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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Romania, August 2019 (Part 2)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 4: Bucharest – Constanta

Constanța is a Black Sea vacation spot for Romanians, 140 miles due east of Bucharest. We were there primarily to visit a famous abandoned casino. Until I looked it up on Wikipedia, I didn’t realize that the casino we photographed is actually the third iteration of the building. The first was built of wood in 1880 and destroyed by a storm 11 years later. (“Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show ’em. It sank into the swamp.”) The second version – also built of wood – opened its doors to great acclaim in 1893 and closed in 1907. (“So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp.”)

In 1910, the current Cazino opened. Its Art Nouveau styling, out of step with the Romanian neoclassical architecture popular at the time, was met with jeers:

“One thing which is disappointing in this welcoming place: the white casino, pretentiously complicated, of the most dreadful and horrific style of 1900, which burdens the sea coast.” – French diplomat George Oudard

A “…hulking heap strewn with all sorts of gewgaws and cheap fineries. 2/10, would not recommend.” – Conservatorul Constanței newspaper

The “hulking heap” remained in operation for 38 years, despite being bombed by Bulgarian and German troops in World War I. During World War II, it served as a makeshift hospital. In 1948 it was taken over by the Communist government and designated a House of Culture, which I think means they took out everything fun and locked the doors.

The mayor himself had given us permission to enter the Cazino and take photos, but there was still some bureaucratic negotiation to navigate before we could enter. The guards seemed perplexed by our interest in the building, but once they were satisfied that our papers were in order, they let us go about our business.

As we photographed the building, the Black Sea lapped against the breakwaters outside: Enormous concrete shapes like jacks in a game of knucklebones, piled in the surf. Matthew confided that he couldn’t get the song “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” by Billy Joel out of his head. I suggested replacing it with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and sang a couple of verses aggressively to try and help my friend. He did not seem to appreciate my efforts.

The Cazino is just off a classic beachfront boardwalk. On the day we visited, the boardwalk was filled with Romanian families on vacation. I saw a lot of dudes in track suits, immaculate white designer sneakers, and gradient tint sunglasses. An outdoor market had been set up, and vendors were selling everything you can imagine – antique books, oily tools, communist ephemera, Nazi memorabilia, rusty metal toys, hand-made clothing, candy, pastries, shells, fancy cigarette lighters (but no porn). From a book dealer, I bought a cellophane sleeve full of souvenir luggage stickers from Eastern European hotels. While I browsed, I unthinkingly sang “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”:

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down… Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee…”

“The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead… When the skies of November turn gloomy…” sang the book vendor in reply.

I need to tell you one thing about lunch. In keeping with our experience at most Romanian restaurants, the menu was an overflowing cornucopia of meat. On one page, the following items were listed:

Char-Grilled Calf
Pork Ribs
Succulent Pork Neck
Pork Leg Rotisserie
Lamb Chops


4 Little N****rs

I’ve censored it here (and on the photo I took) but yes, it was spelled out. (Apparently it’s some kind of minced meat roll.) After taking a picture and sending it to Robin as possible material for her next book, I asked Stefan about it. He winced.

“Ah, yes. This would… not be acceptable anywhere else. I am sorry.”

Stefan told me that – while anti-Roma racism is an acknowledged issue in Romania, the subject of protest and academic thinkpieces – anti-Black racism is almost never discussed, partially a result of the fact that there are so few Black people living in Romania. He’s not wrong on that last point. I spent ten days walking around Romanian streets in big cities and rural villages, and I saw a total of four Black folks, all in Bucharest, all of whom appeared to be tourists. (None of which makes that menu item okay.)

After lunch, we walked to the Great Synagogue of Constanța. But before I talk about that, we should review the sad history of the Jews in Romania. In 1930, there were 728,115 Jews living in the Kingdom of Romania. By 2011, that number had been reduced to 3,270. According to the Wiesel Commission, Romania was responsible “…for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself.” And yet, according to Wikipedia, “…in postcommunist Romania, Holocaust denial has been a diffuse phenomenon, and until 2004, when researchers made numerous documents publicly available, many in Romania denied knowledge that their country participated in the Holocaust.”

