The Fortunes & Misfortunes Of Transylvania – Des to Bethlen via Baedeker The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Six)

Reading Baedeker on Transylvania one gets the sense that the town of Des (Dej, Romania) had a great deal going for it in 1900. It was a “Royal Free Town, capital of the county of Szolnok-Doboka.” The adage of location, location, location best explains Des’ prominence. In their first sentence describing Des, Baedeker makes this clear, stating that the town lies “at the confluence of the Great and Little Szamos”. The town was a meeting point in more than one way, as it was located where the Transylvanian Plateau and Transylvanian Plain meet. A confluence point for rivers, transition zone for land forms and junction on an important travel corridor, Des was always a highly strategic point.

The town also greatly benefited from its proximity to salt deposits. Its supply of “white gold” was one of the most coveted commodities throughout its history. Evidence suggests salt was being mined from the deposits as far back as Roman times. A Roman road and settlement were both located in the area. For centuries, the Szamos River acted as a natural highway for salt to sprinkle out from the area to larger markets. The river’s role in transporting trade goods brought many tradesmen and travelers to the town. Once the railroad arrived in the latter part of the 19th century, many more people arrived and departed throughout the day. Some of these would have been travelers brought by Baedeker to the town.

Snapshots of Des in 1902 - From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Snapshots of Des in 1902 – From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Regime Change – The Harsh Hands Of Oppression
Many things have changed in Dej since Baedeker’s 1900 edition was published, one that has not is the paltry range of accommodation on offer. Baedeker lists two hotels worth staying at in the town, today TripAdvisor lists a grand total of three. Modern travelers have the additional drawback of not being able to dine at Des railway station restaurant which has long since disappeared. More substantial changes have taken place in the town’s population between then and now. The transformation of Des (Hungarian) to Dej (Romanian) is more than the superficial shuffling of a couple letters in the Latin alphabet. Baedeker remarks that Des population of 7,700 is “chiefly Magyar”. According to the 1910 census (the earliest one available online), 70% of the residents were Magyar and 26% were Romanian. In addition, there were over 400 Saxons. Today nearly nine out of ten people in Dej are Romanian, just 11% are Magyar while the Saxons have almost all vanished.

There is no mention of Des’ Jewish population in either Baedeker or the latest census (2011) for Dej. During the era of Austro-Hungarian administration, the Jews of Des were counted in with the rest of the Hungarians, because other than Yiddish, Magyar was their most common language. Thus, the Hungarian portion of the population was boosted by several thousand. There are only a handful of Jews left in Dej today. This is due to the catastrophic effects of the Holocaust followed by the resulting post-war immigration to Palestine by survivors. For good reason they no longer felt welcome in the town. It was Hungarian officials under German guidance that prosecuted the Holocaust in northern Transylvania (part of Hungary from 1940 – 1944) with such deadly malevolence. Ironically, Hungarians would soon feel the harsh hand of oppression during the Ceaucescu regime. In this way, the persecutor became the persecuted. The upshot is that Dej became a Romanian city, not only by nation, but also by ethnicity.

Rising Above All - The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

Rising Above All – The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

The Nature Of Transylvania – From Rural Idyll To Rural Disillusion
One thing that has not changed in Dej is the Calvary Reformed Church, an impressive work of Gothic architecture. Baedeker referred to it as a “Handsome Protestant Church of the 15th century”. This splendid edifice became a model for the many wooden churches found throughout Romania today. It was constructed over a seventy year period straddling the 15th and 16th centuries. A seventy-two meter tower was added in 1643. Since completion, it has become a soaring symbol that rises above everything else in the town. The church was well worth a stop in 1900 and still is today for any traveler interested in architecture. Baedeker’s text on Des also mentioned the nearby settlement of Decskana, a few kilometers to the southwest. The salt that brought Des most of its wealth derived from mines in this location.

As Des was the approximate midpoint of a journey between Klausenberg and Bistritz, it was also where the railway carriages were changed out. This made it a good place for the traveler to stretch their legs and enjoy a meal before embarking on the final half of their journey. When the train rolled back out of the station it began to head eastward. Now traveling along the Upper Szomas River Valley’s right bank, the scenery would have been lovely in the spring, summer and early autumn with cultivated fields in the surrounding countryside and low mountains hovering in the northern distance. Villages were a constant reminder of the rural nature of Transylvania. In 1900, the landscape between Des and Bistritz was much like it is today. The only major development in the countryside at that time and still today is agriculture. In 1900 this was a land only beginning to grapple with the demands of an industrial age. That age never really arrived, at least not in a sustainable sense. The railroad was possibly the greatest innovation to ever arrive in this area. It has carried and continues today to carry many locals away from rural Transylvania in search of greater prosperity elsewhere.

Renaissance Man - Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 - 1629)

Renaissance Man – Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 – 1629)

In The Beginning –  An Ancestral Residence
The latter half of the journey to Bistritz passed through many small villages and at least one larger town of note, Bethlen (Beclean, Romania), the “ancestral residence of the Bethlen family”. That surname denoted one of the most famous and powerful families in Transylvanian history. The Bethlen family provided Transylvania with its greatest leader, Gabor Bethlen, who ruled as Prince of Transylvania from 1613 – 1629. Prince Gabor reigned over an unlikely Renaissance in his homeland. Prince Bethlen’s Transylvania enjoyed nominal independence during a time when the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires were carving up what was left of the Hungarian Kingdom.  In 1900 the Bethlen name was still spoken with reverence and not just from a historical perspective. As the 20th century began, the Bethlen’s were still one of the most powerful and prestigious families in Hungary. In the coming years, Istvan Bethlen, would become Prime Minister of Hungary (1921 – 1931). He eventually died in a Soviet prison after World War II. His fate was not unlike that of so many other Transylvanian aristocrats. As for the town where his ancestors first realized their destiny, it is still there. Like so much in Transylvania it did not change very much, but the world around it certainly did.

Apahid, Aristocrats & Armenians -Klausenberg To Szamosujvar The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Five)

A turn of the 20th century traveler going from Klausenberg to Bistritz* was in for quite a journey. The trip by train took seven hours, today that same journey has been reduced to a little over three. The train only averaged ten miles an hour over the entire route. Such a leisurely pace had all the stealth of a snail’s pace by the standards of today, but in the golden age of European railway travel that amount of time was nothing short of transformative. Consider that before the railway was constructed travel between the two cities would have taken several days across dusty, bone jarring roads at the best of times. Traveling by wagon carriage included the added drawback of possibly being robbed or held hostage by highwaymen.

Conversely, the comfort and security of a railway carriage offered travelers an opportunity to see the countryside while enjoying a fine meal in luxurious surroundings. With so much time on their hands, it was a good thing that these travelers would have their trusty Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia And Bosnia Handbook For Traveller’s by their side to guide them the entire way. The Baedeker of that era may have been less than forthcoming with narratives and historical details, but unlike modern guidebooks of today, they provided a linear account of towns, villages and sites along the way. The itinerary would have been of great use in passing time. Today it is just as much a pleasure for the modern railway enthusiast or armchair traveler to follow along with to see what has and has not changed since 1900.

Illuminating The Gepids - Artifact discovered at Apahida

Illuminating The Gepids – Artifact discovered at Apahida (Credit: Sailko)

Missing History – The Remnants Of Kingdoms & Aristocrats
The railway route from Klausenberg to Bistritz first went west and then after twelve kilometers headed north toward the city of Dej. Then, as now, the line followed the Kis-Szamos River up its valley (Somesul Mic). Along the way it passed close to or through many villages. The first of these was Apahida. Due to its proximity to modern Cluj, the village of Apahida has now been incorporated in a commune with seven other villages. Baedeker only mentioned that it was “a Rumanian village with about 1000 inhabitants”, but in 1889 a major archaeological discovery had been made in the village. Since that time several digs have brought to light other artifacts that have caused some scholars to believe Apahid stands on the spot where the capital of the Gepid Kingdom was located. The Gepids were an East Germanic tribe that joined the Goths in their invasion of the Roman province of Dacia in the late 3rd century. This invasion would lead to the end of Roman rule in what is now Romania. If Apahida was indeed their seat of power the remains of any Gepid settlement have all but vanished, much like this mysterious tribe did only a few centuries after their arrival.

At Apahida, the route turns north, crosses the river and soon passes by Valasul-Bonczhida (Bontida). The guide does not mention that nearby was Banffy Kastely. At that time, it had not yet become part of history, it was in the process of still making it. A beautiful Baroque manor, the Kastely was residence of the aristocrat, politician, author and theatrical director Miklos Banffy de Losocnz. Banffy would go on to enshrine his name in Hungarian and later International literature with his Transylvania Trilogy, a set of novels that offers the best portrait of the Transylvanian aristocracy in its waning days. The Kastely was looted and large parts of it destroyed by retreating German forces in 1944 for Banffy’s role in attempting to unsuccessfully negotiate Hungary’s exit from the war. What is left of the Kastely today is a mere shell of its former splendor despite years of restoration work.

Former Splendor- Banffy Kastely in Bonczhida

Former Splendor- Banffy Kastely in Bonczhida (Credit: Karoly Cserna)

Armenopolis – Making Their Presence Felt
About a third of the way through the journey, Baedeker informed travelers they were arriving at a rather substantial town, Szamosujvar (present day Gherla). The town had a population of 5,800 in 1900 and it has increased more than threefold since that time. Baedeker mentions the two things for which Gherla still remains famous – and infamous – for today, its Armenian heritage and a state run prison. Lost among the notoriety of the disparate ethnic groups of Transylvania – Romanians, Hungarians, Jews, Saxons, Szekely and Roma – is the Armenians. Their history in Transylvania goes back to the mid-17th century when several hundred migrated to the area. Armenians were highly sought for their skill as merchants in trade endeavors. Transylvania was much more stable than other parts of Hungary during the 17th century, thus they gravitated to the area.

Szamos uj var became the largest Armenian community in Transylvania and was first known by its Latin name of Armenopolis. By the late 19th century the Armenian community had become in the words of Baedeker “now Magyarized”, causing them to lose touch with the language and culture of their homeland. Baedeker does point travelers to the Armenian-Catholic Church (one of the largest churches in present day Romania) with “an altarpiece attributed to Rubens” It can still be seen today. Baedeker also mentions a fortress on the northern side of town that had been converted into a prison. It had been the last home for Sandor Rosza, one of the most famous Hungarian highwaymen. Rosza was a sort of rogue Robin Hood type of character who made a career robbing travelers on the Great Hungarian Plain. Later, under the Romanian communists, the prison took a much more sinister turn.

Lasting Impression - Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Gherla

Lasting Impression – Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Gherla (Credit: Aladar Klenner)

Drowned Out – The Prison At Gherla
During the imposition of Stalinism, Gherla held imprisoned enemies of the state. Their confinement included a horrific re-education program consisting of bestial types of physical and psychological torture. This program was ended in the early 1950’s, but the prison could not escape even greater infamy. In 1970 one of the most infamous events in the prison’s history occurred when a flood hit Gherla. The prison warden refused to evacuate the prisoners from their cells which were slowly submerged. It is estimated that 600 prisoners drowned in this malevolent act of indifference. Fortunately, travelers in 1900 had no idea of the tremendous tumult the future would bring to Transylvania. Instead they could enjoy views of the Kis-Szamos and low lying hills prescribing the valley as they neared Dej, the mid-point of their journey and the most sizable stopover between Klausenberg and Bistritz.

*Note: Klausenberg is now Cluj, Romania and Bistritz is Bistrita, Romania

Click here for: The Fortunes & Misfortunes Of Transylvania – Des to Bethlen via Baedeker The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Six)

Klausenberg To Kolozsvar To Cluj – A Transylvanian Transition: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Three)

Baedeker was nothing if not thorough. Their Handbooks for Travellers contained thousands of details molded into itineraries such as the one that would carry me both backward and forward in time from Klausenberg to Bistritz. The seemingly infinite number of details culminating in a travel itinerary between two of Transylvania’s most important cities. To compare the information from 1900 with everything that had happened to the towns and villages along the route since that time makes for a fascinating journey. One that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a world that has been by turns lost or transformed and in some places, surprisingly unchanged. I began to read, reread and then study in intimate detail the Transylvania section of the Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia Handbook For Travellers. The world of yesterday and today began to collide, creating something altogether new. Forming by way of comparison, contrast and contradiction. This development melded past with present, allowing me to see how much had changed and discover just how much had not.

Eclecticism & Electricity – New York In Transylvania
Before a turn of the 20th century traveler departed Klausenberg they would have taken some time to tour the city. Following the advice of Baedeker, they could book a room at the elegant New York Hotel, which happened to be the guide’s first recommendation. The New York was a striking four story edifice built in the eclectic style, reflecting that growing architectural trend. Among its most striking features was a turret that topped the apex where both sides of the hotel intersected. The interior offered a new class of comfort. There were 65 rooms, kitted out with plush furnishings. In addition, the hotel had its own generator allowing guests to enjoy electric light, a first anywhere in the city.

The New York also housed a coffee house which was the favorite haunt of numerous authors both those who lived in and visited the city. Among the clientele was Hungary’s most famous writer of that time, Mor Jokai. One of the present-day streets fronted by the edifice is named for Jokai. The hotel was the crown jewel for accommodation in the city. A place where travelers could rest and relax in refined luxury. The New York, like Kolozsvar had an ill-starred future ahead of it. It was later renamed the Continental Hotel.  When the German Army occupied Kolozsvar during the spring of 1944 it acted as the Gestapo’s first headquarters. After World War II it was turned into a youth hostel for students. In the 1960s it was renamed the Continental Hotel until it was sold in the early 21st century and shuttered for a planned conversion into a shopping mall.

Glitter & Rust - The former New York Hotel in Cluj

Glitter & Rust – The former New York Hotel in Cluj (Credit: Acquario 51)

Changing Faces  – Playing The Percentages
The New York Hotel was just beginning to realize its sparkling promise as the new century opened. At that time Baedeker reported Klausenberg’s population as 34,500. Figures given by Romanian sources today show the population at 50,000 (Hungarian sources provide a similar number). The total number is not as important as the percentage of each ethnic group in the city. Klausenberg/Kolozsvar/Cluj* was multi-cultural before multiculturalism happened to be a fashionable idea. In 1900 the city was overwhelmingly Hungarian. Magyars made up 82% of the population. Romanians were the second largest group with 14% and Saxons third at 3.5%. These figures are both enlightening and deceiving. In northern Transylvania, Hungarians were overwhelmingly urban dwellers while Romanians dominated the countryside.

The Hungarian figure was also boosted by 6,000 Jews, because they spoke Magyar as their mother tongue they were counted as such. As an individual class Jews were almost as numerous as Romanians in Kolozsvar and much more powerful due to their varied commercial interests and high rate of employment in the professional classes. Being a German publishing firm, Baedeker refers to the city by its German name, even though Saxons were a minute proportion of the population. Saxons had also been mentioned earlier in the Transylvania section. The introduction included information on each of the region’s five main ethnic groups – Hungarians, Romanians, Saxons, Szekeler and Roma. Hungarians would continue as the city’s majority ethnic group until the 1960’s.

The Romanian communist government’s policy of rapid industrialization went hand in hand with diluting the Hungarian share of the populace. After the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu at the end of 1989 the borders of Romania opened up to the west. Many of Cluj’s Hungarian residents fled to Hungary in search of greater economic opportunities. The upshot was that by 2011, the Romanian share of Cluj’s population was 81.5% almost the same as the Hungarian majority’s share in 1900. There was one major difference though, the population of Cluj was now 324,000, 16.5% of which was Hungarian. Cluj had become a Romanian city in a matter of a few generations.

A Fleeting Image - Old Kolozsvar

A Fleeting Image – Old Kolozsvar (Credit:

Strolling Down The Strada – From Aristocrats To Peasants To The Present
A visitor clutching their Baedeker had two choices when they arrived at Klausenberg’s main train station. They could either choose to head by rail for points further east or take a self-guided tour around the city using the Handbook for Travellers. Baedeker’s chosen route through Klausenberg started at the station then slowly headed westward towards the Belvaros (Inner city), an area stuffed with scintillating architecture. Buildings in the Belvaros showcased a much deeper past than the relatively new train station could offer. Getting to the heart of the city meant a rather long walk down Franz Josef utca. That same street still exists, but the name has long since been changed.

Instead of an Emperor, the street is now named after a peasant. Strada Horea commemorates one of the Romanian leaders of the Transylvania Peasant Uprising in 1784. The name may have changed, but the strada sill acts as one of the city’s main transport arteries. Travelers of the past and present followed the same paths. Now shops, restaurants and grocery stores line the route. A sure sign that capitalism in all its varied forms has conquered Romania in a little over twenty-five years. The transition from communism to a free market economy has been so rapid that the visitor is unlikely to even take notice. Only after crossing a bridge over the Somesul Mic River (Little Szamos) and entering the Belvaros does the true splendor of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar and Cluj begin to shine through.

*Note: Klausenberg (German), Kolozsvar (Hungarian) and Cluj (Romania) are used interchangeably throughout this post. In general a specific derivation of the name is used depending on what group administered the city, except in the case of Klausenberg which is used when referring to Baedeker’s text on the city.

Click here for: Arti-factual Details – Kolozsvar & Cluj Transformed: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Four)

From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

If a person lives long enough in Bucharest, they are bound to experience an earthquake. Most of these earthquakes are relatively minor, often in the range of 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. They offer a reminder that the city is within range of some of the most suspect terrain in Europe. Shockwave after shockwave rises to the surface from deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. In the worst-case scenario, Bucharest is riven by this thunderous force causing the ground to ripple, buildings to buckle and a cacophony of calamity to bellow forth, echoing through the concrete corridors of Romania’s capital city. In the 20th century, few Bucharestians were able to escape this experience. Some felt it more acutely than others, specifically those who were in the city on March 4, 1977.

Epicentered - Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake

Epicentered – Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake (Credit: U.S. Geologocial Survey)

Fatal Fault Lines – Undermining Urbanization
By 1977 Bucharest was a massive city. It had been over three and a half decades since the last time it suffered a major earthquake. That was on November 10, 1940 when the city’s population stood at approximately 800,000. Such a concentrated mass of people in a highly urbanized area exacerbated the number of killed and wounded. The city had suffered more powerful quakes in the past, such as in 1802, but the population at that time had been only 35,000. Put in twenty-two times the amount of people in a much larger, more built up urban environment and the number of casualties was certain to multiply. This was the case in 1977. The population of Bucharest had more than doubled since 1940, growing to over 1.8 million people.

In a city that was bursting with more residents, apartment blocks and other large buildings served to expand the urban footprint. This mass urbanization was the upshot of policies by the communist regime that governed Romania throughout the post-World War II and Cold War eras. More people led to more structures, which in turn increased the likelihood that the next earthquake would cause catastrophic damage. Modernity and calamity were on a collision course encouraged by communist policy. All it would take was another slippage on the fatal fault line deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. Every half century or so this had proved to be Bucharest’s undoing. Such a subterranean shift occurred on the night of March 5, 1977 just as many of the city’s inhabitants were turning in for the night.

Willful Destruction - Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest

Willful Destruction – Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest (Credit: Radu Stefanescu)

A Matter Of Luck, Fate & Structural Engineering  – Plunging Into Ruin
At precisely 10:55 local time the earth began to rumble across eastern Romania with an almost unimaginable force. This became dramatically visible in parts of Bucharest, specifically those with lots of buildings that were constructed in the period between the First and Second World Wars. The overwhelming majority of these had not been constructed with reinforced concrete. The sheer force of the earthquake, estimated at a 7.2 magnitude, sent 28 multi-story buildings across the city center crashing to the ground. The effect must have been terrifying. One building after another disappearing into plumes of dust, cries from the rubble, friends and loved ones buried beneath smoldering ruins. Those who were lucky enough to be in a building that refused to buckle looked on in horror. Were they to be next? What kept the structures In which they stood or slept from plunging into ruin? Could this really be happening? The difference between life and death was a matter of luck, fate and structural engineering.

