On the shores of the Black Sea, an opulent casino serves as a glittering playground for the European elite. But less than 100 years later it will stand empty and abandoned, its lofty ceilings echoing with the beat of pigeons’ wings. So what happened to the pride of Constanţa, and why was it left to crumble into decay?
During its heyday, the Constanta Casino in southeast Romania welcomed the highest echelons of society through its doors. Perched on a pier above the sea, it was once considered on a par with the famous venues of Monte Carlo in far-off Monaco. But for decades now it has been deserted, an eerie relic from a bygone age.
With its Baroque detailing and ornate windows facing the expanse of the Black Sea, the casino was once the place to see and be seen. But as the fortunes of Romania changed, so too did the fate of this grand building. Now only a brave few venture within its walls to be confronted with a ghostly reminder of the forgotten past.
Once ringing with the rattle of the roulette wheel and the clink of glasses, Constanta Casino has been silent for years. And yet its arched windows and sweeping terraces still loom over the city streets. Do passersby ever wonder at the haunting secrets hiding within? Well, thanks to some plucky adventurers, we can now see the abandoned interior in all its glory.
And yet the casino that dominates the Constanţa waterfront was not actually the first to be built on that site. According to historians, the original structure was erected back in the late 19th century, an early building project after the region passed from the Ottomans to Romania in 1878. But unlike the modern building, this one was made entirely of wood.
Constructed in 1880, this early casino boasted a dance hall and reading rooms, as well as the more traditional gaming areas. Meanwhile, on the exterior, two terraces wrapped around the building, providing visitors with a commanding view of the Black Sea below. But the site didn’t exactly have much luck early on.
Because just a year after its completion, this early wooden building was battered by a particularly vicious storm. Left in tatters, the structure was demolished in 1892. But by that point, the idea of a casino on the shores of the Black Sea had taken root. And before long, work had begun on a replacement structure.
This second casino, opened in 1893, was also built of wood. And clearly it was a hit. At the time, Romanian scribe Petre Vulcan waxed lyrical about the building, writing, “At first sight we were attracted by the party pavilion, whose mammoth feet rise from the waves, with a wrapped porch pushed over the sea. From the interior music sprang, and cheerful couples dance Boston; from outside the lanterns hanging towards the sea dance enchantingly.”
But before long, Constanţa’s politicians had begun to foster even bigger dreams. And around 1900 King Carol I of Romania commissioned a new casino. This time, the goal was to create something modern and grand – a structure on a par with the great buildings of the French Riviera. The project was awarded to a local architect by the name of Daniel Renard.
Keen to create a design that would live up to expectations, Renard envisaged an Art Nouveau-style casino replete with ornate detail. But although the reigning Liberal government loved his idea, the opposition were less than enthusiastic. And when the balance of power shifted, the architect found himself out of a job.
By the time that Renard’s replacement Petre Antonescu arrived, the foundations of the casino had already been laid. Nevertheless, the new architect amended his predecessor’s design to one more in line with traditional Romanian art. But before he could complete his vision, the Liberal party regained power.
With Renard back in charge, his original design of a grand Art Nouveau casino could be completed. And in 1910 it finally opened its doors. At first, the building’s opulent, ornamental style attracted its fair share of critics. But before long, it had become the jewel of Constanţa, attracting the rich and famous from far and wide.
Now equipped with a luxury hotel, the casino welcomed everyone from socialites to royalty to gamble within its walls. And over time a number of legends developed surrounding the building. According to one, it had been built by a grieving father keen to memorialize a daughter who had died long ago. Apparently, his design took on the appearance of a hearse when viewed from above.
Other stories spoke of gamblers who had lost everything at the casino, desperately flinging themselves into the Black Sea below. Some of the legends, though, were true. In 1914 for example the Imperial Family of Russia paid a visit, just four years before they were executed by the Bolsheviks.
But sadly the glitz and glamor of Constanta Casino would not last. In 1916 the bombs of World War I reached Romania and the city found itself under attack. Unfortunately, the structure’s location close to the port meant that it, too, was vulnerable to German planes which dropped explosives from above.
Damaged and battle-scarred, the casino was used as a hospital before reopening towards the end of 1917. And in 1934 Renard began a program of restoration designed to return the building to its former glory. But although this was completed three years later, the outbreak of World War II spelled more disaster to come.
In July 1940 the Romanian government formerly sided with the Axis powers, and the following year the casino was transformed into accommodation for German soldiers. Once again, the area became a war zone as the Allies sought to bomb Constanţa’s port. And once again, Renard’s Art Nouveau masterpiece was left in ruins.
After the end of World War II, the Soviets lingered in Romania. And in 1947 the country was declared a Socialist Republic. Now under a regime that opposed gambling, the derelict Constanta Casino was left to an uncertain fate. But eventually the government decided to renovate the structure and operate it as a House of Culture, or club-house, for the city.
For months a team of political prisoners slaved away in the ruins of the casino, attempting to restore it to its former glory. According to reports, conditions were tough, with men forced to work without heating or adequate food. But despite their struggles, the effort was apparently successful, and the regime went on to open a restaurant in the renovated structure.
For years the building remained under the control of Romania’s communist government. Then in 1989 the authorities were overthrown and a revolution restored democracy to the country. But sadly, this political upheaval did not mean a new lease of life for Constanta Casino. The following year, the structure was deemed too costly to maintain. And after 80 years of history, it closed its doors for good.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to breathe new life into the casino. In 2007 the building was leased to an Israeli company, but it was handed back to the authorities in an even worse state than before, according to the Romania Journal newsite. Then in 2014 ownership was transferred to the Moroccan National Investment Company in a last-ditch attempt to secure the future of the structure.
