Vama Veche Isn’t What It Used To Be

How a village of 15 houses became one of the most popular places at the Romanian seaside.

One Thursday evening, at the end of April 2010, Vama Veche was quiet, calm and almost deserted. The main street, that houses, among others, the wooden skeleton of the bar La Piraţi (Pirates’), the double floor restaurant/canteen La Canapele (Couches’), and, a
little bit further down, the very popular Bibi Bistro, was free of people and cars. At the end of it, in the dark, you could make out the sea. Because it was completely people-and-car-free, you could also see something else: a fresh, smooth, gray strip of asphalt. The worn-out alley that will always be remebered for the dust people used to kick up with every step, had been covered with a clean carpet, ready to welcome tourists.

At about nine in the evening, the most lively spot was the Stuf beach bar, a wooden (and reed) construction with rustic touches and a profit margin liberated from the burden of having a too-expensive décor. The speakers blared Depeche Mode and about 50 people – two groups of smart-casuals in their 30s and a few couples of silent teenagers – were scattered at the tables, enjoying the beer, wine and spirits, almost as high-priced as those in Bucharest. The toilet, which wasn’t there the summer before, had functional sinks, liquid soap and ceramic tiles. 

A long awaited necessity, but one which will surely be mentioned among the changes that make nostalgics sadly conclude that “Vama isn’t what it used to be.” 

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Djena Mariette, Antonia Wagner and Emad Sa’adeh, volunteers working in Romania, sharing breakfast on the beach, in front of their tent.

Part of the beach was immersed in darkness; the sea was but an interrupted hush. The light bulb on the totem in front of Stuf, a wooden, carved pole about three to four meters high, which used to shed light on everything around it, was out. Still, in the sallowish lights shining from under the rooftops, you could still make out the curves of some tents planted in the nearby sand. Out of the halflight, fragments of conversations would sometimes emerge, coming from a group of guitarless young people.

Almost everything had a natural serenity to it.

Commotion could only be found behind the bar. For half hour, 14 men carried beer, water and Red Bull crates in a hurry somewhere beyond the place where Ovidiu, the pub’s iconic owner, prepared his coffee in a pot.

It was Thursday, April 29, and Vama Veche – a former rebel enclave, now one of the most popular Romanian sea-resorts, after Mamaia, Costineşti and Neptun – was awaiting Labor Day weekend.

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A group of guys help a stranded driver get his car out of the sand. “Dude, I didn’t want to end up here, but some guys blocked me.”

The Vama Veche village, part of the Limanu township, is near the border with Bulgaria, and was set up in 1811 by the Gagauzes, who named it Ilanlîk. This is a place with such an improbable story that few others in Romania can match it. First of all, Vama Veche is an accident. A historical, and then a cultural one, whose career as a place with a special, bohemian and nonconformist spirit began as a modest and circumstantial substitute for a more appealing destination of interwar Romanians: Balchik.

The Bulgarian sea-resort was located in the Cadrilater area, a region in South Dobrudja which belonged to Romania between 1913 and 1940. (When the Romanian frontier was modified to include the Cadrilater, Ilanlîk turned into Vama Veche/Old Customs – the place where the old frontier used to be.) At the time, mostly owing to Queen Mary, Balchik was the favorite destination for the Romanian artistic and political elites. In 1926, it had 6,500 inhabitants (the majority of whom were Muslim) and stretched over a few white hills of Southern Dobrudja. It was surrounded by a rich forest that came within 50 meters of the sea and was crossed by small streets meandering towards the harbor, flanked by red-shingled, white, stylish villas.

Visitors enjoyed promenades, parties and walks along the beach. They relaxed in Turkish coffee shops, where they smoked hookah and drank coffee made in a pot. Some of them sunbathed nude. They discussed books, music, theater and politics. And at the end of the holiday they came back not only relaxed, but also validated. It was the place to be if you were (or aspired to be) someone in Bucharest.

On September 7, 1940, The Cadrilater was returned to Bulgaria, and the frontier moved back, near the village Vama Veche.

According to Murat Soium, the only person at work in the Limanu Townhall the Friday before May 1, back in those days Vama was a village of 15 to 20 houses, lined up on both sides of the road. Soium, 58, was born in the nearby village of 2 Mai, and his features are proof of the mixture of Turks, Tatars and Gagauzes
living there for hundreds of years. He says that the area next to the beach, and even the place where Stuf bar is now, was originally covered in thorn-bush and you needed a machete to walk through it.

