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Autumn by the seaside: Vama Veche, Mangalia, Saturn and Albena

We’ve never been to the Black Sea in September. This year we decided to give it a try, taking advantage of lower prices for transport and accommodation as well as the fewer tourists at the end of the season.

How to get to Vama Veche?

Actually, it’s not that easy to get there. Last year, we flew from Cluj to Bucharest and then took a BlaBlaCar. This year, Cluj-Constanța flights were introduced and we took the opportunity, buying tickets in advance, sometime during the spring. We left Cluj in pouring rain, perfect weather for the beach! 🙂

The flight takes just over an hour. The bad part is that you arrive at Mihail Kogălniceanu airport near Constanța late in the evening and from there you don’t have many transportation options to get to the resorts. The airport is far from the city, there are only some buses that go to Mihail Kogălniceanu village and stop here. There is nothing that takes you directly to Mangalia. And the taxis are at enormous prices and all go without the meter on, you just have to negotiate with the driver and the result is never in your advantage.

So we decided to stay overnight at a hotel just outside the airport and continued our trip the next morning. We changed three buses: the first one from Mihail Kogălniceanu to Constanța bus station, the second one to Mangalia train station and the third bus to Vama Veche. The whole story lasted about 3 hours. It’s obviously not a good option for families with young children.

It is strange when you think that there are buses to Otopeni Airport in Bucharest, 270 km away, at Mangalia Train Station, but there is not one to the airport near Constanța, which is just 65 km away. What can we say … this is very Romanian.

Vama Veche in autumn

We stayed at a guesthouse by the beach, in a room with a seaview… when we were looking from a certain angle. 🙂 It was in the attic, which would have been pretty bad in the middle of the summer, but now it wasn’t that hot outside, so we had no problems. There was also an interior garden with plenty of greenery and a place for barbecues and dining. We liked it there. All rooms were occupied, even at this time.

But Vama Veche looked pretty desolate. Many venues were closed, others opened only on weekends. There were significantly less tourists than in July 2016. The only constant thing was the price of sunbeds, which refused to fall, even when the beach was empty.

Vama Veche can not be called a resort itself. It’s a strange combination of a fishing village, a hippie refuge at the end of the country and a popular place for hipsters. The streets are narrow, many of them unpaved, and urbanism planning does not exist, it’s a total construction chaos. The beach is only partially arranged. Restaurants have become more and more expensive in recent years, the moneyless “dirty rockers” can’t really afford them anymore.

There are still some daredevils that live in a tent or a trailer at the northern end of the beach, where the shore is steeper. But the beach hardly resembles the casual atmosphere from the past. Even 4-star hotels with swimming pools and venues with clubbing music appeared in the past years, aspects that don’t reflect at all the „spirit of Vama Veche”.

The first-aid tent on the beach was closed. Z. cut her leg into a nail, and the only representative of the medical profession in Vama Veche, a pharmacist, advised us to go … to Mangalia. Also, we didn’t see any lifeguards on the beach. And the people who come here are as variegated as the improvised constructions.

The sea water was cold. So cold that we didn’t bathe at all at first. And that made us very sad, as we don’t really like to stay in the sun, we prefer to swim. The weather was not bad, but anyway, it felt like the optimal time had already passed for the Romanian seaside.

We ate shaorma, pancakes and fish soup, at the few places that were open during the week. In the weekends there are many more people that come from Bucharest and other cities that are not too far away. However, there were no events anymore, the last ones were held the week before our arrival.

In the evenings, we “subscribed” to a place with folk and rock live music, that we had also visited last summer. It was the only open venue that suited our taste in music, the other 2 or 3 open places blasted clubbing music. We liked Korsar‘s singing and we recommend you to check him out too.

Everything is more expensive in Vama Veche than in neighboring areas. Even the prices at the supermarkets or fast foods are higher than in 2 Mai or other southern seaside resorts. A low-cost option is to take a minibus to the Mangalia train station (it comes often and it’s inexpensive), where there’s a Lidl supermarket, for „simpler” tourists – those who prefer to visit more places instead of breaking the piggybank for just one vacation, like us.

Albena: the grass is greener on the Bulgarian side

At some point, we decided to have a day-trip to our southern neighbors. We chose a resort that none of us have visited before, but heard good things about: Albena. The 80 km distance is covered in about 2 hours, and the price is reasonable. Leva (Bulgarian currency) can be exchanged at the customs office when exiting the country, at a reasonable rate.

