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Palace of Parliament, Bucharest

  - darkometer rating:  2 -
A behemoth of a building that is the quintessential and most massive expression of Romania's former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's magalomaniacal architectural ambitions. Not only is it by far Bucharest's largest edifice, it even used to be the second largest building (by area space) in the whole world (after the Pentagon). The Palace is so massive it beggars belief, especially when you remember at what time and at what cost it was built. 

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: while Ceausescu starved the country's population, he pumped billions into the construction of this Palace, his pet project in Bucharest, which thus ate up a good proportion of Romania's GDP (which could have been put to much better use elsewhere). Hundreds of architects and tens of thousands of workers toiled away from 1984 on the construction of the Palace – which was preceded by a massive demolition programme to make room for it. About one sixth of old Bucharest was bulldozed for this purpose. Then the construction of the Palace began, using almost exclusively materials from Romania, including massive amounts of marble. Carpets of unprecedented sizes had to be sewn together, staggering amounts of crystal for countless chandeliers were used, curtains weighing tons, … it's all a Guinness Book of Records orgy.
The official purpose of the Palace was to serve as the seat of government, as a conference centre and, not least, as Ceausescu's own residence. Not without irony the building was, and still is, known informally as the "House of the People" ('Casa Poporului').
When Romania's revolution of 1989 came, the Palace was about 90% finished, so Ceausescu never lived to move in (or address his people from the balcony – people often get this confused, but those famous last public appearances of the Ceausescus took place at the Central Committee building on Piata Revolutiei). The outside structure was finished though – and at some 85 metres (280 feet) high and 270 metres (885 feet) wide it dominates Bucharest's skyline. Still to be completed are primarily some of the underground levels.
Much of the planned furnishings never made it into the Palace either, so the huge halls remain strangely empty. But all floor, wall and ceiling structures, light fixtures, huge doors, etc. etc. are in place … oozing a bizarre atmosphere of uselessness in grandeur.
After 1989 the question was of course what to do with this giant. Controversy remained for a long time, but today the Palace actually does serve a purpose very close to the original intended use – only minus the dictator. Parts of the complex have long been in use as a conference centre, which it continues to serve as. Meanwhile both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies/Representatives have moved in too. And one part of the building serves as the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
What there is to see: lots of unbelievable grandeur, marble and crystal overload, the biggest carpets you will ever have seen in your life and the biggest empty palatial halls. And more …
But first things first: tourists can't visit the Palace independently and have instead to sign up for a guided tour (available in English). Rules are strict (e.g. you need to hand in your passport – see details under 'access' below).
Once you've cleared security, the guide will first take your group up some flights of marble stairs and then through a succession of enormous corridors and even more enormous halls. Some are clearly set up for conferences (look out the interpreters' booths), and in fact some halls may not be accessible to tourists at times, depending on the Palace's conference schedule. But normally the tour should include the highlights of the two grandest halls – one is the biggest by area (which feels almost the size of a football pitch), the other has the highest ceiling.
The former, now called "Sala Unirii" ('Union Hall') has a single glass ceiling/roof (there's a myth this could be opened up to let in a helicopter – sounds appropriately James-Bond-villain-like, but sadly is actually nothing more than just a myth) – and two spaces on the south and north walls were supposed to sport large paintings of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, respectively – but these were never made …
At least equally impressive is the only slightly smaller but higher-ceilinged Sala Alexandru Ioan Cuza, which is topped by a series of smaller glass ceiling sections and rosettes.
From this hall there's access to the grand balcony, which tour groups may or may not be allowed to step out onto (depending on the weather and/or the mood of the guide, or whatever rules may apply at the time). Note that this was NOT the balcony that Ceausescu gave his last speech from – for some reason tourists often confuse this balcony with the one at the former Central Committee building, where those scenes actually took place, on the square that is now Piata Revolutiei. But even without such a connection, the view from the balcony is very Ceausescu-esque since you can see the entire architectural brutality that accompanied that of the Palace itself, in particular the massive long B-dul Unirii with its Pyongyang-inspired housing blocks stretching along its sides for miles. This has changed the face of Bucharest as much as the Palace has …
Finally it's back through the corridors and down the marble staircases to the tourist side entrance where you can retrieve your passport – and you may also want to have a quick look in the little souvenir shop. Although this does not actually contain much related to the Palace itself (only one brochure – with good quality photos!), it has more general books on Romania and all manner of tourist tack.
