Bucharest: A strong contender for “Ugliest City in Europe”
We left the beautiful city of Brasov behind morning and caught the train to Bucharest, Romania’s capital city. We’ve only been here half a day and already we rate this as one of the ugliest and scariest cities we have visited on our travels so far. We would put Bucharest alongside Naples, Moscow and Nairobi as one of our least favourite cities so far*.
*Disclaimer: We’ve only been here a short time and are absolutely convinced there are good things about Bucharest that we just haven’t seen yet. I’m sure if we had time to hook up with a local who could show us the best side of the city, our opinion would improve. Based purely on first impressions however, we’re not fans.
This city is dirty, noisy, chaotic and polluted; most of the buildings we’ve seen are in disrepair (with the exception of the Palace of Parliament – but more about that later); and, to top it all off, there are pickpockets and stray dogs* everywhere. For those of you who have been here and liked it, we would love to know WHY you liked it?! What are we missing??
*There are A LOT of stray dogs in Romania, something we didn’t expect. There are believed to be 300,00 stray dogs in Romania, with more than 65,000 in Bucharest alone! The whole issue of stray dogs is very topical here at the moment as a pack of dogs attacked and killed a 4 year old Bucharestian boy in September. The case led to a new law being passed that allows authorities to kill strays on sight. This has led to lots of protests by both animal rights activists and supporters of the new law. Here in Bucharest the large numbers of strays are thought to be a legacy of Ceausescu’s decision to bulldoze the city’s historic center in the 1980s to make way for the Palace of Parliament. In the process, thousands of dogs were abandoned by residents who were forcibly relocated into small apartments. Thousands of people get bitten by the dogs every year and a few die as well. It’s horrendous! The best policy seems to be to avoid the city’s parks and gardens, especially at night, as this is where the packs of half-starved stray dogs are most commonly found.
Built along the banks of the Dâmbovița River, Bucharest is in the far South of Romania. It has been an important city for centuries, and was once the capital of Wallachia. It was from ancient Bucharest that the infamous Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler (i.e. Vlad Dracula) ruled his kingdom. In 1862, after Wallachia and Moldavia were united to form the Kingdom of Romania, Bucharest became the new nation’s capital city; then, in 1918, when Transylvania joined the party, this state of affairs continued. It was during the second half of the 19th century that Bucharest flourished – in fact, the extravagant architecture and cosmopolitan high culture of Bucharest during this period earned Bucharest the nickname of “Little Paris”. So according to the history books, this place used to be one of Europe’s most beautiful cities (some 150 years ago), but two world wars and 40+ years of Communist rule seemed to have left their taint on this once beautiful city.
The single exception to this seems to be the oppulent, OTT (i.e. over the top) extravaganza that is the Romania’s Palace of Parliament. After a quick walk through Bucharest’s old town, we spent our afternoon doing a tour of the Palace of Parliament. Built in the 1980s during the years of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship (1965–1989), the Palace of Parliament is one extraordinary contradiction after another: a palace built by a megamaniacal leader to show the world how glorious and powerful Romania was, at a time when people were starving. One of the most beautiful buildings we have ever seen, smack in the middle of one of the ugliest cities we have ever seen. An enormous construction that contains rooms the size of football fields, lined in marble and decorated in gold, in a country where 60% of the population lives a subsistence lifestyle in rural villages.
The buildings vital statistics are insane, for example:
- An entire historic quarter was razed to make way for the building and its grounds. Altogether 30 Christian churches, 6 Jewish synagogues and 30,000 residences were destroyed or relocated to make way for the Palace of Parliament.
- The Palace measures 270m by 240m (790 ft). It is 86m high and extends 92m below ground.
- It has 1,100 rooms, 2 underground parking garages and is 12 stories tall, with 8 underground levels.
- The building is constructed almost entirely of materials of Romanian origin and is the world’s heaviest building.
- Estimates of the materials used include 1,000,000 cubic meters of marble from Transylvania; 3,500 tonnes of crystal; 480 chandeliers; 700,000 tonnes of steel and bronze for monumental doors and windows; 900,000 square metres of wood; and 200,000 square metres of hand-made woolen carpets.
It’s ostentatious, it’s way too big, and it’s just beautiful. The 2 hour tour through the Palace of Parliament took us through just 5% of the building and left us gob-smacked. If the Palace of Parliament is an example of the beauty Romanians can create, then it is all the more tragic that the rest of Bucharest has been left to deteriorate so much. We can only hope that, as Romania continues to develop economically and politically, Bucharest is given the love it deserves and that this city can once again be something beautiful.