Roving Romania: RRR!!! (Romancing rustic Romania)

Shahriar Feroze
Thursday, December 15th, 2016



Have you ever spent a cold rainy night in an empty train station?


I may never come to know, but this writer has, at Romania’s oldest inhabitant port city of Constanta. In fact, he was rather forced to do so, due to arriving in the port city in late hours. Looking for a hotel after 10 is always uncertain anywhere, so to spend the night at the station was planned in advance. What is more, the experience was worth the decision. The night wasn’t a mere test of my patience versus extreme boredom but full of stirring events never seen before.


The small two storied Constanta station is close by several bus and minibuses lines, linking it with downtown. It was a cold Saturday night and was drizzling outside. Having finished my burger, I occupied a big bench at the corner of the hall room. Encircled by three annoyingly noisy coffee vending machines on three corners, I could neither sleep nor read. Apart from an elderly French couple, some locals and two gypsy-like elderly women, there were none. Two security personnel patrolled within the station and came to check the hall room at regular intervals. It must have been sometime around midnight when the drizzle turned into heavy drops. It was pouring and suddenly, I heard a car screeching to a halt and then the automated exit glass doors of the station opened. A young couple entered heading for one of the vending machines. Paid and took out the coffee and rather curiously, instead of getting out walked towards the direction of the loo. After a short while a group of tittering half drunken boys and girls entered. They seemed like getting out from a nearby disco before heading home; after all it was Saturday night. The empty hall room began to echo with giggles and childish vigour. Placing his luggage beneath the bench this traveller headed for the toilet.


A station toilet never appeared so bizarrely vibrant at such wee hours ever before. Presumably, it was the coffee-couple or whoever they were – one could easily guess from the relentless noise of wild moaning that a lovemaking session was continuing at a feverish pitch. Whatever, this was Europe and one needs to be mentally prepared to witness almost anything in public places which did not usually happen in Asia.


Regarding sexuality, can’t say what was Romania like during the communist regime, but its very liberal viewpoint to sex is not unlike the rest of Europe. With or without winter – the dress code here is open minded with a lot of skin on display and when it comes to the port town of Constanta, the Eastern European feminine magic begins to cast a serious spell on any new comer. To get it straight, I never fell in the league of suitcase tourists and do not like travelling in a family with a father-like figure ordering what and what-not-to-do but like many of its neighbouring countries Romania too, has its exclusive sex tourism industry. Whether you want to explore it or not is your decision. This writer doesn’t’ want to because it’s expensive, time consuming and you never know what will happen if things don’t go right (read afraid). Also as far as the global tourism is concerned, none can deny that sex – however, has a direct link with the industry. Getting laid in here seems like either very easy or very tough and this writer knows nothing more.


Nevertheless, it is not easy to spend 10 hours straight inside a train station, unless you know what to do. At the first rays of a cloudy dawn, I got inside a maxi taxi heading for the city centre. And in about 20 minutes landed in the heart of the city centre near the Piața Ovidiu – a grand square with art nouveau type benches scattered in the middle and heritage buildings surrounding it. If one starts walking on the left direction he would end up at the seaside promenade. But more than the promenade my eyes were fixed at a minaret. It should be a mosque and it was.


The Mahmudiye mosque at Constanta is one grand piece of Islamic architecture which appeared like straight out from a story book. Being the seat of the Mufti of Romania, it was built in 1910 by King Carol I. Its location appeared more of a bonus since it stood almost halfway to my hotel. This spiritual home to some 50,000 Muslims inhabiting the coastal region is a number one not-to-miss attraction of Constanta. Though the highlight, according to many travel guides is the Persian rug, believed to be the largest carpet in the country, but this traveller would say it’s the minaret top where the real charisma is offered 360 degrees rounded views. Now turned into a museum it charges a small entry fee. However, less than 50 metres on the right to my hotel there is a small single storey mosque with lesser attractive features than the former , but much older with a few eye-catching calligraphic designs built by the Turkish Sultan during the halcyon days of Ottoman Empire which had stretched as far as the Balkans.


Whenever it comes to mosques, this traveller is one of those curious minds who have also embarked upon an unending quest for discovering old mosques. Ranging from Germany, Italy and Greece – Romania too has few old mosques. Today they stand as sheer testimony to the ethnic diversity and confessional tolerance once practised here. The Muslim minority here actually consists of Tartars and very few with a Turkish lineage. Once at Maghreb congregation there were a total five of us including the Imam and myself. My fellow worshippers were all well above 60 and retired sailors of the Romanian navy. Habitually, they took me to be sailor too and asked where my ship was anchored.


