Vama Veche, a Journey Within

Words & Photo: Mihnea Turcu
August 2023

On a blistering hot mid-summer afternoon in 1999, I was dropped off by the side of a road. I couldn’t see it, but I knew the sea was on my left side. I could feel it from the warm wind, the smell of dried seaweed, the white air filled with salt, and a fine dusting of seashells. If I had taken the then unpaved street that led directly to the sea, I would have seen a few tiny houses with stone fences and a terrace or two with old wooden tables and some chairs. But I went through the cornfield in front of me instead, straight to the Black Sea. For the first time in my life, I was unknowingly entering the realm of Vama Veche, an enchanting journey into the deeper questions of life.

I went out a few meters further on a wild white beach, different from anything I had seen until then. The beach seemed to be no more than two or three kilometers long. A strong wind from the sea; the smell of fine sand; waves breaking on the shore, throwing cool water droplets at me. I experienced an enveloping feeling of freedom. To my left, in the distance, a few lone tents battling the horizon. To my right, on a sand dune, a boy and a girl, naked, embracing each other. That moment stayed with me forever. Then and there, I fell in love. I felt that I had arrived, at last. That I didn’t have to search for more. That everything had meaning and charm and consistency, and all I had to do was let nature, the village, and the people around take over me.

I would later realize that these were my steps to grow out of adolescence. Everything new was intense and felt like a decisive blow in the chest. A part of a hidden life was coming to the surface. Freedom took on new meanings. And these new meanings were manifested in Vama Veche in many different ways. 

An Oasis of Freedom

Those of us born in Romania in the 70s have lost crucial moments in history. Ceausescu’s regime hid the world’s reality from us. We began our childhood during the intensity of the last years of communism, and lived our teenage years in a country that was trying hard to learn how democracy works. When the regime fell in 1989, many of us were shy, introverted, quiet, and full of shame. It was what the system, our parents, and school instilled in us. But our growing pains began as the country started to open up. For me, like for many others, the village of Vama Veche, in the corner between Romania’s border with Bulgaria, became a playground for exploration. 

The village’s old name was Serpărie, which can be translated as “snake pit.”  It was the perfect example of a melting pot. Romania had been at the intersection of several empires for centuries. Its southern region, which Vama Veche is part of, was passed from Turkish, to Russian, and finally to Romanian administrations. Communities of Turks, Tatars, and Russians lived here, mixed with Bulgarians and the populations of local shepherds. 

During the time of the monarchy, between 1913 and 1940, when Romania’s border stretched much further to the south than it does now, the Romanian artistic and political elites spent their summer in the charming atmosphere of Balchik, a town – then Romanian, only 60 km south – that today belongs to Bulgaria. Writers, painters, and poets fled Bucharest’s summer heat, taking shelter in Balchik’s coolness of the sea and wooded hills.

In 1940, Romania lost the southern part, and a few years later, the shadow of communism engulfed the country. Vama Veche became a sort of guard of the southern border, while Romania’s northern coast embarked on an extensive ‘architectural modernization’ journey. Vama Veche and its neighboring village, 2 Mai, located just a few minutes north, remained frozen in time. The two villages began attracting summer bohemians yearning for their time in Balchik. 

Mrs. Sultana Dumitrache is an octogenarian woman with a joyful, penetrating glance and slow, calm, calculated movements. She remembers life in Vama Veche was about working the land and growing the animals. “In the 1940s, we were like 30 families here, and there was no store in the village, no church and no bus connecting us to the rest of the world.” She recalls the first tourists that arrived in Vama Veche in the 60s and 70s: “A doctor came here for the first time around that time. He was from Bucharest and he loved the village.” Next summer, her rooms were fully booked, and her backyard taken over by tents. There was no electricity either back then and she was happy to cook for all of her guests. “We used to keep food and drinks in a bucket at the end of a chain, deep down in the coldness of a fountain. Life was very simple here.”

Some kept coming year after year, as the relationship between the locals and the newcomers often resulted in long-lasting friendships. “I still receive postcards, even after so many years, from doctors, professors, and other influential people who have stepped into my house. We all respected and loved each other back then” she sighed. “But times have changed. Now everything is about wealth and greed.”

