City #12, May 2014 – Yes, there are holes in the street. And a lot of stray dogs (although the last government apparently exterminated most of them). But the feeling I got was that the Romanians are determined to make the best of a bad situation. The people are friendly, and funny. If you accidently bump into someone, they say ‘sorry’. Many of them learned English at school, and speak it well. Romanian women are prudish, but they wear extremely short skirts. You occasionally run into a classical quartet playing in a park, just 100 metres away from a cluster of sex clubs. Cigarettes are on sale everywhere, as is alcohol. Elegant squares, Ceauşescu’s monstrosities. A city of contrasts….

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Ceauşescu’s Palace

boekapaleis1,498,00 cubic metres of marble, 321 million litres of cement, and 200 hectares of oak forest felled for the woodwork: just a sample of the figures quoted by my guide. I may be off by a million or so cubic metres, since most of what was said didn’t really register. As big as the province of Utrecht is another frequent comparison (London is that big, and Utrecht of course). The second biggest building in the world – only the Pentagon is bigger – and its total volume exceeds that of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Ceauşescu’s palace is big.

‘And who paid for all of this, how many workers lost their life during the building of the palace?’ Our group, which consists of older American, Germans, Indians and two Tibetan monks, fires off one critical question after another. They laugh scornfully when the guide says that the dictator had the monumental staircase rebuilt five times before he decided that the height of steps was exactly right. Ceauşescu was a villain, and we don’t want to seem too impressed with this building, or with his taste, which those in the know describe as ‘eclectic’, a mishmash.

When dictators hightail it, or are executed by the people, as happened in Ceauşescu’s case, in November 1989, their houses are usually ransacked. The television footage that follows this event is predictable: their houses turn out to be wallpapered in gold, there are kangaroos or crocodiles in the garden, and at least ten Ferraris in the garage. Recent examples include the house that the Ukranian president Yanukovych left behind when he fled, and Gaddafi’s palace, in which gold pistols and homo-erotic literature were also found. The Romanians were already familiar with the interior of the palace when they strolled into it after the death of their leader: 20,000 of them had helped build it (which may have prevented them from immediately plundering it in a blind rage). They knew that it was incredibly big, but the most surprising thing they found was Nicolae and Elena’s bathroom: It was huge, of course, and the taps were, of course, made of gold. The couple, both of whom were said to suffer from constipation, spent a lot of time there. That must be why there were also big video screens in the bathroom. She watched Sissi films, while he was fond of westerns.

p.s. 1: Top Gear, BBC’s programme for car enthusiasts, was given permission to race through the palace’s underground tunnel system.

p.s. 2 : See here the famous last pictures of Ceaşescu, his last speech, during which the people began to protest, and pictures of his execution.

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