The Danube Delta covers four thousand square kilometres of reeds and marsh, described by the guidebook as the youngest, least stable landscape in Europe. Every year the river dumps forty million tonnes of soil and sand here, into a landscape which is completely flat.
It’s very different from the Romania we’ve seen in the last three weeks: the Hungarian influence around Oradea and Cluj, the Saxon style of the old Medieval citadel of Sighisaora, and the high snowy mountains of Bran (the setting for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”).
Fishing communities have lived in the Delta area for centuries, including Lipovani, blonde haired Russians who came in the 1700s to escape religious persecution.
Ceausescu, the notoriously repressive Communist leader from 1969 to 1989, planned to drain the place for agriculture. After the revolution in 1990 it was declared a Biosphere Reserve, with five hundred square kilometres strictly protected, and in 1991 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a very important area for birds, particularly when they migrate in autumn and spring. It also has wolves, bears, mink and otters, and forests of oak, poplar, ash and willow.
There are three main channels from Tulcea to the Black Sea, and a maze of canals, lakes and swamps. In the summer it’s plagued with mosquitoes and horse flies. According to the guidebook the Cousteau Foundation has a base at Uzlina where the Biosphere Reserve has an information centre in Ceausescu’s former hunting lodge.
We catch a boat down the river to Sulina on the Black Sea coast, described as a port by a Byzantine scribe in 950 AD, and still struggling to make a living from the sea.
Currently the population is five thousand, but like many Romanian towns it’s seen better days. A promenade runs for a mile along the river’s edge, and ferries, plus the little motor boats with fancy outboards so loved by the men, are tied up everywhere. There’s no road access, so there are just a few vehicles, with rundown houses, pensions, restaurants and food shops. Dogs sprawl in every sunny spot.
The three main streets are called Strada 1, 2 and 3 – very Communist and dehumanising; shades of Kapka Kassabova’s book “Street Without a Name” about growing up in Sofia, Bulgaria in apartment block 328, and going to school 81.
We have dinner in the pension restaurant – fish roe on toast with red onion, followed by carp cooked in a stock with tomatoes and peppers. It’s delicious, but bony and expensive. At night the town is completely blanketed in fog. We’re thrilled to have wifi in our room.
Next day we go on foot in search of the Black Sea, stopping off at the cemetery which has Jewish, Turkish, Orthodox and English sections. In the tiny Anglican section the graves are mostly of drowned sailors from the mid 1800s. One is from North Shields, another from South Shields, and one from Hull. There are also some English children who died of typhoid, and an English man who “died from the effects of climate”. One has the inscription “Boy, erected by his shipmates”. An old horse drawn hearse with large carved wooden angels on top is being spruced up by the sexton.
We walk across the salt marsh which has grass and grazing cows, past some new houses, and we’re at the beach. The Black Sea at last, four months after heading inland from Dunkirk. We’re thrilled to have come so far east.
It’s sandy and there’s even a tower for the lifeguards. I find a couple of black ram’s horn shells. The river mouth which the ships navigate is far away to the north. A dead raccoon dog, just like the one we saw at the museum, lies on the road.
After a couple of nights at Sulina we catch the ferry back to Tulcea. The radio is playing the Beatles, and the boat is full of locals, one with an outboard motor under his arm.
Back at the car park our precious van is safe and sound. We take our washing to the laundry and I get a bit worked up when the young woman starts picking our clothes out of the bag and laying them on the counter, charging for each item separately. The combination of seeing our knickers spread out along the counter and the escalating cost pushes a few of my buttons. John calms me down, and they get the boss, who works out a much better price based on the weight. We pay up and leave.
At the market we buy garlic, carrots, parsnips, spinach, and some flat bread to gnaw on as we sit in the park with old men in fur hats. Three gypsy children stride past with sacks of empty bottles over their shoulders, on a mission.
We head off to the Ethnographic Museum where a helpful young man gives us a tour. There’s an exhibition about some of the twenty different ethnic groups who’ve lived in the area: Romanians, Turks, Tatars, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Bulgarians, Lipovani. Each is distinguished by religion, but many of their handcrafts appear very similar to our eyes.
Our guide tells us that the people in the Delta are Slavs and speak half Russian and half Romanian. He says the houses are often made of clay which is mined from twenty feet under the sand. Since the metalwork factories closed down many people are unemployed and subsist only. They are allowed to catch ten kilos of fish per day. He tells us that most of the locals opposed the creation of the Biosphere Reserve as it hasn’t brought any benefit to them at all. In its heyday, Sulina was a thriving free port, a bit like Amsterdam today.
Next we visit the Museum of Archaeology and History where there are artefacts dating back to the 11th century BC. We see ceramics, jewellery and daggers, plus lots of Roman, Turkish and Byzantine coins, all found within a fifty kilometre radius of Tulcea. The town is quite Turkish in some parts with a mosque from the middle of the 19th century, and there are mosques in several villages.
