Irish Independent, September 9th, 2012
It wasn’t quite the Romanian Riviera grand arrival we’d dreamt up: being plonked on the margins of the Constanta A4 motorway, surrounded by traffic chaos and billboards to a Balkan Ikea spin-off. However, after realizing our bus trip up from Bulgaria had been conveniently rescheduled en route, as an express service to the Ukraine, who were we (with no local language) to argue? Left in a plume of smoke, staring up at a sign for a give-away three piece suite, this was just the kind of portentous wanderlust hurdle my friend Carolyn and I relished however. And after a hike, an ATM search and a taxi ride to our hotel later, our Romanian Riviera adventure was finally about to kick off.
In the true spirit of the new-age traveller, we connect on the ground with a (Facebook) friend of a friend, to get an insider’s tour of Romania’s third city. We meet Adrian, a young Constanta native who moonlights as a concert violinist, outside the Gheorghe Hagi sports arena, where a big billed night of UFC has brought the bold, beautiful and burly of the city on to the streets. “You’ll actually find Constanta very safe” Adrian tells us, before explaining that our greatest threat would be a mugging from one of the city’s stray dog packs.
Romania’s oldest city, with Greek, Roman and Byzantine routes centres round a rather shabby chic old-town (more of the shabby) where ancient mosques and orthodox churches stand side by side. We discover the harbour below is a much swankier affair, where a yacht-lined marina and buzzing bistros are overlooked by clusters of crammed apartment blocks. “Ceausescu wanted to give everybody in Romania a home”, Adrian explains “He was a man with good intentions, but he somehow missed the point along the way”. Touché my friend.
However if Constanta does have a sense of abandon, it’s generally as locals are partying in the city’s suburban resort of Mamaia. We reach the stomping ground via sky-gondola which lofts us over a shooting spit of white sands, dotted with cubic high rises and flanked by the lapping waves of the Black Sea. The Romanians like to call it their Hawaii. On terra firma, Mamaia is an arresting assault of packed beaches, family funfairs and pre-party crunk. Along the main prom, venga-buses of gogo-dancers and models parade the strip to woo club goers, while Romania’s super-riche teenagers stream out of cavalcades of Beamers and Porsche SUVs. Forget Ayia Napa – this is the spot where the Leaving Cert class of 2013 should be coming to party.
After two nights in Constanta, we make our escape north to Romania’s far-flung jewel and one of Europe’s great wildernesses, the Danube Delta. Not quite intent on risking a car-rental, we pay a 30 Lei (€7) bus fare and journey along a dusty sequence of EU-funded roadwork schemes before reaching the mouth of the mighty river.
With our end destination of Baltenii de Sus not quite on the list of bus-stops, we trace our three-hour journey with a saved screen-shot on Google maps, yelling halt to our driver on the verge of lush hillside. Below us, fields of sunflowers sweep down to the quaintest of riverside hamlets and just beyond is our refuge in the refuge, Hotel Wels.
The next morning, hotel owner Adi gives us the grand delta tour. We begin traversing shadowy creeks, where kingfishers dart along rainforest-like liana vines. Every hour delivers a different eco-tone; crystal lakes, mighty tributaries, and lily pad wonderlands (this is an aqua-heaven larger that County Kerry). Adi, a man of few words, and even fewer had we not all spoke some German, only occasionally buckles the mellow silence with a call of “Rechts! Ein Pelikan!”, “Links ein Kormorant”. However we’re content to float across Europe’s very own Okavango, without the Attenborough narrative (or indeed, the stress of a hippo-attack).
Following an day of scorching heat exposure however, back at the hotel I’ve soon succumbed to my first ever bout of heat-exhaustion. Bed ridden and inert, I send Carolyn off on a mission for power foods while I pat myself down with damp flannels like a scene from the English Patient. As a moody stormed brewed outside, Carolyn returns an hour later after discovering the local shop is stocked with little else but clothes pegs and Head & Shoulders. “He told me, if I want bananas, I should go to Africa” she exclaimed. My potassium fix was off, and so was our onward venture to Moldova.