The whole experience is pretty surreal – even though it's only the background knowledge about how and when and under what circumstance this Palace came into being that makes it qualify for an entry within the context of dark tourism. Without that, it's just plain wow.
Some visitors just take a look at the enormous edifice from the outside, but in order to get the full experience of how crazy a place this is, you really have to go on a guided tour of the interior – even if the security regulations and proceedings (see under 'access and cost') can be a bit annoying.
Apart from the guided tour there's another way of seeing a section of the building from the inside, albeit in a very different way: if you walk all the way round the building to its west side (this takes about 20 minutes from the tourist entrance used for the guided tours), you'll get to the National Museum of Contemporary Art. What there is to see inside and whether that falls into a dark context in any way will vary from one exhibition/event to the next. Past ones apparently did include some pretty controversial installations (even involving images of Ceausescu).
Unfortunately, when I got there, in late May 2009, I was informed that the first and second floors were closed and only a single ground floor exhibition room was currently in use (but at least there was no entrance charge). It contained mainly old French wedding photos in various arrangements – neither very modern nor riveting, and definitely not dark. In any case, even if nothing else is on, it's worth taking the lift up to the roof-top cafe, not so much for the meagre offerings on sale there but rather for the view from the outside terrace.
From here you can see across the wilderness to the west of the Palace, all the way to the two other grand buildings that are (or were supposed to be) part of the whole ensemble. Today one of them houses the Marriott Bucharest Grand Hotel! The whole empty space in between was also once old Bucharest that got bulldozed – but whatever was intended to be put up there instead never materialized and it remains a wasteland
Location: a bit off the old city centre of Bucharest, to the south-west; at the western end of B-dul Unirii, and between Calea 13 Septembrie and B-dul Natiunile Unite; just south of the river Dambovita.
Google maps locator: [44.428,26.088]
Access and costs: not straightforward but possible (but allow time for waiting and security checks – and take your passport!!); comparatively expensive. 
Details: locating the building couldn't be easier – it's so huge you can see it from far away wherever there is an unobstructed view – most notably from anywhere along the length of B-dul Unirii. To get to the entrance where the tours of the interior start, either walk to the western end of B-dul Unirii from Piata Unirii and then round the north-eastern corner of the complex. Or from the bottom of Calea Victoriei: cross the river and then walk up B-dul Natiunile Unite.
The nearest metro station is Izvor (lines M1 and 3) a bit to the north beyond the park by the river. Bus line 385 gets you closest to the entrance.
The access road to the front of the Palace on the corner of B-dul Libertatii is not for tourists (and a guard will make this very clear should you try to use it!), you have to walk further along the northern side of the premises, past the access gate to the underground garage, then through the next gate and across the large car park. Tour buses and crowds will give away the location of the main entrance for tourists (the one next to the Romanian costumes exhibition).
You cannot enter the Palace individually but have to sign up for a guided tour, available in various languages including English. This makes it less straightforward than the "opening times" (daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) may suggest. When I visited at noon, I was told there would only be one chance to go on a tour in English that day, namely at 2 p.m., so I had to come back two hours later (I probably narrowly missed the previous tour). Security measures have been tightened up considerably too: you'll only be let in if you have your passport on you – which will be collected and held at the security gate until the end of the tour when you have to exchange your numbered badge for your passport (update: apparently they now only scan the passports at the beginning and hand them back straight away). When entering, you have to put your bags and wallets and stuff through a scanner and yourself through an airport-type metal detector too (in fact, security feels tighter here than at the actual airport). And don't expect to be treated in a friendly manner either. It's Romania, after all, former home of the Securitate. Here you get the feeling it never went away …
Another word of warning: stay with your group – signs make it clear that straggling behind or straying from your group would constitute a criminal offence!
The fee for admission and the guided tour is 60 Lei (more expensive than other guided tours in Romania perhaps, but still reasonable). there also used to be a licence fee for taking photographs, but I've been informed that this has been scrapped in the meantime. Good!
