I went to Romania today. I popped over the border just for the day, like you do. Well I’ve been having a wee break in a Black Sea seaside town for a few days and the E87 Pan-European trunk road passes by where I’ve been staying, going all the way up the coast to the top of Bulgaria and beyond to the city of Constanța. A journey of just over an hour and a half, plus stops for cups of coffee, taking photographs, checking forty-three times that I had all the necessary travel documentation in my trusty faux PVC travel document wallet and, eventually, the frontier post bureaucratic red tape.
It's a strange thing really. Before emigrating eighteen months ago, I was obsessed with foreign travel and always endeavoured to visit two or three new countries each year. Coming to live permanently in Bulgaria was the cherry on my wander-lusting cake but since I arrived here I haven’t really been anywhere I hadn’t been before, apart from exploring my lovely new country. In that time my only international trips have been to Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy and England, none of which could really be classed as uncharted territory. I have, of course, peered over borders into neighbouring Macedonia and Serbia but I was too shy to go in. I needed an excuse. Would it be bold of me to ask them if I could borrow a cup of sugar?
The last time I took a trip to a country I had never previously set foot in was on my first tentative toe-dipping foray into Bulgaria in April 2015 and I ended up moving here lock, stock and tea chest. Consequently, I had to be careful wandering northwards up the coast today, ensuring that I avoided glitzy estate agents’ offices and signs offering sunshine and cheap beer. I’ve been through all that before and I simply haven’t the energy to cope with another international house move. However, the intrepid traveller-type excitement had returned to my veins and this morning I grinned as I sped off brandishing my passport, even though I didn’t really need it as I am permitted to travel freely through the European Union member states using the identity card issued to me by the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria. I took it because I have felt more confident crossing borders with a passport since that unfortunate incident at Pisa airport where, instead of presenting my I.D. card, I handed the immigration officer my Tesco Club card. It was a bit embarrassing but, looking on the bright side, it earned me a 20p off voucher for my next visit to Italy.
Judging by the number of official military looking buildings that marked my crossing point, the place had seen quite a lot of activity down the years, especially during the Socialist era, I imagined. But this morning entering Romania from the south was pretty straightforward as only one building was in use and there was no sign of a Kalashnikov rifle, a ferocious German Shepherd dog or even a furry hat with a big red star stitched to the front of it. In the solitary booth Bulgarian and Romanian border officials sat side-by-side at adjacent windows. I stopped my car, handed my documents to Officer Bulgaria, drove forwards one metre to have them returned by Officer Romania and then drove another three or four metres to the window where I bought my vignette, (which is not a salad dressing but a permit to allow foreign motorists to drive on toll roads in Romania). The vignette lady looked far too old to be selling vignettes and I wondered if, as a girl on the first day in her job, she had issued vignettes to stick on mules and goats as their owners passed through, and later in life on the odd tank or two. Although obviously very experienced, she expressed her confusion when it came to light that I was born in England, had an Irish passport and a car with Bulgarian registration plates. I was itching to tell her about my Korean fridge and the packet of Belgian waffles in its freezer compartment but thought better of it, just in case she did have a Kalashnikov tucked away in her handbag. Smiling, she asked me a number of questions about where I lived, if I was enjoying my life on Europe’s eastern flank and how I was going to spend my day in her country. Finally, she asked me if I knew any words of Romanian. I confessed that I didn’t so she taught me how to say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘can I borrow a cup of sugar?’ I thanked her in her own tongue but said goodbye in Bulgarian because she hadn’t taught me that but I wanted to show that I was willing and able to converse in more than just English.
The only aspect of the frontier post experience that I wasn’t happy with was that I didn’t get a stamp on a page in my passport. Even though I was travelling between two E.U. nations, I had convinced myself that as there was a proper control point and a barrier there might also be a bit of over-zealous officialdom and rubber stamp wielding. But that was not the case and my beautiful passport that I have had since May 2016 remains pure and virginal. This is particularly disappointing when I consider that the weight of the stamps and visas in my old passport made it so heavy that I was required to pay an excess baggage fee on it before boarding aeroplanes.
