The Phantoms of Austrian Imperialism at Băile Herculane Thermal Spa Resort

Rotten wood and broken glass, lovely statues covered in moss, scraped paint and dust, faded colors and reddish rust. Weeds greedily embrace the walls with their sinister arms while the old stench of putrefaction somehow charms. Windows left open welcome the echoes of our footsteps far inside the chambers and we could hear the silent murmur of water ever flowing through the basements. Falling plaster? Only if you insist. The ghosts of the glorious Austrian Imperial era are still trapped somewhere inside there. I felt watched by some other presence, as if the abandoned buildings still had a small speck of life flowing through their bricks. Eyes were staring down at me, piercing right through my eyes and directly into my soul. But as I walked away, they did not follow me, they simply continued to watch leeringly over the empty streets. Hercules and his Roman gods stand proudly at every corner, enduring the sun, rain and snow, all covered in lichen and dirt. They are guarding the gold mine underneath, the thermal waters whirling out of the mountains, now wasted in vain. Once upon a time, Herculane was the most coveted spa resort among the aristocracy of the Roman Empire and, centuries later, of the Austrian Empire. Nowadays, it is merely a fading shadow of what it once was.

The Rise and Fall of Herculane Thermal Spa Resort

The history of Herculane thermal spa resort can be traced back almost two millennia, when Traian, the Roman emperor, set the cornerstone of the resort in 102 AD. When the Roman Empire expanded its territories toward the east, they occupied Dacia, and ancient state on the surface of present day Romania. They discovered the miraculous hot springs on the Cerna Valley and named the place Therme Herculi, after the mythological Roman hero, who was considered the patron of thermal waters and the symbol of strength. They built temples, public baths and spas, monuments, fountains and statues. Its valuable hot springs and its picturesque location propelled it to the top of the list of spa resorts on the continent at that time. It was the favorite destination of the Roman aristocracy. Beginning with 1718, the modern history of Băile Herculane (translated into “Hercules’ Baths”) takes shape, as a part of the Austrian Empire. In 1736, the baths are reconstructed and the access roads are modernized. All work at the buildings in the Imperial Historical center was done by the border guards in the neighboring villages. By 1852, Austrians considered Herculane “the most beautiful resort on the continent”. At the end of the 19th century, Herculane was already a great European resort. Over the last decades, the once luxurious baths and treatment halls that welcomed visitors from all over the world, attracted by the miraculous properties of the hot springs on the Cerna Valley, have fallen into decay. The grand hotels, casinos and baths have been abandoned and are now standing alone in front of the unforgiving nature.

The Gift of the Gods

At almost every corner in the ensemble of Austrian Imperial spa architecture, Hercules solemnly watches over his hot springs. There are 16 known thermal springs in and around the resort, spreading for 4 km, with a temperature between 41 and 67 degrees Celsius. The thermal waters work wonders for the skin, successfully treating rheumatism, arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

The Austrian Imperial Baths

The Imperial Historical Center, or Hercules Square, is an impressive ensemble of Austrian Imperial spa architecture, where bath houses, hotels, and treatment pavilions rise on both sides of the proud standing statue of Hercules. A world of contrasts, where even the most desolated abandoned buildings with their faded colors have some attractive vibe to them, as if life has been trapped there, inside their chambers and is just waiting to resume its activity.

The Statue of Hercules in the Imperial Historical Center was made from cannon iron by two German craftsmen, Glantz and Romelmayer. Archduke Carol offered it as a gift to the resort as an homage for the soldiers and officers in the Imperial army whose health improved after spa treatment in Herculane. Inaugurated in 1847, it is now the symbol of the resort.

Hebe Bath was built in 1826. Named after the goddess of eternal youth and beauty, the spa had a large thermal pool made from white and red marble. Today, when passing by it, you can still hear the water flowing through its empty chambers with a sad murmur. In its basements, the Hebe spring is simply wasted. Right by it, the Stone Bridge features a covered pedestrian corridor, with its old paint exfoliating as small white flakes.

Hall 6 was initially built as the “Great Eating House”, but it burned down in 1900. In 1906, the current building was the last one to rise among the Thermal Spa Architecture Ensemble in Hercules Square, and immediately became the most imposing. It even featured a hydraulic elevator. It is covered in expressive bas-reliefs and floral motifs interrupted by its reddish scraped plaster that continue to turn heads.

The Imperial Austrian Baths were built between 1883 and 1886 and became the most modern spa edifices in the resort of their time. The monumental architectural ensemble opposite the Central Park is a series of Baroque style domes, reminding of the simplicity of Roman architecture, interpenetrated by Gothic elements. The symmetric display, with towers rising on both sides of the central building, is decorated with numerous statues depicting Roman gods, floral motifs and angry faces staring down at us. The entrance features a covered portal, connected to the Central Park by the Wrought Iron Bridge.

The Wrought Iron Bridge was built together with the Imperial Austrian Baths and was designated as a pedestrian bridge. Its 32 meters long parapet is made from wrought iron with numerous decorative elements. Rust has already seized control of the bridge and is greedily feeding on its decorations.

Herculane Train Station

More than a century ago, the steaming locomotive would whistle its way when entering the train station in Herculane thermal spa resort. It brought visitors from all corners of the Austrian Empire to the thermal baths and spas filled with ever flowing thermal waters. In 1878, the train station in Herculane was inaugurated and one year later the railway between Timișoara and Orșova was opened. This made the resort accessible  to even more tourists, who came either by train, roads or waterway, as the resort is only 20 km away from a major port at the Danube, Orșova.

At the opposite end of the resort from the Austrian Imperial Baths, a small purple and reddish dome stands stationary while trains pass by day after day, stopping for only a couple of minutes then setting off to their next station. The train station is indeed unique, sheltered by a large dome painted with mythological characters, like a solemn yet colorful cathedral in which the legendary hero, Hercules, stands guard indefatigably. The platform is flanked by Roman style columns covered in ivy, providing a pleasant shade and a certain intimacy on the benches underneath. Everything seems torn out from the pages of a romantic novel, suspended in time in an era that is hard to accurately pinpoint. We were the only ones walking on the platform at noon. The ticket booth was closed and the hour hands of the clocks in the train station were not moving anymore. We were not waiting for any train. Our train was already here.

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