Suddenly, and without warning, an ornate and incongruous watering place called the Baths of Hercules rose from the depths of the wild valley. The fin-de-siècle stucco might have come straight out of an icing gun; there were terracotta balustrades, egg-shaped cupolas and glimpses through glass double-doors of hydrangeas banked up ornate staircases…an echo of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at its farthest edge…
From the moment we each read that passage in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water, it was a certainty that some day we’d try and see this place for ourselves. So last September we travelled to Romania to visit Baile Herculane. Leigh Fermor had hiked and bivouacked through the southern Carpathians; we drove down out of our usual exploring-territory of Transylvania to the bottom of the Cerna valley, a few miles above the border with Serbia and the point where the Cerna meets the Danube in the gorge known as the Iron Gates.
“Paddy” had visited Baile Herculane in the summer of 1933, when, although already part of Romania, it was still in most essentials the Habsburg resort-town of Herkulesfurdo / Herculesbad. Even at the turn of the century, it had been fairly remote – the frontier between Austria-Hungary and the pre-1920 Kingdom of Romania ran along the east side of the narrow Cerna valley, just a short distance above the town. But it had been glamorous: like all the smartest spots in Central Europe, it had been frequented by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (aka “Sissi”), and the town still has its own anecdote about her visits – how she took moonlit strolls incognito in the wooded valley and, after being offered refreshment by a young shepherd and his wife, revealed her identity and became godmother to their newly-born child. Naturally, this is now commemorated on a fridge magnet.
We’d read that time (and communism) had been cruel to Baile Herculane. This remarkable blog by some rare British visitors to the area in the late 1960s shows the town still spotless and thriving. Nick Hunt, who traced Leigh Fermor’s footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water in 2013, was much more downbeat. But since he’s downbeat about everything that we tend to find most romantic, we went anyway – having taken the precaution of booking a hotel in nearby Drobeta-Turnu Severin instead.
In reality, it was like stumbling upon the remains of an abandoned civilisation. The entire historic centre of the 19th century spa is still standing and instantly recognisable from old pictures and descriptions – but it’s as if the whole town was somehow shut down en masse a couple of decades back, and now, in September 2017, was on the point of vanishing altogether into the wilderness. Paddy called this chapter of his book “The End of Middle Europe”, but when we arrived it felt like it had long since ended.
Hercules has kept the faith, though, as Paddy noted: “The Victorian statue of the lion-pelted and muscle-bound bruiser, which dominated the centre of town, showed that ancient glory had returned”. Not so much that, perhaps: the exteriors of the elegant 19th century townhouses around him had new paint, but the buildings themselves were empty apart from an ad-hoc souvenir shop. A busker sat on the pavement playing the opening melody from Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1 on a tin whistle. The little octagonal Catholic church (Romania is predominantly Orthodox) at the end of the main square was open, and still apparently expects seasonal worshippers from all parts of the former Empire.
I’m pretty sure this former hotel was one of the stucco-covered belle-époque extravaganzas that so astonished Paddy after his trek through the forests. Looking at it today was heartbreaking, though there were a few indications that restoration might be imminent.
The west side of the town was dominated by the huge, ornate Baths building. It’s still magnificent, though it’s entirely shuttered off and the elegant iron bridge across the Cerna is unsafe to use.
We’d hoped to take a dip in the thermal pools, and online research showed that one bath at least (attached to the Hotel Cerna) had still been operational in the summer of 2016. Too late: the door was locked and “Inchis” was chalked on the door with no further explanation. It’s under the red curved corrugated roof here – still looking spotless beneath the crags on the east side of the valley.
This was Sissy’s villa, and opposite it, the former Kursaal. Both looked reasonably OK from the outside, and there were information boards explaining their historic importance, but they were deserted nonetheless.
We found the old casino too: this was where Paddy spent a big night out and where in 1933 “the crowded tables, the dance band and the dancers filled the dining room of the Casino with brio and schwung“. It’s undergone some restoration by the local council, but much of the original décor remains untouched, by the look of it.
Yet Baile Herculane still felt playful as well as melancholy, somehow. A Romanian friend told us that it’s a favourite holiday spot of her father’s, and there were plenty of visitors. There’s a cluster of brutalist, Communist-era hotels further down the valley, all of which apparently do a decent trade. And when the sun broke through the clouds, the flowerbeds were colourful, the box hedges neatly tended, and you could sense something of the holiday mood that Paddy described: “the comic and engaging charm of an operetta”.
Literally. Paddy commented that “a more knowing traveller might have caught a whiff of Offenbach and Meyerbeer, a hint of Schnitzler”. I thought I was imagining things when I heard a snatch of Tales from the Vienna Woods carried on the breeze; it segued into Les Patineurs and then Gold and Silver. It turned out that there was about to be an open-air wedding in the garden outside the Casino, and the organist was warming up the crowd on his Yamaha keyboard. While we watched, the fountains spurted into life. Since the sun was out, we bought ice creams.
The clouds spilled in over the mountains as we left Baile Herculane, and a full-dress Carpathian thunderstorm broke as we arrived at the railway station, a couple of miles away at the foot of the valley. An electric loco clattered through with a four-coach local train to Turnu Severin, but it was pretty clear from the architecture that, small though it is, Baile Herculane’s railway station was always intended as the spa’s main portal to Vienna and Budapest. A display in the waiting room recounted the days when the Orient Express would stop here during the spa season, so travellers from Paris to Bucharest or Istanbul could break their journey at the resort.
Then we headed south towards the Danube, and the Iron Gates – which is another world, and another story, really.