Bucharest was quickly turned into ground zero for carnage caused by the earthquake. This was in stark contrast to the more powerful 1940 Earthquake (7.7 magnitude), where damage in provincial areas, especially Moldavia and Bessarabia, was greater. Conversely, nine-tenths of those killed or injured in the 1986 earthquake lived in Bucharest. Buildings that had withstood, but also been weakened by the 1940 earthquake now suffered a moment of reckoning many would not survive. Almost all the large buildings that collapsed had been constructed between 1920 and 1940. The immediate and dire consequences of this fact would not be lost on communist party officials, specifically the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu, who was out of the country at the time for a trip abroad to Africa. When the increasingly dictatorial Ceaucescu got back home and surveyed the damage, he saw the ruined areas as less a tragedy and more an opportunity to remake the capital into an ideal showpiece of totalitarian architecture. His future vision of Bucharest was as a socialist-realist architectural utopia. The 1977 Earthquake gave him an unprecedented opportunity to make this vision a reality.

Megalomaniacal Ceausima - Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest

Megalomaniacal Ceausima – Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest (Credit: Contessa Binter)

Ceausima – Systemization’s Failure
Anyone who has spent time in Bucharest cannot help but notice the endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that blot the city skyline in seemingly every direction. These buildings and other concrete concoctions. such as the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, were constructed in the years after the 1977 earthquake. Many of them appeared in the exact same place where buildings had collapsed during the earthquake. Other areas with both damaged and non-damaged buildings underwent demolition to make way for Ceaucescu’s systemization development plan. Nowhere was this process carried out with more thoroughness, lack of empathy and willful disregard for historical architecture than in the creation of the Centrul Civic in Bucharest.

The Centrul Civic as it exists today, covers an area of 8 square kilometers (3.1 square miles). It was overlaid on an area of historic Bucharest where a massive demolition had been carried out by order of the authorities. What the 1977 earthquake did not destroy, the Ceaucescu regime made sure explosives and bulldozers did. Damage caused by the earthquake paled in comparison to the aesthetic and cultural destruction carried out by the regime. It was so vast that a new term was coined for this destruction of Romania’s heritage, Ceausima. A word combined from the first four letters of the dictator’s last name and the last four letters of Hiroshima. This word summed up the wanton demolition and destruction that resulted in the reactionary reasoning which followed the earthquake.

Thus, a natural disaster became the catalyst, impetus and stimulus to further the policy of systemization. The upshot of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal scheme was the destruction of 26 churches, monasteries and synagogues in addition to an array of historic homes and cultural buildings in the area that would become home to the Centrul Civic. In their place came massive residential and civic structures made with marble facades and tons of reinforced concrete. Reasons for the creation of this architectural abomination were twofold. First and foremost, to create a legacy for Ceaucescu. Secondly, to withstand another earthquake. Each of these goals were achieved, just not in the way those who created them assumed. The legacy of Ceaucescu’s systemization program in Bucharest is one ghastly eyesore after another. As for the buildings’ structural integrity, they are likely to withstand another earthquake, but many Romanians probably wish otherwise.



Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

Prior to World War II, Sunday was a day of rest in Romania just as it is today. An opportunity to attend church, spend time with family and friends, enjoy a meal, followed by leisure time at home. This was true whether someone lived in a city, town or village. It was what tens of thousands of Romanians were doing in Moldova and Wallachia on November 10, 1940. Little did they suspect that their humble abodes, middle class residences or ornate mansions would suddenly be transformed into death traps, rendered lethal by collapsing columns, caved in roofs and shattered windows.  Their day of rest, relaxation and respite was suddenly interrupted in the worst way possible. At precisely 3:39 in the afternoon one of the worst earthquakes in European history began to rumble upward and outward from the Vrancea Mountains on the southeastern edge of the Carpathians.

The power and ferocity of this earthquake was shocking, but it could not have been that much of a surprise since the ground had been trembling and shaking for months. There had been ample warning beforehand that something was quite literally afoot. On the evening of October 22nd, an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale had struck the region. That one had been preceded by several months’ worth of quakes measuring anywhere from 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. The same minor cataclysms had started up again during the final week of October and first week in November. Romanians had no choice but to hope they might get lucky and sidestep what appears in retrospect to have been inevitable. On an ill-fated autumn afternoon their luck had run out.

Rescue operations for survivors in Carlton Bloc

Rescue operations for survivors in Carlton Bloc (Credit: Iosif Berman – National Geogrpahic Romania)

Spectacular Malevolence-  From Modern To Medieval
The shock waves struck the Moldavian, Muntenian and Wallachian countryside with a force that had not been seen since the 1802 earthquake had laid much of the same area to waste. The effects of the 1940 Vrancea Earthquake were felt across a massive swath of Europe, stretching from the Greek Peninsula all the way up into the gloomy forests of northwestern Russia. The epicenter was centered on the town of Panciu, where the homes were reduced to matchsticks. Less than 30 kilometers away, the city of Focsani was transformed into an almost complete ruin. The 1940 earthquake has also been called the Bucharest Earthquake due to the damage it inflicted upon the Romanian capital, but this can be misleading. Rural areas suffered just as much or more devastation. Provincial cities met with unprecedented disaster. Modernity turned to the medieval in a few minutes. All it took to travel back in time several hundred years was a 7.7 magnitude earthquake.

Fate was as unkind to provincial areas as it was to Bucharest. Take for instance, the city of Chisinau (currently the capital of Moldova), with a population seven times less than Bucharest and a much smaller urban footprint. It ended up with almost the same number of buildings destroyed (172 vs. 185) as its bigger brother. In an asymmetrical stroke of spectacular malevolence, the earthquake occurred at a time when Chisinau and Bessarabia (present day Moldova) were undergoing a human disaster the likes of which they had never experienced. The Stalinist Soviet Union had been given carte blanche by Nazi Germany to forcibly annex the territory from Romania. This led to hundreds of thousands being arrested and either sent to the gulag or worse. Another 300,000 refugees fled to Romania, a massive influx that the floundering government was ill suited to manage. Now the Romanian government was also dealing with a natural disaster on an epic scale.

Points Of Collpase– Natural Demolition
In some areas, Bucharest sustained catastrophic damage. Nowhere was this more true than at the Carlton Bloc. In the 1802 Vrancea Earthquake, the city’s tallest building at that time, Coltea Tower, had been reduced to rubble. In 1940, the building which stood above all else in modern Bucharest, the Carlton Block, collapsed. No one expected such a calamity, least of all its builders who believed that this fourteen story, reinforced concrete structure could withstand the mightiest of blows. Tragically, they turned out to be wrong. The Block underwent a deadly natural demolition that ended up taking the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting inhabitants. A photo taken in the quake’s aftermath shows throngs of rescuers taking part in the operation. Their attempts were largely in vain. The concrete which had upheld the Block since its construction, can be seen strewn about in haphazard piles, entombing many of those who had been at home when the earthquake struck.

Carlton Block was the scene of the earthquakes most infamous fatalities and as such they would not soon be forgotten. The collapse of Carlton Block was largely responsible for Bucharest becoming inextricably linked with the destructive force of the 1940 earthquake.  It also obscured the damages incurred by other areas of the city and country. Estimates of property damage were easier to assess than the number of deaths. Information was heavily censored in Romania at the time, thus exact figures are difficult to calculate. The best estimates show over 500 deaths and 1,500 casualties, though both totals may be much higher. Reports from provincial cities and rural villages were incomplete at best. Bessarabia was under Soviet control, which meant the flow of information was even more restricted than in Romania. It is hard to imagine that only 72 lives were lost in Chisinau when 2,765 buildings were damaged. The human, architectural and economic tolls were all immense.

