Sailing the Danube through Romania’s Iron Gates
The Iron Gates flank the Danube’s narrowest point, with an Orthodox monastery perched on the Romanian shore. (Nick Thorpe)
The head of a giant catfish dangled dangerously beneath the dock near Doru Oniga's restaurant in Eselnita, Romania, next to the boat that takes his guests upriver. Only a few minutes away -- by boat or by car -- are the Iron Gates, cataracts between almost vertical cliffs, where the great Danube River is forced into a narrow channel between the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. The wash of passing cruise ships or barges laden with grain or gravel occasionally slapped against the metal, lifting the pontoon from its moorings. But mostly all was quiet, as tranquil and as beautiful a place to watch the world go by as any other on the Queen of Europe's rivers.
From Eselnita, the small village where Oniga’s Star of the Danube 21-room hotel and restaurant is moored, you can travel upstream, either on the river or along a road that hugs the cliff-face; downstream, to the town of Orsova; or inland, to Baile Herculane, an ancient spa town named after the demigod Hercules, and famed since Roman times for its hot sulphur springs; Herculane's beautiful railway station, with its mosaics of Hercules set in a domed roof, is a stopping point on the Bucharest-to-Budapest railway.
The Danube, which starts in Germany and ends in Romania, was about 100ft lower near Eselnita until 1971. The Iron Gates hydroelectric project, the construction of two dams between what was then Communist Romania on the north bank and Communist Yugoslavia on the south, was both a remarkable feat of engineering and a tragedy for local inhabitants. Designed to tap the huge power of the river before it spent its strength on the plains and wetland forests, the Iron Gates dams resulted in a storage lake spreading 100 miles back upstream, through the mountains towards Belgrade, turning Europe's second longest river into a half river, half lake. The houses along the current shoreline were either not yet built, or they were hillside retreats, poised far above the water. All of the buildings on the legendary Turkish fortress island of Ada Kaleh were blown up to make way for the dams, then the island sank beneath the waters forever. The town of Orsova -- once a key port for the passenger steamships which plied the Danube -- was also destroyed by the new lake, though a pale imitation was rebuilt along the new waterline. Farther upriver, through the Iron Gates National Park, villagers hauled themselves up the steep slopes to get away from the rising water. The result today is the river still feels swollen, like a sprained ankle, but the sheer beauty of the mountains through which it passes soon drives away such melancholy reflections.
After the bow of our speed boat, driven by Oniga's son, carved an arrow straight at the crack in the rocks from which the river seems to emerge, it slowed to take in Trajan's tablet -- a stone plaque carved to celebrate the bridge the Roman Emperor Trajan had built here for his army in 105 AD. On the Romanian shore, an Orthodox monastery is perched on the water like an angler, the winter's wood supply stacked neatly underneath the onion domes. Farther on, a huge carving of the Romanian tribal chief Decebal (whose Dacian kingdom Trajan came to conquer) appears on the cliff over the river. The carving was the project of a Romanian businessman, finished in 2004. He tried and failed to persuade the Serbs on the far bank to carve their own Trajan on the opposite cliffs, to face the man he came to destroy. While the Romanians identify the Dacians and Romans as the parents of their modern nation, the Serbs want nothing to do with either. They have more recent heroes to honour.
Rocks protruding from the Danube's riverbed once stretched the nerves and navigating skills of all who sailed here. Nineteenth century attempts to improve navigation by blowing up the rocks only partially succeeded. The current of the river was so strong, that boats had to be hauled for 10 miles or more upstream, by teams of horses, and later by steam locomotives on the shore.
On our tour of the river, we stopped to visit Ponicova Cave, which is connected to the main road, far above, through a series of passages, and through which Romanians tried to escape their country during the Communist period by swimming to the relative freedom of Yugoslavia on the far side. Some succeeded, but many others were shot as they swam, or even returned by the Yugoslav guards if they made it across. A short boat journey away, there is the even more spectacular Veteran's Cave, from which Austrian soldiers once harassed Turkish shipping on the river. The entrance is hidden behind a veil of trees close to the water. From a passing boat, you might not even notice it, but inside it is astonishing -- a single ray of sunlight pierces the roof of the cave like a spotlight, surrounded by deep womblike darkness.
Farther upriver is Trikule, the ruins of a 14th-century castle, where three towers still protrude from the water. Above the main road, there are tourist paths through the Iron Gates National Park and spectacular views down onto the river.