Streets of shame

Once called "the Paris of the east", Bucharest still bears the scars of dictatorship

When the Romanian musician George Enescu was at the height of his powers, conducting the New York Philharmonic between the two world wars and numbering among his violin pupils such prodigies as Yehudi Menuhin, Bucharest was known as "the Paris of the east". During his stays in the city, Enescu himself lived in the Cantacuzino Palace on Calea Victoriei, the local equivalent of the Champs-Élysées. By the time he died in 1955, an exile in France, the monarchy had been deposed (Enescu's wife had been a friend of Queen Marie, the last king's grandmother) and Bucharest was one of many European capitals behind the new Iron Curtain.

Romania existed through the centuries mostly as an idea, rather than a nation. Divided between the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires, its territories shorn and expanded over time through the fortunes of war, Romania emerged from the Second World War (in which it had fought on both sides) only to become a vassal state of the USSR.

Yet always there was Bucharest, the historical seat of the Wallachian princes (most famously the 15th-century Vlad Tepes, "the Impaler", who provided the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula). When independence of a sort came in the 1950s, it was in Bucharest that Nicolae Ceausescu rose through the ranks before becoming the country's leader in 1965. Here it was, too, that the old dictator addressed the crowds in 1989 from the balcony of the Central Committee Building in a doomed attempt to stop the revolution that toppled him.

As Romania copes with another development in its nationhood - it is nearing the end of its first year in the EU - the legacy of communism is apparent everywhere in Bucharest. Its institutions may have been swept aside, but its history lingers, a heavy layer upon all the layers - medieval, Orthodox, Turkish - that are the visible building blocks of this city.

Throughout September, the grandly pillared, domed hall of the Ateneul Român (Romanian Athenaeum) is the centre of the George Enescu International Festival. Opposite, to the west, the Sala Mare a Palatului provides another venue dur ing the festival. It may have hosted Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the Oslo Philharmonic during my visit, but it came as no surprise to learn that this vast, brutally lit hall had been built speci fically for political rallies. Just next door, the Athénée Palace Hotel, now a Hilton, was a favourite of the hated secret police, the Securitate. Foreign guests they wished to keep track of were billeted there and spied on.

As you head south down Calea Victoriei, past Piata Revolutiei, the Central Committee Building and the Memorial of Rebirth, where the names of those who died to end the communist regime are carved into low walls surrounding a tall marble pillar nicknamed "the toothpick and the olive", the grandeur begins to crumble. Wizened old ladies sit in the corners of shop windows, and the autumn sun lends an overly generous cheer to buildings with peeling plaster and pollution-darkened stone.

Just occasionally, a relic of "Parisian" times is to be found, not clearly signposted or in the tourist guides; stride too quickly, and you will miss it. One such is Pasajul Macca-Villacrosse, a fork-shaped, glass-covered arcade dating from the late 19th century whose passages echo with the conversation of cafe and wine-bar goers.

Once across the river, most of which is, sadly, underground, and with Calea Victoriei now behind you, you begin to see how the city bears the marks of Ceausescu's megalomaniac plans. Fountains sputter and fail in the midst of large, unkempt parks. Wide, imposing boulevards show little signs of activity. And then Ceausescu's greatest folly hits you. The Palace of the Parliament is said to be the second-largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. The late foreign correspondent Edward Behr wrote that its architecture had been ruined by a "combination of cultural and aesthetic illiteracy, rigid Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, and an innate taste for gigantism". It sits, a squat, marble mammoth, on a hill levelled for its construction, its size suggesting that it ought to be the seat of a great empire's civil service.

Down one side (and, again, not signposted) is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, an impressive glass extension where installation art exhibits recall the horrors of the old regime. One work, by Ion Bitzan, juxtaposes a propaganda picture of the Ceausescus, holding the hands of smiling children in folk dress, with the complete works of Lenin and bundles of what appear to be human bones. Video works by Stefan Constantinescu show refugees who fled Pinochet's Chile for Romania in the 1970s talking of how they expected a socialist utopia (one forgets that Ceausescu's assertions of independence from Moscow earned him plaudits outside the eastern bloc for a long time), but found a country where lavatory chains were replaced by pieces of string.

Today, Romanians have acquired a taste for capitalism and consumerism. Close to the venues where the Enescu festival takes place, designer cafes and restaurants bustle while serving a mixture of Italian and local dishes, such as bear steak (rather good), meaty sausages and the ubiquitous sour cream. At one coffee shop, a man with close-cropped beard and dangling chains asked if I required company. "Beautiful girls, boys, whatever you like. You will be very happy." On the street near the Hotel Lido, where I was staying, a teenager attempted to sell me a tourist guide and, on being declined, asked for money to buy a sandwich. "Can I have your shoes, then?" he demanded, peering into the bag containing my gym kit.

Just before, at the fitness club in the tower of the Intercontinental Hotel, I had gazed out from the balcony at Piata Universitatii. Journalists had looked on from this place in 1989 as soldiers shot into crowds of protesters and tanks crushed demonstrators. It seems such a short time ago; yet already Romania is a full member of an EU dominated by countries with very different experiences of the late 20th century. No wonder that in Bucharest it feels as though history is coated in only the thinnest veneer of modernity.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever