Constanta and the Black Sea

Monday 24th September 2012, Mamaia, near Constanţa on the Black Sea
Yesterday we struggled out to the airport with our luggage using the trains. The walk to the station was the worst bit but we left ourselves heaps of time. We felt rather proud of ourselves as we worked out how to check ourselves in online and get our boarding cards printed out, then drop off our baggage. We are not used to airports, nor automated systems. It must be really scary for older people travelling alone without any understanding of the language! The only contact we had with a human was when we were checked going through security and she was the rudest person I’ve met for a very long time – thank goodness.

With well over an hour to kill and our water confiscated we shared a cup of coffee at £6 and waited for something to eat on the plane. Fat chance! Half a cheese sandwich and a glass of wine but no water. At Bucharest we were met, loaded into a bus to wait for other delegates arriving on different flights and eventually brought down here to Mamaia on the Black Sea where we arrived in darkness around 8.30pm after nearly 4 hours driving along a motorway across the most empty landscape we’ve ever seen. I am just so glad we didn’t decide to drive here ourselves, and so glad we discovered some of the really stunning parts of Romania up in Transylvania and Moldavia on our earlier visits. What we experienced last night was the endless flat landscape of the Danube plain as it nears its delta. It looks as if it should be fertile and productive but now it is just fields of stubble with the occasional flocks of sheep roaming freely guarded by a shepherd and a couple of savage dogs. Otherwise the landscape is flat and deserted without a tree or building for mile after mile. Once we saw at a distance a horse and cart and along the motorway were a few service areas where wild dogs hung around hopeful of scraps. At one of these we stopped for a loo break. Cans of drink were on sale but we had no Romanian lei to buy anything. So by the time we arrived last night we were parched, having drunk almost nothing since breakfast, and our tummies were groaning with hunger.

Once we’d checked in our first priority was three refills of buffet meals and two bottles of water each. After that we were better able to notice our surroundings.

So, this is an annual international conference on the history of the book and one of this year’s themes is popular literature. Ian has been invited to speak, along with over 100 delegates from around the world. His theme will be folksong tradition in South West England and the work of Sabine Baring-Gould in collecting the words and music, relating the oral tradition to printed texts. We have, since we retired, been involved with SBGs personal library at Lew Trenchard Manor on Dartmoor where much of his work was undertaken in the 19th century recording the songs of local farmhands and labourers.

The language of the conference is primarily French. Ian’s talk is tomorrow and he’s still undecided whether to give it in English or French. Apart from the section organiser, whom we know through Ian’s work on Alain’s papers and the book trade in Lower Normandy, there is one other person we know here. At the service area on our way here yesterday we bumped into Paul, a former work colleague of mine from Exeter University Library. Like us he is now retired and attending conferences for interest rather than work. He will be talking on reports by English prisoners held captive by Barbary pirates in Morocco and Algiers in the 18th century. After our recent foray along the coast of High Barbary this should be a paper of personal interest for us.

This hotel is a different world from the Romania we have come to know during previous visits to the country. It is owned by the nation’s celebrated football star Gheorghe Hagi who lingers around in the foyer of an evening in case any of us want our photo taken with him. Actually, and unsurprisingly, most of us had no idea who he was. The hotel is one of the largest and smartest to be found on this barren spit of land lying between the lagoon and the sea. It’s full of marble corridors, gleaming chrome and dark wood. Our apartment looks almost big enough to hold the conference in! We have two massive beds piled high with white linen on brown suede bases with decorative satin cushions. Walls are hung with large mirrors, we have two televisions, a safe for our valuables, a bathroom from a style magazine with lots of fluffy white towels and bottles of expensive bath oils, and our own lounge with armchairs and a balcony with table and chairs. Hugo Boss has shares in the hotel and is offering us a discount on his clothing if purchased in Constanţa or Bucharest.

Hotel Iaki, Mamaia

Because I am not an official delegate here we are paying my travel and food costs and those of upgrading to a double room. I expected to be off exploring the beaches, shops and maybe going in to Constanţa, which is reputed to be an interesting old town. I have only paid therefore for evening meals and will not be joining Ian for lunch. However, there really is nothing of interest outside the hotel – just a four lane highway and a ribbon of hotels stretching in either direction, almost all of them closed now for the season. So at breakfast I snaffled a couple of rolls, butter, cheese and jam and will survive on those until supper. In any case, the 22 euros the travel company is charging for lunch is next to criminal in a country where much of the population wouldn’t earn that much for a full day’s work! We’ve never paid prices like that in Romania before.

But this is not Romania really. It could be anywhere. When I thanked one of the staff in Romanian for pouring my coffee she looked completely taken aback.

After the opening ceremony of the conference I left Ian to it and went out for a walk, braving the traffic to cross the highway to the lagoon. Across the water there are chimneys and the outline of factories seen through the morning haze. The grass is brown and weedy and scattered with broken glass, plastic bags and used tissues. The lagoon is thick with green slime.

Back on the seaward side of the spit a side road led me down to the sea. I couldn’t reach the beach, the way being blocked by a half constructed hotel complex that had run out of money – there are many others like that along the spit. Eventually I found a way through builder’s rubble and reached the beach. Every hotel facing the sea seems to own its particular stretch of beach and ropes the area off. Thus to stroll along the white sand I had to hug the tide-line of the Black Sea – so called I think because of the detritus of plastic bottles and other rubbish washed up along the beach.

Black Sea heaven, Mamaia
Our hotel seen from the private beach, Mamaia
Tasteful fountain in the courtyard of our hotel, Mamaia

There were a few overweight (and presumably wealthy) Romanians on sun loungers taking late summer breaks and a scattering of grass fronded sunshades but otherwise the Coca-cola signs offered an empty promise. Everywhere is closed up for the season. Even the buses into Constanţa have finished so the only way seems to be by taxi or foot. The last a hideous proposition in such heat along a multi-lane highway. In any case, we have no money. The cash machine at the hotel does not like our card. Surrounding hotels are mainly closed up so the nearest ATMs appear to be in Constanţa. We have no money for a taxi. Catch 22!

So I’ve returned to my temporary gilded cage to catch up on blogging and enjoy my bread and jam! All part of life’s rich tapestry.

Tuesday 25th September 2012, continued
Around 3.30pm Ian sneaked off from the sessions for a few hours exploring Constanţa with me. Our complaint about being unable to obtain any money from the Bankomat had been taken to heart by Mr. Hagi who’d replenished it with all his spare banknotes. So at last we had some lei and set off in search of transport into Constanţa. A passing maxi-taxi (private enterprise bus) stopped for us and for two lei each (about 40 pence) took us down the strip to the gates of the city. From here we decided to walk, unaware of the size of Constanţa – about 400,000 people. There was a gentle sea breeze and shady trees making it actually rather pleasant as we walked towards the old town. The roads though are very busy and very wide. Traffic lights give you a few seconds intermittently to cross the road and they are definitely needed. There is a constant squeal of tyres and brakes and emergency services keep sirens permanently blaring. We quickly remembered how bad pavements are in Romania with tree roots, dislodged cobbles, remains of rusting spikes and posts sticking up, missing drain covers, unfenced workmen’s excavations, missing steps and loose decomposed tarmac.

Potholed pavement, Constanţa

However, there is enough to see – provided you stand still to look around you – to make a walk through the city well worth while. The more recent suburbs are unremarkable blocks of flats and abandoned speculative building but the older town, near the port area, has many once very attractive eclectic and art nouveau buildings now sadly decayed and neglected – though many still inhabited. Here and there attempts are being made to restore individual buildings. One day perhaps the area will regain its former charm, but it’s more a case of reconstruction than restoration.

