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.
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.