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New Europe

Day Sixty-two: Bucharest

The Centru Civic 
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View of the Centru Civic from Ceausescu's Palace. The Bulevardul Unirii (Unification Boulevard) was ordered by Ceauscescu to be like the Champs-Elysées, only bigger.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe country suffered. He destroyed churches, bullied non-Romanian minorities like the Magyars and the Gypsies and tried to increase the workforce with desperate measures like forbidding abortion or contraception, setting up the Baby Police to carry out compulsory gynaecological examinations and, in the process, creating an enormous pool of unwanted children.

Vast resources went not only into the construction of the Palace of the People, but also the clearing of a huge area around it to create his dream of a Centru Civic, 'a socialist capital for socialist man'. To make room for his version of Kim-Il-Sung's North Korea, he razed three and a half square miles of old houses, including sixteen churches and three synagogues.

Bogdan explains the thinking.

'The focus was on a central system, so everybody could be put together, receive electricity and heating from a central point. Everything was about control.'

One of the unwitting results of the bulldozing of old Bucharest was that half a million stray dogs, once pets of the 40,000 people thrown out of their homes, were released onto the city streets. Dog wars ensued until only the fittest survived, running the streets in packs.

Bogdan turns down the long boulevard that runs the length of the Centru Civic. Having learnt from his architects that the Champs-Elysées was the longest boulevard in Europe, Ceausescu demanded one longer and wider.

They dutifully delivered the Bulevardul Unirii, 32 feet wider and about 300 feet longer than its Parisian counterpart.

We sit and take a coffee in a crescent of stone-clad, classical pastiche colonnades on the side of what has now been rechristened Victory Boulevard. Bogdan agrees that after Ceausescu's fall things didn't change overnight. The old communists remained in power and not long after his death seven people were killed and 300 injured when they brought in miners to break up pro-democracy rallies in the capital. But now, despite the fact that two million Romanians are currently working in Spain and Italy, the economy is reviving and Bucharest is in the middle of a construction boom. A new generation of young film directors, who have won prizes in Cannes and Berlin recently, give Bogdan great hope. The press is free again and he welcomes the prospect of joining the European Union.

Both Bogdan and Emil talked of the importance of sport to the national morale and we have managed to secure an audience with the man who owns the most successful football club in Romania, Steaua Bucharest, winners of the European Cup in 1986.

It's rare to get a face-to-face meeting with such a stellar figure as George 'Gigi' Becali, and Bogdan is cautious.

'He's highly uneducated. Just a shepherd. He sold sheep, now he sells real estate.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-two: Bucharest
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Bucharest
  • Book page no: 150

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