Having been turned away from one exit already, saying goodbye to this monstrous concrete edifice was proving embarrassingly difficult.
The Palace of Parliament screams one word: megalomania. In fact, local Romanians still refer to it as the Casa Poporului (‘People’s House) in tongue-in-cheek homage to Nicolae Ceausescu, the former Romanian dictator who had 9,000 homes demolished to make way for his architectural vanity project. When it was finally completed in 1997, eight years after his execution, it became the world’s second-largest administrative building, after the Pentagon.
In line with most other megalomaniacs, Ceausescu had delusions of longevity. He wanted the Casa Poporului to be earthquake-proof and last five centuries. As I took in the building’s crumbling stonework, rusty railings, weed-strewn flowerbeds and generally grubby exterior, it was hard to imagine it lasting five more decades. Despite the cars parked haphazardly outside, it was even harder to imagine anyone doing anything meaningful in any of its 1,100 rooms.
“There’s been a lot of discussion in Romania about what to do with the Palace of Parliament,” explained Bucharest resident Daniela Dumitrescu over coffee later in the day. “Of course it’s totally underused and a bit of an eyesore. It’s just so damned big, though — any kind of conversion will be hugely expensive. I guess it’s the world’s ultimate white elephant.”
The ramshackle nature of the Casa Poporului is highlighted more now that Bucharest’s beautiful Old City has undergone a recent transformation following massive investment. Having thankfully survived Ceausescu’s wrecking ball, I found this delightful Bohemian quarter packed with coffee shops, boutiques, theatres and clubs.
Still, there are signs that the Palace of Parliament is finally giving something back to the people. On my confused meanderings around the building I’d already discovered a giant red sculpture of a fused foot-hand, denoting the entrance to Bucharest’s newest museum, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which occupies one wing at the rear. A good number of locals and tourists were perusing the artworks inside, which ranged from the thought-provoking through to the unfathomably bizarre.
As I finally approached the gate, the beefy security guard stiffened and shifted his rifle. Beyond the barrier I could see a small army of grass cutters tending the desiccated verge beyond. As a sleek black BMW approached the gate the barrier suddenly swung upward, and I took my chance to dart underneath, followed by a disapproving glare from the guard. A celebratory Ursus beer in the Old City was my next, slightly more welcome challenge.