We walk back along the river and see a ship being moved from the ship building yard by two tugs. A tiny ferry laden with people sets off from the opposite riverbank. It’s listing badly to one side. The bottom is fouled and it doesn’t look seaworthy. Some passengers have parked their horse and cart near the jetty over there while they catch the ferry across to the town.
I visit the Delta Biosphere office and buy licences for us to enter protected areas to look at birds. It seems very casual and they don’t appear to have any requirements for visitors but we want to be within the law. I pass a smelly fish shop which has small fish in piles under the glass counter, selling for fifty pence a kilo. Fishing gear, boats and outboards are for sale everywhere.
The following day we drive a little way out of town and park on a hill to watch the birds over an area of reeds and wetland. A peregrine falcon flies over the top of us. There is also a herd of goats with goatherds. A donkey trots past pulling a cart of cabbage leaves. A gypsy family going to town with their horse and cart slow down when I wave and the young boy runs back and comes up to the window of the van. I give him a few lei and he beams then runs to jump onto the back of the moving cart.
We arrive in Malcoci looking for water. There are public water pumps beside the road and we stop and try a couple but no water comes out.
I notice a woman over the fence beckoning to me. Then her neighbour comes out waving and indicates in sign language that she can give us water. I carry the container to her front yard and she insists on holding it under the garden tap then helps me to carry it back to the van. John gets out to thank her and she clasps both his hands in hers and looks into his eyes with intense goodwill and happiness.
It’s an emotional moment. She would be in her fifties, neatly dressed, with a headscarf and a lovely kind face. We feel quite overwhelmed. Later we wonder what her life has been like.
We’re keen to see some unfamiliar birds so next day we head to Lake Saraturii which is a bird watching Mecca, There are a couple of flocks of sheep in the distance, each with a shepherd, a rubbish dump on a hill with a low fence around it, and plastic bags being blown all over the countryside.
The shepherds are quietly moving their flocks along, letting the sheep graze on the meagre plants. One of them casually heads towards the van and John waves to him. He comes up to the window and they have a wordless chat about how many dogs he has and things like that. He asks John for a cigarette.
I’m in the back of the van making coffee and since we don’t smoke I suggest we give the guy some chocolate. John hands him a block of caramelised hazel nut, our favourite. He stands looking at it, turning it over in his hands, then indicates with a chopping motion that he’ll share it with his friend. He walks towards the other shepherd some distance away, turns, and blows John a kiss.
We’re excited to see a hen harrier, red breasted geese, and swans. A car appears in the distance. It’s the ranger and he tells us we’ve driven too far along the track to the lake and we must leave. He doesn’t mention our passes.
Our next destination is the ruin of the Roman city Halmyris which was continuously inhabited from the 6th century BC to the 7th century AD. Two Christians from Asia Minor (Turkey), Epictet and Astion, were tortured and executed there in 290 AD after refusing to renounce Christianity. Excavations uncovered their crypt in 2001. The site we walk around covers two hectares and apparently the excavation has only just begun. We’re shocked that there are no restrictions on where we can walk. It would be easy to souvenir pieces of stone or tiles.
Later in Murighiol we find a car park with a guard in a little hut. We spend two nights there in the rain. Stray dogs hang around outside and we read all day long. I make girdle scones in the frying pan. Here’s the recipe: http://www.travelmagpie.com/recipes/girdle-scones
Thoroughly rested we head south past various lakes and waterways, spotting a male hen harrier as we drive past Lake Saraturii. There are huge ploughed fields, young crops, cows and sheep outside, vast abandoned factory farms, and strip farming. We cross a plain through an avenue of walnut trees, followed by an avenue of poplars with the trunks completely covered in moss and lichen.
The houses are white plaster, probably over mud and straw bricks, with bright blue front doors and window frames. At Sarichioi the men have long whiskers. We see an old chap walking along the road pulling a cart loaded with reeds.
Enisala has a fantastic citadel high on a hill, built by Genoese merchants in the 13th century. There is mud everywhere. We come across a vineyard with old vines covering hundreds of acres. No tanalised posts, all concrete.
At last we arrive in Babadag where we plan to stay the night. It’s very Turkish with the oldest mosque in Romania – 16th century. The Turks have been here since the 1200s. We’ve already heard the call to prayer.
Babadag is a big enough town for us to park relatively anonymously in a car park beside some shops. There are lots of gypsies and women wearing baggy Turkish trousers.
As we travel east the Turkish influence increases. The borders between these countries have changed constantly over the centuries. By the time we get to Turkey we’ll be quite tuned in to mosques and Turkish ways.
(This is an extract from the ebook White Van Acting Suspiciously.)
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