As a rule, Bulgarians are not interested in Romania. They would rather go south, with Greece and Turkey being their favourites especially in summer time. Yet, Bulgaria's northern neighbour, which is about three times the size of Bulgaria, holds a plethora of sites and experiences, many of them totally unknown to Bulgarians, that can provide fodder for multiple and very rewarding trips.
One area that has undeservedly been off the bucket list of most Bulgarians is Constanţa, a major city on the Romanian Black Sea coast an hour's drive north from Bulgaria's border and just south of the Danube Delta, one of Europe's most stunning natural reserves (think Mississippi in North American standards).
When in Constanţa, never let Ovid, the great Roman poet, be your guide when you decide to Constanţa. The most famous resident of this city arrived in what was then called Tomis in AD 8, and he hated it. Exiled for life by Emperor Augustus for reasons that remain a mystery, one of the greatest Latin scribes saw his life in Tomis as a banishment from civilisation. The series of poems he wrote there, Tristia, or Sorrows, paint a bleak picture of a cold and dark place on the fringes of the world, surrounded by a harsh and frozen sea, inhabited by barbarians. A place of endless gloom. In Tomis, Ovid craved death and crafted his own epitaph:
I, who lie here, with tender loves once played,
Naso, the bard, whose life his wit betrayed,
grudge not, o lover, as thou passest by,
a prayer 'Soft may be the bones of Naso lie'!
In reality, when Ovid alighted at the port of Tomis, the city was far from uncivilised. Established in the 5th century BC by Greek settlers, it was an outpost of Mediterranean civilisation at the Black Sea and the Balkans. By the 1st century AD it had all the hallmarks of refined culture: grid-planned streets, temples, fortifications, public baths and mosaic-decorated mansions for the wealthy citizens. Some of these are still visible today, scattered among the 19th and 20th century buildings that define the heart of Constanţa.
Besides the ruins of ancient Tomis, few material traces of the city's long past survive in modern Constanţa. The cityscape instead is dominated by buildings that appeared during a boom in traffic, trade and transportation brought about by two major infrastructure projects. In 1860, a new railway between Constanţa and Cernavodă, on the Danube, shortened the route between the river and the Black Sea, attracting more cargo to the port. In 1895, a railway to Bucharest followed.
Finding itself at the crossroads of sea, river and land routes, Constanţa became a gateway through which grain and petrol, coal and coke, machines and iron, cotton and fabrics passed. Today, its port is the largest on the Black Sea and one of the biggest in Europe.
Goods were not the only thing attracted to fast-developing Constanţa. People from all over the continent flocked to the booming city, joining older communities of Romanians and Bulgarians, Jews and Roma, Greeks and Armenians, Turks and Tatars.
This period of rapid boom has left permanent marks on Constanţa's cityscape. Mansions and churches combining the characteristic Brâncovenesc style with Art deco and neo-Classicism define central Constanţa. After the Holocaust and the isolation of the Communist period, the city is less cosmopolitain, and the beautiful Grand Synagogue is no longer in use. However, other communities thrive, as can be seen in the lively Carol I Mosque. Built in 1913 in the neo-Egyptian and neo-Byzantine styles on the place of an earlier site of Muslim worship and donated by the Romanian king to the local Muslim community, it is still open for prayer.
Constanţa's most famous building also belongs to this period, a structure that dominates any Google Image search. Lavish and elegantly over-the-top, the seaside casino was built on the Black Sea coast in 1910. For three decades it was the playground of the rich and famous who came from Bucharest for sea, sun and fun on the so-called Romanian Riviera (Ovid would be shocked). The party ended in 1948, when the Communist government took over and turned the casino into a cultural centre. After 1990, the building was closed and abandoned, and remains in a state of dilapidation to this day.
If you visit the ghostly shell of the casino on a gloomy winter day, when the north wind hurls dark grey waves at the coast, you might feel a bit like Ovid. A short walk from the chilly promenade to one of the modern cafés and ethnic food restaurants will relieve such dark thoughts.
The people of Constanţa themselves do not seem to worry about what Ovid wrote about their city. On the contrary. There is statue of him in the central square, which looks suitably morose, but the crowds of locals and tourists who walk, talk, drink coffee and generally have a good time around about are the best refutal of any PR damage that a person who lived 2,000 years ago might have caused. Had he been alive today, he would have been bemused: the square, predictably, is called Ovid Square.