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)

Sublime Port – The Constanta Casino: Shadows That Still Glow On Romania’s Black Sea Coast (Part One)

Constanta is not the kind of place that foreign travelers are likely to hear a great deal about before embarking on a journey to Romania. The city, Romania’s fourth largest, often gets lost amid tourism publicity that markets the beauty of Transylvania, the wooden churches of Maramures, the painted monasteries in Bukovina and the cultural delights to be discovered in Bucharest. These are just some of the many places worth making a special trip to Romania for a visit. Constanta rarely features near the top of any list of Romania’s must-see attractions which is something of a shame. The city is not exactly on many tourist’s radar for two reasons.

Port of call - Aerial view of Constanta

Port of call – Aerial view of Constanta (Credit: NASA)

A Distant Shore – Harboring Commerce
The first is its location in the far southeastern part of Romania. It is a long haul to Constanta from most parts of Romania other than Bucharest. On a trip to the country this past summer, I recall seeing a sign giving the number of kilometers to Constanta on a motorway in Transylvania. The total was well over the five hundred mark. It was a reminder of Romania’s size and Constanta’s location. Even for many Romanians, Constanta is way out there on the fringes. Getting there has been made much easier by the A1 motorway from the western and central parts of the country connecting with the A2 in Bucharest. Nonetheless it is a full day’s drive from the western part of the country. Secondly, Constanta’s reputation as a port city does it few favors with foreigners even though there are some fantastic beaches nearby along its Black Sea coastline. Its role as a port city comes well before beaches or frolicking among the sun and sand in popular images of the city. This has a decided effect on those considering a visit, particularly foreigners.

Port cities do not have the greatest reputation in Europe as a whole. There is a reason that visitors prefer Nice over Marseilles in France, Amsterdam over Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Rome over Naples in Italy. The latter are often seen as gritty, down at the heel places focused largely on trade. Port cities and seediness are inextricably linked. The same could be about Constanta. Not only is it the largest port in Romania, it is also the third largest in Europe. Constanta’s livelihood is built on commerce centered around its port. Visiting a beach with port facilities close by is a less than enthralling prospect. No one wants to gaze down the strand at towering cranes. Add in the fact that Bulgaria, just a bit further to the south, has done a tremendous job marketing the beaches along its Black Sea coastline and Constanta’s tourist prospects seem to pale in comparison.

Just after sunrise - Constanta Casino

Just after sunrise – Constanta Casino (Credit: Djphazer)

Casting A Shadow, Casting A Glow  – Luminous Times
This does not mean there is little to see in Constanta, on the contrary the city has a range of eclectic sites, from the Grand Mosque to Genoese Lighthouse, that are fascinating markers of its diverse past. A promenade along the waterfront is a wonderful place for strolling. This area is home to the city’s most famous building, the Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta), which stands within a stone’s throw of the blue waters of the Black Sea. It is a building that can be easily seen, but not visited. A magnificent representation of early 20th century Romanian Art Nouveau architecture, the casino once played host to glitz, glamour and aristocracy. It now stands as a symbol of all that has been lost from an era when a singular structure gave Constanta’s social life a luminous glow. The casino may stand vacant today, but it is still an illuminating beacon casting light on a rapturously gilded past that played out along the city’s seaside promenade.

I had never thought much about Constanta or considered a visit, but that began to change because of the Casino. It might seem odd to contemplate a trip to such a far-flung locale because of one building, albeit an amazing one. A building that currently cannot be entered and as the more current news reports state, may fall further into disrepair until something, if anything, is done to stabilize, repair and develop it. And if I did manage to visit the Casino it would have to be as an outsider, hoping to get a fleeting glimpse from the outside. Access to the interior is strictly guarded, as much in the spirit of indifference as for the interests of visitor safety. From pictures I have seen, the casino’s interior is filled with atmospheric rooms, the crumbling masterwork of anonymous craftsmen. A spectral lavishness evocative of vanished elegance. That all sounds either incredibly romantic or overwhelmingly melancholic.

A visit to the interior might be impossible, but that is for very good reason. It holds less than desirable discoveries. These would almost certainly include rancid passageways and cobwebbed corners covered in pigeon poop. Despite such drawbacks I still long to travel there. Visiting the casino would be well worth it if for no other reason than to satisfy a long-held desire to stand in the footsteps of Romanian and Russian royalty, not in a general sense, but a much more specific one. This is due to a story that I read long ago in a travel guide about an evening in the Casino that involved the two nation’s most exalted aristocratic families. Rather than a tale of aristocratic refinement and the niceties of court protocol, manners were eschewed for mayhem. The outline of this tale gripped my imagination and worked its way into my memory. Just what happened one evening at the casino in 1914 when elegance devolved into violence and recrimination has been back on my mind lately.