Decayed grandeur, Constanţa
In process of reconstruction, Constanţa
Shabby residential accommodation in the old town, Constanţa

We passed or visited a couple of Romanian orthodox churches – such a contrast to the Baroque of southern Germany. Inside the walls are completely covered in large icons painted directly onto the walls while the iconostasis has paintings covered by glass in heavy gilded frames. We walked on thick carpet. Chairs and furnishings were heavy and the church unlit. There was an atmosphere of deep devotion as people stood praying in front of the iconostasis, leaning forward from time to time to kiss the glass in front of the face of one of the saints.

Romanian Orthodox church, Constanţa
Romanian Orthodox church, Constanţa
Opera and Ballet, Constanţa
Socialist monument, Constanţa
Ethnographic museum, Constanţa

We also found two mosques, still actively used today by the Turkish minority. The delightful little Hünkar or Geamia Hunchiar Mosque (1867-68) was built for Turks fleeing the Crimean wars in 1853-56 who settled in Constanţa.

Geamia Hunchiar Mosque, 1868

The Great Mahmudiye Mosque (1910) serves the Turkish and Tatar communities along this stretch of the Romanian coast (Dobrogea region). For 4 lei (80 pence) we left our shoes at the entrance to explore the interior. Described as a mixture of Romanian and Byzantine architecture the mosque has a huge Turkish carpet laid out inside. We’ve read that it is the largest and heaviest Turkish carpet in Europe. (Larger than those in Istanbul and Edirne?) We climbed the tower, all 140 steps of it spiralling upwards to become steeper and narrower as we reached the top. The muezzin climbs the stairs 5 times a day and still has breath enough left to call the faithful to prayer! (So they say, but perhaps he has a recording.)

Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa
Interior of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa
Model of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa
Black Sea seen from the minaret of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa
View from the minaret of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa
Port seen from the minaret of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa
Ovid Square seen from the minaret of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa

From the top of the minaret we had a stunning view over the old town and the port area. From here the charms of the city showed to definite advantage as the scruffiness at floor level did not detract from the overall architecture of the surrounding buildings. I was particularly delighted with the House with Lions which I’d hardly noticed down on the ground. From the minaret one sees that the 19th century building features an impressive lion at each corner.

House with Lions seen from the minoret of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, Constanţa

Constanţa was known in Greek and Roman times as Tomis. Founded around 600BC it was to here, on the very edge of the Roman Empire, that the poet Ovid was banished by the Emperor Augustus in 8AD. It’s not clear why, and even Ovid seemed unsure. He hated Tomis, far from the culture and libraries of Rome making it impossible to continue his epic poetry. Instead he wrote mournful letters to friends and to his wife pleading for them to intercede with the Emperor so that he could return. In fact he eventually died in Tomis in AD 17 having written reams of poetry lamenting his fate and expressing how unutterably miserable he was. He does have my sympathy. A few days is okay but I’d hate to be obliged to live here forever. How, I wonder, would he have felt if he could see the town today. It is broken, dirty, neglected and generally ugly. Surely it must have been more beautiful 2000 years ago!

Statue of Ovidiu – seen in Bucharest but looking suitably miserable

Some of the Roman remains of Tomis can be found set out in a park in the heart of the present city of Constanţa.

Remains of Tomis, Constanţa
Roman Forum, Tomis, Constanţa

The centre of the old town is Ovid Square with a statue of the great poet (1887) on a plinth in front of the museum of history and antiquities - a lovely building, once the City Hall, that is sadly decayed. Nearby we discovered the remains of an ancient Greek cemetery, the monuments displaying very touching epitaphs about the lives of those that lay buried there.

Ovid, 1887, Constanţa
Museum of History and Archaeology, Constanţa
Tombstone in the Greek cemetery at Tomis, 2nd-3rd century AD, Constanţa
Text of the tombstone in the Greek cemetery at Tomis, 2nd-3rd century AD, Constanţa

The port area has always been of major importance. It is the largest port on the Black Sea coast.
Above the port and on the hillside leading down to it are the remains of shops, houses, workshops and a huge and colourful mosaic from the 4 century AD (though we did not visit the mosaic).

