Romania’s Black Sea coast (the litoral) holds the promise of white beaches, dazzling water and an average of ten to twelve hours of sunshine a day between May and October. Under communism, over a million people flocked to the resorts during the season; visitor numbers subsequently halved but have since recovered, with far better conditions than previously. Travelling from Bucharest or the Delta, your first stop on the coast will almost certainly be Constanţa, a relaxed seaport-cum-riviera town, dotted with Turkish, Byzantine and Roman remains, which has always seemed to keep a discreet distance from the surrounding resorts.
North of Constanţa, Mamaia is indisputably the coastal hot spot, swarming with hotels and buzzing with nightlife, while the multiplicity of resorts to the south, merging imperceptibly with one another, are more uniform; their seasons are also much shorter. Mangalia is the only town of any real size south of Constanţa and the one place not dependent upon tourism, beyond which lie the twin resorts of Doi Mai and Vama Veche. Located just a few kilometres from the Bulgarian border, they offer a more relaxed vibe and a welcome escape from the crowds.
Most visitors first encounter the Black Sea coast at CONSTANŢA, a busy riviera town and Romania’s principal port. Its ancient precursor, Tomis, was supposedly founded by survivors of a battle with the Argonauts, following the capture of the Golden Fleece; centuries later, the great Roman poet Ovid was exiled here for nine years until his death in 17 AD. These days, the town is an attractive mix of Greco-Roman remains, Turkish mosques and crisp modern boulevards, home to several interesting museums and a lively restaurant scene.
The oldest area of Constanţa, centred on Piaţa Ovidiu, stands on a headland between what is now the tourist port and the huge area of the modern docks to the south and west. Walking up the shore from the tourist port, you’ll find Constanţa’s passable beach, and inland, beyond the remains of the walls of ancient Tomis, the modern commercial area, along boulevards Ferdinand and Tomis. Further north, nearing the resort of Mamaia, are various sights designed to appeal to children, including a dolphinarium. Pilot cutters mounted by the road at the town’s northern and southern entries attest to its status as a port, as does its biggest festival, Navy Day on August 15, when up to ten thousand people watch the parade.
Ten kilometres south of Mangalia is the laidback village of Doi Mai (2 May), so named after Alexandru Ioan Cuza’s coup d’état on this day in 1864. Despite lying in the shadow of the massive yellow cranes of Mangalia’s shipyard, it’s a peaceful and relaxed little resort, and extremely popular with families, thanks to its small but neatly formed and well-kept beach, part of which is for nudists; there’s the odd low-key beach bar here too. The Doi Mai-Vama Veche Marine Reserve begins just south of the Mangalia port and extends to the border. Loggerhead turtles can be seen here, as well as sea horses, dolphins and corals.
The resorts to the south of Neptun are more uniform, less lively and likely to have fewer hotels open outside July and August. The first, immediately abutting Neptun, is JUPITER, between the forest and the artificial Lake Tismana, beyond which is a gently sloping beach with fine sand. Southeast of here is Aurora, set on the cape of the same name and dominated by several pyramidal hotel complexes. There’s a minimal gap before you hit VENUS – broadly similar to Jupiter, but quieter and more family-oriented; Venus also has the most appealing accommodation along this stretch of coast. To the south of Venus is a sulphurous spa and, just inland, the Herghelia Mangalia stables, where you can hire horses to explore the forest, inhabited by roe deer, grouse and pheasants.
MAMAIA, 6km north of Constanţa, is Romania’s best-known coastal resort, and the place where the majority of package tourists end up. Legend has it that the gods created the beach to reunite a kidnapped princess with her daughter, who was abandoned on the seashore wailing “Mamaia, Mamaia!”; its fine, almost white sand, fringed with wild pear trees, is the resort’s greatest asset, especially since its gentle gradient and the absence of currents and strong tides make it particularly safe for children.
As late as the 1930s, Mamaia was, in the words of Gregor von Rezzori, “an empty expanse, excepting two or three bathing huts and a wooden pier, of miles of golden sand and tiny pink shells”; a far cry from what you’ll find here today. Ranged along a narrow spit of land between the Black Sea and Lake Siutghiol, the resort’s main street curves away around the shore of the lake. The southern stretch of the beachfront promenade is dominated by fast-food stands, mini-markets, pharmacies and shops selling all manner of beach paraphernalia and other accessories, but, beyond the casino (which is more or less the heart of Mamaia), the resort is more restrained. The telegondola will whisk you the 2km from near the Aqua Magic park at the southern end of Mamaia to just north of the casino. There’s a big plaza on the inland side of the casino, with a small stage and rows of family restaurants (mostly pizza places, all with big terasas). Mamaia’s main summer festival is the (biannual) Sunwaves Festival, which is held alternately in May and mid-August and features a world class line-up of electronic acts performing across several stages on Kazeboo beach in the north of the resort.
Sixteen kilometres south of Eforie Nord, NEPTUN was built in 1960 between the Comorova forest and the sea, ensuring a lush setting for the artificial lakes and dispersed villas. Originally enclaves for the communist nomenklatura, today Neptun and its classier, but much quieter, satellite of OLIMP, just north, are patronized by relatively affluent Romanian families and some Western tourists.
Both resorts are strung out along Strada Trandafirilor; in Neptun, about halfway along near the main complex of shops, Aleea Steagurilor leads down between a couple of lakes to the beach, with waterslides, beach bars and restaurants, and paths leading around the lakes; to the north are both government-owned and private villas – from the path you can see albino peacocks in one garden.
Under communism, VAMA VECHE (Old Customs Post), just short of the border with Bulgaria, was closed to all but staff of Cluj University or those who could claim some vague affiliation with it; it became a haven for artists, intellectuals and nonconformists looking for an escape from the surveillance of the Securitate. In recent years, locals and investors have begun to capitalize on Vama Veche’s countercultural reputation, and there’s now an attractive assortment of accommodation on offer, ranging from low-key hotels and offbeat hostels to wild camping on the beach. While tourist facilities here continue to grow at a steady pace, fortunately the new developments have been planned with consideration for their surroundings, and the town still retains an air of bohemian sophistication not found elsewhere on the coast. Vama Veche’s nightlife is also some of the best along the coast, with open-air dancing till dawn and live music in some great little bars on the beach, most wooden-walled and thatch-roofed. The beach itself is a long, wide expanse and tends to be more secluded the further south you go, while there’s an area for nudist bathing up towards the northern end. The centre of the village, such as it is, is Strada Ion Creangă, a busy and colourful little street leading down from the main road to the beachfront; here you’ll find most things of a practical nature, including an ATM and the village’s small supermarket.
The village’s main annual event, taking place during the last week of August, is Vama Under Oscar Lights, whose main focus is film and photography, with numerous exciting screenings and exhibitions, but there’s lots more besides, including painting workshops, theatrical performances and concerts; these mostly occur on or near the beach, and are free.