Michael Jackson made many mistakes in his life, but none was more insulting to a whole nation than his shouted greeting to a vast crowd of fans from the main balcony of Nicolae Ceausescu’s preposterous palace in 1990.
“Hello Budapest!” he yelled. Er, actually dude, the name of Romania’s capital is Bucharest.
The slinky pop star was not alone in making this egregious error. Lots of others have put their foot in it.
In 2012, 400 Athletic Bilbao fans missed the European football league final in Bucharest when they all flew to the Hungarian capital by mistake. Now there’s a witty website for the geographically challenged: bucharestnotbudapest.com.
Of all the ex-communist eastern European capitals, Bucharest is the most exotic. For centuries it was at a crossroads between the Sublime Porte in Istanbul (aka the Ottoman Empire’s HQ), the emerging Russian empire and western Europe. Dubbed “the Paris of the East” in the late 19th century, Bucharest was consciously modelled on the French capital.
What adds a bizarre twist to Bucharest is that it fell victim to the megalomania of Nicolae Ceausescu and his even more evil wife Elena. Small in stature and deeply paranoid, they travelled through Bucharest in a bullet-proof limo on boulevards that had been cleared of other traffic for hours, escorted by vehicles full of Securitate police.
Not that there was much traffic then. Prospective purchasers of Romanian-made Dacia cars (designed using plans filched from Renault) often had to wait several years to get them. So we were told by Doru Raduta, founder of the Interesting Times Bureau, which offers fascinating alternative tours of Bucharest for curious travellers.
“Forty years of communism did more damage to this city than 400 years of Ottoman rule,” says Robert Casmirovici, our guide on the Beautiful Decay tour. In his professional life, Casmirovici is an art photographer who likes to take pictures of well-known buildings in Bucharest and then manipulate the images so that they’re barely recognisable.
What Ceausescu did, notoriously, was to manipulate Bucharest itself and recreate it in his own image. Six-lane boulevards were driven through the city and lined by multi- storey apartment blocks, with dense concentrations of “workers’ housing” built on its edges, served by rickety trams or the metro (one of the few good things he did).
Ceausescu didn’t like the idea of everyone eating at home, Raduta told us, so he created domed communal canteens for people to gather at, under kindly portraits of himself and Elena. And since this move coincided with severe food rationing, the canteens became known as “circles of hunger”; all but one are now smart shopping malls.
As elsewhere, the contrast between where ordinary people lived and where the elite disported themselves was like two different worlds. The people were living on top of each other in bleak places such as Pantelimon while top communists had villas on their own grounds in Primaverii, where roadside lawns are as manicured as in Beverly Hills.
Raduta took us to see Ceausescu’s villa, with its emblematic roof lantern, looking out over an overgrown garden. There’s a security hut on the footpath outside and a notice saying that the “lawn” is now owned by the embassy of Kuwait. The villa, which is used for functions, is available for rent; you can even sleep in the dictator’s gilded bed.
We also saw the balustraded balcony where Ceausescu spoke to the people in December 1989, after all the other communist regimes in Europe had collapsed. He didn’t understand why they were booing him, shouting “Murderer!” and retreated, his helicopter later taking off from the roof. Within days, he and Elena had been executed.
A nearby two-storey building, headquarters for years of Directorate No 5, the most hated wing of the Securitate, was burned down. Its shell now wraps around a Modernist building occupied by the Union of Romanian Architects. Above it, you can see bullet holes in the façade of an apartment block, presumably used as a vantage point by snipers.
Nobody much seems to like the monument in Piata Revolutiei marking the events of December 1989. Called the Memorial of Rebirth, it consists of a 25-metre pointed marble pillar skewering what looks like a bonze potato – meant to represent the purity of the people and the rottenness of the regime. The Broken Man nearby is much better.
Up the street, on Calea Victoriei, Raduta pointed to a nondescript apartment block, set back behind a green area. He told us it was used for police interrogations during the Ceausescu era. Detainees were held in the basement while their interrogators lived upstairs. Handily, their commute consisted of taking the elevator to “work”.