Vama was not necessarily a fishermen village. Maybe some people fished, but most of them either worked in state-run agriculture, or took care of some animals and garden. Tourists would stop in 2 Mai, especially because it had a school camp. Families with small children used stay there for two or three months – the same every year. Important people, artists, famous actors, they all became regulars, eventually befriending the villagers.

Soium isn’t sure of the details, but he remembers that during the mid ’60s, nobody had heard of tourists in Vama Veche.

fter the war, some of the Balchik bohemians tried to find or recreate a part of the atmosphere in the Dobrudja-style houses next to the border. Mamaia and Mangalia were popular resorts even when Balchik was part of Romania, but had become destinations for the new communist elite. Therefore, the old elite (and those who were raised in that spirit) had to seek refuge somewhere to the south, first in 2 Mai and, starting with the ’60s, in Vama Veche.  

One of the factors that pushed them south was probably the development project of the Jupiter and Neptun-Olimp resorts north of Vama Veche. Being working-class destinations, enormous hotels were built for thousands of tourists. The beaches had to be more accommodating; therefore sand was brought from 2 Mai, where the beach was up to 100 meters wide. In Vama Veche, however, being a frontier settlement, high buildings could not be erected, as everything coming from Bulgaria had to be visible from faraway. Soium remembers that, in ’67, a group of students from the University of Cluj came to Vama Veche. Not many, but more joined year after year. Until the ’89 Revolution, they had their own center, a camp, in a house somewhere on the outskirts of the village. They liked it because no one was there and they could mind their own business and have fun.

On the beach, people check out their tan before sunset.
Ana-Maria Radu, 17, from Bucharest, waters the plants at the beach bar where she works during the summer.

The Vama fans slept in tents, on the beach or in the villagers’ gardens. They brought food from home or bought whatever they could find around the village. And because the customs officers did nothing more than seldom ask for their identification documents, in time the place became an island where, besides nudism, you could talk without much fear about the world outside Romania: from western music and books, to the Ceauşescu regime. They probably wouldn’t have been able to start a revolution, but, the same way the interwar bohemians had chosen Balchik as their peaceful oasis, here was a community who had created its own version of freedom.

After the revolution, more and more people started coming here. Next to initial Vama goers, who were getting older, more and more young people found out about the frontier village. Most of them were students, as the village’s fame spread out mostly in collegiate circles. Therefore, the “Vama Veche spirit” outlived the communist era, protected by inertia: it no longer existed to be against something, but to be for itself.

At the end of the ’90s, Vama exploded. A pop-rock band called Vama Veche (which started in ’96) recorded the moment with the hit Vama Veche, released at the beginning of 1999. It soon became that summer’s anthem: “To Vama Veche I took off / To find my pair and live well off / In Vama Veche I touched down / And started acting like a clown / On Vama Veche beach I stay / Her lips kissing my ear all day / Vama Veche’s the only place / We’ll find our pairs in an embrace.” The song sold an accessible idea: the beach is where we have fun and hook up. Who wouldn’t be curious to see such a place? What teenager wouldn’t want to reach the beach of promises?

Maybe the band is not responsible for the avalanche of tourists that followed, maybe it had already begun, but they certainly succeeded to put their reasons into words. In the early 2000s, with Romanian dance music going into heavy rotation on the radio, outfits like the newly established Atomic TV sold the “at the beach, in the sun” idea even more convincingly to teenagers with increased social mobility. Modest as they still were, the advantages of capitalism enabled many parents to give an affirmative answer to the “Papa, let me go to the beach!” plea. At least for the weekend. 

Of course, Mamaia and Costineşti had much more to gain from the new wave of young tourists, as they were more accessible and offered more clubs, bars and street cafés. However, Vama attracted enough of them. Even if it was still far from concepts like “guesthouses”, “reservations” or “services” and had a reputation of being “owned by rockers,” Vama was cheaper than any other place on the Romanian seaside.

When the number of tourists increased, the village became appealing to those eager to make money. “They started building guesthouses, bars, terrace cafés, organizing concerts,” says Soium. “It’s not like before. Most of them come for the weekend, they don’t stay for months like they used to. For Labor Day, there will probably be around 10,000 people.”

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Fishermen at work before sunrise, bringing fresh fish for the local markets.