On the edge of a deep Black Sea - Constanta Casino

On the edge of a deep Black Sea – Constanta Casino (Credit: Miharomeob)

Storied History – Memory Makers & Markers
The outline of the story goes something like this. The Russian Royal family traveled to Constanta on a diplomatic trip. One of the main reasons for this journey was to see whether Grand Duchess Olga, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexander might make a good match with Prince Carol, heir to the Romanian royal throne. It turned out that the two could not stand each other and neither could many other people at the Casino who attended a gala for the royals. The event descended into recriminations, fisticuffs, vandalism and riotous conditions. The upshot was that the Russian royal family sailed away the morning after these unforeseen “festivities” took place. Tsar Nicholas and his family had no way of realizing that this would be the last trip they would ever make abroad. Their future would be one of war and revolution. The Constanta Casino stands as a memory marker for that trip, a way of life that will never exist again and many more lost stories that are hidden within the casino’s crumbling walls.

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

The Stuff Of Dreams, Legends & Nightmares – Steaua Vs. Dinamo: A Romanian Eternal Derby (Part Two)

The Eternal Derby sounds both heavenly and down to earth. A mortal competition with the possibility of producing a moment that lasts forever. Strangely enough, something like this occurred at an Eternal Derby (also known as the Romanian Derby) match between Steaua Bucharest and Dinamo Bucharest in 1988. It turned out to be one of the more bizarre matches in the history of Eastern European football. A match that was by turns fantastical, depraved and totally ridiculous. It would offer proof of the old cliché that “the truth is stranger than fiction”. If a novel had been written with a plot based upon what happened at the match no one would have bothered to believe or read it. Officially, the match was played to decide the Romanian Cup champion. That result is still in doubt today because the match was never completed.

Unclaimed - The Romanian Cup Trophy

Unclaimed – The Romanian Cup Trophy

Occupying The Pitch – A Fight Beyond The Finish
The Romanian Army was flexing its muscle, not on the field of battle, but instead on the field of football. The Army sponsored Steaua Bucharest football team had come to dominate the Romanian national league during the latter half of the 1980’s. Their rise had come at the expense of Dinamo Bucharest, which enjoyed the Securitate’s (Romanian Secret Police) backing. The rivalry between the two sides was fierce. The stakes could not have been higher. For years, the Army felt that their power had been trumped by the Securitate. The Army had regained its footing, quite literally, by occupying top place on the pitch. In 1989, Dinamo had an excellent opportunity to steal a march on Steaua. The teams were almost evenly matched. The deciding factor in the final might well come down to a lucky bounce or chance mishap. What happened turned out to be just as unlikely as it was unbelievable.

This version of the Eternal Derby was hard fought and tense. Steaua looked to be on their way to another title after they scored the first and only goal of the first half. It came in the 27th minute when their star striker Gheorghe Hagi put them on the board. Dinamo was not able to breakthrough until late in the match. They tied the game with a goal in the 87th minute. It now looked like the match would be decided in extra time. The final seconds were ticking away in the 90th minute when Steaua striker Gavrilo Balint struck a perfect header. His shot was beyond the goalkeeper’s grasp, giving Steaua what looked to be the winning goal. Steaua’s celebration was abruptly terminated by a referee’s call that Balint had been offside. Steaua’s players were stunned and furious. There is a great amount of confusion over what happened next. Multiple witnesses report that Valentin Ceaucescu – the club’s general manager and the son of the Romanian Nicolae – signaled from his place in the stands for Steaua’s players to leave the field. To this day, Valentin denies that he gave any such signal. Whether he did so or not is beside the point because Steaua’s players did leave the field and refused to return.

The Moment of Decision - Controversy defeats all comers in the 1988 Romanian Cup Final

The Moment of Decision – Controversy defeats all comers in the 1988 Romanian Cup Final

A Flash From The Pants – Stop Them & Drop Them
If this turn of events was not sufficiently bizarre, Dinamo’s Ioan Andone dropped his shorts and proceeded to give a full frontal flash to Valentin, grabbing a certain organ then swinging it in one of the lewdest and crudest gestures ever seen on a football pitch. Andone’s act of frustration would net him a year-long suspension. At the same time, his action symbolized the lunacy of Romanian football, where politics and power trumped performance on the field. When Steaua failed to come back out and finish the match, the game was awarded to Dinamo. To the victor went the spoils, but only for one day. Less than twenty-four hours later, the government decided to change the result, likely at the behest of Valentin who persuaded his father to ensure Steaua’s ultimate success. This was not to be the final result.

Eighteen months after that contested Cup final, Nicolae Ceaucescu was overthrown. He and his wife Elena were lined up and shot after a hastily arranged show trial. Valentin might have joined his parents in front of a firing squad, but he was saved by one of Steaua’s players who hid him in their apartment. His managerial acumen, workaholic tendencies and preferential treatment towards the players had made him a beloved general manager and probably ended up saving his life. As for the winner of the 1988 Romanian Cup, Steaua returned the Cup to Dinamo, but refused to accept it. No winner has ever been declared. A blank space is all that can be found in the record books.

