For a beach resort, the Bulgarian town of Balchik is a bit of a letdown. The setting is indeed beautiful — thickly forested cliffs that slope down to a wide turquoise sea — but try as I might, I could not find any sand.
“That’s because of the mudslide back in the 2000s. Or maybe it was the ’90s,” a Bulgarian painter explained to me vaguely (I happened to be in town during the annual art festival). “The beach was totally destroyed. But you should have seen it back then.”
This capacity for nostalgia is distinctively European, and nowhere is it more evident than in this corner of the Balkans — Dobruja, a spicy, historically turbulent and multiethnic area where the Danube divides Romania and Bulgaria at the Black Sea.
In my travels south from Histia, a gorgeously preserved Greek and Roman settlement on what is now the Romanian side, I encountered this perspective over and over. Surrounded by a palimpsest of classical, Imperial and Communist history, people tended to see the vanished past just as clearly — sometimes more so — as that which was right in front of them.
It was a steamy summer weekend, so my husband, Oggi, and I drove south to the Romanian beach town of Mangalia. Like Constanta, the neighboring port city I wrote about last week, Mangalia and its harbor played a role in the midcentury transport of Jews out of Europe, first to Palestine and then to Israel.
Dobruja is somewhat unusual in that its Jewish community was mixed between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The former came from Russia during the Russian-Turkish wars of the 19th century; the latter migrated within the Ottoman Empire, Sephardim being the predominant Jewish group in the Turk-administered Balkans.
Today little remains of that legacy: Jews are but one of many once-populous ethnic communities here that have largely disappeared, their exodus part of the shifting sands of 20th-century geopolitics.
But the sands we were seeking were of the literal variety. We found them on the shores of Mangalia, where a mostly-Romanian crowd soaked up the rays and splashed in a warm, shallow sea. The beach was wide, sandy and serviceable, but hardly exciting, lacking the prettiness of coastlines further south.
Downtown Mangalia is provincial and somewhat dreary; floral landscaping is an earnest but unsuccessful effort to beautify a city center dominated by grim Socialist buildings. Hunting hard, we did find some redeeming gems, starting with the Archaeological Museum, housed in a classical building by the remains of a fourth-century Greek settlement. Also of note is one of Romania’s oldest mosques — the Esmahan Sultan Mosque, a 16th-century relic of the Ottoman Turks. Still in use, the graceful structure today serves the local Turkish and Tatar minorities.
The scenery improved once we left the city behind. The diverse ecosystem of the Danube Delta encompasses everything from orange trees to jungle-like forest; wild seabirds cry overhead, and the sea comes into view around every curve.
Soon enough we were pulling into Balchik, the beach town that no longer has a beach. But that doesn’t stop Bulgarians from flocking in summer to its quaint 19th-century lanes and lively waterfront bars, where chalga — minor-key Balkan pop — throbs from discos well into the night.
Besides the sea, Balchik is famous for two things: a royal palace and gardens, and a storied art scene. It was in Balchik that I met the only Jews I encountered in Dobruja, painters and sculptors from the capital, where Jews have historically been prominent in fine arts.
Artists were not the first to fall in love with Balchik. The town was a favorite of Queen Marie of Romania, a spicy, sexy aristocrat who had a summer palace built here during the interwar years, when southern Dobruja was briefly part of Romania. Once World War II broke out, the Romanian royals had to scramble for another vacation spot. But the palace remains — and more spectacularly, the botanical gardens that surround it are now a national park that remains one of the loveliest spots on the Black Sea.
Queen Marie had a lot to escape from in her day-to-day life. Shunted into a dynastic marriage to an unappealing prince, the royal jet setter had a series of scandalous affairs, saddling at least three of her children with dubious paternity. With a nebbish for a husband, she reportedly wore the family pants as well, intervening personally in European conferences to lobby — successfully — for Romania’s interests after World War I. It was as a result of this last effort that she won, among other territories, the cliffs of Southern Dobruja.
So the getaway place seems well deserved. Ever meticulous, Marie commissioned Italian designers to install Romanesque and Moorish arches, classical urns, pools and fountains throughout the formal gardens, connecting the property to its Roman-era past. Many of the structures do, in fact, date to antiquity; draped with vines and set into a cliff, the setting feels timeless and organic. But there are also novelties, like the most impressive cactus garden in Southeast Europe.
Marie had the right idea, I decided as I relaxed in the shade of a cypress grove, listening to the hum of bees. The best place to relax in Dobruja isn’t the beach after all; it’s the Roman gardens of Balchik, with a view of the sea.