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Romania: The edge of land and sea

On the Romanian coast, at the eastern limit of Europe, the Danube splits into a bird-filled labyrinth of lagoons, lakes and swamps, where life moves to nature’s time

Romania: The edge of land and sea
Image: Daniel Allen

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Eyes watering from the onrushing air, I’m starting to regret my decision to sit in the bow. As a setting sun transforms our waterway into a fiery ribbon, nature guide Razvan Crimschi guns the skiff’s powerful outboard motor, causing the agile craft to bounce ever higher across the channel’s corrugated surface. Speed is now of the essence: being out after dark in Romania’s Danube Delta is frowned upon by local police.

Sfantu Gheorghe, the very last village on this branch of the mighty Danube, is proving gratifyingly hard to reach. Following a four-hour car ride from Bucharest to the small town of Mahmudia, I’m on the final leg of a journey that’s taken me to the very edge of Europe.

A procession of black terns keeps pace effortlessly with the skiff, as we pass towering reed beds, silhouetted against the rosy-hued sky. Beached beside the river are the hulks of several fishing boats. Then all signs of human life are gone.

“You better hope you don’t need to come back in a hurry,” shouts Crismschi over the wind, as we plough on into the gloaming. “The road finished in Mahmudia.”

Rising deep within Germany’s Black Forest, the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river, meanders southeast through 10 countries and four capitals. In eastern Romania, before emptying into the Black Sea, it splits into a bewildering plexus of lagoons, swamps, lakes, floating islands, subtropical forests and endless corridors of reeds.

A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this delta region is a natural paradise teeming with life. As one of Europe’s most extensive wetlands, it’s home to more than 5,000 animal and plant species. White-tailed eagles hunt for prey among the reed beds, vast squadrons of cormorants roost in noisy colonies, ungainly pelicans acquire graceful synchrony as they soar on thermals overhead. Somewhere in the waters below, the Danube’s few remaining sturgeon live out their long lives in murky mystery.

“This is one of the last places in Europe where nature is still virgin,” says Razvan, a 42-year-old Romanian who’s lived in the delta since birth. “Outsiders soon discover that everything moves to nature’s time here.”

Having pushed nature’s time to the limit, my guide and I motor into Sfantu Gheorghe as the last vestiges of daylight disappear from a starry sky. Dumping my suitcase, we dine on carp and buttered potatoes in Cherhanaua Veche, a waterfront restaurant filled with merry locals and the sounds of Europop. Retiring to my room, I’m lulled to sleep by a cacophony of barking dogs, a chorus of tree frogs and the falsetto cries of a golden jackal.

The following morning I wake early and wander along Sfantu Gheorghe’s modest waterfont. A flotilla of fishing boats and tourist craft, many with cormorants sunning themselves on the gunwales, bob gently at their moorings. On the harbourside, a trio of fishermen repair a giant net with wooden needles and calloused hands.

In the warm sunlight, Sfantu Gheorghe is a picture of rustic charm. Single-storey wooden cottages with thatched roofs and ornate facades line the streets, while picket fences border gardens filled with sunflowers and fruit-laden fig trees. In the grassy spaces between the cottages cows graze nonchalantly. Golden bundles of reeds lean against walls, ready for summertime roof repairs.

Image: Daniel Allen

Situated right at the river mouth, Sfantu Gheorghe is the end of the line for the 1,700-mile Danube. With only 15,000 or so human residents, the Danube Delta is fairly sparsely inhabited. The people who live here trace their origins to many different cultures and ethnicities, but all share one common trait — a strong bond with nature and water. Sfantu Gheorghe’s 1,000-strong population is mostly engaged in fishing and agriculture, as well as the area’s nascent tourism industry.

After breakfast, Razvan and I take a walk through the village towards the edge of land and sea. By one tumbledown cottage we stop to speak with Elena Cernamorit, a stereotypical babushka in headscarf and heavy skirt, her eyes etched with crow’s feet.

“All my children have left Sfantu Gheorghe for Tulcea or Bucharest,” she says. “They love the life here, but they need to work. My husband has died, so it’s harder to keep things in good order.”

Leaving the village, a dusty path takes us into marshes carpeted with yellow water iris. Knee-deep in water and half concealed by reeds, a handful of cows and horses graze under a cloudless sky. Purple herons and great white egrets stalk the shallows, while marsh harriers glide low over the water, dark graceful shapes on powerful uplifted wings. A baby turtle makes a spirited crawl to safety, inches from our feet.

Several abandoned military bunkers squat amid this natural idyll, their incongruous, angular lines the legacy of another era. “I guess somebody thought the delta needed defending,” says Razvan, shrugging. “We thought about turning them into birdwatching hides, but the concrete is too thick.”

The beach at Sfantu Gheorghe is one of Romania’s wildest and finest; a great, windblown arc encrusted with countless shells. Deposited along the shoreline are bizarre, anvil-shaped tree trunks, embedded in the tidal mud, while a rusting metal skeleton may be a missile launcher — or some kind of agricultural device. Fine, white sand is banked and heaped into a series of miniature dunes, ever-shifting aeolian sculptures moulded by the constant breeze.

