Tuesday 4 August 2015

Weekend in the Delta

‎The habit of ignoring nature is deeply implanted in our times. I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of life.
Marc Chagall

Rains finally came. The dog days came to a pause for two days but Bucharest was still hot. We drove to Tulcea - the quiet of a small town in a poor province on a summer afternoon - and took the speed boat to Chilia which gives its name to one of the three branches of the Danube delta. The Danube which is a polite city river when it runs through Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade finally polyfurcates before it reaches the Black Sea. The little visited delta is the place where Europe reaches an end. It's possibly the last truly wild part of the continent.

Green and cool.

Pelicans and storks. Wild horses. Wild boars. Even wild cats, that catch fish.

Chilia is separated from New Chilia, which is in Ukraine. Its factories are seen across the river but the ferry crossing was discontinued after the 1989 revolution. Many of the 4,000 inhabitants of Chilia have relatives in Ukraine, but do not see them. Anca Plesca tells me that to do so would not only involve  going to Tulcea to get ones passport stamped but paying $200 to have the customs opened up by Ukraine in order to receive them.

Mirel and Anca Plesca have opened a hotel in Chilia, called Limanul Resort, which has been recommended to us by glamorous friends in Bucharest. Anca Plesca, like most Romanians I know, was reared by her grandmother in a country village and this was her village.

We brought Claudiu Magris’s astonishingly good ‘Danube’ and several guidebooks. They recount the history of Chilia, an ancient place named after Achilles, but it has very little history. One monk left a record that slaves were embarked there in the eleventh century.  A reminder that slavery was universal in Europe at that time. It existed in what is now Romania until the time of the American Civil War, by which time gypsies were slaves. Ethnic Romanians were serfs until the same time.

That's almost it until the War of independence of 1877-78, so called, in which the Romanians were inveigled by the Czar to fight for Russia and Bulgaria. Romania's reward was to gain its nominal independence (it already had home rule from the Sublime Porte), to lose Bessarabia (approximately what is now the Moldovan Republic) to Russia and to be given in exchange a stretch of scantily populated coast called the Northern Dobrudgea which included most of the Danube Delta. The Dobrudgea had little connection with the Romanians but its Muslims, Greeks and Jews have mostly left by now and it has been Romanian-ised.

The Danube delta has 20,000 inhabitants making it the most sparsely populated area in Europe below the frozen north. It was and remains populated in large part by Lipoveni, Russians who had fled to the delta to escape religious persecution in the time of Peter the Great. Lipoveni are renowned for the beauty of their women and their almost limitless ability to drink vodka, tuica, beer, industrial alcohol. They can even drink the turbid waters of the Danube itself. They talk an archaic form of Russian and listen to Ukrainian pop music on transistor radios in the village bar.

But the delta is a place innocent of history and long in natural history. The delta is the third most important biosphere reserve, a term I don’t fully understand but which I think means home for flora and fauna. The Coral Reef is first. 

The joy of travelling in Romania is staying with peasants. 'Limanul Resort' is not that but it is something surprising - it is cool. Cool, until about five years ago, was unknown in Romania. I do not entirely approve but it makes a nice change from most Romanian hotels which are in the most terrible taste imaginable, unless built before Communism. The resort has been beautifully designed by a good architect and design means a lot. It's comfortable and though peasants charge only ten Euros the fifty Euros the hotel charges is not exorbitant. One of our group was shocked it was so cheap. He is used, he said, to comfortable hotels in Transylvania which charge twice as much. Poshness to my regret has come to Romania.

One drawback though. It is not on the water but a five minute walk away, close to Chilia's extraordinary church which is the highest orthodox church in Romania. Why so small a place has so imposing a church I don't know but I imagine that it was a statement that the Turks were no longer masters here. The Turks forbade high churches, which is the reason other churches in the Dobrudgea were built half-underground.

The food at the resort is very good. We ate a wonderful fish dish where the outside of the fish had been emptied and filled with minced fish meat. We had some good fish borsches. We drunk very much local tuica - plum brandy - but was it local? I saw no plum trees. It was at least weak and I drank several, usually a very unwise course of action. The others complained but I was thankful.

This is however not the right way to see the delta. The right way is camping by the shore of the water with mosquito repellent. We saw many people doing this as our speed boat took us through the delta. Solitary men who looked like hermits, visionaries or men on the run from the police. In fact in a country which is very conformist here is where the non-conformists go. They are the Romanian equivalent of hippies but a great improvement on hippies.

This is my sixth expedition to the delta. Once the delta was criss-crossed by natural water channels but more and more canals have been built. They are straight and at times they become dull. At other times, I was reminded of sailing a dhow in a mangrove swamp in the islands of Northern Mozambique. But all this is so close to Europe, is in Europe.

The rivulets are studded by fishermen’s cottages, which fishermen use only occasionally, and where benches are available in the shade. I read, my companions paddled, one of us, who was a professional photographer, took pictures.

The beautiful moments are the storks, pelicans, all manner of birds, which suddenly fly up from the reeds. The lakes are where the birds suddenly fly up en masse, driven by a divine impulse to find happiness.  