Not far away is the neoclassical Stirbei Palace, which is partly occupied by an art gallery – hosting an exhibition called Milk.Honey.Blood while we were there – and the funky Eden nightclub in stone-vaulted wine cellars. Two of the caryatids supporting its pediment became detached by the 1977 earthquake that rocked Bucharest; they still are.
We walk further north along this traffic-infested one-way street to find the former German embassy being renovated for use by the Goethe Institute. It was right outside here, in August 1944, that the German ambassador shot himself dead as Soviet tanks rolled up the Boulevard Dacia. A house opposite shows part of the embassy’s wartime bunker.
Around the corner, a Belle Epoque mansion built by the wealthy Macca family is in decay after decades of use by Romania’s communist-era Institute of Archaeology and virtual abandonment since. Yet its beautiful gilded, painted ceilings would grace an embassy or residence – and both the German and Italian embassies are nearly next door.
“I would consider it a great success if this mansion was saved as a result of our tours,” Raduta says. Mind you, we all had to pretend that we were on a photography course to get in – a cover story to hide the Interesting Times Bureau’s involvement. In other cases, guardians of derelict buildings had to be bribed to let us clamber over the rubble.
On Boulevard Magheru, we were taken to see the first purpose-built multi-storey carpark in Romania. Dating from 1923, long before cars began to take over cities, the Cyclops building contains a double-helix spiral ramp system, so cars going up will never meet those coming down. It’s currently used to display colourful agitprop murals.
Nearer the Old Town are the ruins of newspaper offices built in the late 19th century, one of them the first reinforced concrete building in Romania; the former offices and printing plant of Universul, an early lifestyle newspaper founded by an Italian journalist who had been a war correspondent in the Balkans. Its open floors have hosted raves.
Streets in the Old Town have been turned over to bars and nightclubs, with tables and chairs outside, operating till 4am at weekends. It’s quite impossible to imagine how anyone could live in the area now. Every other building along Lipscani street has either been renovated or is about to be, presumably for more bars, nightclubs or trinket shops.
By contrast, Boulevard Unirii (built in the 1980s as the Boulevard of Socialist Victory) is dead after dark and only partly alive during the day. Lined on both sides by densely crowned trees, its 42 fountains – one for each county in Romania, with a centrepiece for Bucharest – have long since dried up, even as the broken footpaths get flooded.
Straddling the head of this bleak boulevard is Ceausescu’s monstrous palace, ludicrously named Casa Poporului; the three giant-order floors on top of its front were to be his and and his wife’s apartments, with commanding views over the city. Elena even had her own palace built across the road from her husband’s, now the Romanian Academy.
The “House of the People”, now principally used as a parliament, is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Twelve storeys high, it has a floor area of 340,000 square metres (3.7 million square feet) and 1,100 rooms – enough to house the entire apparatus of the Romanian Communist Party.
All the apartments on the main boulevard, stretching for 4.5km, were occupied by members of the regime or its paid agents. The closer you were to the palace, the more important you were to the maniacal Ceausescus as they bankrupted Romania. None of them had their electricity cut to just two hours a day, nor did they rely on food rations.
Raduta tells us that the madness of the Ceausescus was driven by the deep impression made on them by their first visit to North Korea in 1971. Kim Il Sung’s success in creating a highly compliant society was to be replicated in Romania, including a huge stadium “dedicated not to sport, but propaganda”, he says. “Fortunately, it was never built.”
What was built, however, required the removal of an Olympic stadium, two monasteries, 35 churches and 7,500 homes – mostly in the once-charming and hilly Uranus district of Bucharest. This was urban carnage on a massive scale, first denounced by Britain’s Prince Charles, not long after his mother, Queen Elizabeth, had decorated Ceausescu with an honorary GCB.
The herding of people from houses into system-built apartment blocks led to inevitably adverse consequences, including Romania’s problem of stray dogs. According to Raduta, there are 2.5 million of them all over the country. “People saw dogs as working animals, rather than pets, and abandoned them when they were forced to move into apartments.”