Then & Now - Valentin Ceaucescu

Then & Now – Valentin Ceaucescu

Bottoms Up – A Humbling Fall
Despite a nation beset by a tumultuous transition to democratic capitalism filled with chaos and corruption, Romanian football soared to its greatest heights internationally in the early 1990’s. The greatest player of that generation, Gheorghe Haji, an ethnic Macedonian, became known as the Maradona of the Carpathians. Haji had been one of Steaua’s key players in the late 1980’s. He was the first Romanian player to be seen cruising around Bucharest in a Mercedes. At one point, the enterprising Valentin attempted to trade Haji to the Italian club Juventus in return for funding that would result in Fiat building a car plant in Bucharest. Nicolae put a stop to this deal because it smacked of free market capitalism. Haji went on to spearhead the Romanian team in their upset of Argentina in the second round of the World Cup in 1994. Haji and Romanian soccer had come a long way to escape from the long, dark shadow of the fallen Ceaucescu regime.

Unlike Haji, Valentin Ceaucescu’s career headed in a very different direction after the fall of communism in Romania. He was arrested, but eventually released. Fortunately, Valentin had spent his earlier years focused on education rather than politics. This came in handy as he was able to transition into the life of a nuclear physics researcher at an institute in Bucharest. He now lives quite modestly off a pension he earned through his work. This is a far cry from the heady days when Valentin was managing one of the most powerful football clubs in Europe. The club ascended to the greatest of heights under his management before falling back to earth. His involvement with Steaua was the stuff of dreams, legends and nightmares. Never more so than in the 1988 Romanian Cup final against Dinamo. A match that redefined the meaning of Eternal Derby.

Click here for: A Proxy Power Struggle – The Rise Of Romanian Football: Valentin Ceaucescu’s Brilliant Coup (Part One)

A Proxy Power Struggle – The Rise Of Romanian Football: Valentin Ceaucescu’s Brilliant Coup (Part One)

Romania is not a country that immediately comes to mind when discussing European countries which from time to time have managed to meet with greater than expected success on the football pitch. Judging by the more recent results of the national team it is little wonder that few remember the glory days of Romanian football in the 1980’s and 90’s. Since that time, Romania has largely failed to impress on world football’s biggest stages. That has been especially true of late. Though they qualified for the 2016 European Championships, the Romanians subsequently finished last in their group, losing in ignominious fashion to that footballing featherweight, Albania, in their final match. They then failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. This underwhelming performance resulted in the firing of the head coach. Another attempt is now underway to resurrect the national team’s lost glory.  Currently, Romania is ranked 35th in the latest FIFA World Rankings. That low ranking is a far cry from the halcyon days of Romanian football that began in the mid-1980s and peaked in the early 1990’s when they reached a ranking of fifth in the world and made the quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup.

In an ironic twist of fate, this period of football glory took place while at the same time the country was suffering grave damage due first to the megalomaniacal excesses of the Ceaucescu regime and then the whirlwind of tumult which followed the nation’s transition to democratic capitalism. The brilliance of Romanian football during this era is most famously represented by Steaua Bucharest’s victorious run to the European Cup Championship in 1986. Conversely, one of Romanian football’s lowest points would take place only a couple of years later, when an even more improbable turn of events occurred. This happened in what is known as the Eternal Derby, annual matches between Steaua and Dinamo. The 1988 battle of Bucharest heavyweights is now counted among the most infamous in footballing history. That match is worth recalling because it symbolizes just how bizarre Romanian football had become. In that respect, it was not much different from the national political scene.

European Cup Champions 1986 - Steaua Bucharest

European Cup Champions 1986 – Steaua Bucharest

Rise Of A Footballing Dynamo – Kicking Butt
Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of modern Eastern European history knows the name of Nicolae Ceaucescu, the dictatorial leader of Romania from 1965- 1989, Ceaucescu’s communist regime put an indelibly hideous imprint on the country. Centralization and industrialization occurred at breakneck speed, while the security police arrested tens of thousands and spied on millions more. It is believed that by the 1980’s one in three Romanians was an informer for the secret police. This was a society where paranoia ruled. At its head was Ceaucescu, the prototype of a venal dictator, out of touch with those he ruled and just as out of touch with reality. He spent wildly on megalomaniacal monstrosities while his own citizens went half-starved and suffered through winters where the heat was turned off rather than up. Romania was an unfathomable dystopia for those who lived there in the 1980’s.