On the sea front near the port stands the wonderful art nouveau casino, a splendid example of the style. This too though, is neglected, ravaged by the sea and the salt so that it is rusted and losing its facing.

Casino, Constanţa
Casino, Constanţa

Just back from the sea is the orthodox cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul (1883-1885). Damaged in WW2 it was restored in the 1950s. When we were there two priests were walking around the building beating a plank at each corner. We saw a nun doing something similar when we were in Moldavia at the painted monastery of Moldovista. We have since discovered it to be a tradition born from the time they were not allowed to ring bells during the period of Turkish occupation.

Romanian Orthodox Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, Constanţa
Beating a plank of wood, Romanian Orthodox Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, Constanţa

By this time we were footsore and weary. I was also very hungry having missed lunch. We could have taken the easy option and stopped a taxi. One even pulled up to offer its services. We were determined though to use public transport, eventually finding which bus would take us back to the edge of the town. The driver signed that we should have bought tickets before getting on the bus – presumably from a newspaper stand but we’d not realised. He shrugged and signed to us to just forget it, thus giving us a free ride across the city. At the terminus, between the lagoon and the sea, we set off walking down the strip towards our hotel until we flagged down one of the maxi-taxis crowding in with people returning from work. The driver dropped us at the hotel entrance. Again our fare was a mere 40 pence each!

After showers we felt better. Supper was exactly the same as last night but more than welcome we were so hungry. Our neighbour, from India, commented he’d not wish to stay for a week if this was the pattern of the restaurant. I left Ian chatting about the derivations of Indo-European languages and other obscure topics to return to our room to catch up on this report.

Tuesday 25th September 2012, Mamaia, near Constanţa on the Black Sea
On the way in to breakfast this morning Mr. Hagi was in the foyer dressed in his tracksuit watching videos of himself scoring goals. Expectantly he wished me good morning. Was he hoping to have his photo taken with me I wondered?

Fortunately by the time breakfast was over he’d gone, thus missing me passing with my poacher’s pockets filled with bread rolls, butter, sliced cheese, a selection of cold meats, a boiled egg, a croissant and two slices of cake. I was so hungry by supper time yesterday I became quite ruthless about taking my breakfast “remains” with me today! There is a fridge in our room, full of booze and a note warning that if I store my own food in there I will be charged 10 euros a day. The cleaning lady must check it when she comes in to polish the wash basin. Maybe I should hide my spoils in the safe so as to avoid a penalty point when she reports back to Mr. Hagi!

As it was, I started breakfast today with scrambled eggs, sausage, tomatoes and Romanian red peppers with olives, orange juice and coffee. There was an excellent selection of food to suit most nationalities and it was amusing to work out where people came from by what they chose from the buffet. Sometimes however the plates were an eclectic mix of croissants, cucumber, sausage, goat’s cheese and marble cake.

Tuesday 25th September 2012 continued
This afternoon Ian gave his paper. As most of the audience spoke French he delivered it, pretty competently in my opinion, in French. I am allowed to feel rather proud of him I think. He replied to several questions at the end.

Ian giving his paper, Mamaia

For much of the rest of the day I’ve been working in our room or attending some of the presentations, though I confess to not understanding over much, mainly because there are delegates from all over the world here and they are using English or French to present their papers on some very obscure topics and sometimes it can be very difficult to know what on earth they are on about! It really is a tower of Babel here!

This evening is our last night here. Everyone has done their stuff and some of the naughty ones have even skived off into town for a couple of hours to look at Constanţa. From now on delegates can forget about automated issue systems, digitisation and archiving of the literature of ethnic German minorities in Eastern Europe and even cultural transfer in the late Ottoman Balkans – the effects of interethnic relations on language, religion and music.

This evening all 100+ delegates climbed aboard three coaches and went off to a neighbouring hotel with a ballroom to let down their hair and dance the night away to such amazingly naff songs as YMCA sung in Romanian!

