The Invisible Treasure of Constanta (Op-ed Daniel Citirigă)

Daniel Citirigă, Vicedean of the Faculty of History and Political Science, “Ovidius” University, Constanta

I would say that in Constanța we have three types of patrimony: a patrimony in the ground, from the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Byzantines or the Ottomans, then a patrimony on the ground, a fairytale Old Town, a “mysterious Peninsula” as Doina Păuleanu used to call it, and, last but not least, an invisible patrimony because, although it is there, and it is very well known, it appears that it hinders than helps the consolidation of a cultural destination for Constanța.

There were years in which the local authorities showed themselves to be not only indifferent, but even more so contemptuous of such a legacy. And since we already referenced this millennia old legacy, I could say that the patrimony of the Constanța Peninsula has a golden age during the time Dobrogea became a part of Romania, a bronze age in the communist period, and a stone age in the first two post-communist decades.

Whoever partakes in a discussion about the cultural heritage of Constanța, doesn’t need to know too much about this city in order to quickly understand that the Gods were generous to it, to hear that God too had a plan for the people of this place or that modernity did not pass without leaving important tracks. From myths to reality, everything has a fairytale aura. If for the Roman poet Ovidius, Tomis was a sad and cold place, for the fortress of Tomis, Ovidius was the chance to enter into eternity and into universal literature. Everything Ovidius produces, and the world says about him, becomes a word of patrimony. Then, his rebinding remains shrouded in mystery to this day – carmen et error-, the painful life he describes, the unfound grave, all of these constitute the base of a solid legacy for a historic city. Then, Christianity does not come to the region unobserved, it’s origins going back to the Apostle Andrei, who would have been the first one sent to these lands, something which, obviously, historians are not quick to confirm. Even of the present day name of the city we cannot exactly tell the origin but it is certain that it has close ties to the family of Emperor Constantin The Great. And the move into modernity is no less interesting.

Immediately after becoming part of Romania, Dobrogea and the city of Constanța saw massive interventions, the old Tomis becoming the center of the region between the Danube and the Sea. Thus, with the development of the port, the authorities and the financially powerful citizens built buildings that today represent a part of the patrimony on the ground, which we talked about earlier. The first type of legacy is what I would say made out of Constanța a royal city: The pavilion in the port or the Queen’s Nest, then the Royal Palace in the city and, last but not least, the Royal Palace in Mamaia. These edifices and the stories behind them, with queens and kings, princes and princesses, put the city on the same level as Sinaia in the history of royalty. Then, among the most representative public forum buildings I would mention the Casino, Palace Hotel, the old Carol Hotel, Regina (Intim) Hotel, the Communal Palace, accompanied by the religious edifices. Not in the least, if today we hear of buildings such as the House with Lions, Suțu Villa, Alleon House, Manicatide, Embiricos, Hrisicos etc.. it is because over a hundred years ago there were financially powerful citizens, who also had a particularly developed aesthetic sense. And, maybe, the most important legacy is the story of the people who lived and passed through these buildings, story which brings enormous contributions to the value of the patrimony.

The Queen’s pavilion was the place where Elisabeta came to contemplate the sea, but also the witness of the last visit outside of Russia of the family of Tsar Nicolae II; for Queen Maria, the sea was always a special destination, the Royal Palace of Mamaia and the one in Balcic are the places where the queen and her children spent their summers. Here, in Mamaia, the future king Mihai of Romania and the future prince Filip of Great Britain played and discovered how “black” the sea was. And the Royal Palace of Mamaia was also the subject of some controversial sales, first in the 30’s, when the Romanian state bought it from Elena of Greece, the wife of king Carol II, for a huge price by the standards of the time, and then in the 2000’s when the building and land were sold for scandalously low prices. On the other hand, Ferdinand, when he was crown prince, before the First World War started, wrote to his brother how impressed he was after a visit to Histria fortress….

The Casino, as well, was from it’s beginnings a place of tales: from adventurers spending their money gambling, to episodes of espionage such as the one admitted to by Petre Comarnescu- also known as as Agent Anton, stationed in Constanța for a mission of surveying the American ambassador during the Winter of 1956. The Casino also unveils from time to time something about the mystery of the political prisoners who renovated it in the 50’s, the most spectacular testimony being the letter with the names of some of them, recently discovered during the renovation works. From the attic of D’Angletere Hotel, Mihai Eminescu described the sea to Veronica Micle. Then, the novels of Cella Serghi, the atmosphere on the Peninsula’s streets, with Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Tatars, Bulgarians, Jews, the sea painted in thousands of colors by Ionel Mătăsăreanu, all could be the subject of a enviable patrimony. Not in the least the Por, which was the witness of so many departures, some quite famous such as the visits to the Mediterranean Sea of Carol II together with Elena Lupescu on the Luceafărul yacht, or queen Maria on her way to Istanbul and the Orient, or some dramatic, such as the tragedy of ship Struma, when Davil Stoliar was the sole survivor of all 770 jewish immigrants who were trying to escape the horrors of the Holocaust during the Second World War.

A part of the buildings mentioned above constitute what I was calling the invisible patrimony. Because there was a period after the fall of communism during which these monuments were treated as if they didn’t exist. The Casino was left in ruins for years, being closed off to the public. The Royal Palace of Mamaia was illegally sold. The Roman Mosaic or the Hypogeum grew also came to be part of the invisible patrimony. Hotels, private residences of patrimony, were maintained at an uncertain rhythm, many of them having been destroyed. The Ashkenazi Synagogue is maybe the most relevant example in this case.

And still…let’s be optimistic! The patrimony will be saved only if the authorities and the people passing it day by day, but also those with financial potential, realize it’s value and act accordingly. I would say that there are some examples which demonstrate that the society of Constanța, in it’s ensemble, has it’s sights turning more and more towards these cultural values, and the renovation of the Casino will be a moment of rebirth. At the same time, it is truly reassuring and praiseworthy that private citizens chose to invest in these buildings, and the fact that foreign citizens chose to invest in some such as the Damadian House, or the old Bulevard Hotel and the Manicatide House, I think it says enough about their potential. Also, the fact that Suțu Villa was bought by a Romanian investor, this time, who is about to renovate it, the same way Intim Hotel will be renovated and introduced to the public circuit, can be examples to encourage others to go towards the Old Town, although, we know, such an investment is not exactly cheap.

My argument is very simple: a conserved patrimony helps us all! How so?

For starters, to conserve values built by our forefathers is a duty and a way to know our past, it is the method through which we could understand why we are what we are. But maybe this does not matter for all the readers of this article. As such, I think that we should know that the patrimony is an important source of money, that cultural tourism brings in more revenue than it may appear at first sight. For example, Bran Castle had a profit of about 4 million euros in 2019, the year before the pandemic. The Castle in Balcic and it’s gardens simply gave birth to a new resort, after they were introduced to the tourist circuit. After all, it is pretty clear that Constanța is also being visited in the area with historic buildings, and we have apartment blocks by the sea in other neighborhoods as well. And the examples can keep coming. And if not even this is enough to convince us about the importance of the patrimony, then I only have one argument left, devoid of importance: happiness. According to the Heritage Counts 2014 report, published by emblematic British organizations, visiting diverse places and historic monuments has a positive role in regards to satisfaction and quality of life, comparable or even stronger than the effects of playing sports, for example. So, I would say that the serotonin produced by cultural tourism and by historic patrimony is of the best quality.