BUCHAREST, Romania -- Twenty-three years after communism collapsed, the Palace of the Parliament, a gargantuan Stalinist symbol and the most concrete legacy of ex-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, has emerged as an unlikely pillar of Romania’s nascent democracy.
And while it remains one of the most controversial projects of Ceausescu’s 25-year rule — albeit one that has gradually found a place in the nation’s psyche — it’s also now a tourist attraction, visited by tens of thousands of Romanians and foreigners every year.
The palace, so big it can be seen from space, tentatively opened its doors in early 1990 when Romanians were still raw from the trauma of communism. Described by some as a giant Stalinist wedding cake, it’s the world’s second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon, at 3.77 million square feet.
Parliament and the Constitutional Court are housed inside, along with the South-East European Law Enforcement Center, which fights crime, smuggling and fraud-fighting. Just days before Christmas, Parliament members met inside to vote on a new government. But over time the palace has become as much a magnet for glamorous events and celebrity photo-ops as it is a site for government affairs.
Brides pose in front of the yellow stone facade, while weddings, balls, movies and fashion shows and shoots take place inside. It’s hosted celebrities — Michael Jackson moonwalked in front of the building after a press conference, Colombian pop star Shakira sang outside in the rain, and Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke attended a ball there to raise money for disadvantaged children. Visiting politicians have included former U.S. President George Bush, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and in October, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who made a speech to 16 European prime ministers.
On his 90th birthday in October 2011, former King Michael attended his first Parliament sitting there in six decades, calling on Romanians to continue to build democracy. British TV producers even drove cars in the palace’s underground tunnels to show how cavernous it was.
Construction on the grandiose project began in the early 1980s, when food rationing and power cuts were common. Some 9,000 homes were demolished, residents were given just days to vacate their homes, churches and synagogues were razed or moved, and two mountains of marble were hacked down for the 275-foot high palace to be built.
Ceausescu designed the palace to house the government and Parliament after the devastating earthquake of 1977 where swaths of buildings crumbled in the capital and more than1,500 people died. A semi-literate son of a peasant, Ceausescu was nothing if not ambitious: He wanted the new building to withstand any earthquake and last 500 years.
A million Romanians, including thousands of soldiers, were enlisted to work around the clock on the construction, painstakingly carving huge oak, elm and cherry doors and sculpting giant crystal chandeliers for marble rooms almost as big as athletic fields. Today’s tours sample only parts of the building and last just one to two hours, but it would take a day to visit all the rooms and almost an hour just to walk around the perimeter.
The palace is perched atop a man-made hill at the end of the United Nations’ boulevard that is deliberately one yard wider than Paris’ famous Champs Elysees. Outside, the European Union, NATO and Romanian flags flutter.