It isn’t always easy digging up the history of abandoned places… and particularly not for those once attached to a regime that no longer exists. In Romania I visited just such a site, on the same day that I saw inside Doftana Penitentiary.
The holiday camp stands on the outskirts of a small village, itself nestled into the edge of the Carpathian mountain range a stone’s throw from Transylvania. Up a twisting lane beneath a veil of trees, a rusted gateway opens where the endless forest begins. It was unlocked when we arrived, the gate hanging open over a mess of churned-up grass and mud; a herd of animals had been through this way just recently, I noted.
My Romanian accomplice was telling me how this had been the preferred summer retreat of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his family. My friend, he named it ‘Camp Legara’; though later on, after hours spent searching for that name online (in English, and Romanian) I’d come up with nothing. Not a mention, not a lead, only my friend’s word that this had ever been anything more than it appeared: a handful of wooden chalets, an overgrown lawn, the littered tarmac of an old football pitch. A rural summer retreat gone to rot and ruin.
We had Camp Legara all to ourselves that day… or at least we did, at first. From one building to the next, I waded through the deep-spread loam of insulation fluff and newspapers. The buildings groaned in the wind. Vines reached in through broken windows, to clutch trailing tendrils around the legs of burst sofas. Mattresses split apart in slow motion, adding their innards to the mess of soggy refuse covering the floorboards. Simulacra of life amongst the ruins.
I was somewhere upstairs, in the building closest to the forest, when a bell began to ring. Then another one chimed, and another, and as they drew ever closer the air was filled with a chorus of metal clanking (not quite) musically on metal. Peering out the window, to the alley between this chalet and the next, I spied the new arrivals down below – the holiday camp had been overrun by goats.
The splintered stairs protested as I stomped back down to ground level. Outside, the herd poured and bounced about the camp like ocean waves. They hopped up steps and down again, butted heads, and stood straight up on hind legs to reach the sweet leaves overhead. Not far off, behind them, I caught the eye of a goatherd – standing on the lawn with a cap on his head and a gnarled staff between his hands. He gave me a single nod, so I nodded back; then he whistled and turned, his dogs appearing from nowhere to rally the goats and drive them out, down across the playing field to the road.
Silence drifted back, to sit heavy over Camp Legara; its resting state now, since the holidaymakers stopped coming here. I continued to explore, to rummage amongst the dust and dirt of forgotten getaways. An Orthodox icon pinned up in a bedroom… football scores clipped out from a 1987 newspaper.
I wondered if Ceaușescu had really ever stayed here; brought his family to Legara for their summer holidays, as the local rumour went. True enough, there was photo evidence of him visiting the nearby prison-turned-political museum… the president had certainly graced this village with his presence, at least once. Any more than that however, could only be guesswork. The things this holiday camp had seen, whatever else these panelled walls remembered, they were taking with them now to their mouldy graves.