When my brother and I were little kids in California, our mom had a 1950 Plymouth that she drove until 1961, when she sold it before taking us to Europe for a year.
We went everywhere in that car, and it didn’t have a radio; lots of cars didn’t in those days. To keep us entertained she would teach us songs, and by far the longest song she taught us (she said it was the longest one-verse song in the world, but I don’t know if that’s true) was a version of Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz.” She had learned it while she was a student nurse at Good Samaritan in Los Angeles for the school choir. To this day I can sing it all the way through, although my range isn’t what it used to be. My first memory of actually seeing the Danube was in the fall of 1961 in Vienna. Vienna in the fall is a magic place anyway, but seeing the river we had sung about on the road to Little Rock, Seattle and Salt Lake City made the city even more memorable for us, or at least for me. The next strong memory of the river, long the traditional border of the Roman Empire, was in 1993, when I took the train from Vienna to Budapest, another magical, ancient city, this one divided by the Danube, or actually uniting it, since Buda and Pest used to be two distinct cities. The Russian train I took was, for much of the journey, at the level of the river; its impact, with the forested mountains on both sides of the river valley, was incredibly dramatic.
More recently, when the Fab Five had come by the night train from Sofia to Bucharest, we had crossed the Danube at the only bridge crossing between Bulgaria and Romania, a big old truss bridge built with the help of the Russians in 1954, but we were half-asleep. Now, several days later, with fairytale towns and giant churches, castles and clean laundry, mysterious villages and magic women with new cars all having enriched our lives, here we were at 4:30 in the morning, going in those same cars to Braşov, to catch the 5:30 train to Constanta on the Black Sea, and on to Tulcea, far in the northeast of Romania. We were going to see the Danube Delta, which I am ashamed to say I had never heard of, although I knew the Danube drained into the Black Sea; it would be the culmination of our Balkan adventure.
Constanta’s locale is magnificent, but the city itself looked a lot like what I had been expecting a Balkan city to look like, but which was the first to fit the stereotype: a dingy, industrial-looking place that had seen better days, with, however, “potential” stamped all over it. Near the surprisingly (for Constanta) modern and lovely restaurant we ate lunch at, with a fabulous view of one of Constanta’s justifiably famous beaches, we found a lovely old statue of Ovid, of all people (it turns out he was exiled here, in 8 B.C., by the Roman Emperor Augustus), which clearly pre-dated the political angst of the last half-century. Run down but well built old civic buildings and horrid concrete apartment blocks surrounded dusty but generous, open spaces. The people seemed relaxed and interested in their lives. Constanta definitely deserves a closer look for another trip, but for now, we walked back to the train station.
A short, but eventful train ride
As it developed, we took the milk run commuter train from Constanta to Tulcea, which was a hoot; it was really hot, the train was really old and there was no air conditioning, so we opened all the windows in the car (one of two) we occupied. As we stopped every 30 seconds or so, people boarded, obviously familiar with both the train and each other. After three particular women boarded, they started slamming all the windows closed in their part of the wagon, which we thought was pretty rude. They didn’t appear to give a flip about us or our (obviously) foreign visitor status, and just looked back at us and shook their heads. Given the unadulterated friendliness and hospitality we had experienced in Romania so far, our noses were pretty much bent out of shape. Well, of course they knew what they were doing -- as we pulled into a more open part of the country, and away from the sea, all sorts of air-borne crud flew into the train car, so were half-laughing and half-crying, trying to decide if we could live more easily with the heat or the flying pollen, seed pods and dust that rapidly filled our sinus cavities; either way, our pride was gone but our noses were back on straight, if somewhat stuffy. Fortunately, the ride wasn’t long, and just when we were losing our sense of humor we arrived at the ‘50s-modern Tulcea (“tool-cha”) train station. It is on the waterfront, and we were surprised to see that Tulcea was right on the Black Sea; we walked along the promenade directly to our hotel, which was big and modern and cheap; we felt a little guilty staying at such a fancy schmancy place but got over it quick when we felt the air conditioning. I don’t know when it was that it dawned on us that the white-capped ocean across the promenade wasn’t the ocean at all; it was the Danube River.