In summer, this beach is crowded with Romanian holidaymakers — today, in May, it’s deserted; it feels like the end of the world. The metronomic, surf-flecked rollers of the Black Sea wash ashore with steadily encroaching regularity. At the mouth of the Danube, the fresh waters of the river clash exuberantly with the saline waters of the sea, pushing onward until they lose their energy and are swallowed up forever.

We wander back slowly through shimmering salt flats, incandescent in the mid-afternoon sun. Clouds of waders jink and wheel just above the ground, alighting for a few seconds before taking off again into the superheated air.

“When the summer season starts you can take the trocarici to and from the beach,” says Crimschi, simultaneously pointing out an exotic-looking bird, a hoopoe, sitting on a nearby branch. “It’s a trailer pulled by an old car. We call this Sfantu Gheorghe’s public transport system. Without the timetable, of course.”

Even for non-ornithologists, the Danube Delta is an avian wonderland. Early the next day, Razvan and I take a boat ride to the Melea lagoon, formed by an ever-growing spit of land called Sacalin Island. Protected from the waves of the Black Sea by this sedimentary barrier, the shallow lagoon is home to an astonishing array of birds.

The pelican is the icon of the Danube Delta, and you can find two species here: the endangered and more gregarious great white pelican, and the less gregarious, even rarer Dalmatian pelican.

This morning, as we emerge onto the lagoon from a narrow channel, a huge raft of great white pelicans immediately swings into view, clucking, paddling, preening and flapping their expansive wings among clusters of white and yellow water lilies. Another smaller group, working together, has encircled and trapped a shoal of fish in the shallow water and are busy scooping up their haul in pouched, mustard-coloured bills. Razvan switches off the engine and we drift slowly forwards, marvelling at this spectacular melee.

“Many fishermen don’t like pelicans because they’re supposed to steal fish, but these birds are what all the tourists come to see,” he says. “Thanks to conservation measures the populations of both pelican species are now on the increase.”

Image: Daniel Allen

Home life
Returning to Sfantu Gheorghe, it’s time to relocate to the home of Natalia Palade, who also happens to be Razvan’s aunt. Alternately wheeling and carrying my suitcase through the sandy backstreets of Sfantu Gheorghe, I arrive at a picture-postcard cottage on the outskirts of the village, with whitewashed walls, sky blue windows and an immaculate roof of thatched reed. A budding vine snakes its way through a metal pergola, while a well-tended garden gives off the heady scent of fruit blossom.

Waiting on the front porch to welcome me, in an orange apron and with flour-dusted hands, Palade is the epitome of homeliness; her face, with its ready smile, framed by a mass of grey curls. Despite the lack of a common language, she’s clearly unhappy with my current state of nutrition. A heaped plate of freshly baked apple cake is rapidly produced, followed by a metal samovar (decorated tea urn) and selection of tea bags. My spotless bedroom smells of furniture polish and freshly laundered sheets.

Born and raised in Sfantu Gheorghe, Natalia was involved in caviar production for more than 40 years. When sturgeon fishing was officially banned in the delta in 2006, she decided to take paying guests to make ends meet. The warm welcome and traditional menu on offer here keep many coming back, year after year.

Invited into the al fresco kitchen at the back of the house, I watch her prepare storceac (sturgeon soup). Due to the ban on the central ingredient, Natalia’s version is made with meaty pieces of catfish, together with potatoes, green pepper, lashings of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill.

“Sfantu Gheorghe is the only place in Romania where you should eat storceac,” explains Razvan, who’s arrived just in time to dine. “It’s not the same with catfish, of course. But the way my aunt makes it, you can hardly tell the difference.”

Despite the ongoing sturgeon ban, it’s hard to escape Sfantu Gheorghe’s long fishing tradition. Drying herring adorn the front gardens of houses across the village, neatly bisected and hung up on lines like pairs of socks. The wooden carcasses of decaying boats sit stranded on street corners, half-enveloped by beds of wild flowers. Even the metal-roofed church boasts a decorative anchor in its grassy compound.

Image: Daniel Allen

The prosperity of Sfantu Gheorghe — or its comfort, at least — rested on the sturgeon’s scaly back for many years. As we walk down to Sfantu Gheorghe’s dock after lunch, Razvan tells me how the loss of sturgeon fishing has had a devastating impact on local livelihoods.

Under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who treated the delta as a wild resource that needed to be tamed, Sfantu Gheorghe enjoyed relative fame and fortune. A fish processing plant was opened here in the 1950s providing jobs for all, and the area began to boom. Fishermen flocked to the village from far and wide.

“Sfantu Gheorghe’s plant processed pike and herring, but the most valuable fish was always the caviar-rich sturgeon,” explains Razvan. “Most of the fish and caviar were exported for hard currency.”