Within five kilometres of crossing the frontier, the lovely red cliffs and sandy beaches of Bulgaria’s bit of the Black Sea coast give way to heavy industry as the colossal cranes of the ship building yards around the town of Mangalia dominate the horizon to create a scene which, by comparison, makes Scunthorpe look like Disneyland. Along the main road I saw very few vehicles and in the seaside villages that I passed through there was little sign of life; just the occasional stray dog and a deckchair attendant who didn’t know that the summer was over. The already cloudy sky darkened and light rain began to fall, which did little to brighten up such a dreary place. My meeting with the vignette lady had been, by far, the cheeriest part of the journey and as the windscreen wipers on my car smeared away the dusty, drizzly deposits in a not very helpful way I began to wish that I had brought her with me. At least she could have taught me the Romania words for ‘chin up chuck!’ Contemplating breakfast, I stopped in Mangalia and had a quick look in my guide book to see what I could expect to find there to entertain me. It said that half a day was probably enough to see everything that the town had to offer but I think that was based on the assumption that the vignette lady would be sitting in her Mangalia home waiting for me with the kettle on and a packet of custard creams at the ready. But I knew she wasn’t, so I drove on.
The landscape improved marginally just north of the town as the road passed stretches of almost open countryside, skirted large sea inlets, crossed a shipping channel by means of a massive Socialist era concrete bridge and had laybys populated by pretty ladies who I had never seen before but who were waving at me as if we were old mates. Even though it was only mid-morning, I suspected that these ladies might be what are known as ladies of the night. They certainly seemed keen. I didn’t stop. It was still raining.
With a population of a quarter of a million and boasting that it is the biggest port on the whole of the Black Sea, I was prepared for Constanța not being a quaint fishing village. I wasn’t even all that surprised to see kilometre after kilometre of gloomy old concrete apartment blocks as I entered the city. I can’t remember seeing a picturesque industrial centre anywhere in the world so, undeterred, I drove on aiming for the ‘old town’ district which I had read was the oldest continually inhabited part of Romania.
I parked my car by the marina (that’s a place where people leave their yachts, not a 1970s model of a Morris motor vehicle) and walked a few hundred metres through strangely deserted streets to the main square, which was also strangely void of anything that might be described as a crowd. A couple of old mosques, a big Roman Catholic church and the National History Museum along with dozens of buildings from the early twentieth century and more recent reminders of a troubled past were interesting to look at though all in great need of a lick of paint and, somewhat typical of my end of Europe, there were a number of structures that looked like they might have been very governmental and imposing thirty or so years ago but were now little more than homes for pigeons and some of the country’s most extensive collections of empty plastic beer bottles.
Already feeling a bit sad that this city which had obviously in the past been a majestic coastal playground should now appear in such a state of neglect I chanced upon a magnificent but derelict white building right on the sea front to deepen my sadness. In an Art Nouveau style it was originally commissioned by King Carol I and built around the year 1900, opening to the public as a casino in 1910, apparently. Until it was closed to the public in 1990 it was considered to be the most magnificent building in the country; Romania’s pearl on the shore of the Black Sea and a place where wealthy travellers and the elite flocked from all over Europe to play and dance the night away. With a feeling of awe, I had an urge to recreate those decadent days of champagne and swinging jazz so in my head I switched on the music of greats like Teodora Enache and Johnny Răducanu and, in the absence of bubbly, I went in search of beer. Sad old building or no sad old building, I was going to go for a beer anyway.
Cazinoul din Constanța, Romania's former pearl of the Black Sea.
I was surprised and a little disappointed that so many things that I had expected to find in Constanța were missing. There was no Romanian beer in the bars and cafés. I saw adverts for unpronounceable brands of their beer in convenience shop windows but I didn’t feel thirsty enough to be drawn by the offer of three litres for five Leu (about a Euro). I wanted to sit by the quayside and enjoy something a bit less vast but they only had Tuborg and Heineken, so I settled for a big bottle of local lemon-flavoured non-alcoholic stuff. Similarly, there was no Romanian food to be had. There was nothing traditional, nothing Bulgarian or East European of any persuasion, and not even any American junk food, which seemed very strange. The only sustenance I could find was Italian. There were literally dozens of Italian restaurants all over the place so I thought ‘when in Rome’ and had a tasty big plate of seafood pasta, which was very nice but not what I had expected when I left my lodgings this morning.
