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New Europe

Day Sixty-three: Bucharest

Ceausescu's Palace 
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Walking the intimate corridors of the second largest administrative building in the world. Only the Pentagon is bigger.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAll the materials are from within Romania, all the marble, all the miles of oak and cherry wood, everything, was built, carved and installed by Romanian craftsmen.

And after all that, Ceausescu never lived here.

What does surprise me, but probably shouldn't, is that the people of Bucharest have not only become reconciled to this monster in their midst, but are becoming quite proud of it. Its grotesque scale has made it a major tourist attraction and sensible people like Bogdan and his colleagues, far from wanting it removed, are looking at ways to rent out their Parliament building for conferences, balls, trade exhibitions, anything to help pay an overheads bill which includes 200,000 euros a month for lighting alone.

It's getting dark as we plough through dense, stodgy traffic on the way to the home of a Romanian and international legend. In the 1970s Ilie Nastase was one of the most consistently successful tennis players in the world. He took the French and US Open titles and though he never won Wimbledon he was runner-up to Stan Smith in 1972, and Björn Borg in 1976.

It's not so much the tennis that makes me want to meet him, but the fact that in an increasingly managed, performance-led sporting world it's good to remember people like Nastase who played in their own, often profligate, way, unpredictable, passionate, over-excited, rude and wonderful to watch.

Unlike Gigi Becali, Nastase lives in comfort, but certainly not splendour, in one of a row of cheek-by-jowl detached houses in a busy suburban avenue. His house is like a mini rural castle, with turrets and wide eaves and brickwork painted an inexplicable shade of orange. The interior is even more eclectic, with carved wood, marble, Spanish wrought iron and veneered Chinoiserie milling around between sprayed concrete walls. There are pictures everywhere, mostly of 'Nasty' himself, arm round Muhammad Ali, or his former doubles partner Ion Tiriac; kissing lots of beautiful women. In one of them there's young Ilie, hair neatly brushed and wearing a blazer, outside the White House with Richard Nixon.

The man himself is no let-down. He's just turned sixty, has a wife of thirty and a baby about the same age as my recently born grandson. His moon face has broadened out but his hair is still as dark, lank and long as it was when he shocked the All England Club, and his eyes still as mischievous. He lopes about restlessly, showing me this and that, talking about the various business deals he's involved with, what his children are doing. It occurs to me that this is what it must have been like facing him on court.

He pours liberal glasses of Veuve Clicquot.

'My wife is importing it.'

In true Nastase style the glasses have no bases and have to be hung in plant-like metal holders.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-three: Bucharest
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Bucharest
  • Book page no: 153

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