Constanța’s Great Synagogue was built between 1910 and 1914. Supposedly, there are photographs indicating that it was still in use as recently as 1996, but I could not find them. Today, the roof is gone, much of the stained glass has been smashed, and trees have grown in the interior. It is absolutely sad, but also quite beautiful.

A local entrepreneur has secured permission to shore up the building and open a cafe on the entrance plaza. When we visited, he told us that construction had been halted temporarily after discovery of escape tunnels leading to the Constanța port. He also asked us what we were going to do about Trump, and that was not the only time I heard this question while in Romania.

Two months after our visit, Stefan sent me a link to a story from a Constanța newspaper. A scandal had erupted after it was revealed that the entrepreneur had allowed a photographer to shoot some, shall we say… “glamour” photos inside the synagogue. Blasphemy or (mildly prurient) Art? I included one of the images in the album at the end of this post, so you can judge for yourself.

While my tour-mate Jody collected a jar of sand from the beach for an art project, I purchased some apple strudel, and then we drove back to Bucharest for the night. I proudly displayed my snack to Mihai, and pronounced it carefully in Romanian to demonstrate my progress:

“Strudel cu mere!”

Mihai grimaced and shook his head adamantly. “Strrrrrudel!” he corrected me, rolling his R’s fluidly.

I tried again: “Strrudel…?”


DAY 5: Bucharest – Jilava – Sinaia

First Stop on Day 5: Fort 13 inside Jilava Prison. The town of Jilava is 8 miles south of Bucharest. Fort 13 was constructed there circa 1870, one of 18 forts surrounding Bucharest and intended for defense against Turkish invasion. To increase its resilience, parts of Fort 13 were built as much as 30 feet underground. The excavated earth was piled around the fort as additional protection, and guard towers were placed on top of this wall. Around 1907, the Romanian government converted Fort 13 to a military prison. In 1948, it was turned over to the Ministry of the Interior, the Directorate General of Penitentiaries, and re-christened as a civil penitentiary.

Throughout its history as a prison, Fort 13 was the site of horrific abuse. For those interested, you can read more about that here.

When Ceaușescu came to power, Fort 13 – with its dank underground cells and existing culture of violent repression – was the logical place for him to throw political and religious prisoners. And so he did.

Today, there is an active civil prison surrounding Fort 13, but the Fort itself has been preserved as a museum. Or, at least, that’s the intention. In fact, you need to request permission well in advance of your visit, and permission may or may not be granted. This being Romania, permission might be granted and then rescinded at the last minute. Or, you might arrive unannounced and be ushered in without question.

We showed up at the Jilava Prison gate at the agreed time, passports in hand, phones locked in the van, as per the rules. But the guy who had approved our request months ago was nowhere to be found. “We’ll see if we can find the approval document in his office,” promised the man at the desk. Time passed. Stefan re-sent the email showing the approval, but it couldn’t be received by the email system at the prison. “Try sending it to my personal email instead,” said the man at the desk. “”

While we waited, the line behind us grew – working-class people, carrying fruit, clothing, and other gifts. It took me a bit to realize that none of them were there for the tour. I struck up a conversation with Andrei, there to visit his buddy, locked up on a DUI.

“We used to be afraid,” he told me. “But now we are so free that people are doing stupid things!”

I groused about the bureaucracy and the long wait.

“Ha! Typical. It is a shithole here.”

“Here at the prison, you mean, or…?”

“Everywhere. The entire country is a shithole.”

I had noticed some trailers in the parking lot, which appeared to be occupied. I asked Andrei if people were living in them, right there in the prison parking lot.

“Probably. Look around you! These people have no jobs. There is nothing here. But you have your own problems in US these days, eh? Your President Trump is nothing new, I will tell you that. He is the same kind of asshole we have been dealing with in Eastern Europe for decades.”