At the other end of the old town bit of town I found a Roman ruin. Actually, someone else had found it long before me so when I say ‘found’ I mean I saw it without previously having known it was there. It was impressive in a Roman ruin way i.e. quite big with sufficient columns and carvings to keep me interested for twenty minutes but by then I’d had enough and I didn’t really care which emperor had built it as once you’ve read a dodgy translation about one emperor you’ve read them all and I don’t much go for empires anyway. But it did make me wonder if all the Italian restaurants had been established there during the Roman occupation and if subsequent Danish and Dutch military conquests had been responsible for the unusual range of beer that was on offer in Constanța’s watering holes.
I tried to walk along the sea front and I tried to be enthusiastic about the town and its history but the cold wind, the grey skies and the lack of a shop where I could buy a fridge magnet or a ‘Greetings from Constanța’ fish slice made me long to be back in my lovely Bulgaria, so towards the back end of the afternoon I said ‘la revedere’ (a nice lady in a café had extended my vocabulary to include ‘goodbye’), hopped into my car and set off for home.
The return journey was along the same roads that I had driven this morning, but obviously in the opposite direction. If I had continued northwards on the E87 I would have ended up in Galaţi, where the borders of Romania, Moldova and Ukraine meet. I thought they might sell fridge magnets there. On all the previous occasions when I had not got a stamp in my passport I consoled myself with a new fridge magnet as a record of my worldly wanderings. But today I had achieved neither. I mulled over the draw of Moldova but decided against it because it would have added another five hundred kilometres and two more elderly vignette ladies to the journey, and it was already starting to get dark. Instead I called into a corner shop and bought a big bottle of local beer for my neglected fridge. It was called Ciuc (pronounced ‘chook’, not ‘sick’). Later in the evening, when my day’s driving was complete, I drank my Ciuc. It was pleasant enough but nothing special. A bit like Tuborg or Heineken I suppose.
As I headed southwards, the sky again darkened and the rain set in so I was unable to admire the shipyard cranes and factory chimneys that had made this morning’s journey such a spectacle. The layby ladies of the night don’t work nights so they’d packed up and gone home, and although the Christmas lights had been put up in Mangalia, the local council hadn’t yet got around to hiring a former member of the cast of Emmerdale to come and switch them on.
All in all, a dull journey so I was glad to see the dim lights of the border crossing post and the even more dimly lit board bearing the words ‘Добре дошли в България’ (welcome to Bulgaria). The documentation-checking palaver was completed swiftly and soon I was clear of the formalities (or so I thought) and gathering speed in my car. Then, as I hurtled past it, I spotted another kiosk with a light on inside and a border guard sitting at the window. Painted on the road before it, in bold red and white, was a stop sign. This came as a total surprise as there had been no second checkpoint when leaving the country only eight hours earlier. Perhaps the Bulgarian authorities monitored incoming traffic more stringently than their northerly neighbours. Fearful of looking like a desperate refugee, I slammed on the brakes and looked out of my back window to see if anybody was shooting at me, but they weren’t. Suddenly relieved that I had not caused an international incident, my racing heart slowed to an almost normal rate for a split second, but only until the car’s passenger door opened and, as quickly as it had stopped, the racing recommenced as a stranger emerged from the murky darkness to ask me where I was going. ‘Prison’ was my first thought until it turned out that the stranger was a bloke called Oliver from Peru who had spent the last ten months backpacking his way around almost every country in Eastern Europe. Now he was heading down the Black Sea coast towards Turkey for some winter warmth. He thanked me profusely for giving him a lift for the part of his journey that coincided with mine as at that time on a cold and wet November evening he had decided it unlikely that anyone would pick him up. I confessed that I hadn’t really stopped for him and explained why, adding that I was happy to take him the next sixty kilometres but not as happy as I was to be still alive. I love it when I make foreign people laugh.
Although south east Romania isn’t particularly nice, I’m glad I went there today. It was an interesting experience and I like to think that on my travels I don’t just go to the fabulously glamourous spots. Every destination enriches a wanderer’s catalogue of tales. The big chunks of my life that I spent in Barking and Swindon surely prove this. I think for a lot of people a day in Constanța might put them off Romania forever, but I know there are many beautiful places and friendly faces there, so I can’t wait to go back. Even if only to meet more smiling elderly vignette ladies.