There’s not much to see on the road. Just fields with vegetables (unlike the weeds of our Dobrogea) and hundreds of windmills. The city of Balchik, through which we’ve passed, looks quite bad, there are many communist buildings that weren’t renovated. The situation has changed when we arrived in Albena, which is more a resort than a residential city.

The first thing that impressed us was that cars are only allowed to enter the city if they pay a fee. And that’s very good! The streets are airy, with few cars running or parked. It’s ideal for walking. It does not compare to the Romanian seaside resorts, where cars are everywhere among tourists, even on the beach.

The town is very green, with many trees, flowers and grass everywhere. In fact, it’s right on the edge of a nature reserve, it’s nice to be off the beach to find yourself a few minutes later walking through the woods. Bulgarian roses are present in many places, but at the beginning of September few were blooming.

Most of the hotels are old, there are fewer new constructions than in Romania. But they are renovated, look decent and have outside dining terraces as well as swimming pools. Most of the tourism here is on an all-inclusive system, which brings them a steady flow of tourists, especially families. The alleys of the hotels are very nice, it’s a pleasure to have relaxed walks there.

The beaches look great! The sand is fine, there are no stones, shells or algae, and the shore is smooth. Beer and ice cream prices on the beach are lower than in our country. And the sunbeds are cheaper, but there are many that can be rented, most of them are reserved for hotel guests. The water was much warmer than in Vama Veche, and the beaches were full of people.

We even found a mini-library on the beach, where you can borrow books for free. There are explanations and menus in Romanian everywhere, which is normal: it is full of our countrymen there, they represent the majority of tourists in this resort.

We walked, sighed, ate something at a fast food (not Bulgarian specialties, just American junk food) and entered a little bazaar that did not really impress us. There is also an aqua park, but we didn’t have time to see it close. Then, we took the bus back to the miorithic realms.

Mangalia and Saturn

One of the days we visited the southernmost Romanian town, as well as the nearby Saturn resort, which could really be called a neighborhood. After a round of specific negotiations with the driver of an illegal taxi service, we reached the Navy Museum, our first objective for the day. Which was closed, although according to the schedule on the door it had to be open. We expected the Romanian Marine to be more serious!

We then went to the Esmahan Sultan Mosque, which we liked. It is the oldest one in Romania, beautifully arranged and still functioning. Unfortunately, it was Friday – their holy day, and it was a religious procession inside, so we did not enter in order to not disturb the believers.

After that, we went to the Mangalia Tourist Port, which has recently been renovated with European funds and looks really good! It was just almost empty. It’s weird how little tourist traffic exists in our seaports. Probably cruise ships do not have enough reasons to stop here.

Then, we have arrived at the Genoese Lighthouse, which is quite deserted, covered in graffiti and rust, with weeds and broken tiles around. And there’s no possibility to climb on top. Pretty sad, it could have been a nice place to visit.

After we ate good and cheap food at a self-service restaurant nearby, we continued our walk on the Mangalia seafront (also renovated), which continues through Saturn resort. But this area is not renovated. Some of the communist hotels look really bad, others have been restored.

The beach is a disaster, besides being narrow, it is full of stones, algae, shells and garbage. There were few people and most of the restaurants and stores were closed. We didn’t stay very long there because it was ugly and there was nothing to do.

After our experience in Albena, we were very sad to see Saturn, which is actually a resort with the same profile, especially for families and older people. But the difference is from heaven to hell!

So, how was the Romanian seaside in autumn?

On the last night, we said goodbye to the Black Sea, sitting on its shore, admiring the full moon coming out of the waves. And, of course, with the traditional “pig-out pancake” of Vama Veche, with a lot of stuffing. And with folk music in the background…

We left the sea with mixed feelings. We haven’t visited the Romanian seaside two years in a row for a long time, and never so late. And as we see more and more places outside the country (such as Malta or Cyprus), we are increasingly disappointed, because we inevitably make a comparison.

What can we say? It’s worth going for the atmosphere of “nights in Vama Veche”… or what’s left of it. But there is no point in going during autumn, the season ends at the end of August, both as weather and events.

The Bulgarian seaside is nicer, but is also very different, the atmosphere is just too calm, it’s a place to go if you want total disconnection and good sleep at night, not sitting on terraces and attending events. In Mangalia there’s nothing to do for longer than half a day, and it doesn’t really make sense to go to Saturn.

Farewell, sea!

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