It’s a monument to a madman. A vast palace that took 13 years to build with 2.7 million tonnes of marble especially mined from the local mountains, nine kilometres of corridors, 15,000 dazzling chandeliers, and a retractable glass ceiling so a helicopter can land inside.
And yet this bizarre beacon of power and privilege sits among so much grinding poverty in Romania, the poorest country in Europe.
For this is the house that Ceausescu built, the Romanian communist dictator better known as the Butcher of Bucharest, who ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly 25 years until 1989.
During that reign, so many of his countrymen starved, kids died in orphanages, protesters were slaughtered on his orders and his political foes disappeared, all the time while 710 architects and up to 100,000 conscripted soldiers and ‘volunteers’ laboured to create this astonishing Palace of the Parliament.
It’s now 30 years after Nicolae Ceausescu was summarily executed by Romanian revolutionaries, and I gaze speechless at the building, struck by awe and horror in equal measure.
The massive edifice completely dominates the country’s capital Bucharest, an otherwise perfectly ordinary small city of busy streets, and ugly concrete apartment buildings.
Ceausescu demolished homes and ancient monasteries alike to accommodate his 365,000sqm Taj Mahal of terror, making an estimated 50,000 families homeless.
The entry hall, all gleaming marble, intricate mosaics and glistering gold plate-lined walls, leads to a vast white marble staircase, with red carpet, which was built and demolished twice before the dictator was satisfied. The problem was, the illiterate son of poor peasants couldn’t read the plans he was approving.
“It’s a tall building … 86 metres high,” says our guide, Cristian. “But it also extends 90 metres underground. So there’s even more underneath than there is above.”
But it all makes some kind of warped sense when you learn Ceausescu came up with his grand design after a visit to North Korea.
“He ordered that the corridors be extra wide,” Cristian says. “We think it’s because he wanted to ride a tank through the building. He also made sure the doors could slide into the walls so they’d never get in his way.
“There are 1300 rooms here over 14 floors – 10 above ground and four beneath ground – and we stopped counting the chandeliers after 15,000. And this carpet measures 220,000sqm and it was made in a single piece in the room where it lays. It’s so heavy, you can’t move it. We tried rolling it with 40 strong men …”
It’s not only the weight of the fixtures and fittings that are such a problem. The building is said to be so heavy, it sinks six millimetres every year. One of the chandeliers alone weighs 7.3 tonnes.
After Ceausescu’s death, Romanians weren’t sure whether to bulldoze the monstrosity, or finish it off and repurpose it. These days it houses the Romanian Parliament in rooms decorated with handcrafted oak, marble, silk, gold and silver.
However, there’s no airconditioning as the former president was paranoid about being poisoned.
But it hasn’t escaped modernity. The tunnels built under the palace, with a nuclear bunker and an underground escape route to the airport, were recently used as a racetrack by the TV show Top Gear.
Also, one of the best rooms was the venue in 1996 for the wedding of five-time Olympic gold medal-winning Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci.
And although it would have proved a rich source of foreign currency, Donald Trump’s pre-POTUS offer to buy the building and convert it into a giant casino was turned down. Even in death, Ceausescu’s narcissism could not be Trumped.
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Sue Williams was a guest of APT.