In this valley of Romania’s Banat region where the Cerna river winds between mountains of granite and limestone and the smell of sulfur waters wafts through long-empty ballrooms, queens and kings of a past empire once found respite from the stoic palaces of Vienna. Here, a spa was built especially for Queen Elizabeth, affectionately known as Sissy. Several kilometers past the new city of Caras-Severin and its cinder-block villas and high-rise hotels, the grandiose 18th century spa town of Baile Herculane comprises an enchanting cluster of Habsburg-era thermal baths, hotels, and dormitories where Austrian and Romanian soldiers once vacationed and Hapsburg glitterati such as Sissy and Franz Ferdinand laid their royal heads. The newer, Communist-era hotels housed workers who were allotted two weeks of vacation every summer. Queen Elizabeth, known affectionately as Sissy, perhaps the most profoundly adored yet restless Habsburg royal, met a tragic end. She was murdered by an Italian anarchist as she took one of her cherished solitary walk along the shore of a lake in Geneva. But at least some of the days of her life of 60 years were spent here in Baile Herculane where a now-decrepit expanse of pavilions, sweeping balconies, verandas, and luxurious hotels – small compared to the Hofburg, but still not exactly modest – hint at the 19th century splendor of the place.
Local authorities have dedicated 3 million Euro to restoring the hotel Villa Elisabetta (where Franz Joseph once stayed), which hosted guests up until the revolution of 1989 when the state-maintained buildings fell into disrepair. In 2001, most of the hotels in the town, both Habsburg and Communist-era structures, were privatized. In 2001, a major stake in 10 of the city’s historic and Communist-era hotels was sold to the Argirom group (under Hercules S.A.) which bought the stake with a promise to invest in the restoration of the historic Habsburg-era buildings. The communist-era hotels bought include: the Diana, the Minerva, Aphrodita, and Hercules hotels. The Habsburg-era buildings bought by Argirom group include some of the city’s most cherished structures, including pavilions, barracks, baths, and hotels. Many in Baile Herculane, including the town’s mayor, accuse the company, owned by Romanian businessman Iosif Armas, of letting the city’s Habsburg-era cultural real estate degrade, failing to invest in promised renovations, and focusing only on the Communist-era hotel complex which includes the Diana, Minerva, Aphrodita, and Hercules hotels. Estimates place the actual value of the hotels, including the Habsburg structures, at more than 23 million Euros, not including the structures’ inestimable cultural heritage value. Recent news articles in Romania have announced that Argirom is deeply in debt and the company’s lenders are finally demanding collection of their debt. Romania’s “Wall Street” newspaper reported in July that Argirom’s corporate rights have been dissolved. Baile Herculane’s historic hotels might change hands again. “This should be a UNESCO World Heritage site,” said one tourist, standing in Baile Herculane’s old square. One local said that the municipality had been awarded at least 10 European Project Fund grants in recent years, but wondered aloud why other projects – new projects in places that seem to have less cultural and historic value – have been awarded much more funding. “They don’t want to invest in Eastern Europe,” said one local tourism worker. Some Italian tourists said they suspected the European Union of perpetuating a sort of intentional state of developmental stasis in countries like Romania: ‘why should the East compete with the West?,” they ask. “If tourists realize what a beautiful place it is – if it becomes a real attraction – it could really compete with places in the West.‘