Ruin From Within & Without – Into The Cauldron
Neither Bessarabia nor Romania could afford such a calamitous event. The former was suffering under the iron grip of Stalinism, thousands had already disappeared in the night, now hundreds disappeared amid the rubble. As for Romania, it was on a near wartime footing. In 1940, it suffered the forcible annexation of both Bukovina and Bessarabia at the hands of the Soviet Union. That was followed by the loss of northern Transylvania to Hungary. The 1940 Vrancea Earthquake only added to these woes. The nation was on the verge of ruin from within and without. Soon the nation would be swept up into the cauldron of World War II. Romania was a land that had been shaken to its core.

Click here for: From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

Bells rang out across a wide swath of Eastern Europe. This was no cause for celebration, instead it signified the beginning of a tragedy. Across the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia bells tolled. Further to the north, in the Austrian imperial city of Lemberg church bells began to ring for no apparent reason. The same was true in Kiev. The effect of what was happening could be felt as far away as Warsaw, Moscow and St. Petersburg. A movement was afoot, not one caused by the might of armies, the will of kings or great masses of the peasantry. Instead, this movement came from something much deeper. At its core, the movement caused churches to buckle, palaces to collapse and the uprooting of statues. It made both rich and poor homeless in a matter of minutes. The movement would be one of the most powerful to ever jolt Europe. It emanated outward from deep within the obscure Vrancea Mountains what was known at the time as Moldavia and today is part of Romania.

This movement was a massive earthquake, the likes of which had never been felt before in an area that had long been known as one of the shakiest in Europe. Estimates would later be made that this earthquake measured a 7.9 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the most powerful in European history. Though the earthquake inflicted tremendous physical destruction, it killed only a handful of people. Perhaps that is why today, hardly anyone remembers what happened in Bucharest on Tuesday, October 26, 1802. The event is little more than a footnote in a handful of history books. Yet for the city of Bucharest, the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia as well as those who lived through it, the day was unforgettable.

Ready To Be Toppled - The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

Ready To Be Toppled – The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

A City In Ruin  – Damaged Goods
In 1802 Bucharest bore little resemblance to the city that would eventually come to dominate Romania’s political, economic and cultural life. It had a population of approximately 35,000. The city was part of Wallachia, which was administered under the Phanariote system. Though part of the Ottoman Empire, it was given a wide degree of autonomy under Phanariote rulers. This ruling class came from Greeks who were from Constantinople. The empire appointed them to rule over their Orthodox subjects. In 1802, a new Phanariote ruler, Constantine Ypsilanti, had just taken the helm as Hospodar (Lord) of Wallachia. His rule was about to take a turn for the worst due to a natural event beyond his or anyone else’s control. Major events such as earthquakes were viewed by many as ominous portents of worse things to come. Historical sources state that the earthquake struck at midday.  At 12:55 local time the ground began to shake violently. One of the worst earthquakes in history was underway.

The earthquake lasted for ten minutes, an incredible amount of time by the standards of such tremors. This was no ordinary earthquake. Such massive force coupled with how long it occurred led to widespread destruction throughout the city. Even the sturdiest structures were no match for nature’s fury. At that time, the tallest structure in Bucharest was the Coltea Tower. This was Bucharest’s most notable landmark, used both as a bell tower and fire watch. The earthquake proved much too strong for the upper part of the tower which soon collapsed. Its 1,700 kilogram bell tumbled into the rubble. Only the tower’s lower half managed to withstand the initial force. Meanwhile, other structures in the city suffered grave damage. A skyline that had been filled with steeples was suddenly marked by plumes of dust. Churches, monasteries, stately dwellings and humble abodes were all left in ruins. The same was true in the countryside. Damage was widespread throughout Moldavia and even reached into eastern Transylvania.

The Mighty Have Fallen - The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake

The Mighty Have Fallen – The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake (Credit: Charles Doussault)

Fate & Destiny – From Rubble To Reconstruction
One of the more astonishing aspects of the 1802 earthquake is the low number of deaths that were reported. The official toll given is only four, which seems scarcely believable. Obviously, records from that time are sketchy, which likely led to a lower total of deaths than the actual number. On the other hand, Bucharest, where the majority of reports concerning destruction originated from would have had plenty of literate eyewitnesses attesting to fatalities. Historians and scientists have theorized on why so few lives were lost. The answer comes down to population density, specifically the lack thereof. The buildings of early 19th century Bucharest were not densely packed together the way they are today. When one building collapsed it did not produce a domino effect that might damage or cause other structures to in turn collapse. In addition, most buildings were made of timber, which was much less dangerous to health and safety.

Bucharest’s inhabitants may have survived relatively unscathed, but the same could not be said for the city’s physical infrastructure. The earthquake left it a vast ruin. This did not bode well for the newly installed Hospodar of Wallachia, Ypsilantis. Fate could hardly have conjured a more inauspicious beginning to his rule. Amid this crisis, Ypsilantis took it upon himself to energize the rebuilding of Bucharest. He first combatted looting by enhancing security in what was left of the city. Rules were then put into place whereby contractors could not overcharge for their services. Wage limits were set and work was regulated. These measures allowed the city to be largely rebuilt in just a few years.

The Reconstructor - Constantine Ypsilantis

The Reconstructer – Constantine Ypsilantis (Credit: Marinos Bretos)

A State Of Instability – Shattering Truths
Ypsilantis’ rule only lasted until 1806 when he was deposed. His visionary leadership led to the successful rebuilding of what would become Romania’s greatest city, but he would not be there to see its growth. In exile, he lived under the protection of Russia’s tsar while supervising a military barracks in Kiev. In 1819 he died far away from the city he helped recreate. By that time, the 1802 earthquake had already begun to fade from memory. It would not be long though, before nature reinserted itself into the fears of another generation. Bucharest was to be constantly reminded of just how unstable a place it held in the natural world.

Click here for: Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

Terrifying Tremors In Eastern Europe – Seismic Effects: Earthquakes In Hungary & Romania (Part One)

Anytime there is a hurricane, tornado or blizzard in the United States, my Hungarian wife never fails to remind me of the genteel climate in her homeland and the greater region surrounding it. In her eyes, the United States is a land of climatic extremes, with life threatening weather and natural disasters an all too common occurrence. I often remind her that before the Danube and Tisza Rivers were tamed both were prone to catastrophic flooding. Budapest in 1838 and Szeged in 1879 sustained horrendous damage from unprecedented inundations. As for tornadoes, I have never seen or heard of one in Hungary or Eastern Europe. And since winter is not what it used to be in the region, blizzards have become a rare occurrence. Thus, I must admit that there is a great amount of truth in her opinion. The United States is buffeted on an annual basis by a variety of catastrophic weather. Nonetheless, Eastern Europe is not exactly blessed with peaceful and serene nature either. Natural disasters have been known to strike there, in some countries more than others.

