I continue with my blog posts about Constanta, Romania. All opinions are my own and driven from my personal experience – I spent more than a week in Bucharest and this coastline town last December, walking the tourist routes and exploring off the beaten paths trails, so I have a wealth of information to share. In this post I will share my thoughts on whether Constanta can be a DIY port.
In my previous post, I’ve provided instructions on how to get from the cruise dock to Constanta’s historic quarter, as this is where you need to be to get a feel for this town and explore its main attractions. Now let’s try to figure out whether Constanta’s self tour is something feasible and worth doing.
Let me be upfront with you: don’t set high expectations of this place. Constanta is not in one league with such destinations of your Black Sea cruise itinerary as Athens or Istanbul in terms of architectural or historic heritage (although it’s the oldest populated city in Romania and, so to say, a product of many civilizations). It’s different from cute little villages and small towns of Greek Isles, untouched by time and civilization. Wonder why?
Constanta had all chances to leave a footprint in the Black Sea coastline history: founded around 600 BC by ancient Greeks and named Tomis (you’ll see the remains of the ancient Tomis in the historic quarter), together with Nessebar (Mesambria), Varna (Odessos), Sinop (Sinope) and Trabson (Trapezund) among others, it formed a vast network of blossoming and powerful Greek colonies along the Black sea.
At the dawn of the new era, it was captured by the Romans and renamed to Constanta. A Roman poet Ovid (one of three canonic poets of Latin literature), who was exiled to Constanta, described it as “a town located in a war-stricken cultural wasteland on the remotest margins of the Roman empire“. Foregone were the days of the flourishing Tomis colony. Throughout the Middle Ages, Constanta was nothing more than a village located on the trade route, which connected Constantinople and Eastern Europe. Having changed several rulers, it fell under the Ottomans in the 15th century. But that did not lead to any major economic or cultural growth.
Only at the end of the 19th century, when Romania gained independence and started its growth as a country, port of Constanta became instrumental for Romania’s trade. On the other hand, the country’s royalty and business elite made Constanta their main sea resort. These two factors triggered major changes in all spheres of city life: business, culture, lifestyle and architecture. We can still find exquisite villas facing the shoreline and luxurious residences in the city center. Looking a bit “tired” and abandoned now, they still possess evidence of the city’s former glory. The true symbol of Constanta’s “bell epoque” and faded grandeur is its landmark sight – the Casino, you’ll see on the embankment. An Art Nouveau wedding-cake of a building, romantically set on a rocky spit of land, it’s a sight you’d expect to see on French coastline or in Vienna.
Many of Constanta’s historic buildings were destroyed by time and neglect, damp sea climate and WW ll bombings. Most of period buildings and sights, which have been preserved, are now in dire need of restoration. And although much efforts are being made to bring Constanta back on a tourism radar, lots need to be done to bring the city to one level with major tourist attractions of Eastern Mediterranean.
Having said all of the above, I’d say with the right attitude and willingness to find old charm behind the “tired” facades you have all chances to learn something new and enjoy your time in Constanta. It’s similar to going on a hunt in an antiques store (or a flee market) or in a Turkish bazar. Some people are huge fans and many find it a total waste of time.
Those who are up for a Constanta self-tour have several options.
Once you get through the industrial zone of the port (keep it in mind, it’s an approximately 20 min walk through a very unpleasant area) you can start your self-tour of Constanta. Walk along the embankment, see the stunning Casino (interior tours are not possible as the sight is closed for rehabilitation). Then, stroll to the beautiful Peter and Paul’s Cathedral and marvel at gorgeous fresco paintings, which richly decorate its interior. You’ll find the remains of the Old Tomis colony right next to the Cathedral. This is the entrance point to Constanta’s historic quarter a.k.a the Old Town. Walking up the street from the Cathedral, you’ll hit Ovid square, Constanta’s grand 19th century plaza by the ancient Roman wall. With the Ovid statue and magnificent building of Constanta’s National History and Archeology museum, the square is the architectural highlight of the city. There you’ll find remnants of the ancient Roman mosaic, with some of the best-preserved tile work anywhere, and the largest in Romania mosque.
From the Ovid square, walk up Tomis street to the enchanting Folk Arts museum and Romulus and Remus monument, which marks the end of the Old Town. Tomis street was one of the few main streets in the last century Constanta. Nowadays it’s a mix of nicely restored low-rise houses, Soviet blocks and run-down facades. A few local cafes and eateries provide excellent opportunities to do people watch, take in the city’s atmosphere and grab local snack.
Two blocks behind the Folks Arts museum is the historic Greek church. I can walk down the street towards the La Premier restaurant and sip a glass of wine or a cup of coffee on its terrace with an excellent view on the sea and the marina.
In terms of the sightseeing route, this is pretty much what can be covered on a self-tour. You can add two museums to it: the National History museum and the Folk Arts museum. The History museum houses old maps, antique artifacts dating back to the ancient Greeks and Thracians, and remnants of successive empires; items of the new age Romania and the 20th century Constanta. A big challenge, though, is absence of audio guides and extremely brief commentaries to the exhibits.
This video let\’s you sneak a peek at the exhibits of the National History Museum
The Folk Arts museum features a very interesting collections of Romanian icons, painted by different local schools, costumes, pottery and household items from Romania’s many regions. Visitors will appreciate the insight the museum provides into local traditions and holidays. Again, audio guides are not available.
In both museums, visitors pay admission fees (very small amounts) only in cash, local currency.
Now let’s consider Option Two.
If you who are interested in exploring Constanta’s religious diversity and doing a church tour sounds like fun, then you have an excellent chance to visit a Romanian Orthodox church (St. Peter and Paul Cathedral), a Catholic basilica, the largest in Romania Mosque, a historic Greek church and St. Mary Armenian church, all located in the Old Town. Unfortunately, what once was Constanta’s Great synagogue, now is a building at an advanced stage of deterioration.
For a church tour, follow the route of the Option One. Situated on the seashore, near the Greek church, on Callatis street, the Armenian church is most difficult to locate. As you walk down a couple of blocks on Stefan cel Mare street (from where the Greek church is), Callatis street will be the one on your left going towards the shoreline. The Armenian church can be easily spotted by a cross on its top.
These are really the options worth exploring on your self-tour of Constanta.
Having your own guide take you through the Old Town, means that your walk will be spiced up with fun stories, interesting facts and insider information. You know, buildings can talk…O. And interacting for a couple of hours with the guide will let you get a feel for local life, people’s mindset, and everything else not mentioned on Internet or in the guidebook. A guide can convert the little informative museums’ exhibits into an exciting journey in Constanta’s past. And of course, he or she will ensure that you won’t get lost and are a safely brought back to the cruise dock. But this is, of course, if you’d like to arrange a private tour in Constanta.