Cradled in the lap of Romania’s Cerna Mountains, Băile Herculane is one of the oldest spa towns in Europe. 

Neuptun Baths, Băile Herculane

Its name is borrowed from Hercules, who, according to legend, once bathed there, lending the springs their medicinal powers. 

Statue of Hercules in Băile Herculane's centre

Imperial Grandeur

The town’s historic baths were primarily developed by the Romans 2,000 years ago, but it was the Austrians who ‘rediscovered’ the settlement, taking administrative control of the area in 1718. It soon became a hotspot for Viennese royalty, who developed its infrastructure and commissioned many of the baroque buildings that can be found throughout the area.

Fountain inside Neptun Baths

Among them is the 150-year-old Hotel Decebal. In the throes of refurbishment, a spiderweb of crumbling concrete trails from the fresh plaster slathered onto its base. Its rusted verandas wane over the main square, and the windows are covered by skew-whiff plastic sheets, as if the renovators had attempted to shield it from the sight of its own decay. The building was the subject of several TV shows, having gained notoriety for supposedly being haunted by a woman who guards a hidden Roman treasure concealed beneath the building.

Hotel Decebel

Across from the bus shelter, a grand arcade leads to an intricately decorated casino complex. Its saloons were once frequented by the imperial aristocracy of Vienna. Today however, it is closed to the public, with the exception of a handful of locals who sit playing cards outside a small spätie-like cafe.

Walkway leading to the arcade
Băile Herculane Cazino

A smattering of 18th century buildings can also be found nearby, including the ‘Elisabeth Residence’ — a petite Rococo structure built for the Austrian Princess Sisi. Outside, a commemorative plaque details how she was a hit with the locals, having once befriended a local shepherd, becoming the godmother of one of his daughters. 

Similar plaques adorn a number of other pavilions and baths, some of which have been completely abandoned, while others are in the process of renovation, with the faint knock of a hammers audible through half-mast nets and ample scaffolding.

Contemporary Revival

The spa town witnessed another revival during communist times, as a place where citizens would spend their state-allotted holiday vouchers with the hope of curing their ailments in the medicinal waters. 

During this era, many of the old imperial buildings had begun to fall into a state of disrepair. However, after the end of the communist era, the pace of decline only escalated. Many state-owned buildings were privatised, and sold in dubious deals, only to be neglected by their new owners. 

Oana Chirila, a Romanian architecture student, grew up holidaying in Băile Herculane as a child. After making a return trip there several years ago, she was taken aback at the somewhat paradoxical conditions of the place.

“On the one hand, I was impressed by the beauty of the old city center and its potential, but I was also just shocked by the state of decay most of the buildings were in,” she says. 

Deciding that something had to be done to save the heritage site, she became inspired to write an article to raise awareness about the area’s plight. Within just three days, her call to arms gained 20,000 views. 

“We all knew that something had to be done, and before long, architects, teachers and local administrators came on board.” 

Hallway of Neptun Baths

Resurrecting the Past

By 2017, the Herculane Project had fully come to life. Utilizing educational, cultural and architectural tools, the platform aims to restore Băile Herculane’s buildings to their former glory.

The Neptune Baths – a palatial building that reigns over the town centre with its grandeur – is one of the main sites addressed through the project. Oana is hoping to raise 100,000 euros to help restore it.  

Surrounded by a moat of overgrown shrubbery, a wrought iron bridge paves the way to the regal but rusting structure. Inside, an ornate golden fountain remains, and intricate stucco detailing can be found on the walls. However, many of the rooms have been stripped bare, and the floorboards are chaotically uprooted. 

“It’s a grade-A listed building, yet people enter without authorization, they graffiti the walls, break things and steal historically valuable objects”, Oana explains. To add to the damage, in February, part of the roof collapsed after 30 years of neglect.

Ceiling of Neptun Baths

Private Gains – Public Loss

Privatisation has also played a prominent role in stunting potential restoration plans. “The management of the (former) local administration did an exchange with the estate that led to a juridical mess, where it ended up with more than one owner, and a sequester on the land.”

“As the owner of a heritage building, you are liable to conserve it, restore it and keep it in a good state. If not, you are fined and sometimes you are expropriated – meaning that the state can confiscate it and it is no longer your property,” she elaborates. It is suspected that for this reason, many private owners do not open their properties for business. 

In 2001, much of the land in Herculane’s historical centre, was sold to a company owned by Romanian businessman Iosif Armas. He is now on trial on an embezzlement charge linked to the deal. What’s more, the town’s former mayor Nicușor Vasilescu has also been charged in connection with the sell-off.

Băile Herculane

In the case of the Neptune Baths, Armas may own the land, however the building is owned by the local administration, further complicating the restoration process. 

Now, Herculane Protect are making a case for an emergency intervention that would allow the partial restoration of the baths. The plans have already been developed in order to obtain the permit, the next step is just raising the funds. 

So far, the project has been well received by the authorities. “Sometimes we don’t communicate as well as we could, but they have supported us with everything,” says Oana. She however cites the need for a more streamlined approach when it comes to envisioning the town’s future:

“It requires an integrated strategy, one that encompasses the medical, touristic and cultural facets. Right now, the development is chaotic. There aren’t local administrative rules in place yet to restrict the actions of certain developers.”

Design Accidents

A hodge-podge of communist architecture and more recent structures are dotted around the centre. While there are seminal pieces such as the Hotel Roman, a gangaturan brutalist structure built on top of ancient Roman baths, Oana states that the town has also been privy to what she dubs “design accidents”. 

“There are many new, small villas which are built in a chaotic way, without adhering to urbanist guidelines, without public consultations and so on.” 

She emphasises that restoration is a discipline defined by care and precision, the respect of values, and the correct use of materials. “As an architect, working in such an environment means you are a doctor, a keeper of all the decades that shaped the value of a monument. Sometimes the building ends up becoming the architect, but really, history knows what’s better. All we have to do is listen.”

Băile Herculane

Currently, Oana is organising a summer school for student architects to work on restoration plans for the city centre. She hopes that the strategy will succeed in bringing important stakeholders to the table.

“The resources that we need are diverse, but what is important to start with is consistency and patience – not only for us as a team, but also from the local community, the administration, and our sponsors. Of course, we need specialists and money to construct an integrated vision and restore the city step-by-step. But most importantly of all, what drives us, is the hope of the people.”

In the late 19th century, ​Austrian Emperor Franz Josef dubbed Băile Herculane “the most beautiful resort on the continent.” Perhaps it is with the hope offered by Oana and the Herculane Project, that the town will be restored to its former and rightful glory.

Băile Herculane Scaffolding