By the Black Sea
In winter, the Black Sea earns its name. The waters churn and it’s easy to imagine how the Evangelia ran aground in October 1968, leaving its rusting carcass to become a tourist attraction off the Romanian coastline, a few hundred metres from the Costinești shore. The resort was still under development then – the Romanian Communist Party intended it to be a summer camp – and in winter a dull gloom dims the colourful buildings. It’s empty much of the year; a problem that was noted at the time of construction. The first wave of Communist-era resorts were built in the late 1950s and 1960s without concern for expense, but in 1967 Ceaușescu demanded building costs be halved: ‘We must take into account that these hotels are not being built in Bucharest, Brașov, or other parts, but at the seaside, where they remain unused for eight months of the year.’
Out of season – from October to May – stray dogs run in the streets and chase passing cars, and not a single hotel is open in the interconnected resorts of Olimp, Neptun, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn, which line the coast between Costinești and Mangalia. But in the early 1960s they held out a promise of health and relaxation as modern as anything in the West. The architecture was ambitious, and the experience affordable: two-week summer holidays were enshrined in law, and holiday packages were subsidised by unions and the Party.
A picture in Enchanting Views: Romanian Black Sea Tourism Planning and Architecture of the 1960s and 1970s shows the shopping centre in Mamaia at night, illuminated by fluorescent tubes. In the centre, two women in long patterned skirts look at traditional craft objects; on the left a couple gaze at musical instruments. The man wears a dark suit and the woman a chic white dress that cinches at the west – a Dior look. It’s a stage-managed image, but it points to the contradictions of Communist Romania in the 1960s, when the country was not sealed off from the West. Tourism was a government priority. A British Pathé film from 1964 advertised Romania’s attractions, describing it as a ‘vivacious young girl flirting with Western ideas’, and promised that Black Sea resorts were ‘in swing with the best Western traditions’. It showed children playing in the water and women in bikinis lounging on Mamaia’s beaches.
The more upmarket hotels had Comturist shops that offered Western clothes and cosmetics to customers paying in foreign currency, and rock and roll songs played in nightclubs and on hotel terraces. There were benefits for Romanian tourists too. Adelina Ștefan writes in Enchanting Views that the black market thrived on the resorts’ nudist beaches, which were less strictly controlled and gave Romanians unmediated contact with foreign holiday-makers.
The resorts could undermine official ideology, but they also served Party interests. Juliana Maxim notes that 85 per cent of the buildings in Bucharest were single-storey when the first resorts opened, and ‘a summer stay in the airy, efficient, sun-drenched and collective rest houses was a powerful way to convince the residents of the advantages, even the delights, of life in a multi-unit high-rise’. Romania abandoned its internationalist stance after Ceaușescu’s 1971 visit to North Korea and the publication of his July Theses. A decade later, the decision to repay the country’s foreign debts as quickly as possible led to harsh austerity and shortages. Foreign tourist numbers dwindled, and Party apparatchiks exerted ever greater control over the best hotels and the chains of beachfront villas.
I discovered recently that a friend grew up in one of these resorts during the 1990s. She told me there were three apartment blocks in Olimp that were inhabited year-round, and her family moved there when she was nine. Capitalism brought the rise of the private rental market. ‘The way it worked,’ she said, ‘was that you had a sign with the word cazare [accommodation] written on it, and you would hold it out when the trains arrived.’ Residents agreed a fee, passed their keys to holidaymakers, and went to stay with relatives for the summer. But over time, fewer visitors came, and those that did arrived later and later in the season. Alina moved to Constanța for high school in 2003, and by then her parents had stopped letting the apartment. The family moved to Denmark when Romania joined the European Union.