2000km from the Black Forest in Germany, the second largest river in Europe meanders through the Carpathian Mountains, carving its way through the famous gorge known as the Iron Gates, 860km from the Black Sea.
Up the river from Orșova, on a small estuary, I spent a few days at Nautica Bahna on a much needed city break. Staying in a quaint log cabin with a small boat at our disposal, I made the most of each morning, bobbing up and down trying my best to keep my tea steady. The location was sublime, and the owners were extremely helpful and kind, providing pleasant conversation in the mornings, and even going out their way to provide wood and coals for the evening fire, and gasoline for the boat.
The days were spent exploring the surrounding nature, with a nice seasoning of nautical escapade. In Orșova, a guide boat, much bigger and more powerful than the one back at the cabin, took us on a journey through the gorge, explaining the many marvels along the way.
Soon after we were on our way, we passed over a wide stretch of water, where apparently beneath us once stood an island 2km across and half a kilometre wide, named Ada Kaleh. It was once known as a smuggler’s nest and an Ottoman Turkish exclave, with a mosque and twisting streets. Like many other places that were at the mercy of the Iron Gate dams built in 1970, it rests in ruins on the riverbed.
With Serbia on one side, and Romania on the other, it was thrilling to criss-cross the river and traverse borders without having to take a covid test.
Our first stop was Tabula Traiana, a Roman plaque on the Serbian side. It commemorated Trajan’s bridge, the longest arch-bridge in 1000 years from when it was constructed in 105AD. It aided the Roman’s conquest of Dacia, and was later destroyed by Trajan’s ancestor to prevent any retaliation of barbarian attacks from the north.
Crossing back into Romania, we continued along the river, admiring the gorgeous views. We stopped by a couple of caves, and were lucky to see the rare yellow tulip growing sparsely on the cliffs. It is a unique species only found here around this part of the Danube, and blooms for only a fortnight each year.
We traversed the treacherous Danube boilers, a legendary place along the river where it narrowed and caused strong swirling eddies, many times to a skilled sailor’s peril. However since the construction of the two dams, the once roaring river has calmed to more that of a reservoir. The water level being 35m higher, the vortices and whirlpools are still visible on the surface, albeit calmer, yet demonstrates the power of the current underneath.
Finally we are greeted by a humongous face carved into the cliff-side. We are told it is the last king of the Dacians, Decebalus, who stares out with an ancient solemn gaze. The rugged beard and jagged head, make this carving all the more primordial. As I sat there in the boat, fascinated with the history behind this sculpture, I asked the guide, who built this monolithic piece of art?
“A Romanian businessman in 1994”
“…I beg your pardon?”
“His name is carved right there underneath, MADE BY DRAGAN”.
“So he made it himself?”
“Oh no, he just purchased the rock, a sculptor from Italy came and did the carving”.
And yet the sculptor’s name (Mario Galeotti) is nowhere to be seen. Nonetheless it is very impressive, and is the second largest head carving behind Mt. Rushmore.
The guide lets me take the helm and we return to Orsova to have a bite to eat and continue on our adventure through and around the Iron Gates, visiting hot springs and waterfalls.
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