There was no sign in this part of Tulcea of the preserved wetlands we had come to see; that’s probably why we just assumed this big body of water was not the Danube. Like the Mississippi in New Orleans, it just sort of wraps around the city-coast there, exhibiting sea-like characteristics, including waves, so it doesn’t look like a river. We found out, after Lute, Craig and Chantel scouted the possibilities for the next day, that all trips to the delta were contingent on the weather, which was very windy that day.
Poor Chantel had made plans to return to Bucharest the following day, and though she tried to go on the delta in the morning, the weather prevented her, so she had had her sinuses attacked for nothing. Fortunately for the rest of us, though, the wind died down after noon, and following a few discussions with boat captains, we decided on a two-hour tour in a boat to ourselves. We started by getting out of the port, I guess you’d call it, full of boat hotels, dredgers and other working boats, fast-looking police patrol boats and a lot of derelicts with undetermined functions; it was pretty interesting to see all those different boats and ships so close up. We were just starting to wonder when the fun part would start, and then we were in it! We had heard the hype about how you can get lost forever in the delta and sort of blew it off, but we took back all our skepticism immediately; there was no way anyone but a trained pilot could navigate this place, which sprawls across 5,000 square kilometers, 3,500 of them in Romania, the rest in Ukraine.
To put that in perspective, the US state of Rhode Island and the country of Luxembourg would just fit into its boundaries (Monaco, with two square kilometers, would be carried off by the tides!). The romance of it all is that this is the terminus of one of the most famous rivers in the world; the nearly 3,000-kilometer Danube originates in the Black Forest in Germany and traverses and/or is fed by 14 different countries. Twenty million people depend on it for drinking water, mostly in Germany, before it gets polluted. Fortunately, the reed beds in the delta act as chemical scrubbers, so a lot of the pollution -- from people, factories and mines -- is prevented from entering the Black Sea, although a lot of it gets in anyway, of course. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, the Danube Delta was also the Landscape of the year 2007-2009, an EU project sponsored by Naturefriends International, which yearly selects an ecological arena that has international boundaries for close attention. It is home to 300 species of birds and 45 species of fish, and ecologists would like to keep it that way, although that is a tall order in today’s industrialized economy. But that day, on our first trip to this watery wonderland, we weren’t thinking about facts and figures and only about the natural splendor around us.
Birds on the delta
We started off seeing other visitors to the marsh -- a tour on a canopied boat, going back to Tulcea; a couple of Orthodox priests holding on to their flat black hats, heading for the monastery that lies somewhere in the watery maze, where some pilots take tourists for lunch (not us); fishermen sharing a boat after errands in Tulcea, returning to their island villages. Soon, however, our boat made a couple of turns off the main waterway, and the pilot cut the power to a slow crawl, the powerful engines nearly silent. No more boats, no more people, not even in a tiny settlement we passed, with fishing equipment drying on the reed fences and vegetables growing near the grapevines. Just silence, and water; and then we saw the birds.
They must have been there all along, wading in the reeds and roosting on the trees, but as soon as we started to pick them out, they seemed to want to give us a show. Beautiful peachy-brown, large-billed birds flew up and around the boat and then down again, too quickly to be begging, but too definite not to notice their interest. An entire colony of black and white pelicans, gigantic creatures, erupted into a helix, rising above our boat then veering off to disappear over the low horizon. And the biggest showoffs by far, the wild swans, who must take pleasure in first dragging their feet at takeoff from the water, then skidding in on re-entry, making gorgeous geometric splashes in the surface of their liquid labyrinth. Strangely close-fisted yellow water flowers extended from strong stems in floating groups of color. I’m afraid there were tears in more than one set of eyes that day, as the Creator presented us with glory and splendor that had nothing to do with the works of man.
Although we ultimately left Tulcea and spent a nice day in Bucharest, took the night train to İstanbul, and celebrated Craig’s birthday with a cruise on our beloved Bosporus, our two-week Balkan journey really began and ended that day on the Danube Delta. When we finally began our return to the “real” world and the engines were louder again, so no one could hear me, I sang Mom’s song all the way through, twice. Part of it goes “Through the forest bright, singing joyously, from the fountain in the mountain; like a radiant bride, comes the silver tide, dancing down to meet the emerald sea.” Though we couldn’t see it from our vantage in the delta, we knew it was there, the beautiful emerald sea; Mom would have loved to see this part of her song.