When I think of earthquakes my mind usually gravitates towards those places that always seem to make the news. These include the San Andreas Fault in California, in addition to the highly unstable Pacific Rim where Japan and Indonesia suffer deadly earthquakes on a recurring basis. One place I have never really thought of is Eastern Europe, specifically Hungary. It is worth mentioning that prior to my first trip there in 2011, I was surprised to hear that things had gotten a bit shaky. A 4.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Budapest region causing some minor cracks in a few buildings. Besides shaking up the locals, the earthquake was pretty much forgettable. The truth is that most earthquakes in Hungary are unlikely to make many seismic waves. The most powerful one to ever strike the country happened all the way back in 1763 at Komarom in northern Hungary. The 6.5 temblor damaged many of the city’s buildings and caused some casualties. Yet, by the standards of earthquakes, it was relatively modest in size and scale.  Furthermore, this earthquake was not a precursor of greater tremors to come. Contrast the earthquake situation in Hungary with that of its eastern neighbor, Romania. Only then, does a totally different situation emerge.

Seismic hazard map of Romania

Seismic hazard map of Romania (Credit: US Geological Survey)

On Shaky Ground – All That It Is Cracked Up To Be
During the 20th century, Romania suffered from a litany of woes. two World Wars, interethnic strife, corruption on a colossal scale and the depraved dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. The last thing the country needed during this time was any kind of natural disaster. On more than one occasion, that is exactly what they got. Romania may not be a widely known seismic hotspot, but it has one of the most seismically active areas in the world, known as the Vrancea zone which is centered in mountains to the north of Bucharest. Unfortunately, that zone includes Bucharest, the nation’s most populated city and Romania’s capital. Five times during the 20th century, earthquakes measuring 7.0 or greater on the Richter Scale took place in Romania. All but one of these occurred in the Vrancea zone.

Earthquakes cannot be predicted with any amount of precision, but future ones are almost certain to occur in places where they have struck numerous times before. By such extrapolation, it is almost a certainty that Romanians living anywhere around or near the Vrancea zone will experience many more earthquakes. It is not just the incidence of earthquakes in the zone which makes them worrisome, but also their overwhelming power. Between 1802 and 1986 there were no less than eight earthquakes emanating from the zone that measured 7.0 or greater on the Richer Scale. That is an average of one massively destructive earthquake every 23 years. Now consider the following, there has been no earthquake approaching this standard since 1986. That was 32 years ago. By the law of averages, Romania is overdue for another one any day.

Red Alerts – Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst
While there are several cities located close to the Vrancea Zone, none is as large or as important as Bucharest. Judging by past experiences, the next big earthquake is likely to cause outsized damage in the capital. Because of this threat, many risk management experts have deemed Bucharest the most dangerous European capital to live in. Ominous signs of potential calamity can be found all over the city center if a keen-eyed observer knows what to look for. Many of the old, grandiloquent late 19th and early 20th century apartment blocks have red circles attached to them. These plaques are part of a program that was instituted by city authorities in the 1990’s to identify buildings which were at risk of collapse if an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or greater were to hit the city again.

Rents in these structurally deficient buildings are a good deal cheaper than elsewhere in the city center. With property prices in the area soaring, many renters have thrown caution to the wind and hope their luck holds. The odds are against them. As part of the identification program, zero interest loans were offered to residents of these buildings. The hope was that they would take it upon themselves to fix structural weaknesses. Few have taken up the offer. Major repairs still need to be made, but most likely that will never happen. The biggest effect of the red placard program was that it ended up reducing rent in many decrepit buildings and their value as well. Residents have roundly rejected the program and very few buildings have been labeled with the warning signs over the past two decades.

Structural Faults – Life In The Vrancea Zone
Of the 400 buildings that were identified as in danger of collapse, most of these were severely weakened by the 1977 and 1986 earthquakes which killed and injured thousands while causing billions of dollars in damages. Hundreds of thousands still have living memories of these catastrophes. Nonetheless, few have the time, inclination or resources to take the steps necessary to shore up their building’s structural faults. Bucharest’s citizens hope the day of reckoning never arrives though many of them know better. The next big earthquake is just a moment, a day or decade away. Such is life in the Vrancea Zone.

Click here for: The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

A Pale Postwar Representation Of The Past – Constanta Casino: Of Spite & Shadow (Part Four)

During the Belle Epoque (Golden Age) of pre-World War I Romania many people would have died for the chance to spend an evening socializing with the wealthy elites who haunted the gilded halls, resplendent ballrooms and high stakes gambling tables of the Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta). The crème de la crème of the nation’s aristocracy loved and laughed with little thought for the future during this era. They had no idea just how much two World Wars would change Romania. To understand just how radical the transformation, look no further than the Casino after the communists took power in 1948. Over the next few years, people were no longer dying to come into the casino, instead they were at risk of being worked to death in the vacant and half-ruined postwar edifice.

An anti-gambling law had destroyed the casino’s main stream of revenue. The work to transform this once ornate structure into a House Of Culture was being done by men who in the past would have led the country. The elites and politicos of a former age were marked men, transformed into political prisoners and slave labor forced to work on reconstruction projects. The Casino, which for years had played host to many amazing events and evenings, had now sunk down into the depths of its darkest hour.

A Pale Representation - Constanta's House of Casino Culture

A Pale Representation – Constanta’s House of Casino Culture (Credit: Dan Carp)

The House Of Culture – A Communist Style Casino
By the end of World War II, the Constanta Casino was a mere shell of its former self. The Casino had suffered grave damage due to wartime air raids. Though it was still standing, the interior had been largely ruined, a pale representation of this once fantastical seaside set piece. The communists may have destroyed the Casino’s economic livelihood by banning gambling, but they saw an opportunity to use the building for propaganda purposes. This was the genesis of its transformation into a House of Culture. The idea was communist co-option at its finest. They could take the Casino, give it a new name and superficial overhaul, then claim it as their own. The revamp would not be done by skilled artisans, that was much too sensible an idea. Instead, those that had been deemed the dregs of society were commandeered into service.

A bit further north and west of Constanta, thousands of political prisoners were laboring on construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal. These prisoners were former aristocrats, capitalists, fascists and other so called enemies of the state. The communists picked one hundred men from these prisoners to work on repairing and renovating the Casino. While work on the Canal was done under the most brutal of conditions, those selected for work on the Casino would not be that much better off. They were forced to work from before sunup to after sundown. Living conditions were deplorable. They were underfed, ill-treated and housed in one of the few Casino rooms that lacked windows. The casino was in very poor condition and the prisoners in no better shape. A building that in an earlier age acted as portal to a world of beauty, was now a prison of shadow and spite. Eventually the repairs ended, the prisoners were taken away and the House of Culture was quasi complete. It did not last long. By the mid-1950’s, preservationists were working to get the building protected as a national heritage monument. Whether it was termed the Casino or House of Culture hardly mattered, better just to call it history.