Ceausescu's other legacies include the Decreteii, those children who otherwise wouldn't have been born except for a 1977 decree banning abortion and contraception. More than 100 of them, abandoned like dogs, are living in caverns beneath Gara de Nord, under the leadership of Fagin-like Bruslí (pronounced "Bruce Lee").
“It’s a functioning society,” guide Robert Casmirovici tells us matter-of-factly, as we have a meal in La Mama, a cafe on the edge of Piata Universitatii, dating from 1852. “They have their own rule and everyone has a role to play. If you’re crippled, so much the better for begging in the streets. They’re all HIV-positive and the younger ones would sniff glue.”
Strange things still happen at the upper echelons of Romania’s “post-communist” political structure. The mayor of Bucharest, Sorin Oprescu, granted planning permission for a 23-storey office tower cheek-by-jowl with the city’s neo-romanesque Roman Catholic cathedral, dwarfing it. But the tower is vacant after court rulings that the mayor’s action was illegal.
Oprescu is the latest in a long line of rulers with his eye on big plans. In the 1930s, the lecherous, Nazi-admiring King Carol II was an equally enthusiastic supporter of modernisation and backed such controversial projects as the tall (for Bucharest then) art deco tower on Calea Victoriei, designed to house Romania’s telephone company.
The king would have been quite familiar with one of the nearby passages, which functioned as a brothel during the inter- war years, with prostitutes calling out from wrought-iron balconies on the upper floors.
The tower is now a slum, we were told, occupied by Roma families; the same is true of many other old, run-down buildings in Bucharest.
Many places are thriving, however. It’s nearly impossible to get a table at Caru’ cu Bere (Friends with Beer) on a Saturday night. This, the city’s oldest restaurant, dishes out so much traditional Romanian fare to so many people that its kitchens must be on an industrial scale. Waiters scurry about, often ticking off Roma kids begging at the margins.
One can imagine all sorts of crooks filing through Caru’ su Bere’s revolving doors on Strada Stavropoleos since they first opened in 1899. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu must have dined here, at least during the “honeymoon period” of communism in Romania, when there was still hope that things would turn out well for ordinary people.
The Interesting Times Bureau can even arrange for tourists to meet elderly folk who lived through the Ceausescu era and think it wasn’t all bad. Or you can take the Alternative Tour to find out about street art, punk fashion, emerging music and the latest trends. I’d start with Voilà Le Bistro, in an art deco villa near the Catholic cathedral, or Lente, on Prapogescu.
Raduta has no regrets about giving up an office job as Romanian agent for Nintendo to set up his new business, which was inspired by the Slow Movement. He tried out the tours on friends and expatriates living in Bucharest before going public last June. “There’s so much in this city for people to see and find out, I thought we should tell them.”
Now also the Romanian agent for a British investment fund, Raduta is active in campaigns to make Bucharest a more civilised city. One of his projects is Street Delivery, which aims to calm the terrible traffic. Every year, just for a weekend, they take over a long street, Strada Artur Verona, and turn it into a relaxed place – to show how things could be.
But the legacy of Ceausescu lives on in the overstaffing of museums and art galleries and the attitude of the invigilators. When we were looking at the National Gallery’s collection of Romanian portraits, one of the middle-aged women in uniform barked at us (in her own language, before huffily translating it) that we were “standing too close”.
The National Library, another gargantuan Ceausescu project that was still a hulk when I last visited Bucharest in 2006, is finally finished, although there isn’t enough money to fill it with books.
Bucharest remains a flawed city, not pretty like Prague or resonant like Warsaw. And just as Warsaw did, the Romanian capital got a Stalinist “wedding cake”, the then extremely unfree Free Press Centre, which you can see on the way out to Otopeni airport – while remembering that portable typewriters were banned during the Ceausescu era. To book a tour with Interesting Times Bureau, see interestingtimes.ro