Outside the delta empires rose and fell. The Turks came and after many centuries left. The Communists did the same much more rapidly, but in the delta very little has changed. Florin, our boatman, regrets the passing of communism. He is a Lipovan in his fifties. Many or most people of his age and education in Romania feel the same and he is probably right, from his point of view. The Lipoveni always had plenty to eat even in the 1980s.

Florin takes us to the little wooden monastery of St Athanasius, which I first visited years ago. It was founded by some monks in the early 1990s who, looking for a site, got talking to a local fisherman who donated his land for the monastery. Six monks live there now and a charming man called Emil, who dedicates half his year to helping the monks and the other half to working in Italy to make enough money to keep himself. Monasteries appeal to Romanians and lots of people come and go. I’d like to stay there but one can only stay by permission and the monk I speak to didn’t seem keen on extending an invitation to me, even though Emil told him that my companion had made a substantial donation to a monastery in Bucharest.

There are, Emil says, a number of hermits living in the delta, saying Mass alone. Two of them come to this monastery for food from time to time. The others subsist by themselves. Since I first set foot on Romanian soil in 1990 I have been enchanted by the place but now I start to see that it is the other worldly religiosity of the people, their mysticism, that makes this country so remarkable. All our life long we go from one spot of holy ground to another, according to John Updike. This is even more true in Romania than elsewhere.

When I go next time I’ll not go to the Sulina channel I prefer the part of the 'old Danube channel' and Mila 23. It’s more than a decade since I first stayed there and it has become more now touristified. We heard the little towns of Sulina and Sf. Gheorghe are in the same case. PSD politicians have bought the land and development is going on, though slowly. 

Our third and last day was a beautiful trip via Mila 23 to Tulcea and then a drive through small roads to the great seaside resort of Mamaia. The heat was intense. It was Sunday. We stopped at the famous mosque at Babadag, the oldest in Romania.  Absolute silence in the insufferably hot little place. The mosque is closed. So was the Museum of Oriental (meaning Muslim) Art and Artefacts. No-one was insight except for two boys who pleaded with us for a leu (15p). One said there were no problems between Muslims and Christians in the town. The Muslims were gypsies, by the way. This is not the story I'd read about that week in the press, which said the Muslim gypsies are ostracised by the other ethnic groups in the town, the Romanians, Tatars, Lipoveni, Hungarians, Greeks and even the rest of the gypsies.

On we drove and came at last to the ruined Roman city of Histria. Histria is, as Dr. Johnson said of the Giants’ Causeway, worth seeing but not worth going to see. But we were only ten miles away. Some pillars, some statues, a lot of communist renovation. The sea is not in sight to give a lonely melancholy to the place, but a melancholy and sense of desertion exists. Two charming students, the girl a shy beauty who does not know she is good-looking, gave us a questionnaire to fill in about how we would react if we saw a frog, a snake, a fox or a scorpoion among the ruins. i felt loving and pure saying I would interact in a friendly way with each. Some benighted people ticked the box that said they would kill the snake. British twenty-year old students, even making allowance for the fact that they are science side not arts side, would not be nearly so innocent as these two.

I shall go back but next time to stay in simple places and find somewhere in the little dead town of Sulina. Sulina is a place that was briefly important after an international Danube Commission was housed there at the end of the (first) Crimean War and until the harbour silted up. One of my friends once spent a week there. When she came back I asked her if Sulina had a beach and she replied, apologetically,

Yes it has, but it's completely uncommercialised.

i must hurry in the hope that this is still the case.


  1. Great post Paul! I think our visits to the Delta are probably the best memories we have of our time spent in Romania. I especially loved the monastery of St Athanasius. Also, the image of half a dozen young boys riding up to a cafe on almost wild horse at mile 23... quite a magical part of the world!

  2. I appreciate your "explorer DNA"! Great posting! Thanks for reflecting with clear wisdom on truly Romania's beauty .....

  3. Should have said: "Yes it has, but thanks God, it's completely uncommercialised." Agree with mr. Wood.

  4. What is missing from the history of Chilia is that the names derives from Greek Achilleas (Achilles).....

  5. Actually, the whole text (not bad at all, after all) is only set as a background for the photo of this graceful Romanian young lady ...

    Light vanity, insatiate cormorant, consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

    1. Lord Macaulay rightly said that 'the most beautiful object in the world, it will be allowed, is a beautiful woman'. If only you could see the other pictures of her. She is a Serb actually.

    2. He was a lifelong celibate though there was some talk of a tendresse in Calcutta in his twenties.

  6. Thank you Paul for this beautiful post, I learn something every time I read your posts. Constantin Alin Pandia

  7. " Poshness to my regret has come to Romania"

  8. When you return to the Delta read Jean Bart's Europolis (1933), written about Sulina when it was a bustling, cosmopolitan city. A splendid novel: it would have made a fine opera.

    Sf Gheorghe has miles of perfect, unspoilt beach. A small tractor takes you the 1.5 km from the town. One of the most relaxing places I have ever been.