Indefinite Closure - Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino

Indefinite Closure – Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino (Credit: Madavlasie)

Coming Full Circle – Less Than Ideal Conditions
The building slowly regained some of its former splendor under communism, which was ironic considering that it had once symbolized the excesses of aristocrats and wealthy elites. The communist-era Casino played host to a handful of dignitaries, while being frequented by the masses who could now watch movies inside and enjoy a bite to eat. Beginning in 1960, up through the collapse of communism, the Casino was run by Romania’s Central Tourism Authority as a tourist attraction. Instead of gambling revenues, it was now state subsidies that kept the building open. This would not prove viable in the long run. From a financial standpoint, the Casino was ultra-expensive to maintain. Keeping the building up to its golden age standard was next to impossible. On the other hand, it was still a marvelous structure, worthy of great admiration even in less than ideal condition. At least one attempt was made to improve the interior during the later years of Communist rule, unfortunately it occurred at the worst possible time.

During the 1980’s, with the Romanian economy headed toward a full-blown crisis and dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu descending into the depths of megalomania, the tourist authorities decided that the building needed a major renovation. Never mind that a nation having trouble feeding its own population, while resorting to such “cost saving” measures as turning off heat during the winter could ill afford the slightest extravagance. Nonetheless, renovations were soon underway. In an odd twist, the gilt and refinement of the Belle Epoque made something of a comeback within the Casino while most of Romania wasted away. Stained glass windows, new flooring, wall panels and ornate light fixtures were installed. It turned out to be both too little, too late and not nearly enough. A nation with so few economic and material resources could ill afford this kind of esoteric excess. Communism imploded at the end of 1989 leaving government departments in dire straits. This situation led to the national tourist authorities handing the casino back to the city of Constanta in 1990. The Casino’s ownership had come full circle back to where it began.

At Sunset - Constanta Casino

At Sunset – Constanta Casino (Credit: Dan Carp)

False Promises – A Series Of What Have Beens
The post-communist history of the Constanta Casino is depressing. It can be summed up as a series of what might have beens. Despite near continuous efforts on the part of both public and private entities, the Casino has remained vacant. Promises to restore, redevelop or reconstruct the interior and repair the exterior have turned out to be just that. The marvelous façade stands cracked and peeling, paint chips, glass shatters and the walls weaken. Guards keep the curious from getting a closer look. That is probably for the best. The only thing to see inside is one marvelously empty room after another. The Casino still stands for now, but the future is uncertain. Tragically, that is an improvement on its postwar past.

Pretentiously Complicated – Constanta Casino: Gambler’s Luck (Part Three)

To produce a work of art or architecture that becomes universally recognized as both outstanding and reviled involves a great deal of difficulty. To achieve such a degree of duality in an object of affectionate disaffection takes turmoil and tears, fantastical ability and preternatural passion on a level that defies belief. That was certainly true in the creation and construction of the third and final version of Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta). Nothing came easy from conception to completion. Obstacles were many and at times looked to be insurmountable. Political opposition from conservative politicians delayed construction for years. The French educated and inspired chief architect, Daniel Renard, was taken off the job and after a two-year hiatus reinstated. The foundations that were to hold the structure had to be laid no less than three times. Cost overruns were seven times the original budget and that did not include the immaculate amenities of decadent splendor which pervaded the interior.

When the grand opening occurred in 1910, the building was still a couple of years away from full completion. Because the Casino’s Art Nouveau style broke with traditional design and was scarcely influenced by Romanian architecture of that time, the finished product came in for exceptionally harsh criticism from both local and international observers. This was the culmination of seven years’ worth of fits, starts and a pseudo finish. Critics in the Constanta press referred to the Casino as a “hulking heap” and a “monstrosity”. One went so far as to say that it had been constructed “in honor of incompetence and bad taste.” Years later, the diplomat George Oudard, a Frenchman no less, called the building “pretentiously complicated.” It was a money pit to some, a spectacular success to others. Above all else, Constanta’s Casino was like all great architecture, instantly identifiable and uniquely memorable.

Golden Age Architecture - Constanta Casino

Golden Age Architecture – Constanta Casino (Credit: Sorin Golumbeanu)

A Reputation For Excess – Structural Albatross To City Symbol
Initial criticism of the Constanta Casino was directed at its ostentatious décor and budget busting cost. The palatial confines of this money pit of a palace would have made Crosesus proud. The interior was laden with marble, rooms were outfitted with shimmering chandeliers, it had more in common with a royal palace than a public venue. A spectacular staircase allowed visitors access between two floors. The ground level housed a ballroom, while an upper level led to an auditorium. There was also a sweeping balcony that overlooked the Black Sea. Costs were prohibitive, but no expense was spared. Part of the promenade around the casino had to be reclaimed from the encroaching seafront and built up to avoid inundation. Furniture was chosen that matched the casinos other furnishings of ornate splendor. An ultra-expensive piano was purchased to go with an 18-piece orchestra. By the time it was finished, the expense of constructing and outfitting the Casino set a new standard for gilded excess in Romania.

The Belle Epoque - Constanta Casino

The Belle Epoque – Constanta Casino (Credit: ZodiacsLion)

The Casino was the largest building in Romania at the time and had an outsized effect on Constanta’s reputation. This was just what many of the building’s most ardent promoters wanted. All this came at the expense of a city which three and a half decades earlier had been an Ottoman provincial backwater. With the casino as both glittering jewel and profligate eyesore Constanta played host to a procession of aristocrats and nouveau riche. This began a truncated Belle Epoque (Golden Age) era for the city, lasting six years before Romania joined the Allied side in World War I. Prior to Romania’s involvement in the war, the casino went from monstrosity to monument in the eyes of those who paid it a visit. Its location right along the coastline brought an air of glamour and glitz to the city. The rich and famous from all over Europe came in droves. Locals also became increasingly fond of it as tourism began to boom along the Black Sea.

In a matter of a few years the Casino went from being a structural albatross to city symbol. World War I would change everything. In Constanta’s case, it came a bit later than to the rest of Europe, but the ramifications for the city and its astonishing Casino were dire. In the summer of 1916, when the height of summer tourist season should have been taking place, Constanta was hunkered down preparing for an attack that almost certainly focus on the port.

The necessities of war - Constanta Casino as a hospital during World War I

The necessities of war – Constanta Casino as a hospital during World War I (Credit: ZodiacsLion – Template Newspaper Clipping)

Dawning Of Darkness – The Full Force of Conflict
The port facilities put Constanta in the crosshairs of enemy efforts. With the Casino nearby, it was impossible for adversaries to miss. The splendid structure made an inviting target. Some hoped it would be saved by its role as a makeshift Red Cross hospital where Romania’s war wounded attempted to convalesce as German forces closed in around the city. In late August, the reality of war came crashing into the casino. German shrapnel collapsed much of the roof and badly damaged the floor. To make matters worse, the wounded and their caregivers could not take cover in time. Ten lives were lost. It would be over a year before the Casino reopened and that would be but partially. The wounds of war took many years to repair. It would be over a decade before the Casino was back to its former, splendid self. In retrospect, the interwar years were a respite from conflict.