Vama got crazy on Friday, April 30, around noon. Hundreds and hundreds of exhausted people flooded the main street. A guy with shaved head, dressed in army pants and nothing else, carrying a backpack, stopped where the Ion Creangă Street makes a left toward Stuf and, pointing down with his finger, screamed to nobody in particular: “Yo, who put asphalt here?” A teenager with a Japanese-style haircut, who was heading right to Expirat, answered with laughter: “Some fucking wankers!”

They kept on coming: packed in the buses that arrived every half hour; driven by taxi drivers who charged extra to bring them from 2 Mai; or in their own cars (from Romanian Dacias to SUVs) which they parked on each side of the road in a line almost one kilometer long.

By nightfall, 10,000 people had gathered on the terrace cafés, the beach, the guest houses or tents.

You could not get into Bibi’s Bistro after 9 pm. The once grocery store now turned bistro was now hosting a concert by legendary rockers Iris. Much to the delight of those blocking the two streets in front of the bistro, you could hear the lead singer’s voice bellowing from inside, sharpening in evergreen lyrics (“I’ll be waiting for you still / I’ll come to your house uphill / I’m forever waiting / Without you I am aching.”)   

The beach was dotted with fires. Dozens of people gathered around them, attracted by the light, guitars and warmth. Several thousand listened to alternative rock band Viţa de Vie, playing on a stage in the sand.

There were so many people and so many things going on that it all seemed to be an amusement park out of control. Shirtless youngsters running around with wooden boards under their arms were screaming victoriously. Those gathered around the fires passed on the plastic wine bottles, and tried to sing folk songs. Vama was a mix of people, impossible to find in any other place: high school kids from Alba sitting next to students from Bucharest, emo kids next to post-adolescent hipsters, family men with cameras around their necks next to the guy who asked everyone for weed. On top of everything, you could hear a rock-punk-folk cacophony.

Music is the only binding agent of the Vama spirit that made it to 2010, and the aspect that brings the least points in the “Vama isn’t what it used to be” game. Without resembling too much, the playlists of all bars in Vama seem to share the same slogan as Europa FM: “The best music from the ’80s until now.” Those who went to the same bar in Vama twice are very likely to recognize not only the songs, but also their playing order.

The music, currently lying in the cryogenic suspension, holds the key to understanding Vama during the past few years. No matter what song drew them there, visitors are greeted by the resistance: Bob Marley, The Doors, Guns N’ Roses, Deep Purple, Nirvana, Rolling Stones, Metallica, Depeche Mode, etc. Not even places like Expirat, which opts for a more underground playlist, take the risk of playing too much new stuff.

It’s a kind of resistance that could explain why, despite the attempts, genres like house or manele didn’t catch on in Vama. Or why, somewhat ironically, Stufstock – a festival that started in to fight those altering the spirit of Vama – lost part of its audience when it started going down the alternative road.

On the night of May 1, a few men jump on the floor of a bar, after having ripped it off and thrown into the fire.
People are dancing during a Șuie Paparude concert.
A few guys are standing on the beach, in the cold, surrounded by the smoke from a nearby stage.

Music is the most plausible explanation for the nostalgia that takes over the regulars of Vama, but what really makes it “not be what it used to” is gentrification.

This socio-cultural phenomenon appears when rich people begin buying property in a poor community. The recipe is simple, and Vama Veche – where almost 40 percent of the inhabitants are guesthouse owners who came from elsewhere, and where, in 2004, the square meter cost the same as in the northern part of Bucharest – is not the only place where this phenomenon appeared.

A shabby place, with a certain sentimental value but with small prices, attracts the bohemians. For a while, the area is stuck in a state close to collapse, nobody invests, except for those who are already there. With time, the number of bohemians grows, until the ambiance they create becomes a selling point. The only one. The first investments appear, corporate or cosmopolitan people start showing up, imagining that – if they had more time and fewer worries – they could be just as bohemian. With them, the purchasing power grows, therefore more and more bars, shops and cafés open. The place changes and, thanks to its initial historical or sentimental value, it becomes a must-see destination. The prices go up, and the bohemians can no longer afford, or simply refuse, to come here.

That’s how Balchik was transformed from the village it used to be in 1913 to the must-see destination of the ’30s. That’s how, over the last two years, Bucharest’s Old City became a hot spot. That’s how Vama Veche became an architectural, social, and economic swarm. 

The moral: every place that attracts enough people is nothing else but the flavor of the times in which they’re living. It’s not Vama Veche that changed. We did. 

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