 rooms all carved from white Romanian marble. For iced baubles there are the 4,500 crystal chandeliers. The result is nauseating.

A tip-off from my guide led me to Michael the Brave's 1591 Sf Nicolai-Mihai Voda church, which survived Ceausescu's bulldozers; apparently the faithful moved it 279m east. Sure enough, hiding behind several tower blocks, was gold-leafed respite from Bucharest's hullabaloo, as well as a nun without the answers. I asked: Why was the church saved? "That was what God wanted," came the reply.

Ceausescu's pride led to an almighty fall; as the Communist dominos tumbled across Eastern Europe, his oppressed people rose up against him just before Christmas 1989. He and Elena were shot after an impromptu trial on 22 December. Tucked behind the palace in Ghencea Civil Cemetery are paupers' graves for the assassinated leader and his loathed wife. Plot I-35 marks his spot and H-25 hers; they were not granted the privilege of lying together forever.

To see where the people went when Ceausescu bulldozed his way through their capital, you need not walk much further west down Boulevard Ghencea. Soon I was assailed on every side by community housing – relentless rows of grim grey stacks for the redistributed population. The vivid contrast between one man's hubris and his workers' plight helps explain Ceausescu's brutal demise.

Using the Palace for orientation I headed up the north-south axis of the old city towards the place where Ceausescu made his final, fateful speech. Walking up Calea Victoriei there are flashes of the past as the one-time "Paris of the East" rears its head, plus a hotchpotch of building works that provide the green shoots of a new beginning.

The "Impaled Potato" or an "Olive on a Stick" is how the Bucharestians refer to the memorial that remembers the martyrs of the Revolution who rallied to cries of "Down with Ceausescu!" in the Piata Revolutiei. The city is moving on but good taste is yet to prevail. I asked a passing local what he thought of this new addition. "Everybody hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first built," was his nonchalant response. It seems the city will never lose its Parisian ambitions.

To the left of the Impaled Potato is the former Communist Central Committee building, an enormous monolith from which Ceausescu took flight in a helicopter when discord broke out in the cold December crowd 20 years ago.

The balcony he spoke from is surprisingly low to the ground and surprisingly free of bullet holes – grist to the mill of those who claim the so-called revolution was an inside job. Cameras caught Ceausescu's bewildered expression when the crowd began cat-calling. The Leader was totally out of touch. While his people moved into cramped blocks he lauded it up in palatial villas.

In Bucharest he had a townhouse on Boulevard Primaverii to the east of the Herastrau Park, complete with lake. The nearest metro stop is Piata Charles de Gaulle. I took a perverse delight in the cat-and-mouse game of trying to get close enough to Ceausescu's home to take a snap. There was a man with a gun in the garden. Government business still goes on there, according to another man with a gun outside a nearby embassy. "Nonsense!" said a pedestrian. "They are just protecting Ceausescu's gold taps." I took my picture and fled – to the other end of the street where a classy restaurant, City Grill, serves classy beer and sausage. Food for thought when only 20 years ago 2kg of meat per month per family was the rationed maximum. For everyone that is, except the Ceausescus.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Bucharest is served by two airports. The writer flew with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which serves Bucharest Otopeni from Heathrow; Tarom (00 40 21 201 4979; tarom.ro) flies the same route. Bucharest Baneasa is served by Wizz

Air (0904 475 9500, calls 55p/min; wizzair.com) from Luton and Blue Air (0870 774 2252; blueair-web.com) from Stansted.

Staying there

The Intercontinental Bucharest (00 40 21 310 2020: intercontinental.com). Doubles start at €124, room only.

More information

The Foreign Office warns of "pickpockets and bag snatchers, particularly near shops, hotels and on public transport (especially to the airport)".

Romanian Tourist Board: 020-7224 3692; romaniatourism.com

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