Greeks, Romanians, Germans, Swiss, Bulgarians, French, Russians, Spaniards, Indians, Italians, Brazilians and Americans all mixed merrily in together for the gala dinner served with impeccable inefficiency by the delightful young Romanian waiters who seemed unable to tell water from wine or white from red.

Wednesday 26th September 2012 Bucharest
The younger guests were still dancing when we took the coach back to our hotel at gone midnight. This morning several of us were feeling slightly jaded as we finished an early breakfast, packed our luggage and climbed back into the coaches at 8.15am for the long drive down to the Danube delta. We’d been greatly looking forward to this, expecting to see many birds on their migratory route for the winter.

Our journey was across a landscape of brown flat earth with nothing to break the monotony except the occasional line of electricity pylons striding the countryside, thousands of wind generators on the horizon or the remains of crumbling concrete pipelines used for irrigation, left over from the Communist era – ugly, broken and likely to remain for centuries to come. To be fair, the land is very fertile and all the crops have been gathered in leaving nothing but ploughed earth and stubble. Now nomadic shepherds are grazing their flocks on the meagre gleanings. Not a shrub or tree breaks the monotony of the landscape to offer protection of any sort from wind, rain or searing heat to the shepherd. And it has been very hot! Up into the 30s.

Landscape of South East Romania (Dobrogea)
Landscape of South East Romania (Dobrogea)

As we eventually neared the arm of the Danube where we were to join our boat the scenery changed to massive plantations of vines stretching away as far as we could see and beyond.

We boarded our boats at Tulcea and benefitted from a very friendly, English speaking guide with an excellent knowledge of the delta’s environment. Unfortunately we got less from the trip than we’d hoped. Large motorboats need to stick to the broader arms of the delta and for conservation reasons are not allowed to enter the lakes which is where the birds and wild life are to be found. In the channels birds can hear the boats approaching and move away long before we reach them. The banks are thick with reeds – exported and used for thatching – and white willow. They soon become monotonous and after four hours we’d had more than enough of them. The only birds we saw were ones common to England anyway – herons, water fowl etc though apparently there is an enormous population of white pelicans.

Danube delta showing network of channels
Danube delta at Tulcea in Dobrogea
Ferry boat on the Danube
Conference delegates on board
Tulcea seen from the Danube
A rare photo of us. Danube cruise
Turkish tanker making its way up the Danube from the Back Sea
Reed beds in the Danube delta
White willow crowding the banks along the channels, Danube delta
Passing along one of the channels, Danube delta
Entrance to one of the lakes, Danube delta
Typical scenery in the Danube delta

We approached right to the border with the Ukraine but had to turn the boat round and return the way we’d come as it is illegal to cross the border without an expensive visa.

If Ukraine your neck you can just about see the border beyond the trees, Danube delta

Of course, the Danube delta is where the Russian sturgeon or beluga returns to breed. It is hunted for its eggs (caviar). They are considered a great delicacy – the food of the Tsars. They are worth a fortune apparently and the sturgeon has been so overfished it is at risk of extinction in the wild. They seem to reach an enormous size and the water level in the lagoons and channels of the estuary is almost the lowest it has been in living memory. There has been almost no rain in the delta region for months.

We were served a lunch of fish on board with pickled raw cabbage and beetroot. We shared a table below deck with some Russian and Romanian conference delegates. Our Romanian neighbour insisted we should all try the locally produced Romanian white wine known as Aligote. It was excellent with the fish and had a strong, almost resinous flavour.

By the time we returned to Tulcea it was late afternoon and we set off on the long ride up to Bucharest. Personally I slept most of the way. The landscape didn’t merit watching and anyway, darkness falls very early here, even though we are two hours ahead of Britain. We reached our hotel out near the airport around 11pm. – too late for supper.

This was once the yacht of Ceaucescu when he visited the area for holidays, Tulcea

I’ve just realised that during our endeavour to trace the Danube from its source to its delta it has never occurred to us before that although the river may be called the Blue Danube it is black at both ends! It starts in the Black Forest and ends in the Black Sea!!

Related Links
High Barbary
Painted monastery of Moldovista, Romania