With such a monumental level of dysfunction, it is hard to believe that this same system could produce the greatest footballing teams in the nation’s history. One of which rose to a level of European preeminence that had never been attained by a football club in Romania or Eastern Europe for that matter. During the 1980’s the name Ceaucescu was not so much feared, as beloved in some Romanian footballing circles. That was if you happened to be a fan of Steaua Bucharest, the traditional club of the army. While Nicolae cared little for the game, his son Valentin was obsessed with it. Valentin was a nuclear physicist by education, but a football administrator extraordinaire. In 1983 Valentin Ceaucescu was appointed general manager of Steaua, thus inaugurating the team’s meteoric rise to the top of Romanian football. At that time, the national league was dominated by Dinamo Bucharest, which won three consecutive league titles from 1982 through 1984. Dinamo was sponsored by the powerful Securitate, the nation’s all powerful internal security service. The dominance of Dinamo was said by many to be symbolic of their grip on the nation. The army’s power paled in comparison or so it was thought.

In The Name Of The Father - Valentin Ceaucescu With His Mom And Dad

In The Name Of The Father – Valentin Ceaucescu With His Mom And Dad

Foot Soldiers – A Pitched Battle In Bucharest
The Securitate ensured that Dynamo had access to the best resources and top players throughout the country. This began to change when Valentin Ceaucescu took the helm at Steaua. The club had not won a league championship since 1977, but with Valentin playing the role of patron in chief that was about to change. Steaua was backed by the army, the only institution in Romania which could hope to compete with the Securitate for power and prestige. Valentin’s managerial style was more that of a company executive than a communist apparatchik. He worked day and night to bring the best footballers to the Steaua side. His efforts paid immediate, as well as lasting dividends. Steaua won five consecutive league championships beginning with the 1984-85 season. This period included a remarkable 104 game winning streak by Steaua. Their success was not limited to the Romanian national league either.

In 1986, Steaua made an unprecedented run to the European Cup championship, defeating Barcelona on penalty kicks in the final played before 70,000 Spaniards in Seville. This was a monumental upset. Steaua was the first Eastern European side to excel at the highest level of club competition. Steaua’s success came at the expense of Dynamo, which chafed at the rise of its bitter rival. The Securitate attempted to harass Steaua’s players and even went so far as to place Valentin under surveillance. Such measures did little to change the outcome of matches. The Securitate and Army had long been rivals off the field, but the rancor soon rose to a fever pitch on it as well. Their football matches became a proxy for the power struggle between the security services and armed forces. The rivalry reached a new level of rancor when the two teams faced off in the 1988 league final. An epic match ensued, memorable for all the wrong reasons. A match that few who were in the stadium that day would ever forget.

Click here for: The Stuff Of Dreams, Legends & Nightmares – Steaua Vs. Dinamo: A Romanian Eternal Derby (Part Two)


My Moldova  –   A Messed Up Memoir: On The Road To Nowhere

I sometimes think of Moldova as the nation that should not be. Let me be clear about that statement, this is through no fault of the Moldovan people. Moldova is a severed appendage of the old Soviet empire that has grown from swollen to scrawny. Whereas the trio of nations known as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are bound together by their Baltic shoreline, Moldova is a geopolitical paradox, untethered yet landlocked, crammed between Ukraine, Romania and its own breakaway region of Transnistria. A place where Far Eastern Europe transitions to oblivion. The country cannot be easily explained. It finds itself in an extremely confusing situation. Moldova used to be (and probably still ought to be) part of the Romanian region of Moldavia. Proof that a slightly different spelling can be the difference between provincial anonymity and nationhood. Moldova might best be described Romania-lite, just do not tell that to the Slavic or Gagauz minorities who also inhabit the country.

On the fringes - Location of Moldova in Europe

On the fringes – Location of Moldova in Europe

A Lower Level Of Subsistence – Coping Mechanisms
Moldova struck fear into me ever since the first time I learned anything about it. This goes back to an article I read in the Economist eighteen years ago, entitled, “Can Moldova Get Worse?”. The article related just how impoverished the country was and the slim prospects for any kind of improvement. It began with a joke, that was making the rounds in Moldova, “What happens when the economy hits rock bottom? Everyone starts digging.” This was the type of gallows humor that was pervasive at the tail end of the communist era in the Eastern Bloc. It seemed that in Moldova such feelings had never gone away. How could they? Moldova’s average income level was abysmal. It was less than half that of Albania’s, which at the time and still today is no one’s idea of a well-run nation. Doctors were working for a couple of dollars per hour, while most of the labor force made less than a dollar.

From what I learned, most of the citizens outside of the larger cities were surviving through subsistence level farming. This was not as bad as it sounded. I would later discover from other background reading that Moldova’s soil was incredibly fertile. Massive quantities of fruit and vegetables could be grown on a plot of land. All this was supplemented by copious quantities of wine. Drinking is a bad way of combating poverty, but it has been proven in Moldova as a tried and true way of coping with it. A World Health Organization survey done in 2011, showed that Moldovans consume more wine than any country in Europe. From what I read, they have good reason to.