Since the succeeding travelling route would take me to Greece, ‘it’s in Athens’, i answered. They seemed somewhat puzzled. Having met an elderly group of fellow worshippers so unexpectedly at a mosque in Constanta abruptly reminded of a Quranic ayah that said – Do they then not travel through the Earth, so that their minds gain wisdom and their ears thus learn to hear? For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the minds which are in the foremost. 22:46


Rather fascinatingly, the word ‘saiyr’ – meaning travel, with all its variations, appears 27 times in the Quran. Many of its usages are in the formulation of ‘Do travel’, ‘Tell them to travel’, or ‘Do they not travel?’


The irony, however, travelling to Constanta was not in my schedule for at least the first week in Romania.


While praying inside the mosque, I felt like experiencing a spiritual renewal taking place in me. But beyond spirituality, these religious establishments also speak of Muslim communities of former times. Named after Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, the Grand Mosque of Constanta was commissioned in 1910 by the Romanian King Carol I. The entire project was funded by the then Romanian government and at a time when the office of the contemporary Ottoman ambassador was stationed at Bucharest. It was officially inaugurated by King Carol I on 31 May 1913. Yes, this is how a late Romanian king treated his Muslim subjects. The Neo-Egyptian and Neo-Byzantine styled mosque has a 47 metre long neo-Moorish style Minaret following over 120 steps to climb till the top. Be here at any time for sweeping views of the Black Sea, seaside promenade and the Piața Ovidiu square. Near the sea , upmarket restaurants are lined up on a curved coastline , barely 10 metres facing them stands the long line of anchored lavish cruising boats of the ‘Romanian oligarch’. The backyard of the jetty is exclusive for parking their branded and cheeky automobiles with suited chauffeurs awaiting their bosses.


Apart from majestic museums, mosques, cathedrals and an imposing lighthouse, the leading attraction of Constanta is a crumbling heritage building called the Casino. Followed by a spacious patio, it stands right on the face of the Black sea. The derelict art nouveau casino is off-limits to visitors due to renovation works. Once a much preferred vacation spot of the European royalty, It fell on hard times after the fall of communism and since been struggling to find a suitor ever since. One could merely take a walk along the long walkway along the promenade to find out why this writer has branded Constanta as the Romanian Riviera.


However, No trip to this port town is complete without a stop in the seaside resort of Mamaia, well-known as the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea’. With its fine sand and line up of restaurants, cafés and clubs, Mamaia is the trendiest spot on the Black Sea, offering both relaxation, as well as entertainment. Finding Mamaia being too touristy this writer headed for the next nearby seaside locale called Vama Veche. Kissing the border to Bulgaria, Vama Veche is famous for its nude beach since the early 90’s but no don’t expect another lustful account – October is not only the start of the winter season but the closing time for nudists with the temperature falling well below 8 degrees. Any nudist in that weather is likely to freeze to death but this non-mainstream tourist destination has fast grown with a tag for being a hangout for young intellectuals, artists and free spirited thinkers. This traveller would particularly recommend this place for camping on the beach during the summer season. Beware of home stays if you cannot speak the language, as all possibilities for being cheated exist as I too became a victim of such cheating.


To cut a long story short before one hits for the Danube delta, the magic of coastal Romania is to be explored during the summer coupled with the holiday seasons. In winter almost all facilities are closed down to tourists.


Sit beside me commute for another 140 kilometres to witness the most unspoilt and diversely rich landscape of Eastern Europe – the Danube delta. Originating in Germany the river in some way passes through nine countries in the South East region of Europe – making it the second largest river of that continent. It flows unimpeded and no country is reported to have altered or transformed its natural flow through causing destruction to its natural course of flow. almost unspoilt, constituted of a medley of river branches, channels, lakes of different types and sizes, reed beds, sand dunes, oak forests and a pristine Mediterranean vegetation made me aggrieved as we keep struggling to preserve the biodiversity of our trans-border rivers at home. The simple point is –many countries in South-east Asia have evidently stopped loving their rivers. As a dire repercussion to our destructive anthropogenic causes the gifts of nature are quick vanishing. The delta here is more than a just nature lover’s paradise.


No matter how enchanting the nature seemed to appear, the obstacle in the path to explore it was the weather. The conditions were nearing extreme.


I could neither explore, nor could include myself in a package tour since all tour packages were suspended by late September , but whatever little was seen during the daytime , it can be said – one needs an entirely different week long itinerary for romancing the bucolic charms of Romania’s rustic south.


My three weeks in Romania was a mix of both content and silent agonies to have missed many things. Nevertheless, the choice to travel here was an eye-opener to an unforgettable saying of the famed author Gustave Flaubert -Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.


And this writer would further add – so remain humble and travel more.


The writer is a freelance journalist


Part -3 … The concluding part of Roving Romania

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