An hour later, we were allowed to enter. Two German tourists pretended to be part of our group and slipped in with us.

The only way to reach the gate of Fort 13 is by walking through the yard of Jilava Prison, which presents itself as a model of enlightened modern penal policy, focused on education and rehabilitation for the inmates. Stefan told us that Jilava had a unique program which gave preferential treatment (increased privileges, even early release) to inmates who wrote a book. The program became so popular that critics labeled the prison, “Jilava Publishing House.”

The yard of Jilava Prison – or at least our limited view of it – was surprisingly pleasant. There were flower and vegetable gardens, some elaborate inmate-painted murals (including one wall devoted to scenes from Avatar), and racks of bicycles available for use.

But then you reach the gate to Fort 13, and it looks like the entrance to a concentration camp. That impression is only reinforced by what you see inside: Long stone passageways, water seeping from the walls, lit by naked yellow bulbs; Pitch-black underground cells, all damp, some with several inches of rust-colored water on the floor; Rotting bunks with manacles attached; Troughs gouged into the cement floors of the cells for human waste.

We learned later that Jilava is a Romanian word of Slavic origin, meaning a humid or damp place.

Evidence of the planned museum was everywhere, including mannequins posed on some of the bunks and in dark corners of cells. Which led to a few startled yelps from my tour-mates. There was signage describing the conditions in the prison, and faded photos of the most famous inmates, but it was all amateurish, clearly just printed out on the office inkjet and slipped into a clear plastic protector, then taped to the wall. It all looked temporary, to be replaced by a more professional version once the funds were allocated.

All amateurish and hastily-produced… except for the elaborate 6-foot-by-3-foot sign dedicated to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been imprisoned there. A sign which was pretty clearly funded and installed by the Witnesses themselves.

Let me be clear: NOBODY should be imprisoned, tortured, or killed for their religious beliefs. What happened at Fort 13 was wrong, full stop. AND ALSO: I have some feelings about that expensive-looking, professionally-designed and somewhat outsized JW sign dominating the entrance to Fort 13 – particularly when I consider the many, many others who suffered there, and the shoddy commemoration of their experience. And also when I consider the widespread child sexual abuse that has been concealed by the JW church, and their family-destroying shunning policy. Harrumph. I’ll leave it at that.

The rest of our day was devoted to travel: North to Bucharest, and then further north to Sinaia. Not quite to Transylvania, but close! That is, if I’m understanding Google Maps correctly. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside vendor to buy wild berries – including some tiny bright orange things called sea buckthorn, which were tart AF. Like, an electric, head-buzzing, mouth-zinging, face-scrunching kind of tart.

We ended our day at Hotel Cumpatu, a taxidermy-themed hunting lodge in the Carpathian Mountains above downtown Sinaia. Climbing out of the van, I handed Susan her beloved hat, which I had sat on. We gathered in the hotel’s restaurant (“The Safari Club,” duh) for dinner. Once again, the menu was meat with meat and a side order of meat, but – because it’s not really a hotel for tourists – the menu was not available in English. Matthew had the genius idea to try Google Translate’s new Camera feature, which seemed like a mind-blowing leap forward in technology for travelers, right up until it translated the Romanian phrase for “mushroom gravy” as “pussy juice” and no I am not making that up.

DAY 6: Cumpatu – Sinaia – Brașov

King Carol I, monarch of Romania from 1866 to 1914, was an important dude because he oversaw Romania’s transition to an independent and sovereign nation. Infrastructure and industry were modernized under his reign, and he is now revered as a pillar of the modern Romanian state. (But let’s not forget that his troops also mercilessly quashed a peasant rebellion.)