Out with the old and in with the not so new -Deputy Gheorghe Ghimpu replaces the Soviet flag on the Parliament with the Romanian flag in 1990

Out with the old and in with the not so new -Deputy Gheorghe Ghimpu replaces the Soviet flag on the Parliament with the Romanian flag in 1990 (Credit Fotoreporter)

An Unsatisfying Nationalism – Going Nowhere
Moldova’s people are over eighty percent ethnic Romanians (this does not include the breakaway republic of Transnistria). The Moldovan language is nothing more than Romanian by another name.  Despite the fact, that a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary was published in 2003 by the government. An overwhelming majority of the population thought it patently ridiculous. The dictionary mostly covered slang phrases and satisfied a few firebrand nationalists. It did nothing to differentiate between the two countries, if anything it made them seem more similar. Since the end of communism, Moldova has been pulled between two entities, the Romanian and Russian spheres of influence. Romania has been in no condition to adsorb Moldova. Moldova is too impoverished and corrupt. The assimilation of such a weak state would only exacerbate the same types of problems that already exist in Romania while at the same time creating others.

The Soviet Union and now Russia is the problem for Moldova that will not go away. Romanians know Moldova as Bessarabia, which was taken from them by the Stalinist Soviet Union. The most famous thing to come out of Moldova during Soviet rule was the frosty Leonid Brezhnev, who made a name for himself as a purging party boss. The early years of Soviet rule (1940-41 and 1945 – 1953) were marked by starvation and deportations or worse. The numbers affected are measured in the hundreds of thousands. Only later did the country begin to enjoy the benefits of being part of such a far-flung empire. These included the growth of scientific industry for space and submarine development programs. Another benefit was that the ethnic Romanian population avoided being under the heavy-handed (and by the 1980’s) increasingly crazed rule of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Meanwhile, Russia has used its influence in the Slavophile, pseudo-state of Transnistria (the breakaway part of Moldova east of the Dniester River) to disrupt Moldova politically and economically. The Russians do not want or need another nation in their backyard aligning with the western world. Thus, Moldova’s status will likely remain in limbo for the foreseeable future. In a logical geopolitical world Moldova would have been reattached to Romania, but the world of geopolitics is not logical. The problem lies in the fact that if Moldova became part of Romania, it would then automatically become part of the European Union and NATO.  This is something Russia finds unthinkable, even if it does not share a border with Moldova. Thus, Moldova will remain independent. With its situation frozen in a perpetual present, Moldova will probably continue to be the poorest nation in Europe.

Moldova - Countryside and car

Moldova – Countryside and car (Credit: Ion Chibzli)

A Failure To Comprehend – Opposing Truths
On a political and socioeconomic level this is serious stuff. To a scantily-informed outsider such as myself, the situation looks stagnant at best, dire at worst. Then again, what do I really know about Moldova besides what was conveyed to me through the writings of others. My personal knowledge of the place is almost non-existent. I have only met one Moldovan in my life, tending an almost empty bar in Asheville, North Carolina. For some reason I can still remember her. A tight smile, shockingly unnatural blonde hair and an aloofness that tended toward coldness. I met her once by chance on a mid-afternoon almost twenty-five years ago. She offered me no insights about her country, few words and went about her work efficiently. That was my personal experience with Moldova, an indifferent shrug and semi-cold shoulder. This first impression was likely opposite of the truth, but there was something about her that I found incomprehensible. I could say the same about her homeland.


An Approximation Of The Past – Baedeker In Sarajevo: The Unknown Anniversary

A trip I did not take has haunted me for several years. Despite my most fervent wishes I could not make it to Sarajevo for the centennial commemoration of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie’s assassination by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The assassination was one of the most consequential in human history. It led directly to the Great War, which killed or maimed tens of millions leading to a reordering of the geopolitical landscape that reverberates right up to the present. On June 28, 2014 a ceremony was held in Sarajevo at the spot where Princip carried out his deadly historical deed.  Due to the nature of my work, I was unable to travel during the summer of 2014. All I could do was read about the ceremony and dream about what might have been.

My disappointment was ameliorated by the memory of a visit I had made to Sarajevo in March 2011. On that trip, I visited the street corner where the assassination occurred. Little did I know that I could have done another centennial commemoration on this trip, one that had nothing to do with the assassination. That is because in 1911, three years before Princip fired those fateful shots, Baedeker published what was to be the last edition of their Austria-Hungary Handbook For Travellers. The firm had no way of knowing this at the time. Just as they had no way of knowing that Austria-Hungary would disintegrate a mere seven years later at the end of World War I. The 1911 Baedeker’s coverage of Sarajevo makes fascinating reading when compared to how one modern guidebook chose to interpret the city.

