By the Black Sea

James Morris

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.


  • 30 August 2016 at 2:34pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Having just returned from a trip that started in Bucharest, I can make a few notes on James Morris’s’ piece. On the lower Danube river trip that my wife and I took, we became become part of a traveling gerontocracy, some of whom were lame and halt. But we did get to some interesting parts of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia, and wound up in Budapest – lacking a knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet makes a self-organized trip (busses, trains, trams, etc.) hard for old people who have done this on their own elsewhere. You can add days to the front end if you wish to see some of Romania outside its capital city, and the options for us were either a few days in Transylvania or a side trip to Constanţa on the Black Sea. We chose the former. But, given the heat and humidity in this part of the Balkans, you can understand why those who can flee to the seashore. For the people of Bucharest it’s a short car or bus ride (I don’t know about train service), maybe two hours if the traffic conditions are good. But an equal number go the mountains (the Carpathians) to cool off, only a 90-minute drive to the north of Bucharest.

    Since the years of the “changes” (starting in 1989, with a note that in terms of “transparent governance” little changed in Romania when Ilescu took over after the army executed the “dullard duo dictators”, the Ceauseşcus), a good deal of the country has undergone renovation and new construction, and the Transylvanian mountain resort towns look good (and very Germanic, as parts of them once were, just as parts were “Transylvanian-Magyar”). Braşov itself was equally well-known as Kronstadt, and the buildings surrounding the old town’s main square have the look of “late Habsburg” architecture and coloration (the stucco panels between the articulated surface decorations being in a variety of pastel shades). Until 1918 Braşov/Kronstadt belonged to the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy. In spite of its dismal, almost comically bad military performance during WWI, Romania got its maximum land-grab wish-list fulfilled, including Transylvania, courtesy of the Western allies.

    Morris mentions Ceauşescu’s 1974 visit to North Korea, which had a profound and disastrous effect upon his simple-minded thinking about urban redevelopment and “urbanizing” the peasant-farmer population in so-called “agrocities”, which entailed relocation after the destruction of hundreds of hamlets and villages. Pyongyang’s long rows of big concrete and glass towers, flanking wide, empty boulevards impressed him as a style that might guarantee posterity’s respect and admiration for his new vision. It had the opposite effect, of course. The major project was the endless construction of the “House of the People”, which required the destruction of a large neighborhood formerly occupied by leafy streets, nice homes with gardens, courtyards, small parks, and churches – they all got demolished in order to make this monstrous project possible, which included the bleak prospect of an axial superhighway. The Romanians still don’t know what to do with the damn thing – it does house numerous government offices at present, but it is full of large, ornate ceremonial halls that are seldom or ever used. It’s too new and expensively built (marble cladding, stone-carved embellishments, brass fittings, immense Oriental carpets, monster chandeliers, etc.) to knock down, and even if it were, it would probably be impossible to re-create the “little Paris” neighborhoods that the dim-witted duo destroyed.

    You can get a feel for the impetus behind this project, and all the woes it caused, in Edward Behr’s joint biography of Nicolae and Elena, “Kiss the Hand you Cannot Bite”, published a few years after their era came to an end. On the other hand, pre-1974 Ceauşescu was reasonably well-thought-of within Romania, due to his status as a renegade “nationalist communist” and his (and the Party’s) efforts to supply housing and basic services after the destruction of WWII. His last 15 years in power negated this entirely as he literally gutted and starved the country in order to pay off “sovereign debt”.

    Like Tito, he thought he had earned the right to a magnificent home and numerous resort homes (especially hunting lodges), and some of these were made available to his Party cronies as well. The one funny story we heard about an aspect of this was about the royal family’s beautiful castle and estate at Peleş (on the northern flank of the mountains). This belonged to the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen family that had been invited in to rule the post-1878 new state of Romania (King Michael I, the last dynast, lives on in exile; his wife died a few weeks ago). A group of conservators who were looking after the estate convinced Ceauşescu that the premises would be unsuitable for conversion and renovation as a hunting lodge for his and the Party’s use. They made up a story that due to disuse and moisture a life-threatening fungus pervaded the building, even behind and inside its walls. They knew Ceausescu was a hypochondriac, and their ploy worked.

  • 6 September 2016 at 6:33pm
    Gardiner Linda says:
    I'm reminded of a stay in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Zlatni Pyassatsi (Golden Sands) in 1973. The hotels and restaurants were firmly divided into three classes. The first-class restaurant had a chamber orchestra playing, the second-class a string quartet, the third-class a mere pianist. All of course in concert attire, and the repertoire strictly Viennese. Apart from a handful of Westerners the clientele were Bulgarians and other Communist bloc holidaymakers, and it was explained that a reward for superior job performance (did someone actually say exceeding one's quota? I think so) was a paid holiday. The accommodations and food were excellent (vastly better than your average British resort at the time, though the weather of course helped), and the setup was a version of Club Med: you bought (or were given) so many nights in one class of hotel, which determined the level of comfort of the accommodation, but everything else was flexible: you were handed a certain number of vouchers to cover food, drinks, beach equipment, sailing boat rental, whatever, good in any of the establishments in the resort. So one could (for instance) stay in the class 3 hotel and eat in the class 1 restaurant, or save on food by picnicking and spend all the vouchers on sailing lessons and nights in the bar. The beach and the water were clean and not overpopulated. I wonder what it looks like now - probably much like Constanța-Mamaia up the coast, where you can't see the beach for wall-to-wall sunbathers and the water quality is a disgrace.