One of the most famous monuments to Carol’s reign is Peleș Castle in the Southern Carpathian Mountains overlooking Sinaia, which he had constructed between 1873 and 1914 at a cost of 16,000,000 Romanian lei ($120 million in 2019 US dollars). Wikipedia describes its design as “Neo-Renaissance… combining different features of classic European styles, mostly following Italian elegance and German aesthetics along Renaissance lines.” To me, it looked Bavarian, like the real-world antecedent of the knock-offs in (phony Bavarian tourist town) Leavenworth, Washington.

Kaiser Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary visited in 1896 and posted a glowing Yelp review:

“The Royal Castle amongst other monuments, surrounded by extremely pretty landscape with gardens built on terraces, all at the edge of dense forests. The castle itself is very impressive through the riches it has accumulated: old and new canvases, old furniture, weapons, all sort of curios, everything placed with good taste.”

Peleș Castle is a crowded tourist destination and not “abandoned” in any sense of that word. But it was on our trip route, Matthew felt it was worth seeing (I agree!), and so it was our first stop on Day 6.

You can’t just wander around the castle by yourself; you have to pay for the official tour. Our humorless tour guide had clearly memorized her lines from a script, and recited them in a robotic sing-song voice devoid of emotion. “This room before you was designed as a place for King Carol I to relax because being a king is very stressful pause for laughter.”

Because the tour is on a tight schedule, and there are hundreds of people waiting to get in, and probably because Peleș Castle photo books and prints and t-shirts and coffee mugs are a primary source of income, you’re not allowed to use a tripod during the tour. In fact, unless you pay an extra fee, you’re not allowed to use anything they consider a professional camera. Derek and Matthew had negotiated some kind of special deal, wherein we would pay the extra fee for two of us, but all of us could use our cameras, as long as we didn’t slow down the tour, and no more than two of us were using our cameras at any given time, and the tour guide didn’t see us (I’m paraphrasing). Approximately once every ten minutes, a tour guide or security guard would sharply order us to put away our cameras, and we would have to explain our special arrangement all over again. I took a bunch of photos, but they were all taken on the move in dark rooms from the middle of a crowd whenever our tour guide was looking the other way, so they’re… not my finest work.

My only quibble with the Kaiser’s assessment (quoted earlier) would be with that last part: “…everything placed with good taste.” Almost every space in Peleș Castle seems to be chock-full of STUFF, in a million different conflicting design schemes. A few rooms – like the dark-wood library/meeting room with an arched window overlooking the main hall – were warm and inviting. But I found much of it overstuffed, aesthetically confused, and even – occasionally – ugly. Still, it was fascinating, the surrounding forests and gardens were lush and calming, and it was well worth the visit.

We drove down the hill to “downtown” Sinaia and parked for lunch. From a street vendor, I ordered the only thing that sounded appetizing – clatita cu banana si Nutella (crepe with banana and Nutella, but you probably could have figured that out) – and sat in a park. A local summer school teacher was emceeing a talent show featuring her students. Every kid, no matter how silly or simple their “talent,” was given a rousing introduction by their devoted teacher:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, would you PLEASE give an enthusiastic round of APPLAUSE for the amazing… MARIA!!”

After which 6-year-old Maria haltingly clomped out onto the stage, walking on “stilts” made of two overturned buckets. The applause was rapturous, with boisterous shouts of “Way to go, Maria!” from the parents and “Inghetata!” from me.

After lunch, Dragos and Mihai drove us to our home base for the next few days: Brașov. Before arrival, I pulled Derek aside and asked about the possibility of moving to my own room for the rest of the trip. I was finding that I needed some place to escape at the end of each day, which was no reflection on my roommate Brian. Derek made a couple of phone calls and hooked me up with a single room at a hotel a block away from everyone else, to my great relief. My stomach was also beginning to feel better.

Brașov is 103 miles north of Bucharest, surrounded by the Southern Carpathians in the historical region of (finally!) Transylvania. A bustling, pedestrian-friendly mid-sized town, Brașov was a highlight of the trip for me. A mix of quaint historic buildings (no skyscrapers!) and hip nightclubs, cobblestone streets and modern boutique hotels, there seemed to be people on the street at all hours – dining, drinking, talking, smoking. Looming over downtown Brașov was the HOLLYWOOD-esque BRASOV sign on densely-forested Tâmpa Mountain, with hiking trails and a gondola to the top.