The good times, unfortunately, didn’t last. Soon after Ceaușescu was overthrown in 1989, Sfantu Gheorghe’s fish processing plant closed its doors. Decimated by years of overfishing, sturgeon stocks in the area collapsed. Since then, the village’s remaining fishermen have just about scraped by, catching (more or less) what they’re allowed, and selling it at rock-bottom prices.

Arriving at the waterfront, Razvan catches sight of his friend, Claudiu Sabloschi, a working fisherman. Clad in a fishing smock and waterproof trousers, the 26-year-old is picking herring from a net and tossing them onto a pile in the bottom of his boat. “Every fisherman here has seen his catch go down,” says Claudiu. “My father lost his job at the processing plant like everyone else and eventually retired from fishing during the worst times in the 1990s.”

Yet, despite the fact that most of Sfantu Gheorghe’s young people have left to look for work, Claudiu has decided to stay. “This is my home,” he says. “There’s no place like it. If I can’t make it as a fisherman, I’ll try tourism. But I’ll raise my family here.”

On the up
Despite its relatively extreme location, Sfantu Gheorghe isn’t actually the easternmost point in Romania. That honour goes to the town of Sulina, 18 miles to the north, on another branch of the Danube.

The next day, Razvan and I take a high-speed boat ride to Sulina. Once a wealthy place, today the town has a rakish air, with rusting, iron-lattice balconies and dilapidated waterfront mansions. The entire length of the Danube is measured from the town’s Ottoman lighthouse, a white cylindrical building with button-like portholes.

On the way back to Sfantu Gheorghe, we encounter Razvan’s father, tending his herd of imposing looking tauros. These ancient cattle have recently been introduced to the delta by Rewilding Europe, a progressive, pan-European conservation initiative working to make Europe a wilder place by restoring natural processes such as flooding and natural grazing.

“The idea of the tauros is that they’re natural grazers,” explains Razvan. “They live as wild animals and create a mosaic landscape in the dryer parts of the delta. This benefits countless other species, such as birds and small mammals, and their predators, like the golden jackal.”

Image: Daniel Allen

Rewilding Europe is also looking to support small businesses in Sfantu Gheorghe, helping them to generate incomes from rewilding-related activities, such as wildlife watching. Jenica Pension, a local guesthouse, has already received a loan to improve its facilities and buy wildlife-watching equipment.

“People here desperately need an alternative to fishing and agriculture,” says Razvan. “But it’s hard to raise the capital and acquire the expertise to start a business. By helping locals earn a fair income from nature, an initiative like Rewilding Europe incentivises people to conserve the delta’s natural resources, not exploit them.”

Today, the tourist infrastructure in Sfantu Gheorghe is starting to improve. The four-star Green Village Resort offers visitors accommodation in tasteful thatched cottages, reminiscent of African safari lodges, many of which overlook the Danube. The resort, which is entirely constructed from local materials, also has a good range of facilities, such as a spa and pool, and there are kayaks and bikes available for guests to rent.

“It’s a delicate balance,” says Razvan. “We really want to keep the traditions alive that make this place so special. But local people can’t live in a time warp. They have the right to a more comfortable, secure life. Small-scale nature-based tourism can really help reinvigorate this area and its people.”

A mid-afternoon flight back to London from Bucharest necessitates an early departure on my final day. Ready for church in her Sunday best, Natalia stands at the gate of her beautiful home and waves goodbye. My suitcase, its wheels clogged with the sand of Sfantu Gheorghe’s streets, is soon stowed safely aboard Razvan’s boat, and we set off under a mercifully clear sky.

Rounding a bend in the river, the buildings gradually disappear from view for the last time, one by one. Though I’m sad to be leaving, at the same time it’s reassuring to know this plucky, welcoming village will always be here for future visits, an outpost of human endeavour at Europe’s wondrously wild and watery end.

Essentials

Getting there & around
There are daily direct flights from London to Bucharest, with Ryanair, Wizz Air and British Airways. There are also direct flights from Bristol with Ryanair, Glasgow with Wizz Air and Liverpool with Blue Air.
Average flight time: 3h.
The cheapest way to get to Tulcea from Bucharest is by bus, which takes 4-5 hours.
By car it takes 3.5 hours and rentals can be dropped off in Tulcea; book taxis online.
Regularly scheduled ferries — both traditional ‘slow’ ferries and faster (more expensive) hydrofoils — leave from Tulcea on select days, to both Sfantu Gheorghe and Sulina.

When to go
Spring and autumn are dry and pleasant with cool nights and warm days, while the summer months (June-August) can get very hot. Best for birdwatching are the first three weeks of May and late August to mid-September.

How to do it
Ibis Tours offers six-day tours of the Danube Delta, including road and river transfers to and from Bucharest, excursions and full-board accommodation in Tulcea and Sfantu Gheorghe, from £1,160 per person, based on two. Flights not included.
Discover Danube Delta also offers various delta trips, including kayaking and birdwatching.

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)