The Final Journey - Sarajevo on the inside

The Final Journey – Sarajevo on the inside

A Multi-Dimensional Portrait – The Way To See Sarajevo
The difference in descriptions of Sarajevo from the guidebook I used while visiting in 2011 versus that of Baedeker’s in 1911 are easily discernible. The Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans begins its description of the city with this chilling sentence: “In the 1990’s Sarajevo was on the edge of annihilation.” Contrast that reminder of the apocalyptic Yugoslav Wars with the detail laden description of the city by Baedeker: “Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, seat of the provincial government, headquarters of the 15th Army Corps, and residence of a Roman Catholic Archbishop, of a Servian (sic) Orthodox Metropolitan, and of a Mohammaden Reis-ul-Ulema, with 51,870 inhab. (18,460 Mohammedans and 6400 Jews) and a garrison of 5000 men, lies in a narrow valley of the Miljacka, at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills rising to a height of 5250 ft.” Reading the former, one cannot help but sense that the city has just barely managed to survive a near death experience. The feeling that fate fell heavy handed on Sarajevo, no matter what else is said after that initial sentence – much of which is quite positive – cannot be shaken by the reader.

In contrast. Baedeker opens its introduction to Sarajevo with a withering amount of facts. While they might be construed as nothing more than hard data, these details leave much open to the readers interpretation. From this intro, the reader comes to understand that Sarajevo is a religiously diverse city. The words Catholic, Orthodox, Mohammaden and Jews are all found in a single sentence. At the same time, the reader also learns of a martial aspect – “15th Army Corps” “garrison of 5,000 men”- to be found in Sarajevo. The topographical description of the city’s situation “lies in a narrow valley” and “at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills” is picturesque. The overall effect of Baedeker’s style is to create a multi-dimensional portrait. Modern guidebooks have the difficult task of trying to rescue Sarajevo from the shadows of its 20th century history. Baedeker had no idea of the future. Its job was to describe the present and past. And that is just what it did, making Sarajevo shine like a ray of sun within its pages.

The Old World - Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

The Old World – Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

Bazaar Transformations – The Near Abroad
To an astonishing degree, most of the sites in Sarajevo listed by Baedeker still existed when I visited. This, despite the destruction wrought by two World Wars and that internecine conflict of the 1990’s that was just as deadly. I was able to visit the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Cathedral and Husref Beg Mosque. At the latter, just as Baedeker advised, I was only allowed to enter the mosque “using the overshoes which the visitor must put on.” Business and commerce were largely segregated in much the same fashion in 2011 as Baedeker described a century earlier, with one sad caveat. The guidebook stated that in this “modern part of the town trade and business are mostly in the hands of Jews and Christians”. The Jews were decimated by the Holocaust, but the reconstructed, modern part of the city is a westernized, prototypically small European city center, largely run by the non-Muslim portion of the population.

Meanwhile the bazaar is still a vital part of the Old Turkish part of town where Bosniaks reign supreme. Conversely, many of the stalls are no longer run by Muslim merchantmen, but by attractive women. In 1911, Baedeker pointed out that many of the items on sale in the bazaar were not homemade, but reputedly came from Austria. A century later, I could not help but wonder how many of the “local” items such as rugs and copperware had been shipped in from Guangzhou. The influence of outsiders was just as pronounced in 2011 as 1911. Everything was supposed to have changed in Sarajevo during the 20th century, but I found the changes to be ones of nuance rather than degree.

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

An Unexpected Delight – Recreating A Lost Reality
Of course, Baedeker had no way of knowing that Sarajevo would prove to be the pivot point on which the world would turn away from peace and towards world war. They had no way of knowing that in their two excellent maps of Sarajevo could be found the place where fate and enmity would collude just a few years later, starting a process that would end up bringing an entire world to the point of collapse. It is both endearing and ominous to read Baedeker on Sarajevo a century after the fact. The no frills explanations of an astonishing city, one that Lonely Planet would later call an “unexpected delight”. An unexpected delight when what has come to be expected is war, upheaval and seemingly endless reconstruction. That was the Sarajevo I expected to see in 2011, thankfully what I discovered had much more in common with 1911. Reading Baedeker over a hundred years after its publication brought that lost reality back to me

The Model Minority – Hungarians in Slovenia: On The Right Side Of History

On several occasions I have been walking down the street in a Hungarian city when I suddenly notice a decal on the back windshield of a car. The decal has a shape that looks somewhat like Hungary, only larger. The colors of it are the same as those of the Hungarian flag. The decal also includes the Holy Crown of Hungary topping a shield with the Double Cross. I have since learned that these decals show an outline of the Kingdom of Hungary, as it existed prior to the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon which shrank Hungary by two-thirds. These decals are a symbol of tacit support for Greater Hungary, but not much more than that. I doubt the drivers of many of these automobiles are ready to enlist for a fight to expand the frontiers, most are engaging in a symbolic gesture. Nonetheless, such symbols can be found all across the country. I have seen holographic postcards which depending on how they are turned, show either the nation of Hungary or the Kingdom of Hungary. I have heard long winded expressions of sorrow for “the lost lands”. There are monuments to Trianon scattered throughout the country. There is even an unofficial Trianon museum in Varpalota. My main memory of it is of hardly any heating and very little lighting in the dead of winter.

