Ro­ma­nia’s Danube Delta is a re­gion of stark beauty and stunning wildlife, yet also a place strug­gling to find its way in the mod­ern world.

DestinAsian - - CONTENTS - BY KIT GIL­LET Pho­to­graphs by An­drei Pun­govschi

The Danube Delta is a re­gion of stark beauty and stunning wildlife, yet also a place strug­gling to find its way in the mod­ern world.

From atop a 19th-cen­tury

light­house in the small Ro­ma­nian port town of Sulina, I stare out to­ward the mouth of the Danube, the end­point of a river that stretches al­most 2,900 kilo­me­ters through the heart of Europe. In the fad­ing light a few oth­ers have gath­ered to take in the views over Sulina, the nearby cargo ships, and, in the di­rec­tion away from the sea, the vast labyrinth of wa­ter­ways that make up the Danube Delta.

Com­pleted in 1870, the light­house, as with much of the town’s ar­chi­tec­ture, was built at a time when Sulina was home to a mix of na­tion­al­i­ties—Bri­tish, French, Ital­ians, Aus­tri­ans, Rus­sians, Turks—who, as part of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion of the Danube, mon­i­tored and main­tained the en­trance to one of the great­est rivers on the planet; in a nearby ceme­tery, weath­ered grave­stones etched with for­eign names at­test to the cos­mopoli­tan mi­lieu of those times. That era is long gone. To­day, Sulina is a largely forgotten place on the far reaches of Europe, yet it sits within one of the world’s most stunning nat­u­ral re­gions— the “Ev­er­glades of Europe,” as some call it.

Con­sid­ered by many to be the very life­line of Europe, the Danube River flows through 10 coun­tries as well as four Euro­pean cap­i­tals. Its delta, in the Do­bro­gea re­gion at the edge of the Black Sea, has been a UNESCO bio­sphere re­serve since 1998 and is con­sid­ered one of the most di­verse ecosys­tems on the planet, with an abun­dance of rare and en­dan­gered fish and bird species. Egrets, white pel­i­cans, and great cor­morants can be seen swoop­ing over the es­tu­ar­ine wa­ter, while down in the depths many of the Danube’s re­main­ing wild stur­geon live out their long lives.

I had ar­rived in the delta a week be­fore, trav­el­ing up by train from Bucharest and then catch­ing one of the lit­tle fer­ries that link the gate­way city of Tul­cea with the hand­ful of vil­lages that ex­ist within the delta it­self. Ac­ces­si­ble only by boat, th­ese com­mu­ni­ties are among the most tra­di­tional in the coun­try, in­hab­ited by Ro­ma­ni­ans as well as by eth­nic Ukraini­ans and Lipo­van Rus­sians— descen­dants of old-rite Or­tho­dox Chris­tians who fled re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion in the 18th cen­tury—who con­tinue to de­pend on the delta for their liveli­hood.

Sfântu Ghe­o­rghe, four hours by ferry from Tul­cea, is lit­tle more than a blip on the map, a vil­lage of 860 peo­ple with few roads and even fewer ve­hi­cles; with no over­land links to any­where else, there is lit­tle need for cars. The ferry docked at a small wooden land­ing, where groups of lo­cals gath­ered to meet re­turn­ing fam­ily mem­bers, vis­it­ing tourists, and to carry off veg­eta­bles and other sup­plies brought in from out­side. A sched­ule pinned to the wall of a ticket booth listed the days the ferry comes from Tul­cea and the days when it re­turns. Wooden lotca fish­ing boats were moored up all around.

Most of the men in Sfântu Ghe­o­rghe con­tinue to make their living from fish­ing, head­ing out ev­ery night to net carp, perch, pike, and bream, among other species. In the morn­ing they bring home their catches, then gather at a run­down bar near the wa­ter to have a cus­tom­ary drink or two. It’s been this way for gen­er­a­tions.

At dawn on my first full morn­ing in the delta I sat with a group of weath­er­worn fish­er­men who, over glasses of in­ex­pen­sive home­made wine, lamented the chang­ing re­al­i­ties for those who rely on the wa­ters. “It’s much harder for us than our par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion,” one said. Decades of over­fish­ing in the re­gion has dam­aged the delta’s fish pop­u­la­tions, and in re­cent years Ro­ma­nia has been tight­en­ing catch reg­u­la­tions to give the fish a chance to re­cover, no­tably wild stur­geon, a valu­able source of caviar; in the past, fish­er­men could make thou­sands of dol­lars on a sin­gle lucky catch. “I once caught a stur­geon that weighed 220 ki­los, with 58 ki­los of eggs,” an­other fish­er­man told me. “I made 45,000 lei [US$11,600] just from that one time.”

As fish­ing has be­come less sus­tain­able, eco­tourism has emerged as an al­ter­na­tive source of in­come, and walk­ing along the main road in Sfântu Ghe­o­rghe, it’s easy to pick out the new ho­tels and guest­houses that cater to mostly do­mes­tic tourists. For the most part, how­ever, the houses in the vil­lage are tra­di­tional, on­estory reed-thatched cot­tages fronted by gar­dens and veg­etable patches.

