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Legend has it that Bucharest was founded by a shepherd named Bucur (bucurie; literally ‘joy’) who built a church on the right bank of the Dâmboviţa River.

The city, which lies on the Wallachian plains between the Carpathian foothills and the Danube River, was settled by Geto-Dacians as early as 70 BC. By 1459 a princely residence and military citadel had been established under the chancellery of infamous Prince Vlad Ţepeş. By the end of the 17th century, the city was the capital of Wallachia and ranked among southeastern Europe’s wealthiest cities. Bucharest became the national capital in 1862, as it lay on the main trade route between east and west.

The early 20th century was Bucharest’s golden age. Large neoclassical buildings sprang up, fashionable parks were laid out and landscaped on Parisian models and, by the end of the 1930s, Bucharest was known throughout Europe as ‘Little Paris’.

Bombing by the Allies during WWII, coupled with a 1940 earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale, destroyed much of Bucharest’s prewar beauty. In March 1977 a second major earthquake claimed 1391 lives and flattened countless buildings. Ceauşescu’s criminal redevelopment of the city marked the final death knell of Romania’s elegant past.

The revolution of 1989 ripped the city to shreds. Although still haunted by its bloody history, Bucharest is recovering from its painful rebirth with contemporary building projects, the cull of snarling street dogs, care of street children who once roamed the city, crime prevention measures and an optimism born of hard-won freedom. Yet there’s still much to do and Bucharest’s future is as uncertain as it is exciting.

These days, as Bucharest finally assumes its status as a new EU capital, abandoned cranes remain next to abandoned projects from Ceauşescu buildings, while new ones tower over glittering new hotels or office buildings. A lot of people bump elbows in the tight space – Bucharest is Europe’s most crowded capital, with over 8000 people per sq kilometre, about 10 times more packed than Paris.

Witnessing History

Ceauşescu stepped onto the balcony. He started talking about Timişoara, about stamping down the first wave of protest against him. He told us it would get better; 10,000 lei more for studying; crazy lies. First people were murmuring; the voices from the crowd around me started saying ‘Down with Ceauşescu!’ Then the voices got louder. I heard myself shout. The sounds of bullets shattered the air. We heard shooting and I ran, I didn’t know where to. They had killed people. Troops were loading bodies into trucks. I escaped but later heard that they’d barricaded people into University Square. Students sat down in front of the tanks but the tanks just rolled over them. They were hemmed in like animals, with no escape and gunned down. One thousand people perished in that square that night. It was our darkest hour.

Cornelui, eyewitness on the night of 21 December 1989

On the outskirts of Bucharest the tanks rolled towards the city centre, the crunch of their tracks and the heavy labouring of heavy outdated machinery adding to the menace that had filled the grey skies for days. When the gun turrets lay still, the soldiers who defected over to their people stood out of the tanks and smiled. People threw flowers at the tanks and gave crews meagre offerings of food. The elation at having overthrown decades of oppression was hitting home – it was a humbling experience. People walked around wearing Romanian flags draped over their heads, the centre circle which bore an Imperial crest cut out. Over the next few days I struck out from the journalists’ enclave of the Hotel Inter-Continental to see the Paris of the East. But fear took a long time to subside. The TV station – perhaps unprepared for the first moments of liberty – played Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, followed by a Lisa Stansfield concert. It only added to the surreal feel of Bucharest.

Journalist Danny Buckland, who covered the revolution in Romania for London’s Daily Star