BUCHAREST — Twenty years after his execution by firing squad, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu still attracts the tourists despite lingering memories of his despotic regime.
Nowhere is that so marked as at the grandiose palace in central Bucharest that he had built at enormous human and financial cost to his long-suffering subjects.
Now Romania’s top attraction for foreign tourists, the House of the People boasts impressive dimensions — it has been called the world’s second biggest building after the Pentagon — and luxurious fittings.
The edifice, which also hosts the parliament, today draws more than 1,000 visitors a day in summer, mostly from Israel, France and Germany.
It is part of a trend, seen elsewhere in formerly communist eastern Europe such as eastern Germany, to capitalise on symbols of the Cold War past rather than condemning them to oblivion.
“This is the first tourist site I am visiting in Bucharest,” said Niels, a 27-year-old Dutch visitor. “I am very interested in the history of communism and this is an important part of this history.”
“Of course, all tourists link this building to Ceausescu,” Adina Mihai, a guide at the palace, told AFP, saying that they were impressed notably by its size.
That’s hardly surprising.
To erect the palace, covering seven square kilometres (2.7 square miles) of prime real estate, Ceausescu ordered the razing of much of the city’s historic district.
Around 40,000 people lost their homes and had to be relocated. One million cubic metres of marble was used, along with 900,000 cubic metres of wood and 200,000 square metres of carpet.
Two hundred architects and 20,000 other people worked day and night on the project, which started in 1984.
Yet five years later, when Ceausescu fled Bucharest on December 22 before being tried and executed on Christmas Day, only 60 percent of the palace had been completed.
The man who had ruled Romania with an iron rod for more than three decades, forging a powerful personality cult while impoverishing the nation, never got to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
“Whether you like it or not,” said Traian Badulescu, the spokesman of the Romanian Association of tourist operators, “the palace is becoming the symbol of Bucharest.”
He was one of those who were forced to relocate.
“I was seven years old. It is a trauma for a child to leave a nice house to go and live in a communist block of flats.
“It was a tragedy for a lot of people. Some even killed themselves but I do not hate the palace,” he told AFP.
Badulescu said such landmarks should be used despite their symbolism,
“It represents a negative part of our history but it should not be erased,” he said, noting that communist heritage is also pulling in tourists in Russia and Hungary.
About 150 kilometres (100 miles) from Bucharest is the normally quiet town of Scornicesti. But it now is also attracting tourists interested in the house where Ceausescu was born.
Built 100 years ago, it has no electricity and just three rooms: a bedroom where Ceausescu and his eight brothers and sisters slept, a tiny kitchen and a guest room where pictures of his parents and grandparents still hang.
The house is currently closed — the guide left for Spain — but will open again in the spring, Ceausescu’s nephew Emil Barbulescu said.
Barbulescu, who was a member of the feared Securitate secret police, lives next door and doesn’t hide his nostalgia for the days of old. At least then no one worried about what they would earn or eat the next day, he said.
That’s not what most Romanians think today, recalling the long queues just to buy basic necessities, as well as all-pervading fear and suspicion.
Barbulescu even plans to erect a statute of Ceausescu in Scornicesti.
The graves of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena are also a tourist draw in a Bucharest suburb, where they lie separated by an alley and marked with a simple cross and red star.
However the military barracks at Targoviste, where they met their end, can only be viewed from outside.
Official villas used by the late dictator are included in tourist packages. You can even sleep in one in Sighisoara, in central Romania.
Meanwhile in Bucharest, a restaurant opened recently counting on Ceausescu to bring in diners. Named La Scanteia, after the ruling party newspaper of the time, it has red walls, communist memorabilia… and suitably drab dishes.