The casino was busy with those gambling their fortunes or lives away. More than a few met with sadness at one of the seventeen gambling tables. A few even flung themselves into the sea rather than face a future where their wealth had all but vanished. The Casino’s magnificence helped masked much of the trouble looming once again on the European horizon. It would not be long before German military forces were calling into Constanta’s port for what was to become an extended stay. The Germans found the casino much to their liking, so much that they housed many of their soldiers inside. And when the war turned against Germany, its Romanian ally felt the full force of conflict bearing down upon its largest port city. Even though Romania managed to change sides in 1944 and align with the Allies, the Casino could not escape a dire destiny that saw it bombed and parts left in ruin once again. All the Casino’s golden ages were now gone. A new era was dawning under Communism, one that would eventually lead the Casino down into further darkness.

Click here for: A Pale Postwar Representation Of The Past – Constanta Casino: Of Spite & Shadow (Part Four)

A Harbinger Of Creations To Come – Two Casinos In Constanta: Designs On The Future (Part Two)

There are two primary objects of touristic affection along the seafront promenade in Constanta, Romania. One of these is the Genoese Lighthouse which makes complete sense in its location looking out towards the Black Sea. The other, Constanta Casino, became a playground for local elites and wealthy visitors to eschew common sense at the gambling table. The latter ironically would come to be viewed as a symbol of the city. While the Lighthouse, a stone sentinel overlooking both promenade and sea, has an enchanting quality all its own. It was built in 1860 as a call back to the days when Genoese ships plied the Black Sea and were guided into port by a lighthouse that stood in the same area.

The lighthouse was among the last structures built during the waning days of Ottoman rule in Constanta, but the impetus for its construction was not Ottoman or Romanian. It was built at the behest of a British owned shipping company, to honor forebears of the shipping industry that had been and would continue to be an integral part of Constanta’s history. By the mid-19th century, Constanta was on the verge of major change. The lighthouse had been constructed at the end of one era and just before the beginning of another. Though highly symbolic, it would soon be usurped by the Casino which was a post-Ottoman phenomena.

A Fresh Light On The Waterfront - View of the Genoese Lighthouse & Constanta Casino

A Fresh Light On The Waterfront – View of the Genoese Lighthouse & Constanta Casino (Credit: ZodiacsLion)

Transforming Constanta – Casting A Light On The Future
By the time the Genoese Lighthouse was finished, a new future was approaching Constanta’s stretch of Black Sea shoreline, one that would soon arrive on the same stretch of seafront that the Lighthouse looked out upon. In 1880, the Ottoman presence in Constanta sailed away, never to return. The area was ceded to Romania along with the rest of Dobruja following the Russo-Turkish War and Romanian War of Independence. Almost immediately, the port and surrounding city began to be transformed. The new Constanta would boom with its port acting as a transit facility for Romania’s bountiful grain exports. The city would grow richer than ever before from this trade. The new Constanta would be immortalized in the Casino, which was located just 150 meters southwest of the lighthouse. It was the first structure built in Constanta after it became part of Romania.

The casino was a building altogether different from the Genoese Lighthouse. It was forward facing, not just looking out on the Black Sea, but also into the future. This new building represented wealth and refined decadence. It was a harbinger of an age that would weld aristocracy and money, tradition and capitalism together. This building was known as the Casino and its first version was one of three to come. Each proving to be a triumph in its own way. The stunningly grand and spectacularly worn exterior of the Constanta Casino that visitors see slowly deteriorating along the promenade today is nothing like the first version of the casino constructed upon what was a small undeveloped promontory in the late 19th century. Rather than the spectacle of stone which stands in its place today, the first casino was built out of wood.

On The Edge of The Black Sea - First Version of the Constanta Casino

On The Edge of The Black Sea – First Version of the Constanta Casino (Credit: ZodiacsLion)

High Stakes & High Brow – Fun Loving Fashionables
Known as the Cazin Kursaal (German for public hall) the initial version of the casino stood on a much more precarious spot, literally clinging to a slope which descended into the sea. The design featured twin terraces, overlapping with one another to provide views of both harbor and seafront. This was a favorite haunt of sightseers and sunbathers. The largest space within the interior was home to a ballroom where dances and theatrical performances were held. There were also a couple of rooms where gambling took place. The casino mixed high stakes with the high brow. Reading rooms offered visitors a window on the world as well as the sea. Both national and international press were available for the more intellectually minded. Unfortunately, the building’s precarious positioning also played a part in its destruction when in late 1891 a nasty storm tore the roof apart and caused irreparable damage to the exterior. The city decided that a wholesale repair was out of the question. In January 1892, this first version of the casino was demolished.

By this time, the casino had become something of a Constanta institution, thus it was decided to build a new version as quickly as possible. The second version of the casino was built on a more stable spot than the first, a location that would later be used by the structure which still stands there today. The second casino’s construction was completed rather quickly and opened to visitors in 1893. While this was a boon for the fun loving fashionables who frolicked in Constanta, the second version of the Casino, known as the Cazin, failed to be as aesthetically pleasing as the first. It only sported a single terrace out towards the sea. Though of more stout construction, it too was built of wood. While most casinos in Europe were built of more lasting materials such as stone and mortar which had staying power, Constanta’s was more down at the heel, a functional structure decidedly lacking in all the glittering amenities required by the elite of a fast modernizing port city. It was soon decided that an entirely new casino would be built, one befitting a city of its size and wealth.

The Creation to Come - Final Version of the Constanta Casino

The Creation to Come – Final Version of the Constanta Casino (Credit: Diego Delso)

An Inspired Choice – Controversial From The Start
The newest and what would become the final version of Constanta’s casino would be immortalized in stone. It was both built to last and catch the eye. The architect Daniel Renard had grand ideas and even grander designs as he set out to create an iconic example of Romanian Art Nouveau. Renard had been educated in Paris, as such he had been inspired by the French flair for design and was an inspired choice for chief architect. The city’s power brokers wanted a building that would evoke the casinos found along the French Rivera, for this was to be a symbol of wealth and prestige. Thus, non-lasting wooden materials were out, while stone, glass and grandeur were favored. The design was controversial from the start.

The Romanian liberals held power when Renard began his work. They loved the fact that Renard was pushing the limits with his design, but when conservatives took power two years later, they replaced Renard with an architect who planned a more traditionally styled structure. Then another change of government brought the Liberals back into power. Renard returned to favor, assuming his original post. He would now be able to finish his fantastically eclectic design which was soon to become the most glorious building in Romania.

Click here for: Pretentiously Complicated – Constanta Casino: Gambler’s Luck (Part Three)