Bucharest – Bratislava meets Cairo, as one wag said – knows what it wants
from its energetic mayor Adriean Videanu – a metro where the trains
don’t stop in the middle of the tunnel, roads free of metre deep
axle-wrecking potholes and, in the north-west of the city, a sewage
system. What it’s got is a visionary leader whose plans to make
Bucharest great are freaking people out.

Last week a brace of parliamentary party leaders condemned his plan to
drive a new boulevard through the centre of Bucharest, a road that
would cut through the enormous – and currently wild and untended –
gardens of the parliamentary palace.

Big projects attract opposition everywhere, but Bucharest has
especially brutal memories of the last urban visionary – Nicolae
Ceausescu, who demolished a quarter of the old city in the 1980s and
built an enormous district of eight-storey apartment buildings whose
ornamented, vaguely art-deco style can only be described as Italianate
North Korean.

At the centre of all this is the bizarre parliamentary palace – 350,000
square metres, larger than anything except the Pentagon. While it was
built, the people starved – Romania was exporting food to pay off IMF
debt. After the 1989 revolution there wasn’t enough dynamite in the
country to demolish it, as many people wished to do.

Now it houses parliament (and a lot of empty space), and is, perversely,
the city’s major tourist attraction. There’s nothing like it in Europe,
and it’s well worth a detour – an echoing Stalinist folly.

Many Bucharestians now say they’re proud of it. But once is enough.
“Bucharest is my love,” said Videanu, launching a photo essay book of the
city last month. Well love is blind, as they say, and lacks a sense of
smell. But I know what he means. The layers of history and life make
this place beautifully ugly, and it’s predictable that a mayor would
want to restore “Micul Paris” (Little Paris). Understandably, its
long-suffering population will settle for “less unliveable”.