Gems of Southeast Europe cruise day 7: Beautiful Bucharest still struggles to recover from communism

Bucharest's Parliament Palace
Bucharest’s Parliament Palace

ABOARD THE AMASONATA- As we cruised south toward the Black Sea from Budapest this week it was obvious to us that all of the cities we visited along the way are still suffering in a variety of ways the effects of communism and multiple wars, and are still in transition to normal democratic life. We called our excursion cities a bit ragged.

Until we got to Bucharest.

Gorgeous old buildings from the late 1800’s, broad boulevards lined with many trees, green parks, and fountains, dramatic and enormous statues to honored citizens, and a smaller copy of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe all combine to make Bucharest, Romania, earn its nickname “Little Paris of the East.”  Evidently, the Francophile citizens of the era wanted to show the best kind of flattery – imitation –so the city fathers hired French architects to work with Romanian counterparts and design a town every bit as beautiful as the original French city.

Granted, on the ragged edges of town you can see what locals call the “commie condos,” those ugly cement block buildings that every city once under Communist rule must live with today.  But we had also heard about – and expected – a Third World city with a depressing and broken infrastructure and a crumbling downtown.  Our guide told us that even after Communism ended in 1989 here, “we are still in transition; we have ski areas now, for example, but we don’t yet know how to use them.”

What we found, though, were the vestiges of Bucharest’s golden age when it was The Kingdom of Romania.  Gorgeous old homes and museums and university buidings stand tall and proud among the newer sites that reflect 42 years of Communism and interrupt the graceful flow of this surprisingly green city,

Sculpture depicting democracy crushing a potato -communism. The red blood depicts the 1000 people who were shot by Communists
Sculpture depicting democracy crushing a potato -communism. The red blood depicts the 1000 people who were shot by Communists

Among the most amazing, embarrassing structures built to seemingly dramatize the greed of the Communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu, is the enormous Parliament Palace at the western end of what he called the Avenue of the Victory of Socialism (residents called it “Kitsch Boulevard”).  Second largest building in the world, dwarfed only by the Pentagon, Ceaucescu had it built as a fortress of 1100 rooms in “Communist Baroque” style, it displaced 40,000 inhabitants and destroyed a fifth of the old town and 19 of the churches, nine of which were listed historic monuments.

The Communist ruler ordered Transylvanian artisans to bring in marble from that region and carve it for the walls of one room.  Walnut and cherry paneling lined the walls of what is now the Senate room.  Stained glass ceilings, crystal chandeliers and rich carpeting run throughout the garishly decorated building.  One  room is large enough for a helicopter to land inside it.

While Bucharest’s citizens went hungry, Ceaucescu spent $3 billion on the parliament building, hiring 20,000 workers and planning to greet the people from the huge front balcony in the manner of the King of England at Buckingham Palace, but he was executed in 1989, before it was finished.  Planned as a fortress, the building is now used for government offices. Romanian leaders said “No” when Donald Trump offered $1 million for it.

While the parliament palace replaced dozens of churches, 17,212 monasteries still remain in this largely Orthodox Christian country, and some of the AMASonata passengers moved on from the palace to visit one of them before returning to the ship for the last night of the cruise.

Tree-lined boulevard in downtown Bucharest
Tree-lined boulevard in downtown Bucharest

Many of them will be returning for other AMAWaterways cruises.  The company has a reputation for drawing repeat customers to their ships.  One woman who on her ninth cruise to European rivers said she’d like to do more but lamented that “I’ve taken so many river cruises that I’ve run out of rivers!”

AMAWaterways has by no means run out of ships, or original ideas for future cruises.  On the fourth night of our cruise co-owners Kristen Karst and Rudi Schreiner slipped away to a shipyard in the Belgrade area to christen their 21st ship, the “Kristina,” with a gala dinner and fireworks display. Another ship is planned for next year, and in July, the company will launch its first partnership with Adventures By Disney, inviting families on board to enjoy river cruising in the same way they have been delighting in larger ocean-cruising Disney xhips.  The July, 2016, Disney/AMAWaterways trip is already sold out.

The California biking company Backroads came to AMAWaterways just as Disney did, suggesting that in their case, a river cruise of bicyclists might be a possibility.  In typical AMAWaterways fashion, they have made future Backroads biking and river cruising trips a reality, too.

Photos by Timothy Leland

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