words: Costina Mocanu and Clare Harris
photographs: Herculane Team
Tucked away in the picturesque mountains of the Banat region in the southeast Romania lie the charming Herculane Baths. Dating back to 153 C.E., Herculane is one of the Europe’s oldest thermal spas, spanning multiple temporalities and histories, including the Roman empire, the kingdom of the Magyars, the Ottoman occupation, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Surrounded by the forest and crossed the Cerna, a tributary of the Danube River, it is an ideal spot for a weekend trip.
During the nineteenth century, the baths became a particularly iconic recreation ground among European elites, who were fascinated not only with its benefits as a place of medical treatment but also by its function as a place of loisir. In this period, the Austrian architect Wilhelm Doderer (1854-1932) contributed significantly to the site, articulating intimate imaginary through mythological and historical characters who have become part of the site’s immaterial as well as material heritage. Herculane presents itself as “an outdoor museum” of “rich architectural heritage.” A group spearheading the site’s restoration, the Locus NGO claims, “this is an important pillar of the site’s identity, consisting of 74 objects included in the 2010 Historical Monuments List: 14 archaeological sites, 55 architectural ensembles and monuments, and 5 public monument statues.” A telling indicator of the popularity and grandiosity of the site is that Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), known as Sissi, used to sojourn here.
“Everybody has a connection somehow to Herculane – some people have memories from their childhood holidays, some people know the city from stories told by close family members, and some are just passionate about the history and the architecture of the city.”
After centuries of cycles of progress and regression, the historical Neptune Baths building reopened its doors to the public in 2017 thanks to an ambitious group of former architecture students from Timișoara University who noticed its fleeting beauty and medical potential. Early in their endeavour they understood that saving the Neptune Baths would require the restoration of the other Herculane public spaces as well. “Our initial aim was to save the Neptune Baths, but in time we realized that the historical city centre needed an integrated approach.” The Locus NGO is the main pillar of the entire undertaking, with the spa’s restoration becoming their first task through their Herculane Project. “To begin restoring the Neptune Baths, we first held fundraisers and completed technical studies of the building. Next, we secured and sanitized the construction, intervening in 12 areas at the roof level and removing 220 m³ of debris and garbage (over 70 truckloads) from the inside. We then took measures to protect the majolica fountain. We blocked access to the building, added support for two roof frames and four floors, and cleared moss and rubble from the outdoor terraces, the roof, the pipes, and the gutters.” The group’s efforts also played a large role in preserving the ornamental elements of the structure. Those which represented a public danger have been stored inside the building while all the collapsed elements have been palletized to avoid both natural erosion and human vandalism.
Passion, time, and expertise have been key ingredients in sparkling the public’s interest, not only among locals, but also co-nationals, thus enabling a constant growing process. To increase citizen’s awareness, Locus has activated cultural and educational programs. “We created a summer school that has entered its fourth term this year. Additionally, we developed two cultural projects and a marketing and SMS campaign, we do architectural tours in the historical centre, and we organized concerts” explains Oana Chirilă, member of the NGO. “Basically, we have tried to bring as much life as we can into the empty rooms of these historical buildings.” All these activities have been used to instil a sense of responsible participation among citizens.
Every success comes with sacrifice. Glossy Instagram photographs do not reveal the amount of effort behind the restoration. On a typical day to Herculane, the team would embrak at 4:22 in the morning from Timișoara. Sleepless nights and limited time with family and friends have become routine. “To dedicate ourselves fully to the project, some of us have been forced into unemployment for two years. In retrospect, the project’s impact on our personal lives has been our main struggle.” Adventuring into this eclectic project has also come with many learning-by-doing phases: “Being a young team, we have to face not only our own individual searches for direction, but also the pressures and responsibilities that such project brings: thinking in terms of marketing strategies, managing the NGO’s finances and bureaucracy, and above all, learning how to better cooperate with our partners and each other.”
“Perhaps these were the main difficulties, because the other technical issues have been overcome with the help of our partners, donors, sponsors, and all the people that support us.”
With this in mind, the Locus team has started a dialogue based on transparency and devotion: “We develop projects with passion and sincerity, and these qualities show people feel them,” explains Oana. “We would like to keep the promises we have made to the local community, even though the process is slow, difficult, and time-consuming.” Speaking about a long-term impact, Oana makes us aware of a key strategy which she hopes to implement organically: “we need three key stakeholders to collaborate and mitigate the restoration process: the civic society represented by the local community and NGOs, the administration and entrepreneurs.”