By Giles Eldridge
One might surmise that the two main physical aspects outside of Bucharest are the mountains or the sea. People seem drawn to one or the other, the peaks or the beach. However, in Romania there is another, rather obscure, country – the Danube Delta. Compared to The Carpathians or the Black Sea coast this is a region that is both less easy to access or describe and, therefore, more intriguing to experience, being, as it is, somewhere in between land and water; it immediately suggests a certain strangeness and allure.
Many written descriptions of the environment tend to characterise it in terms of numbers – 5,800 sq km of reed beds and waterways, 300 bird species, 5,500 species of flora and fauna, 23 natural eco systems…and it can get really technical, 35 species of macrophytes and 28 of helophytes. I don’t know what a phyte of any description might be, but it all sounds impressive and convincing. Additionally one might hear about the exotic sounding birds and animals, Egyptian White Pelicans, Bee-eaters, the Glossy Ibis (apparently a bird not a hotel) or the fantastically named East Asian Raccoon Dog. Yet, like Palatul Parlamentului in Bucharest, you cannot start to understand this place by way of lists and statistics. In order to get an initial idea, nothing compares to seeing images of this expansive landscape. First, find a map to orientate yourself and then look through some photographs, especially aerial, and you will start to grasp the fascination and attraction. It is epic, but then so is the river that feeds it.
Within the journey of the Danube there is a lyrical symmetry, from Germany, the river starts out from the Black Forest and taking its time for 2,850 Km it finally ends up in the Black Sea, becoming a little blue somewhere around Vienna. There is some talk about its origins in the small German town in those dark woods and certainly lots about its various stop-offs on the way to its conclusion in the Black Sea, but maybe not so much mention of its splendid and complex Romanian finale in the Delta.
In fact, at the Delta there are three main parts of the river that meet the sea and it is the final destination of the oldest branch that I want to say a few words about here, where the river yields to the sea at Sfântu Gheorghe. In this village there is an atmosphere that is hard to define and right from the start I should say it’s probably not for everyone. The air is full of a particular feeling of stillness and ease. There are no breathtaking mountain views or Black Sea resort clubs, nothing is cool or hip; it’s just you, a dusty village and lots of nature, water and boats. Sfântu Gheorghe comprises of a grid of un-surfaced roads where there are some beautiful traditional houses and even a couple of small low-rise communist bloc buildings in addition to a marina, a couple of bars, the village shop and a church; very much as you might imagine in a community of 800 people. However, of all the other villages and places in the Delta, Sfântu Gheorghe is a little different.
Whilst accommodation can be found within one of the local’s houses in the old village, there is also a holiday resort of sorts. Known as the Green Village this eco-hotel complex of 88 rooms is definitely not in the Mamaia tradition. The accommodation is in the form of wooden constructed villas and cabanas with traditional thatched roofs where one can stay in considerable comfort whilst being situated between the old village and the seashore. The resort offers a variety of sports activities, including those for children in addition to the pool, jacuzzi and sauna that one might expect. This Green Village and adjacent campsite becomes the main headquarters of the Anonimul Film Festival, which is the other element that distinguishes Sfântu Gheorghe. Now in its 15th edition (6th Aug. – 12th Aug.) this has to be one of the most remote film festivals in the world. The emphasis is on young directors and independent films, which naturally span a range of topics and themes. The main evening screenings, with food and drink available at the bar, take place in the open air cinema, under the clear star-studded skies of a summer’s night. Films are also shown during the day in two high quality cinema theatres within the Green Village. A perfect day is to enjoy the beach during the afternoon and then wander back through the dunes to see a film in the evening.
In any event, and during whichever season, if you find yourself in this otherworldly watery place, you absolutely must have a tour of the waterways in a small boat – look for the handwritten Plimbări cu Barca signs in the old village. Try to find one that will take you in a small traditional Barcă if you can. You will be led through the various wide and narrow canals of the local environs, see some of the wildlife, eat fresh water chestnuts and sense the scale of this wetland wilderness. My tip would be to go out as early in the morning as is possible for the real atmospheric deal. Later in the day, if it’s summer, you risk being burnt to a cinder by the Sun.
The bottom line is that Sfântu Gheorghe is the sort of place that suits the independent person who enjoys doing very little apart from appreciating a unique setting. It’s the kind of environment that is ideal for reading or even writing, but if you are the slightly more energetic type then the sea is super warm in summer, plus you get to share the beach with the village cows.
Being surrounded by water, getting to Sfântu Gheorghe naturally requires a boat sooner or later. There are two basic options, either a smallish 10 seater type boat from Murghiol that will take around an hour, or a four hour trip from Tulcea on a much larger vessel. Murghiol is a car journey or you can take a bus from Tulcea, which can be reached by car, bus or train from Bucharest. For me the longer cruise is the best option as it will set the pace for the rest of your stay – slow down, take it easy, you’re in the Delta.
In writing this short piece I seemed to have proved that it is indeed possible to write about the Danube Delta without once mentioning mosquitos.