The Romanian monks drawing inspiration from the Danube

Dervent Monastery

Each year on 14 September - the Day of the Holy Cross - people come from all over Romania to the Dervent Monastery in the east of the country hoping for a cure for their ailments. Nick Thorpe visited it earlier this year as he journeyed along the Danube.

Evensong at the Romanian Orthodox monastery at Dervent is in full spate when we arrive.

Black-hooded monks like crows with voices as sweet as blackbirds - some who appear to be as old as prophets - stand together to intone the psalms around bibles as big as breeze blocks, or stoop to kiss lip-worn icons, their beards brushing the feet of the saints.

Outside, an agile fellow with a long stick is dislodging fragments of swallows' nests from the high rafters above the entrance to the church, as agitated swallows fly in all directions.

I suppress a Franciscan cry of outrage, and then am glad I did. The monk explains that they like to keep that area clear of nests so people can enter and leave the church without being covered in bird droppings.

A rapid glance around the eaves of the rest of the quadrangle confirms his story.

The monastery is a city of swallows, their undisturbed nests packed into every conceivable space, and the birds swarm like biblical locusts.

In fact there are so many swallows that one might be excused for thinking that the monks themselves are just rare, seasonal visitors.

Afterwards in the garden, as a full moon rides through the trees, the priest Father Atal opens his heart to me.

"I like the autumn the best," he confesses, "the changing colours of the forest, from raw green to dark brown."

Image caption The Danube flows from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea, a distance of 1771 miles (2872km)

But it is the Danube which keeps him here.

His first memory of the river is when his father threw him into it, to teach him to swim, at the age of five or six, he says.

He has been swimming in it ever since, mostly upstream, against the flow of a world with little time for faith, or those who profess it.

"I never planned to become a priest. After my military service I went to university, then visited this monastery by chance. And that was it.

"I cannot describe what happened to me but I knew what I had to do."

So he quit university, sold his books and came here. That was nine years ago.

Comfortable quarters

The monastery, which was built in 1936, is young by Romanian standards. It was closed throughout the communist period, when it functioned as the offices of the local agricultural co-operative.

But the ancient crosses which draw the crowds in September and which led to the establishment of the monastery in the first place, were carefully preserved.

You can touch them in the chapel next to the church - great chunks of stone, carved by master masons, eroded by the wind and rains, polished by the fingers of the faithful.

After a night in a simple but comfortable room in the guest quarters (even warm water in the bathroom at the end of the corridor) I walk down to the holy spring.

The view across the river is spectacular - a bright ribbon, wrapped round the forested island of Pacuiul de Soare.

It is too early even for pilgrims. Only the snails are up before me, leaving silver trails in the dust.

And with no-one around, I remove my trousers and bathe my knee - an old football injury - in the freezing waters of the spring.

"People come here with their needs and occasionally, when I need some time to myself, I go across to the island," Father Atal told me, the previous evening.

"And there I pray and swim and enter into communion with the river."

Flashes of history

After the early morning service, we say our farewells and I go in search of a boat.

The ruins on the island are overgrown but give a sense of the strategic importance the island once held.

A Roman fortress was established here in the first Century, and rebuilt by the Byzantines in the 10th, together with a large church.

The island became a major military, trade and religious centre, with its own mint and shipyard for naval vessels.

The ruins lead down and disappear beneath the green waters of the fast-flowing Danube. When the river level was especially low, they found scaffolding in the river bed, once used to lift ships for repairs.

Among the pleasures for me of travelling up this river are the sudden flashes of inspiration of previous inhabitants, planted along the bank like clues to guide future visitors.

Among the items in the museum at Calarasi, is a wooden crucifix that was found on this island, with the waves of the Danube clearly visible on the back.

"Often when I see people swimming in the Danube," Father Atal told me, "I realise they do not know how to use it, how to use the currents to get to the shore.

"Likewise in life, some people do not know how to use whatever God gives them, how to live life to the highest intensity."

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