Constanza, Romania – The rooster’s early-morning wake-up call builds into a cacophony of barnyard sounds. It’s a Romanian rhapsody that accompanies us everywhere we go in this quaint country stuck in another century.
Five decades of communist rule have left the Romanian countryside unmarked by modern technology. It’s one of the last places in Europe to see unspoiled village life, where farmers till the soil by hand. Horse-drawn carts rule the roads, and the highlight of every day is the early evening rush hour of livestock parading home from pasture.
The Danube Delta forms one of Romania’s most fascinating regions. Eons ago, the mighty Danube River emptied into a large bay on the Black Sea at the end of its 3,000-kilometre course through 10 countries. Over the centuries, the river gradually filled the bay with its alluvial deposits to form a vast delta.
Today, the river splits into branches that fan through an ever-changing expanse of lagoons, marshes, reeds, water lilies and sandbars before reaching the Black Sea. It carries over 100 tonnes of silt a minute and adds over 40 metres of swampland to Romania’s coast every year.
Today, Romania’s Danube Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Europe’s second-largest river delta, after the Volga, the area encompasses 5,165 square kilometres of wetlands. Its lakes, islands, swamplands and forests are abundant in biodiversity.
The best way to explore the delta is by rowboat, so we hire a local fisher to take us out into the labyrinth of waterways and uncharted channels. The oarsman navigates along a rapid river, one of the three branches of the Danube, passing boats moored to the shore and heavy barges with loads destined for inland villages.
We pass fishers’ thatch-roofed homes and boathouses made of reeds. The water is very high this time of year because of spring runoff coming from the mountains in the west.
Trees are immersed right up to their branches, like leaf-hooded giants frolicking neck-deep in the drink. As the summer progresses, the waters will recede, so by fall this landscape will look more like a swamp.
Europe’s largest colony of Great White Pelicans lives in the delta, along with about 300 other species of birds – white egrets, wild swans, cormorants – as well as tons of mosquitoes. Moving through narrow channels in the tall reeds, we play hide and seek with the water birds lurking in the bushes. Eventually, our boat reaches an open lake filled with water lilies.
There are some 27 fishing villages on the delta, and one potholed dirt road leads to many of them. They’re among the quaintest in Romania, because the houses are crowned with reed-thatch roofs.
In a rented car, we swerve around horse carts, dodge flocks of sheep and pass farmers harvesting grass with scythes. We nod to kerchiefed old women sitting on benches spinning yarns – both the verbal and the woolly kind – with hand-held spindles.
Ferries ply the middle arm of the Danube, carrying passengers to the small delta villages that are inaccessible by road.
There’s a lot of water traffic on this arm of the river. In the 19th century, the channel was straightened to accommodate commercial traffic, and in the 1960s it was widened to make it accessible to large freighters coming from the Black Sea and beyond.
From the top deck of our ferry, we can see the vast expanse of marshes, with their immersed trees, tiny farmsteads that sit on narrow spits of land and animals grazing on every available dry spot.
Eventually, we reach Sulina, Romania’s easternmost port, perched on the threshold between the Danube and the Black Sea. In communist times, Sulina was the gateway to Romania’s version of the St. Lawrence Seaway. From here, Soviet, Romanian and Hungarian ships sailed up the Danube to Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna and into the heart of Europe.
But since the fall of communism, Sulina has seen a dramatic drop in business. Today, the waterfront is lined with derelict dredges and freighters. Many a noble ship has ended its career in Sulina’s scrapyard.
Now, only their rusting hulls chronicle the once vital hub that guards the entrance to the mighty Danube.