We stay in the delta an extra night and after following a convalescence diet of Berocca and freshly caught fish, I emerge the following evening for a gentle cycle around the village and surroundings. Peddling off we cross storks wading in the meadows, wild-maned horses drinking from the riverbanks and the bell-jangle of goat herds being shepherded in the distance. This was postcard Romanian life: free-range. As dusk came, we head down to the hotel jetty for a final swim in the thermal bathwaters of the River Danube, all under the most spectacular fireball sunset. Yes, this tops hitching that pony and cart across Moldova alright.
Following a tip from Adrian, the next morning we venture back across the country’s Black Sea coast to the tiny resort of Vama Veche, tucked 500m from the Bulgarian border. Known as the Woodstock of Romania, this true antidote to somewhat posery Mamaia is a refreshing hippy hotchpotch where the condos and developments have been replaced with tents and the VW camper vans.
We check into the Golden Sea, a very cute gathering of Caribbean style beach shacks, where we throw open our wooden shutters to a bracing waft of sea air and marijuana. After wandering the one horse strip of cute book stores, boho jewellers and rock bars we find a balcony pew in a charming seaside terasa above Bibi Market. Carolyn sits down to a wooden platter of mici (traditional sausage) served with sheeps cheese crumbled over fries, while I opt for a juicy rib eye with a gargantuan Bulgarian salad. Throw in a bottle of Malbec, and we’ve a top notch Riviera feast for two for €18.
It’s when twilight settles on the village however, that Vama Veche’s real va-va-voom comes into kick. On the beach, hundreds of revellers flit between the surf and straw parasols, creating a chilled full-moon party vibe. Along the dozen or so beach-bars, the melody of Romanian folk music draws us closer, to what appears to be pro-karaoke circuit sing-off, and we’re on their turf. After Carolyn’s rendition of Ain’t No Body is met with applause of suspicious approval, we re-join the beach front fiesta and finish with a late dip beneath the stars. It’s no Delta bathwater, which is probably why the locals keep shouting “bravo!” at us.
As Vama Veche is something of a transport dead-end and we’re flying out of Bulgaria, the next morning we set up our hitch-hiking stall at the border and are soon picked-up by married couple from Constanta: “No English!”. As the couple continuously bicker, wrong-turn and debate directions with road-side watermelon vendors, Carolyn and I are submitted into silence in back seat, as the memories of an incredible week in Romania flicker past us. Still, at what point do I tell them I think we’re back on the road to Bucharest?
Five great things to do
Discover your inner gypsy or Wanderly Wagon, with a pony and cart ride along the banks of the Delta. Expect to pay about €10 per hour.
Join the mass of Constanta locals and bathe in the salt-rich black mud of nearby Eforie du Nord. Said to be a medicinal wonder, the spa treatment will set you back just the €2 bus fare.
Take the kids to the Delphinarium in Constanta and experience an acrobatic display from native Black Sea dolphins. They’re Chinese trained, so expect perfect tens all round. (delfinariu.ro; €12/€6)
Enjoy Constanta’s performing arts scene by enjoying a soirée with the Black Sea Philharmonic, or catching a nutcracker at the Oleg Danovski Ballet.
Experience a boat tour across the fishing villages of the Danube Delta. For real isolation, try a stop-over in the village of Sulina. (from €20 per boar per hour)
Thomas flew with Falcon Holidays to Bourgas, Bulgaria for his Romanian point or entry; (€319 return; 1850 4535 45; falconholidays.ie). To work in some capital culture, Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Bucharest from €144 return.
Getting from A to B along the coast is best done by bus, where you can cross Romania’s Black Sea coast for €10 (autogari.ro)
Although the faux Belair exterior belies a rather modest interior, The Royal makes an ideal budget spot to hop between Constanta and Mamaia. €30 pps B&B. Tel: 0040 241 545 570; hotelroyal.ro
The two-star golden sea with its brightly coloured beach cabins gave a totally tropical taste to our Black Sea stay for the price of six pack of Lilt. Double rooms from €7pps B&B Tel:0040 241 858 053; goldensea.ro.
To read the second Black Sea Beauty story on Bulgaria click here