Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Băile Herculane

Photo: Oana Chirila
I am not sure how the delicate coffee cup survived my childhood and moving half-way around the world. Made of white porcelain, the words, Băile Herculane, are painted in cobalt blue letters; there is a little chip on the lip, close to the handle.  It is a memento given to me by “tataia,” my maternal grandpa Christache, who used to visit the thermal baths every year. 

Located in the picturesque Romanian region of Banat, a valley of the Cerna River, between Mehedinti Mountains and Cerna Mountains, Băile Herculane has a population of about 5,000, swelling with younger crowds during the tourist season.

Named after the Roman hero Hercules, Aqua Herculis, the small spa town has a long and storied history. Archeological digs have revealed that the town had been inhabited since the Paleolithic era. The Cave of the Thieves (Peștera Hoților) contains evidence from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.

During Roman times, the town was a leisure center for wealthy citizens. It is said that even the mythological Hercules had stopped to bathe and rest here. Six Roman statues of Hercules were unearthed, giving some credence to the legend. In 1874, a bronze replica of one of the statues was cast and placed in the center of town.

Băile Herculane was captured by the Ottoman Empire on September 7, 1788, following the battle of Mehadia.  One year later, at the end of September 1789, the Austrians took it back from the Ottoman Turks.

Grandpa spoke highly of the healing properties of the hot springs which contained sulfur, chlorine, sodium, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. From a child’s perspective, I could not understand how water and ionized air could help the aching bodies of humans racked by arthritis and pain born by repetitive motions of years of hard labor in factories and in the fields.  I understood water saturated with sodium chloride because the salt in the lake of Slanic kept me buoyant even though I could not swim.

Westerners patronized Hotel Cerna which was built in 1930. During the communist regime, many multi-storied, concrete block hotels were built in order to house the proletariat and retirees whose state-issued vouchers were welcome in Băile Herculane. A cheap vacation, mostly subsidized by the state, relaxed and soothed workers’ pain through mud and sulfur baths, massages, and physical therapy, if necessary.

The voucher waiting list for this spa resort was very long and some workers’ turn came in the middle of winter, not in August when Europeans preferred to take vacations. Many times, a husband’s turn would come in winter and his wife’s in fall or spring. It was always expected that a couple could seldom spend vacations together on a state-sponsored voucher.

Nine- and twelve-story hotels served the masses while the political elites had their private villas confiscated by the Bolsheviks from the “evil bourgeoisie.” After communism fell in 1989, privately owned hotels were built along the Cerna River, from the train station to the end of the hydro-electrical dam.

Wikipedia photo
Sadly, beautiful buildings dating from the Austro-Hungarian Empire era are in a pathetic state of disrepair, literally falling apart because the former owners, from whom the communists confiscated the buildings, are now owners again, but cannot afford to repair the 19th and early 20th century buildings which are literally crumbling and oozing decay. Additionally, some buildings may still be tied up in court since the government ordered them to be given back to their rightful owners who sometimes could not be found, had no money to fight in court, or to make repairs once they had won.

Wikipedia photo
Interestingly, during Ceausescu’s communist regime, all historical buildings were carefully maintained, lawns were beautifully manicured, streets were clean, and no graffiti could be seen anywhere.

Photo: Oana Chirila
Photo: Oana Chirila
Oana Chirila, a 23-year old architecture student from Timisoara, Romania, posted heartbreaking photos from the interior of the Neptune Sulfur Baths, built in 1883-1886. The gorgeous baroque and modernist building is literally falling apart. It is sad that history is no longer preserved but billions are wasted on globalization.

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