Stuck on it - Pre-Trianon Hungary stickers

Stuck on it – Pre-Trianon Hungary stickers

Holding Themselves Hostage – A Land Called Trianon
Then there are the lands taken away by Trianon whose mere mention offers another level of trauma. Mention Transylvania and a quiet resignation permeates the ensuing conversation. The same goes for Felvidek (Upper Hungary, present day Slovakia) or to a lesser extent, Ujvidek (the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia). These lands seem to hold the Hungarian historical imagination hostage. This makes it strange when I reflect upon the fact that not once have I ever heard or read a Hungarian bemoan the lands that were lost to Austria or Slovenia, known respectively as the Burgenland and  Prekmurje. There is a reason for this, specifically that both territories ethnic Hungarian population was quite small. The size and scale of the lands lost due to Trianon was so vast, that what amounts to small slivers of territory has not made much of an impression. Yet both places act as outliers for ethnic Hungarians in Trianon lands, because they enjoy rights and relations in these countries which could hardly be any better off if they actually lived in Hungary. This is especially true for those Hungarians who now live in Slovenia.

To get an idea of just what a break with historical precedent the Treaty of Trianon was, consider that the land known today as the Prekmurje, was under the control of Hungarians as early as the 10th century. Hungarians put down deep roots in the fertile soil of the land they called Muravidek. They were not the only ones, as Slovenes had been in the area since the 9th century. In a period stretching over almost an entire millennium, the Prekmurje was one of the most stable areas in central Europe. It was under either Hungarian or Habsburg rule during that time. All that changed with the end of World War I. In 1919 the Prekmurje was under four different administrations. The swirl of chaos that engulfed the region was put to an end by troops from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. When the Treaty of Trianon went in to effect there were 14,000 Hungarians in the Prekmurje. They made up approximately 15% of the population. This number began to dwindle even though Hungary regained the area for several years during World War 2.

Lendava - with the Esterhazy chateau above the town

Lendava – with the Esterhazy chateau above the town (Credit: Pierre Bona)

Last Of Their Kind –  A Magyar  Mentality
By and large Hungarians in the Prekmurje have enjoyed an unexciting, if not to say anonymous existence. This continues today. Though the population considering themselves ethnically Hungarian in the region has dropped to just 6,200, their presence is still noticeable, specifically in the larger town of Lendava and the villages of Hodos and Dobrovnik, all within ten kilometers of Hungary’s southwestern border. Four out of every ten citizens in Lendava are Hungarian and the municipality is bilingual. It is not hard to feel the Hungarian historical influence in the town, because its main tourist attraction was once the property of Hungary’s most illustrious noble family. What could be more Hungarian than the House of Esterhazy? One of the Esterhazy’s manor houses stands just above the heart of Lendava. The hillsides surrounding the town are covered with vineyards, the mild climate is an excellent place to grow grapes.

Further out in the countryside stands one of the villages that consists almost entirely of ethnic Hungarians. Dobrovnik, not to be mistaken for the famous walled coastal Croatian city, is a tidy village full of neat houses that stretches out along the roadways. The one roundabout in the village lies at its most heavily trafficked point, the junction of highways 439 and 441. This is also where the 18th century St. James Church stands with its faded façade and cracked paint, built by who else, but the Esterhazy clan. The nobility endowed the Hungarian areas of Slovenia with their most lasting architectural features. In return, the locals fought hard and loyally for Austria-Hungary in the Great War. Dobrovnik lost twenty-seven of its men in the war. Losses of such a high proportion of manpower in small villages like Dobrovnik were one of the reasons there was no one left to fight for the old Kingdom’s borders after the war.

Ethnic Hungarians at the Lendava railway station in 1941

Ethnic Hungarians at the Lendava railway station in 1941 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Better Off Without You – Prosperity & The Prekmurje
Dobrovnik may have been lost to its mother country, but the Hungarians have done pretty well for themselves there. The village is well kempt, clean and prosperous looking even though agriculture is in perpetual decline. The same can be said for Lendava. No one is asking, but it is doubtful if the Hungarians of the Prekmurje would prefer living across the border with their ethnic kinsmen. In Slovenia, the Hungarian language has status as an official regional language. Special rights for the Hungarians are enshrined in the Slovenian constitution.  They even have a special representative in the national parliament who has veto rights over legislation affecting the Hungarian minority.

Possibly the greatest factor keeping the relative handful of Hungarians in Slovenia is money. Hungarians vote with their pocketbooks rather than their feet when it comes to calling Slovenia home. The Gross Domestic Product per person is $8,000 dollars greater in Slovenia than Hungary, plus Slovenia uses the Euro which has an excellent exchange rate compared to the Hungarian forint. Life is pretty good for Hungarians in Slovenia, it is hard to imagine that if history had been different they would be any better off.