As an alternative to taking photos yourself, you could opt for the Palace brochure available from the souvenir shop at the ticket counter: the pictures in that are of professional quality, pretty representative of what there is to see inside, and without other tourists in the frame. So it really is a serious alternative. And without the distraction of handling a camera (in lighting conditions that are often not the easiest) you not only have your hands free, but more importantly your mind too – which is a good thing when trying to get a grasp of this crazy place.  
Another rule of the house forbids the use of lifts, so you'll have to climb a lot of steps during the tour. This obviously means: no access for wheelchairs. A sign by a door next to the Palace entrance, however, advised disabled visitors to contact the museum to make special arrangements; so presumably an exception can be made for wheelchair users. But if this applies to you then do make sure you check this well in advance. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were further bureaucratic obstacles to be dealt with.
Access to the National Museum of Contemporary Art at the west side of the Palace requires a long walk all the way around the front (east) and other (south) side of the building, but here you can use the specially installed glass lifts on the outside of the facade. When I visited there wasn't much on display, only a single room exhibition, and there was no admission fee. When more is on, a fee is likely to be charged (the Lonely Planet guidebook and website quotes 1.50 EUR – at the site itself, there was no sign regarding charges).
Time required: guided tours of the interior of the Palace last about an hour, add to that queuing and waiting time. Walking around the outer perimeter of the Palace premises takes no less time – that's how huge the area is. Walking from the tourist entrance, from where the guided tours of the Palace start, to the entrance of the National Museum of Contemporary Art can take 20 minutes. Circling the entire hill which the Palace sits on would probably take more than twice that (because of the large wasteland area to the west), but it's not necessary to do that anyway. The walk between the two entrances gives you more than enough of an impression. Visiting time at the Museum of Contemporary Art will vary very much according to what the exhibition is at the time (when I visited I was out again after less than 10 minutes). All in all half a day can be eaten up by a thorough visit to this gigantic sight.
Combinations with other dark destinations: generally see Bucharest – the natural "counterpart" of the Palace of Parliament is the remainder of Ceausescu's grand plans for the architectural makeover he inflicted on Bucharest in the 1980s in which about a fifth of the old city was bulldozed. The main artery of it all is the two-mile (3 km) long Bulevardul Unirii and walking at least a good part of this is a must if you want to grasp the scale of the whole architectural craziness of Ceausescu's Bucharest.  
From the road outside the tourist entrance to the Palace bus No. 385 goes west and eventually past Ghencea cemetery, where Ceausescu's grave can be visited. It thus makes a good combination, esp. as the extreme grandiose luxury of the Palace couldn't be in starker contrast to the plainness of the dictator's pauper's grave.
One more thing: you may have heard about a "Museum and Park of Totalitarianism and Socialist Realism" mentioned – e.g. on Wikipedia – which allegedly opened at the Palace in 2004. When I visited (in late May 2009) there was no sign of anything like this. And no amount of Internet research unearthed any further information about it (that wasn't simply copy-pasted from the Wikipedia entry). There was indeed an exhibition room on the side by the entrance to the guided tours, however, but that was "closed" (without any information about what would have been inside) … maybe it was that? If anyone has any enlightening information about this mystery, then I'd appreciate being let in on the secret (see contact).  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Bucharest.
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 1 - frontBucharest - Palace of Parliament 1 - front
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 2 - from B-dul Natiunile UniteBucharest - Palace of Parliament 2 - from B-dul Natiunile Unite
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 3 - detailBucharest - Palace of Parliament 3 - detail
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 4 - southern approachBucharest - Palace of Parliament 4 - southern approach
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 5 - grand stepsBucharest - Palace of Parliament 5 - grand steps
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 6 - grand windowsBucharest - Palace of Parliament 6 - grand windows
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 7 - from the art museum terraceBucharest - Palace of Parliament 7 - from the art museum terrace
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament 8 - wilderness to the westBucharest - Palace of Parliament 8 - wilderness to the west
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament from Carol I ParkBucharest - Palace of Parliament from Carol I Park
  • Bucharest - Palace of Parliament from Piata UniriiBucharest - Palace of Parliament from Piata Unirii

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