“Tourism is never go­ing to re­place fish­ing here, but it is be­com­ing a strong ad­di­tion for many,” con­firmed Dim­itru Di­manche, a 44-year- old lo­cal, sit­ting on a water­side bench one evening in the fad­ing light.

Af­ter a few days

spent ex­plor­ing Sfântu Ghe­o­rghe and its sur­round­ings I moved on to the vil­lage of Crisan, two hours away by boat. In a small wooden lotca pow­ered by an out­board mo­tor, we nav­i­gated the thin and wind­ing chan­nels, duck­ing un­der fallen trees and fol­low­ing a route that the fish­er­man had clearly done a hun­dred times be­fore; even so, we still needed to dou­ble back on oc­ca­sion,

as one chan­nel can look very much like any other. As we pro­gressed, nar­row, over­grown chan­nels sud­denly opened out into ma­jes­tic fresh­wa­ter lakes, with pel­i­cans and cor­morants cir­cling over vast ex­panses of reed beds. It was hard to fo­cus on any­thing for more than a few sec­onds be­fore some­thing else caught my eye.

Crisan is barely more than a sin­gle road run­ning along­side the wa­ter’s edge; it didn’t even ex­ist un­til the late 19th cen­tury, when en­gi­neers be­gan straight­en­ing the cen­tral of three main branches of the Danube that run through the delta. In the vil­lage church, just 20 me­ters from the wa­ter, Fa­ther Aurel Co­dris guided me around his small chapel, point­ing out the 100-year- old paint­ings of saints that adorn the walls.

“I went to agri­cul­tural school to train as a vet be­fore join­ing the priest­hood,” he told me, adding that he moved to Crisan five years ago and fell in love with the place. “With God’s help I will re­tire here,” he said. His church was once the cen­ter of the com­mu­nity, but like else­where in the world, fewer and fewer peo­ple of the younger gen­er­a­tion are at­tend­ing; later I joined around 20 vil­lagers, mostly el­derly, for Sun­day ser­vice.

A pic­turesque vil­lage, Crisan in re­cent years has be­come a hub for those look­ing to ex­plore the Danube Delta in a more ad­ven­tur­ous way. Row­ma­nia, an or­ga­ni­za­tion set up by for­mer Olympic ca­noeist Ivan Patzaichin, has a tour cen­ter in the vil­lage where peo­ple can hire “can­ot­cas” (a cross be­tween a lotca and a race ca­noe) for daytrips or sev­eral days’ ex­plo­ration. “We have route maps and peo­ple can just rent the boats, or they can be guided by me, my brother, or my son,” said Adrian Oprisan, the 48-year- old owner of the small guest­house that part­ners with Row­ma­nia.

As in many of the smaller delta com­mu­ni­ties, when the sun sets in Crisan, those left in the vil­lage go to sleep. So I whiled away my one evening there sit­ting on a small jetty watch­ing the sun set over the still wa­ter, and then the stars fill­ing the sky.

I spend my fi­nal

two days in Sulina, the largest com­mu­nity in the delta. With 3,600 peo­ple, the town feels like an­other world: young cou­ples, fam­i­lies, and tourists crowd the water­side restau­rants and bars, with live mu­sic played into the evening. A short walk out­side town is a beau­ti­ful sandy beach that marks the end of the delta and the start of the Black Sea.

Leg­end has it that a com­mu­nity first sprang up in Sulina in the 10th cen­tury, when Greek pi­rates es­tab­lished a base here. The pop­u­la­tion boomed dur­ing the time of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion of the Danube, the in­ter­na­tional body cre­ated in 1856 to en­sure that the mouths of the Danube re­mained nav­i­ga­ble. But the town was heav­ily bombed dur­ing World War II, and the com­mis­sion was even­tu­ally su­per­seded by a Soviet-con­trolled agency. Over the last few decades Sulina has lost even more rel­e­vance with the clo­sure of its fish can­ner­ies and ship­yards.

De­spite this, it’s easy to spend hours just wan­der­ing along the banks of the Danube watch­ing the boats go by and check­ing out Sulina’s old mer­chant build­ings, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s neo­clas­si­cal for­mer head­quar­ters, and the var­i­ous churches, all of which ap­pear to be ded­i­cated to St. Ni­cholas, the pa­tron saint of sailors. On my last night in town, I sit down to a plate of grilled cat­fish, a lo­cal spe­cialty. It’s a fi­nal, suc­cu­lent re­minder of the Danube Delta.

River’s Edge En­joy­ing a quiet evening by the wa­ter in Crisan.

Delta Denizen A Sfântu Ghe­o­rghe lo­cal in his veg­etable gar­den. Right: A speed­boat en route to Crisan .

Still Wa­ters Above: Mod­ern guest­houses like this one, lo­cated mid­way along the chan­nel be­tween Crisan and Sfântu Ghe­o­rghe, have spung up in the delta to cater to the re­gion’s grow­ing eco­tourism busi­ness.

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