All The Places I Will Never Go – Eastern Limits: The Unattainable Spiritual Sites Of Romania

Romania makes me feel incredibly sad. This is not because of its tumultuous politics, the post-communist corruption which still plagues the country or the fact that so many of its best and brightest flee their remarkably beautiful homeland for better opportunities elsewhere in Europe. These are all reasons to feel sad about Romania, but they have nothing to do with my own very personal reason. Romania makes me feel sad for a quite simple and selfish reason, I will never get to see all of it. I only became aware of this while reading a travel article on the English language website Romania Insider entitled, “Venerable sites: Places of worship to see in Romania”. As usual, the article was filled with incredible photos and informative text, but while reading it a strange sensation came over me. That was because the article managed to make me aware of the limits to my travels. The phrase, “all the things I should have done” suddenly popped into my mind. Then I began to rework that phrase to encapsulate how I really felt. That is when I came up with “all the places I will never go.”

Spiritual Folk - Barsana Church in Maramures

Spiritual Folk – Barsana Church in Maramures (Credit: Pylaryx)

The Last Joyride – One Final Far-Flung Fling
It has been twenty years since I began traveling in remote and relatively unknown lands. This started with trips stateside to such places as North Dakota, every county in Montana and the Prairie Provinces of Canada, among other locales that few would ever care to see. Somewhere along the way I grew more adventurous, or perhaps desperate, to see the world. This led me into Eastern Europe, first Bulgaria, then Romania, followed by twelve other countries in the region. Amid these wanderings, I conceptualized an end game to these travels, a final, haggard hurrah years in the distance. This would happen when I was finally worn out from my wanderings. Then I would take what would be called, “The Last Joyride.” This would consist of a far-flung trip where I would get the urge to travel out of my system by exhausting myself once and for all time. Leaving me with neither the energy or will to ever travel again. I imagined this would happen sooner rather than later.

The last joyride has never happened, at least up to this point. That is because the more I discover, the more I realize how much is undiscovered. For example, when people tell me I have been everywhere in Eastern Europe, I immediately become aware of the fact that the opposite is true. I have only been to a handful of places when compared to the size of the region. The difference between myself and those who laud me is that they have hardly been anywhere. Thus, they have no idea how little of the region I have seen and experienced. I realized once gain how little I had seen after reading “Venerable sites.” The article covered thirteen of the best religious sites that can still be visited in present-day Romania. These sites include everything from fortified to wooden churches, mosques and painted monasteries. The range of history covered by them could was matched by the aesthetic significance of their art and architecture.

Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Timisoara

From here to eternity – Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Timisoara (Credit: Adrian Padrurariu)

Sublime Depressants – A Church Too Far
The article started off with the Voronet Monastery in Bukovina, a place and land in northern Romania that I have yet to visit. I found the description of Voronet’s blue frescoes enthralling. That was until I got to the end of the informative text blurb describing it. I then read a list of seven more UNESCO listed churches in the area. Rather than inspiring, I found this depressing. I was unlikely to ever visit one or two of these, let alone all seven. The same thing happened with the Barsana Church in Maramures, a region of Romania known for its pastoral settings and folk customs. I have visited only once, for a limited amount of time. Barsana Church’s beautiful murals looked magical, but there were another seven UNESCO listed wooden churches to visit as well. The sheer number coupled with the amount of time it would take to visit each one seemed overwhelming. I could moderate my ambitions and be less of a completionist, but that would be the antithesis of my travel philosophy.

The more of the article I read, the more depressed I got. Next was Curtea De Arges Church, a must see that I probably never will see with my own eyes. If I do visit, it will come at the expense of many other churches. I felt a bit of relief when the Biertani Fortified Church and the Black Church in Brasov were featured, since I have been able to visit these astonishing Saxon spiritual creations. I could say the same about the Stavropoleos Church where I listened to the sublime voices of a choir in full throated vocal glory on a spring evening there in Bucharest seven years ago. There were Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Metropolitan Cathedrals, all worth a visit. While the distance between three of the four cathedral’s location – Oradea, Timisoara and Alba Iulia – was quite manageable, traveling to Iasi way up in the northeastern part of Romania would take a trip unto itself. The same could be said for the Grand Mosque in Constanta. I have always wanted to visit this Black Sea port. That would be problematic, with everything else on this agenda.

Beyond limits - Curtea De Arges Monastery

Beyond limits – Curtea De Arges Monastery (Credit: Alexandru Bobos)

Proving Myself Wrong – To A Place Of Exhaustion
Outliers are always the most difficult destinations to reach. In this case, made more difficult by the fact that Romania is a rather large country by the standards of Eastern Europe. Getting around the country may be easier than ever, but it is still quite difficult by European standards. Of course, if I really wanted to take such a trip to visit all the churches, in addition to assorted honorable mentions, it could probably be done in an exhausting two-week journey. The “The Last Joy Ride” was possible, but not probable. Such a journey would take someone on the outer edge of sanity. This was the traveler I used to be, rather than the one I had become. “The Last Joy Ride” was stalled out somewhere in my mind. Understanding this was like waking from a dream and realizing my travel life had its limits. Then again, maybe I will live a long and energetic enough life to prove myself wrong.