Travelling Light

The Nicolae Ceauşescu Palace, Bucharest, Romania, August 31, 2014

Nicolae Ceauşescu – where do you start?

Anyone older than 30 will probably remember hearing his name on the news when he was deposed and executed in 1989. He had been the head of state since 1967, when he succeeded the country’s first communist leader, who name nobody in the West would remember. (It was Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.)

In the early years, he was a relatively moderate leader, but as time went on his regime become more brutal and repressive, until he earned the dubious honour of being reputedly “the most rigidly Stalinist in the Soviet bloc”.

In 1977, an earthquake damaged many buildings in the city, creating an irresistible opportunity for him to make his mark on posterity. He envisaged a regal Civic Centre district, free from untidy old buildings, focused on a huge “People’s Palace”, which would house all the government departments.

To make room for this glorious vision, Ceausescu demolished most of Bucharest’s historic districts (leaving only Lipscani), including 19 Orthodox Christian churches, 6 synagogues and Jewish temples, 3 Protestant churches, and 30,000 homes in two neighbourhoods alone. Eight churches were relocated. In total, one-fifth of central Bucharest was razed for the project.

At the same time, he had the bright idea that he could pay off Romania’s international debts by exporting most of what was produced in Romania. Crushing shortages of everything started in 1982, and construction of the Palace started in 1983.

From 1983 to 1989, 40% of Romania’s GDP went to constructing the Palace.

To be fair to Ceauşescu, officials were lying to him about how much Romania was producing, so when he set the export levels for food and manufactured goods, he probably didn’t realise how little he was leaving for domestic consumption. But by then, his insatiable need for self-aggrandisement was so inflamed that it might be that he just didn’t care.

So, to the building itself.

It is 270m by 240 m, 86 m high, and extends 92 m underground, and has 1100 rooms. This gives it more foor space than any other building in the world, except the Pentagon.

It is 12 stories tall, with four additional underground levels currently available and in use and another four in different stages of completion. The Palace was 90% complete when Ceauşescu was deposed in 1989, after 20,000 workers had toiled 24/7 for five years. The final 10% is still being worked on today, 25 years later.

This is Bucharest’s version of the Champs Elysees, as seen from the balcony of the Palace. Apparently, it is exactly one metre wider than the original Champs Elysees.

These are many meeting rooms in the palace, and all of them are huge, even the “small” one. The grand ballroom is ridiculously huge, 2200 square metres. In 2008, the Palace hosted the 20th NATO summit in the grand ballroom.

Opinion has always been divided, on the palace, and on Ceauşescu himself. While the excesses of his later years made life difficult for ordinary Romanians, there was also a sense of national pride involved in the building of the Palace. People would come down to the construction site and volunteer.

While educated professionals have welcomed the advent of capitalism, and benefited from it, manual workers are not much better off than they were under communism. While there are goods in the shops, they don’t necessarily have the money to pay for them.

Something we never heard in the West was that every Romanian family had a two-week holiday every year by the sea or in the mountains, all paid for by the state. These days, manual workers can’t afford to stay in hotels by the sea.

You can see tourist videos of the Palace on Youtube, for example this one:

All in all, it is worth touring the palace, just to physically understand the scope of the building, and to marvel that it got to 90% complete without the country completely imploding.

Aerial image courtesy of