Of the Death Canal, Lucky Snakes and the Black Sea

Costanta casino through the ironwork, next the Black Sea

Costanta casino through the ironwork, next the Black Sea

Fourteenth in a series

August 25, Costanta and Mamaia, Romania — More examples of what once was and what could be, post Communism, awaited us in Costanta (pronounced Costantza — the second “t” has a tail that changes the sound), the oldest city in Romania. En route, our local tour guide, Vlad, offered more historical and political perspective.

The bus climbed slowly up the broad, ancient plateau, located near the 45th parallel — an area blessed with ideal sunshine for vineyards. Besides grapes, we passed wheat, corn, rye, rape (from which canola oil is derived), and sunflowers, grown for their oil. Soon we passed a canal that acts as a shipping shortcut between the Danube and the Black Sea. Visible in the distance was a huge statue consisting of black wings: a memorial to the estimated 4,000-6,000 forced to dig the canal with pick axes. Elders call it “the Death Canal” and are reluctant to speak of it.

Until he was 18, Vlad didn’t know that his grandfather had been sent to the labor camp here. When he asked his mother how she and his father met, he learned that his grandfather had been labeled a dissident for hiding two teachers in his basement. For this crime he was sentenced to two years of hard labor and five more in prison, and the family’s assets were confiscated. As the daughter of a dissident, Vlad’s mother couldn’t get a job, so she relocated to a remote area of the Danube where they would employ her. There, she met Vlad’s father.

About this time, we passed a woman leading a donkey cart. Vlad explained that the five miles or so of land around the small villages is owned by the people; locals use a donkey because it’s the cheapest way to get around. People grow the crops they need: corn for animals, some fruits and vegetables, hay or feed grain. Thus, the fields were often striped rather than devoted to one crop or another.

Costanta, too, was surrounded (as usual) by Commie condos. Vlad noted that 96 percent of people here now own their apartments. When Communism fell in 1989, property values were frozen, while other prices increased drastically. So by 1996, an apartment cost his parents the same as a vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately, values have fluctuated since, to the point that now many people are under water on their mortgages.

After passing the abandoned Art Deco casino that was completed in 1910 to allow the king to entertain foreign royalty, Vlad led us to the St. Peter and St. Paul Romanian Orthodox cathedral. He noted that Romanians are deeply religious; Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s head of state from 1967 to 1989, didn’t ban religion outright but he made churches much harder to access.

Every Orthodox church has one or more female "keepers" like this one

Every Orthodox church has one or more female “keepers” like this one

Invasions and strife, by now, were well established as a theme in our visit to Central Europe. Locals here took it upon themselves to find a way to live peacefully and encouraged intermarriage as a solution. Fourteen identifiable ethnic groups thus figured out how to get along.

Inside the Museum of National History and Archaeology, which was the best local one we visited, artifacts from the region’s many eras were on display: Dacien (the area’s first civilization, which ended when Trajan conquered the area in 106 AD), Roman, and on and on. The second and third century artifacts tell the story of the transition from paganism to Christianity. Twenty-three statues, some life-sized, were buried and thus preserved in a hole: too valuable to simply destroy, but perhaps too dangerous to display. One of the museum’s prized possessions is the Glykon snake, which has the tail of a lion (representing power), the body of a snake (representing wisdom), the face of a goat (representing goodness), and the hair of a woman. “Nobody here kills a snake,” Vlad explained. “It’s a bad omen to do so.”


Outside the museum is a statue honoring Ovid, famous for his poems about love, many of which were tongue in cheek. His Arts Amatoria parodied poetry while serving as a manual in seduction. In part for writing about adultery, which had been banned, he was banished to Constanta.

Old and new media (Ovid and smart phones)

Old and new media (Ovid and smart phones)

From “On Love”

I don’t ask you to be faithful – you’re beautiful, after all –
but just that I be spared the pain of knowing.
I make no stringent demands that you should really be chaste,
but only that you try to cover up.
If a girl can claim to be pure, it’s the same as being pure:
it’s only admitted vice that makes for scandal.
What madness, to confess by day what’s wrapped in night,
and what you’ve done in secret, openly tell!

– Ovid, translated from the Latin by Jon Corelis

Nearby, marble Roman sarcophagi were displayed, along with inscribed tombstones that acted as archaic social media:

Salutation, passer-by! And also salutation to you! You stopped, saying to yourself in your mind: who and where is this one (who lies here)? Listen, stranger my homeland and my name: My place (of origin) before, was Hellada. I was born (that means) by a mother from Athens and my father was coming from Hermione, and my name is Epiphania. I saw many times lands and sailed all over the sea, because my father, as well as my husband, were ship owners, whom, after death, I laid into the grave, with clean hands. Really happy was my life before! I was born among muses and shared the goods of wisdom. As a woman, to women I gave much (help) to abandoned wives, being ruled by pious sentiments. Also I much helped the one retained on the bed by suffering. Because I well realized that mortals’ fate is not according to their prissiness.

— Here opened, the Acyrian and Tomitan, from the Oinopes tribe, full of gratitude to his wife, devoted (this monument) as remembrance.

(English translation of funerary altar, Tomis, 2nd – 3rd century AD)

We visited the town’s treasure, a reconstructed hall with a long, partially intact mosaic floor, where sea captains came to attend to business. Below the hall is a reconstructed warehouse, one of several terraced buildings that once led down to the shoreline.

And then it was on to Mamaia, a very developed resort town by the sea with shore-side purveyors of chaise lounges, umbrellas and umbrella drinks. The wind was unusually strong, causing two-to-three foot waves to break every few seconds, which made the lifeguards nervous. I waded out, turning sideways every few seconds, to absorb the impact of the breakers.

Don't tell Disney: Mouse-eared entrepreneurs in Mamaia

Don’t tell Disney: Mouse-eared entrepreneurs in Mamaia

Next: Things Are Looking Up!

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