It's been said Romania's Palace of the Parliament is so huge, it can be seen from every corner of Bucharest. Approaching by coach, I struggle to take photos that even begin to capture the full scope of the massive white building.
The ego-fuelled vision of former Communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena, it was his dream to build the largest and most lavish administrative building in the world. Started in 1984 and still unfinished, it is a colossal, visual reminder of the dangers of unchecked power.
Neighbourhoods were razed to make way for it, an estimated 40,000 residents were displaced and thousands of labourers put to work, many against their will. Never mind all that; what Nicolae and Elena wanted, they got.
Built at an estimated cost of three billion euros, it is thought to be the most expensive building in the world. It's also the heaviest, weighed down by a million cubic metres of the finest Romanian marble.
A retractable glass ceiling over the ballroom was designed so that Ceaucescu could arrive at the palace by helicopter. More than 1100 rooms are decorated with rich mosaics, priceless carpets and ornate stained-glass windows. A nuclear bunker eight levels below ground was to keep him safe in the event of war. A couple of years later, the world was horrified at leaked images of desperately malnourished children in Bucharest's orphanages.
With a floor area of 365,000 square metres and an above-ground height of 84 metres (it extends for an additional 90 metres below ground), it's huge, though not the largest government building in the world. That title goes to the Pentagon.
Constructed on land that had been severely damaged in a 1977 earthquake, the palace was designed to withstand quakes measuring up to 8 on the Richter scale. "That's why I'm working here," says Christian, our tour guide. "I'm afraid of earthquakes."
As he leads us up the grand red-carpeted staircase, he tells us to smile and wave for the security cameras. The Communist regime ended in 1989, but eyes are still watching.
Another record the palace holds, according to Christian, is for the number of chandeliers it displays. Some are so large, a team of workers can climb inside to clean them.
"How many chandeliers do you think we have here?," he asks our tour group. "The correct answer is many. Someone started counting in 1996 and we lost him somewhere in the building."
Ultimately Ceaucescu was deposed and executed by firing squad before the building was completed. The nation's new leaders had tough decisions to make; 70 per cent of construction was finished, and it would be more costly to demolish than to see it through. If it couldn't be sold, the palace would become the costliest national Parliament building in the world.
The word went out to international buyers that they were open to offers. Rupert Murdoch put in a bid of US$1 billion, which was rejected as too low. It will surprise nobody to learn that Donald Trump was reportedly so taken by the building, he wanted to acquire it and turn it into a casino. The plan never eventuated. Some say his cheque didn't clear.
Kristie Kellahan travelled in Romania as a guest of Avalon Waterways.
Visitors are required to show their passports and pass a security checkpoint before entering the Palace of the Parliament. A guided visit is one of the optional shore excursions on Avalon Waterways' The Danube from the Black Sea to Budapest cruise.
Qatar Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Bucharest via Doha. See qatarairways.com.
Hotel Athenee Palace Hilton is one of Bucharest's finest hotels. With more than a century of history, it's been the scene of intriguing spy stories. Ask for a room overlooking the National Museum of Art.