17.08.2007 30 °C
Bucharest is disorientating from the minute you arrive, lacking any coherent organization that may allow a visitor to adapt quickly to their new surroundings. I typically feel quite comfortable wandering the streets of a new city without a map, relying on a few quick glances upon arrival but from there on only checking it if I’m having trouble finding a specific street or place. It is my favorite part of exploring a city, constructing a mental map of my environment which remains etched in my memory for years to come. My keen sense of direction has to date proved adept enough to keep me from getting lost, and in the process, permitted me to stumble upon a variety of hidden treasures away from the tourist centers. This approach, the indiscriminate wandering, backfired on me in Bucharest on more than one occasion, leaving me absolutely clueless as to where I was, which direction I had been walking, and more importantly, how to retrace my steps to a more familiar spot. Bucharest is nothing short of a nightmare to walk around, and if I ever find myself teaching a class on how not to organize a city, this city would without a doubt be the best example Europe has to offer.
Though there are a few major thoroughfares that provide some semblance of order, there is no discernable grid system, or even perpendicular lines on the map. Almost everything appears to operate in acute angles, creating a maze of recurring triangles that ensures that one quickly lose track of which direction they are walking at any given moment. On more than one occasion I ended up back in the same spot I had been just a few minutes before, a humbling feeling. It isn’t a small town either, significantly bigger than the towns I had spent my most recent days in and bigger than any capital in the region. Its sheer size was intimidating and made the prospect of getting lost even less appealing. That said, by the time I was ready to move on it seemed I had finally figured it all out, noting the important landmarks that would guide me to and from the sights of interest on my agenda. Even the bus system became increasingly self-explanatory, a rare necessity to conquer in a city of this size. One can only walk so many miles in a day before their will to explore has been sapped. With no real center, and no hostels conveniently located in a central location, once I left for the day, or returned, there was little flexibility to come and go. Be warned, Bucharest hasn’t been tamed.
The major attraction in Bucharest is the Parliamentary Palace, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington. Though still not completed today, the project commenced in the early 80s, the brain child of then peasant turned Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Unfortunately for him – and to the great joy of most Romanians – he never moved in. Construction was halted at the start of the 1989 Revolution and Ceausescu and his wife were soon arrested, tried, and executed, all within a few hours. Today only a small percentage of the building is used for administrative purposes, leaving the remainder idle on most days, and otherwise used for state ceremonies or as part of the daily tours through it. It was an overwhelming sight from the outside, even more so inside with the grand ballrooms, enormous granite pillars that support it. To stand on the main central balcony and gaze down the main boulevard leading up to the palace permits one a small glimpse into Ceausescu’s delusional mind, the megalomania
that drove him to remake Bucharest.
It was truly an audacious vision, with an imprint extending far beyond the Palace walls. His ambition was to reinvent Bucharest as a capital, tearing down almost one fifth of the city – most of which constituted the historic center – to create an Eastern rival to Paris. He purposely built this main road leading to the Palace one meter wider than the Champs-Elysee, a decision which I imagine was received in Paris with little more than a laugh. The result is an enormous east-west road bisecting Southern Bucharest, replete with fountains and flanked by seemingly endless run of identical looking residential and commercial combo buildings. In truth, there is nothing offensive about the street. You can tell there is nothing organic about its development but the problem lies elsewhere; the reality that it’s a hollow shell, with little behind it capable of matching its ostentatious image. In fact, there are often empty, undeveloped lots sitting stagnant. Perhaps that is what happens when a dictator’s vision is interrupted by a revolution, but it leaves in its wake an awkward feel to the whole project – more Hollywood set than neighborhood. This Potemkin village is only aggravated by the former university library which sits vacant, a stone frame with nothing left within. Not so surprising this isn’t the only library sitting idle in the Balkans – Sarajevo’s was burned as well during the siege, leaving a beautiful exterior deceptively covering for a rotting, yet to be restored, interior.
Tears down a fifth of the city but leaves this tree in the middle of sidewalk that goes around the palace?
I didn’t get a chance to canvas local opinion on the Ceausescu’s vision, whether reinventing Bucharest was viewed as a positive thing at the time – a necessary facelift to revive Bucharest’s greatness. I imagine views would be quite biased though, given the hated figure responsible for the changes and what must have been upwards of hundred thousand people who were forced to relocate. Even more interesting would be how its viewed today? Is it treated as a giant scar? An endearing bastard son they have come to accept as their own over time? Or perhaps an unintended monument to an ugly past? Many possibilities…
The remainder of the city, beyond its confusion, presents a weird fusion of old and new. Almost every part of the city shares this strange juxtaposition, decadent old homes showing off impressive wood and stone work up against nondescript cement blocks, with little continuity in style from one building to the next. The new kid on the block seems to be the even more modern looking glass windowed number, mixed in just as haphazardly with virtually no effort to fit the existing landscape. Throw in all the road work, a constant it seems in all parts of Romania right now, and you make a grim, dirty city feel even dirtier, grimmer. Even more telling of the jumbled manner the city was put together is the sheer number of electricity wires that hang from pole to pole – see picture. It’s a scary sight, with almost every pole in the city harboring a giant knot of wires – ten to fifteen minimum it seems.
The only real oasis the entire city has to offer is a great central park – the Cişmigiu Gardens – teeming with activity after night falls and a favorite place to congregate for young couples and families. It is a very green area, with plenty of trees hanging over cement paths winding around a number of man made lakes. It has a very pleasant, calming effect on everyone, very much needed amidst the chaotic, cement jungle around it.
The last area of note to mention is the Memorial of Rebirth, the monument commemorating the revolution located in Revolution Square. It’s a strange piece, a giant pillar with what is referred to as a crown though looks more like a brain driven though it toward the top. Next to it sits a wall that is a little reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in that it names all the victims who sacrificed their lives for the movement. It seems to be controversial in Bucharest, with many confused as to the message or symbolism it is trying to evoke.
Memorial of Rebirth
In the end, if not a pretty place to visit it was a fascinating one. Its scars are open. Nothing is hidden. And memories of recent growing pains are latent. Don't spend a lot of time here, but definitely see it. It's unique.