Throughout the years fondly remembered by Sultana, Vama Veche became a hidden and nonconformist cultural space; an oasis of freedom resisting the control and suffocation of the communist security apparatus. Artists, doctors, students, and intellectuals began to arrive. Uncensored art, literature, nudism, anti-regime conversations, and hippie music’s influence took root in the 70s and 80s. The communist regime knew of this phenomenon, and tried to control those dynamics through surveillance methods. Years later, some declassified security files revealed the presence of informants among both tourists and locals. White-shirted officers attempted to supervise the activities on the beach, appearing in hilarious discord with the nudist group’s bohemian appearance. But the system had no weapons, nor was it prepared to fight the symbolism of long hair or the metaphors hidden in guitar chords. The communist party could only sit and observe.

From the 70s throughout the 80s, the wild beach encouraged you to dream. Once back in the house, at the dining table or in the silence of the tent at night, Vama Veche’s mood turned into a quiet state of meditation. This was the atmosphere, years later, as I arrived in Vama Veche. To my surprise, I was about to witness the village’s eclectic history and accelerated changes unfolding in front of me.

Vama Veche after the 90s: a Hippie Stronghold

In the early 2000s, Vama Veche was still a small place. On the dusty streets, you may see a tired horse pulling a cart, and a few dozen houses. There were some terraces and lively bars from which you could invariably hear the chords of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The Jack, El Comandante, Stuf, and La Pirati were all next to each other. People used to hang out there until the night broke with the first ray of sunlight.  

For many years, in the beginning, I chose to stay in a tent close to the sea. I would usually arrive in Vama Veche late at night, stepping slowly between the ropes, careful not to trip over the tents already on the beach. The sun rose from the sea, and quickly passed above the tent’s green tarpaulin. The sun’s rays would first touch your eyelids, and no matter how much you turned away, they would still kick you out of your tent early in the morning. You had only one thing to do: to jump straight into the sea. In Vama Veche, you lived outside of time. Each day seemed to pass like lines from a poem.

I interacted with people I wouldn’t have otherwise in the city; we suddenly shared our opinions and had deep discussions. Vama Veche transformed us into a community. Here I learned to let nature guide me. Here I felt that we are a spirit, an emotion, and a soul before anything else.

Vama Veche took us out of the dizzying flow of the city, teaching us to sit and think. We spoke about hippies, music, and Woodstock. The proximity of water made us go deeper, and the infinite expanse of the horizon calmed our thoughts. Vama Veche was the perfect place for this culture to flourish. A small village, forgotten at the edge of Eastern Europe, on the shore of the Black Sea. Nature and wildness attracted those who simply needed to breathe, to find an escape from the reactionary force of the communist regime. Vama Veche was a place of recharging, cleansing, and resistance for the generation before mine. Three decades later, it was our turn to resist and protest, this time against kitsch, materialism, consumerism, and the superficial. Vama Veche revealed everything we had in common.

Gentrification and Nostalgia

During the 80s, Vama Veche was declared a marine and terrestrial natural reserve. But the government never understood it should have been protected as a cultural reserve too. The few public actions, Salvați Vama Veche (Save Vama Veche) or the Stufstock Festival, did not find strong support. Initiatives died on their own, powerless against a society not investing enough in fighting against commercialization, the tide of misunderstood democracy, greedy politicians with vested interests, and an eager rush for profit.

Ironically, Vama Veche became a victim of its own reputation. By early 2010s gentrification took over. The beach got divided and concessioned, covered with umbrellas, canopies, and sunbeds, replacing the simple charm of the mornings in the tent. Modern and high-rise guest houses appeared in place of the old and hidden gardens, and new terraces, bars, and restaurants made Vama lose its meditative essence. Sadly, most newcomers (‘investors’) were alien to the Vama Veche’s spiritual mood. 

The old community is now dissipating. Some left the country in search of a future outside Romania, while others sought peace on the wild beaches of Bulgaria. But in the inertia of history, of the change and rotation of generations, the place has always remained alone in the game of opinions and preferences. How did those who arrived in Vama Veche years before me view me as a newcomer? Vama Veche is a personal experience for each one of us. 

I come back to Vama Veche every summer. In more than 25 years since we first met, she and I have both changed. But every time, I am surprised at the joy in the eyes of the young people who arrive there, with the amazement I felt years ago. Every summer the same story repeats itself. Vama Veche’s charm is always in the eye of the beholder. It is up to us to either remain anchored in the melancholy of the past or let ourselves be carried away by the spell of this place, constantly reinventing itself but never disappearing.