After that, an auction was held during which five different companies entered bids to lead the restoration project. But various legalities stood in the way, meaning that the casino remained abandoned. And in 2018 it was listed as one of Europe’s most endangered heritage sites by the cultural organization Europa Noastră. Surely, then, that would be enough to save it?
Unfortunately, despite acknowledgement of the casino’s historic status, the building remained empty. According to the Romanian news site HotNews.ro, €10 million in funding had been set aside for the restoration project. But even with this investment, work on the crumbling building was yet to begin.
Unable to open the casino to the public, the authorities kept its doors firmly closed. But that didn’t stop a handful of brave urban explorers from venturing inside over the years. Armed with cameras, they uncovered the haunting remains of a building that once hummed with the laughter of the city’s elite.
From afar, Constanta Casino doesn’t look all that different to how it must have appeared in its heyday: a vast, white building on the shores of the Black Sea. But up close, it becomes clear that something is amiss. In places, the paint has peeled, exposing the dull grey stone beneath. And much of the metalwork, such as the ornate railings, has begun to rust.
Plus several windows have shattered, exposing the interior of the casino to the harsh elements. But the fierce Romanian winters have done little to diminish the grandeur of the empty rooms within. In a video uploaded to YouTube in November 2018, vlogger Exploring with Fighters gives viewers a glimpse inside.
From the beginning it is clear that this is a casino frozen in time, a permanent snapshot of a different age. In the entranceway, a sweeping staircase leads on to the upper floors, while ornate columns and glittering chandeliers still decorate the room. Speaking off camera, one of the men comments, “This place is absolutely unreal.”
On the next floor, the space opens up into a palatial balcony with a row of painted glass doors along one side. But by this point, it has become clear that there is decay lurking beneath the glamorous veneer. And high up in the eaves of the building, flocks of rogue pigeons have made their nests.
Speaking to The Independent in 2018, Jakub Kynčl, a photographer who explored the site, described the conditions inside. He said, “The atmosphere was a bit spooky. Hundreds of pigeons are nesting inside and a family of cats eats the [deceased]. The air was heavy and a creepy sound of the wind coming in through the broken windows is dominant when you enter.”
In the Exploring with Fighters video, meanwhile, the crew continue to explore a warren of rooms and staircases, each with the same sense of faded grandeur. While features such as decorated ceilings and ornate plasterwork remain intact in places, much of the building is crumbling and inhabited by wild birds.
As the explorers climb ever higher, the abandoned casino continues to reveal its secrets. In one room, a crescent of arched windows look out to sea as another collapses into decay. In another, a stage draped in red velvet sits abandoned, as if waiting for a curtain call that will never come.
On the other side of the stage, a cavernous room stands empty, its pink paint peeling from the walls. Once, members of European high society must have gathered here to watch performances beneath the massive, twinkling chandelier. But now, everything is silent, the last actors and singers having left decades ago.
Sadly, the team from Exploring with Fighters were escorted out by security guards after just 10 minutes inside the casino. Because the structure is considered dangerous, visitors must seek special permission to look inside. In Kynčl’s case, respectively, he explained to The Independent, “[I] had to sign an agreement that I was coming in at my own risk.”
For the photographer, the abandoned structure by the Black Sea holds personal significance. He said, “I saw some pictures of Constanta Casino two years ago for the first time. Recently my mother showed me a black and white image of this building from 1968 in our family album. She was there on vacation with her family… 50 years ago.”
As Kynčl snapped photos of the casino, he found himself full of admiration for the derelict structure. He gushed to The Independent, “Even now, when the building is in a desolate condition, you can imagine how luxurious it must have been.” And in the Exploring with Fighters video, the team agreed. One said, “This place is absolutely magnificent. As you walk around the corner, it just shouts straight at you. It’s like nothing ever designed before.”
In another video, uploaded to YouTube in April 2014, vloggers Westfalia Digital Nomads were blown away by what they saw. One half of the duo, a writer known as Mel, said, “The icing cake detailing, the sea motifs and the grand gambling room all recall an age of opulence and beauty.”
Like the other visitors, Mel and her fellow blogger, Armando, were impressed by the casino’s grandeur even in its decaying state. The narrator continued, “Yes, it’s in disrepair. But we barely noticed. We weren’t living in the now-run down building waiting for reconstruction. We were transported into evening gowns and tuxedos. We went, and lived visually, a century ago.”
Thanks to videos such as these, Constanta Casino has developed something of a reputation amongst the urban explorer community. And now it seems as if there might be a happy ending in sight for this grand dame of the Black Sea. In 2019 it was announced that plans had been approved to begin refurbishment of the abandoned building.
According to the English-language news outlet Romania Insider, the project will see the casino transformed into a vibrant community hub. The plans cover, “adapting the building’s interior and exterior venues to new functions, that are representative for the city’s social and cultural life and for a class-A monument of exceptional architectural and historical value.”
Plus it’s a vision that many agree with. In the Westfalia Digital Nomads video, the narrator explains, “Constanta Casino’s original historic and delicate attention to detail begs to be… returned to its former glory.” And in January 2020, according to Romania Insider, the project kicked-off, with an estimated completion date of summer 2022. Whether that timeframe is still achievable is uncertain. But at least it means changes are afoot for the grand old building to sparkle once more.