BUCHAREST, Romania -- No parking spaces. Crippling traffic jams. Sky-high rents. Is this London, Rome, or Athens? No, it's Bucharest, where communism and capitalism have conspired to make it Europe's most crowded capital.
The crowding began when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu set out to industrialize Romania overnight by forcing peasants into factories and making them live in tiny apartments in the capital. The inflow continues today, as rootless young people come seeking their fortune.
Romanians "come here like it's Mecca, thinking that is enough to find yourself on the streets of Bucharest, and you'll have a family, a business, and everything," said Mariana Nica, a sociologist at the Urban and Metropolitan Planning Center.
Bucharest has more than 20,000 people per square mile -- not quite New York's 26,000 but way above Sofia, capital of neighboring Bulgaria, with 2,400, and nearly twice as crowded as Amsterdam.
The grand plan launched by Ceausescu in the 1970s meant that "people had to live as near as possible to the place where they worked," said Victoria Marinela Berza, the director of the Urban and Metropolitan Planning Center. "The Romanian had to be a sort of little robot, . . . to move as little as possible to save time and fuel and to produce."
More people moved in after Ceausescu and his regime were overthrown in 1989 and the country shifted toward a market economy.
Adrian Claudiu Popa, a 25-year-old doctor, lives in a college dorm and says chances for him to get his own place are slim on his monthly income of 5 million lei ($154). But he's determined to stay.
"Here I have more possibilities to become someone," he said. "Salaries are higher."
Since communism ended, Bucharest has wholeheartedly embraced Western ways -- two dozen McDonalds, Estee Lauder and Clinique in the perfumeries on the elegant Calea Victoriei boulevard, a cinema called the Hollywood Multiplex showing "Troy," "Spider-Man 2," and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
The traffic lights function more smoothly than a decade ago. Drivers flaunting their BMWs and Alfa Romeos often speed in built-up areas, and if their exploits turn fatal they are likely to turn up on accident-hungry evening television news.
Crime remains low but glue-sniffing children and drunks loiter around the Gara de Nord railroad station, young women with toddlers cadge change from tourists outside the Athenee Palace Hotel, and impoverished retirees wait outside food markets for handouts from generous customers.
While a far cry from the dark, dirty Bucharest of communist days, the city still bears the scars of Ceausescu's "systematization." Blocks and blocks of historic buildings were razed to make way for the ugly tenements that have cut a permanent scar on the face of what used to be known as the Paris of Eastern Europe.
At the same time, Ceausescu razed 15,000 buildings in the historic heart of Bucharest to make room for his ultimate folly -- a giant $1 billion palace with almost as much floor space as the Pentagon, and a fountain-lined avenue slightly wider than the Champs Elysees in Paris. That may be no coincidence; Romania's culture and language draw heavily from France.
The palace now houses Romania's parliament.
Legend has it that the city was named after a shepherd named Bucur who settled here. It was declared the capital in 1457 under Vlad the Impaler, the warrior ruler who inspired the Dracula legend.
Fast-forward 5 centuries to 21st-century Bucharest and its 2 million people.
Raluca Mihailovici, 22, works at a business in Union Square, one of the most crowded districts with 28,000 inhabitants per square mile. She lives with her parents and cannot see herself buying property.
"To live by myself, I must wait for my parents to retire and move to the countryside. There is no other option," she said.
A one-bedroom apartment rents for US $100 to $200, and monthly salaries are around $180.
Still, Bucharest has its advantages. Just 7 miles north of the center are woods and orchards.
"If you drive out of Bucharest to the countryside, you are out of the city very quickly because many people live in high-rise apartments," said Paul Wood, a 42-year-old British recruitment consultant who moved to Bucharest six years ago. "In London, it takes you ages before you see green spaces."