CONTINUOUSLY INHABITED FOR NEARLY 3,000 YEARS, CONSTANTA IS A FASCINATING CULTURAL MELTING POT THAT INCLUDES GREEK, TATAR AND TURKISH INFLUENCES.
As the sun rises I wander south along the seafront, leaving behind me Constanta’s sandy beaches, named Zorile (The Dawn), Trei Papuci (Three Slippers) and, more prosaically, Modern. Caspian gulls, known by their quick, laughing calls, weave overhead as I descend the High Cliff, following the wide, patterned pavement that rims the Old Town. Revelling in the contrast between the dark grey, metallic sea and the paler sky, I watch the sun’s golden spears zinging over the water. Soon I feel myself getting hooked on the city’s exhilarating, salt- and algae-ridden air. My only companions now are a couple of earnest, Lycra-clad joggers and a one-eyed rag picker who winks with the good one as though we’re complicit in an undiscovered crime.
Feeling jauntier for this contact, I slip through the tourist port – called Tomis after the 6th-century BC Greek settlement which has been inhabited one way and another ever since – and saunter past the grand, white façade of the Fleet Command. On to the little octagonal lighthouse, built in the 1850s to commemorate 13th– and 15th-century Genoese merchant venturers who commanded the Black Sea’s western reaches, then I stop for a few minutes to mourn the abandoned Casino, a majestic 19th-century masterpiece – a lovely building balancing structural sturdiness with delicate tracery – which is in dire need of love. I pass by the modest Aquarium with its cheerful reliefs, and go down to another breakwater, where the amazing concrete stabilopozi hold back the winter waves.
By this time, I’m longing for a plăcintă dobrogeană made with telemea (salty sheep’s cheese), or even a sticky baklava, so head north for Doi Bakery and Bits of Friendship, where the pastries are delicious and unashamedly fattening, and on to the Haute Cup café. You can sit here for hours, perched on a high stool and luxuriating in the smell of coffee, with a worldwide selection of freshly ground beans to choose from.
Going south again, I stroll along Bulevardul Tomis, past more grand and dilapidated houses, to Ovidiu Square. This is the Old Town’s hub, dominated by a statue of the Roman poet Ovid who was exiled here in the 1st century AD, to his vociferous dismay. One of the prettiest nearby buildings is the Moorish Hunchiar Mosque. Dating from 1867, it’s simple to the point of austerity, with a lovely, blue-tiled interior. Also within walking distance is the terracotta-and-white striped Museum of Folk Art. It exudes warmth and colour: red-, blue- and gold-flecked icons tell urgent, pagan-Christian stories on thick, wavy glass; gorgeous embroideries; handmade objects patinated by use. A few minutes away is the Grand Mosque, still in use, where you can climb to the 24m-high minaret for a superb view of city and sea.
Time for some tasty fish soup at On Plonge, a friendly restaurant on the sea wall, before plunging into the History and Archaeology Museum. This august institution is a lot more fun than it sounds, displaying pieces of crisply carved, antique statuary that were excavated under these very streets. It’s hard to tear myself away, but there’s Casa cu Lei (Lion House) close by, with its carvings of lion heads, for example, and the ancient Roman trading post, one of the largest of its type, with a muted mosaic pavement that is full of fascinating patterns.
Vendors vie for my custom as I browse in the open-air market on Piata Griviţei. It’s hard to choose between them but the entertainment is catching – soon every passer-by is adding their view of the relative virtues of this or that Macedonian cheese (a local speciality) or Romanian honey. Hungry for another snack, I opt for Greek chicken soup and a pork cutlet à la Parisienne at Restaurant Sport. Located near the High Cliff, the Sport is a blast from the Communist past when, as its name suggests, it was frequented by sportsmen and women. Its cavernous dining hall is one of the oldest eateries in town and it’s still very good value.
Inspired by the Sport, I decide to book a windsurfing lesson, which means taking a bus to Mamaia, a few kilometres up the coast. Throwing myself on the tender mercies of the Sole Academy, I fail hopelessly to balance my sail and, ravenous again, I retire to comfort my wounded pride.
Constanta is a foodie’s delight, and as the sun sets behind me, I end my day at Restaurantul Zorile, looking out to sea. I start with one of Romania’s national dishes, the famous mămăligă cu brânză şi smântană (polenta with cheese and soured cream), followed by grilled sturgeon and Braşov pancakes. Below me, wild doves find their nesting places and ships ride at anchor in the sea roads.