Faded History, Modern Spirit


Gazing at the stately Moorish arches and symmetrical domed roofline, I could understand how the Great Synagogue of Constanta, Romania, had earned its moniker.

But its greatness is ebbing every year. A wall has collapsed; internal damage is such that visitors can no longer enter, and the temple is no longer functional for what remains of this Black Sea Jewish community. Still, the Star of David-adorned façade is a majestic vestige of fin-de-siècle Jewish prominence in Constanta, and pictures I saw of the interior — lovely, gold-laced arches in robin’s-egg blue — were heartbreakingly beautiful.

Perhaps the synagogue will be restored in time, as many Romanian archaeologists and Jewish historians are hoping. But for now, the synagogue seems a metaphor for the faded glory and perpetual struggles of Romania’s largest port city.

Founded by the ancient Greeks and later renamed for the Roman Emperor Constantine, Constanta (pronounced kon-STAHN-tsa) stands at a bit of a crossroads in the post-Communist era.

Some of Romania’s most exciting and sophisticated restaurants are to be found here, yet much of the urban center appears drab, littered with remnants of successive empires: crumbling Roman mosaics, Ottoman-era mosques and hulking Socialist blocs. Even as the fortunes of average Romanians are improving, much of this ancient city lies crumbling and neglected — but with so much tangible history, it is still worth seeing.

Constanta has been part of Romania for only little more than a century, when it gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, and its turbulent past is still evident. Grand Ottoman mosques cater to a sizable Turkish population in Romania’s most Muslim corner; Bulgarian and Greek dialects are still heard on the streets. For many here, the regional identity of Dobruja — which extends into Bulgaria and was divided by the Danube in the late-19th century — trumps that of Romania.

The ancient Roman poet Ovid died in Constanta, and his 1887 statue still lords over Ovid Square, a grand 19th-century plaza by the ancient Roman wall. Just off the square are the National History and Archaeology Museum and the excavated Roman mosaics, a terraced complex with some of the best-preserved tile work anywhere. (Check before going: the mosaics were scheduled to close for renovation sometime this year.)

Much of the city center appears run-down and neglected — yet I was struck by a vibrant, modern spirit in my interactions with young Romanians. Refined, multilingual and unfazed by foreigners (hardly a given in the Balkans), the cosmopolitan locals challenged my assumption that Dobruja was a provincial backwater.

At every outdoor café, I ordered a delicious salad of tomatoes and feta cheese, sipped Dobrujan wine and watched the passing scene: young Poles, Russians and Romanians from the capital on holiday. I walked alongside couples strolling romantically down to the waterfront, where waves crashed dramatically against a seawall promenade.

And there, gleaming like a silvery mirage against the deep-blue sea, was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in Constanta: the Casino. With frothy white curlicues and lacey colonnades, this casino looks more like something you might see in Vienna than in Vegas — an Art Nouveau wedding-cake of a building, romantically set on a rocky spit of land.

Gamblers will be disappointed: where high rollers once partied, today you can only walk by and admire the exterior, since the Casino is closed for rehabilitation. Like the synagogue, the Casino seemed yet another metaphor for the city it inhabits, a poignant blend of faded grandeur and unfulfilled potential.

For although Dobruja is naturally blessed with Romania’s loveliest coastline and its mildest climate, Constanta’s once-fabled waterfront has lost much of its appeal for newly affluent Romanians; they increasingly head south to the beaches of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. I myself prefer the scenery of the southern coastline, but Dobruja has its own beauty — thick, jungly forests atop cliffs that slope down to wide, sandy beaches.

Summer stretches well into September, even October, as the Black Sea retains a notable warmth (“like tea,” say locals, and they’re not far off). Beaches in Constanta — as on much of this coast — tend to have shallow water, making them popular with children.

The most popular beach in Constanta is actually Mamaia, a high-rise resort just outside the city. Mamaia is not where you go for even a pretense of culture; instead, it’s a full-service village devoted to hedonism, with miles of boardwalk and thumping bars whose chaise longues threaten to engulf the sand. There are water parks for the kids, palm-fringed promenades lined with outdoor café tables, and beaches dotted with tiki huts and rental cabanas.

Not much of note has take place along this coast since the mid-20th century, when boatloads of Jewish war refugees converged on the port of Constanta, seeking passage through the Bosphorus to Israel. The 21st century has so far left Constanta off the tourism radar — yet with its historical treasures and privileged shoreline, it may be time for another renaissance.