While we were in town, preparations were underway for a huge outdoor public concert. I was thankful to have a room of my own, but it was also much closer to the concert venue. Sleep was made slightly more difficult by the sound checks happening each evening, one block away.

We had dinner that first night in Sergiana Restaurant, a converted wine cellar, with dim lighting and a low, arched brick ceiling above us. Barb told us about her job as a home de-cluttering agent. I ordered chicken wings but was served something that I’m pretty sure was pork. I passed on the fried lard, though I have no doubt it was delicious. Our meal was interrupted frequently by waitstaff singing birthday songs to patrons, just like at Red Robin, so I felt right at home.

DAY 7: Brașov

We showed up at the sprawling factory complex at the agreed-upon place and time, but the guy who approved our visit wasn’t there, so we waited. He finally arrived, only to inform us that the army had taken over the building in question, so our permission had been rescinded. Sound familiar? Welcome to Romania! Luckily, Matthew, Derek and Stefan had scouted several alternates for exactly this reason, and Location B was fantastic: A huge warehouse, formerly a tractor factory but now a recycling center for disused machinery from all over Romania. Gigantic tractor treads rolled like a Cinnabon, racks full of rusted gears in every size, ancient control panels on articulated arms for machines of unknown purpose. The floor, sopping with oil, had become a trap for birds and rats. Amidst green foliage, a white-haired man used an ancient cutting torch to reduce I-beams to manageable chunks.

Next, we visited a massive and highly photogenic campus of brick factory buildings. Before exploring, we had to check in with the security guy, who had set up shop in one of the now-empty buildings. His office – only accessible through a window via a plywood ramp – was furnished with 1960s-era chairs and desks and light fixtures he had scavenged from the surrounding buildings. We were told that this place had been a railroad parts factory at one time, but I suspect there were other businesses on the site, as well. Brian found a pretty sweet laboratory full of vials and beakers and a flux capacitor (I didn’t see it myself, so I’m relying on Brian’s reporting here). One room, with paintings of cartoon characters on the wall, could have been a school or daycare. In the brick-and-iron factory buildings, light streamed in through mold-covered skylights far overhead, lending the whole place a sickly green miasma. It was glorious.

One office was paneled with rotting wood, which probably seemed like super-swanky corporate chic when it was installed. The floor was carpeted with thousands of blueprints and schematic drawings for industrial machinery, one of which I may have accidentally stuffed in my backpack. Or not!

The buildings were slated for demolition, so Stefan got permission to take a couple of neat “TELEPHONE” and “BATHROOM” signs off the walls.

Back in downtown Brașov, Jody and I walked to the park at the base of Tâmpa Mountain, waited in line for a half hour or so, and caught the last gondola of the day up to the BRASOV sign.

Jody wanted to join an evening walking tour with Stefan, so she took a quick look at the sign then caught the final gondola back down. But I was in the mood for a hike by myself, and my health was much improved, so, as the sun set over Brașov, I walked to the bottom on the aptly-named Serpentinelor Trail.

That evening, our tour group gathered for dinner at Festival 39, a Moulin-Rouge-esque Art Nouveau saloon-slash-restaurant. At the concert venue in the center of town, an opera singer performed for an empty auditorium while the tech guys practiced with their lasers and flash pots. The next day would be our second-to-last of sightseeing in Romania. Predictably, as my stomach crisis came to an end, I caught a head cold from one of my tour-mates who shall remain nameless (Sally).

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  1. Sea buckthorn oil has a lot of omega seven unsaturated oil. It is claimed to help membranes work better.

  2. I love the picture of the mannequin body parts! Wish you’d brought home a leg.

    • Ha! Me, too. Unfortunately, the prison guards were pretty intimidating.

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