Walking through Predeal, the mountain resort where we went skiing when I was 7 years old, I find so many things have changed. The old sloped streets, once so familiar, are now lined with new villas, built mostly in a cheap nouveau riche style, so obvious for impressing and not for comfort. Nauseating amounts of money were buried in some disastrous designs. Their roofs are droopy with huge icicles, as if the people who built them were incapable of realizing the importance of proper drainage. Among the follies there still lie some abandoned old hotels I used to know rather well, a building that looked like a traditional inn, but also a newly built datcha-like thing with little onion tops, and a handful of raw concrete hulks stopped in the construction process, lying around gaped at the sky like stranded whale skeletons.
I prefer the old chalets with dark wooden walls and colourful shutters that still look so cosy. Back in his early days, father had come here so often to ski and party with friends or family that he can still recall stories about almost every house on the long, arched Balcescu Street. Many of them were abandoned now, one could see no trace of footsteps in the snow, neither coming through the garden gate nor going up the stairs to the entrance door.
Some shutters were loose and windows open here, paint was flaking off there; one looked as if a fire had raged through the roof. Most of them still had lace curtains in the windows! A friendly orange dog came out of one that had red borders painted around the white window frames and doors. The gate leaves were missing from their hinges. After a while, a whole dog pack followed: 5 of them went out into the street, looking busy. And then there was this villa with the three-partitioned windows and green shutters with a cute little pattern. The entrance canopy looked intact, but one door was ajar. A window in the top floor was open, too. There were -6°C outside. A faded metal plate was still advertising for a soft drink no one under 30 has ever heard of. In a corner, the name, Vila Banta, was still visible, painted in black letters on golden background, adorned with the logo of the national tourism agency.
Tourism had started in this area in 1852, when Predeal became border town between Romania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire/ Transylvania. A railroad built in 1874 was meant to bring the young monarchy closer to the empire; soon a station followed. In 1900, the first skiers arrived: some came from Brasov, but most arrived from Bucharest. It is said the ones who could afford skiing in Switzerland came here to practice. Three years later, the first contest took place: every year, new slopes and routes were made accessible, for downhill as well as cross-country skiing. In 1925 Predeal counted little more than 1500 inhabitants. Mainly built in the 1920es and 30es by the wealthier families of Bucharest, who spent their summers by the lake in Snagov and their winters skiing in Predeal, these chalets had seen Christmases and New Year’s Eves until their owners had been chased away by the communists after 1946. Then, nomenclature had made itself comfortable for the many winters to come, hardly ever fixing any tile or faucet in all those years.
In the 1960es there had been grand parties here. The new aristocrats, the apparatchiks, had spent their Christmases here. The same ones who preached against the bourgeoisie and religion and praised equality and the working class were having feasts here where they would stuff themselves with what the others did not dare to dream about.
Every day on my random walks I’d suddenly find myself passing this house again and again, wondering what its rooms looked like, with their wooden floors and wooden beds, mattresses and lace curtains rotting away inside as the seasons passed. People had fallen asleep in those beds, dead tired after a day on the slopes and half a partied night. Why this particular one, I couldn’t tell.
Had this house been nationalized in 1947 and the family that once owned it never told their children about it, in order to protect them? Or were there no heirs, but only a very old and weary man, who had reclaimed it in 1998, but couldn’t afford it anymore, now that he got it back after 18 years of trials?
One of these villas is falling apart, because its owner is a 93 year old who’s too weary to come and see what’s left of his beloved winter cottage of his youth, Rândunica.
Maybe he’s too tired to visit the decaying monument of his memories. The young German girl he once kissed in the room upstairs had married someone else, sold all her jewellery and tried to flee the country in the 50es. They got caught and sent to labour camps, where she died 6 years later in Miercurea Ciuc. Another wintertime love he had once brought here had started dating an officer who was involved in “housing redistribution” – now proud owner of a handful of houses all over the city – and a few wrinkles more. His wife had died of cancer 15 years ago. What use was it, looking back?
In the evening, I called grandma and told her about my walks through Predeal. Oh, yes, your grandfather had worked hard at refurbishing these houses, back in the day, some 46 villas for the you-know-who’s. In the 60es, you weren’t even born. I remember it well, even the drapery samples, the greens and yellows. I’m sure there are some furniture sketches still to be found, neatly archived somewhere among his bookshelves.
In the summer of ’84 my grandparents and I visited Predeal, staying at hotel Rozmarin. From that balcony in the second floor my grandfather had taught me how to pinch cherry stones over the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians on the alley in front of the hotel. The Rozmarin shines with a cheesy, blue-lit spa sign now.
Every day we’d take the Polistoaca, a trail in the woods by the creek, were he built little dams out of gravel, which changed the watercourse. There he’d teach me how to make paper boats that would sail downstream. On our way back, we had walked past that cottage. Once we saw somebody come out and bark at us, why had we stopped there. Grandfather started a conversation, getting them to let him in eventually.
Those green shutters. I had been there before.
Today some of the houses are for sale. For instance, Vila Panseluta (the ‘Pansy’) is up for sale by the state protocol administration on the internet for 230’000€: “Villa Predeal, 13 rooms, 9 bathrooms…”