Eastern Europe Part 2: Bulgaria

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Eastern Europe

 Part 2 –  Bulgaria: Gold Artifacts, Iron Gates and Grandma’s Stone Fort

 

September 5, 2008

Dateline: Silistri, Varna and Ruse, Bulgaria

At Ruse Latitude 43.51 degrees  North, Longitude 25.56 degrees East

We came downriver overnight to dock at the port of Silistri, Bulgaria to enable us to take a bus to  Varna on the Black Sea. Apparently Silistri doesn’t have any tourist-worthy sites and so we buzzed through town past the usual collection of Soviet era buildings rather quickly to emerge into a really bucolic countryside. Our guide today is Mariann, who is from Hungary and we also have a local guide from Bulgaria named Malani. Apparently there was a Roman fortress just north of Silistri built in 26 A.D. used to keep the Barbarians at bay. Not much is left standing, and of course, the Barbarians did not remain “at bay” and eventually and made this their own stronghold, along with Varna and Ruse, which we will also visit. These same Barbarians are the ancestors of the Slavic population of Bulgaria today.  Before they drove out the Romans, the Barbarians looted and plundered everything worth having. I don’t really know the difference in looting vs. plundering, but plundering just sounds a little more lucrative of an undertaking. Also the Romans usually were really good at building things to last, so I was surprised their fortress isn’t still intact, but then again if these guys that built the fortifications back then were the forebears of those in the Communist era who couldn’t come up with concrete that didn’t crumble after 10 years – maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – they were probably following a family recipe.

Bulgaria still uses the Cyrillic alphabet, a bright idea of two Bulgarian monks who were brothers, Cyrill and Methody. Both were subsequently given sainthood, but I’m not sure if it was for this or for other good works. But regardless of the kudos, it’s really hard to read any signs and menus in this alphabet they came up with.  The Bulgarian alphabet has 30 letters. The Russians use the same alphabet, but theirs has more letters. I’m not sure why Cyrill got top billing in having the alphabet named after him, nor what Methody thought about it (e.g. was he too saintly to feel miffed?)

Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria, located inland, closer to the Serbian border than the Danube,  which forms the northern border with Romania. The Balkan Mountains divide the country into two distinct climates, the north of which has the Danube Plain where we are now. It has cold winters with snow and hot summers. To the south of the Balkan Mountains the climate is more Mediterranean, much like that of Greece. Although they are in the European Union, they still have their own currency, the Bulgarian Lev, which goes for $1.36 lev to the US dollar. They have a turbulent past, going back for centuries. In recorded history, they were first conquered by the Romans, then the Barbarians came, and then they had some monarchs here and there. The Ottomans were in control here for 500 years, then the Balkan Wars, the World Wars, the Communists, the unrest in neighboring Balkan countries and so forth.  But with a relatively small minority ethnic population  (about 3% gypsies and 9% Turks), they avoided much of the conflict in neighboring countries.

The countryside was delightful with its checkered in green and gold tones, with the occasional plowed field of chocolate brown. There are few wooded areas, but there is bountiful looking farmland as far as the eye can see with rich black soil, well tended and well plowed. We also had the added pleasure (for us any way) of seeing farm animals used and hay being cut and stacked by hand (no John Deere’s here). Most of the farms are co-operatives and were established when the Communists, who had nationalized all land between 1944 and 1953. Once the Communists left Bulgaria, the land was intended to go back to the original owning families. However by this time, as much as 45 years had gone by and most family members who could even be located were well past the age for farming, and so this land is mostly leased to a younger generation of farmers. This region is grape growing and wine-making country, and also known for grains and sunflowers. Their best cash crop, however is roses, but not for floral purposes. They grow a particular rose, which has an oil called attar of rose which is used in high end perfumes, creams and cosmetics.  Pound for pound it is twice as valuable as gold. It is harvested only in the morning with the dew still on to best retain the scent and it takes a gazillion petals to make an ounce. (In the absence of facts, I have to resort to generalizations – I may have dozed off for this part of the talk.) We also saw numerous herds of goats and sheep which are tended co-operatively in that one shepherd may be taking care of livestock belonging to multiple farmers in kind of a goat/sheep daycare.

There is still a labor shortage of farm workers in the post-Communist era, since an estimated 800 thousand people have emigrated to Italy and other western countries.  Bulgaria has since instituted a program called the Brigadiers (more farm brigade than military) to bring young people to the fields during harvest to “volunteer” for a month or so at a time. They don’t get paid, but they do get time off from high school or college and it can be, according to Malani, a fun thing to do with a summer camp/Spring Break sort of atmosphere.  They live in larger dormitories, with farm families, or if their own homes are close enough, they commute.  Malani told us a joke that Bulgarians had during Communist era that goes like this: The workers pretend they are working and the government pretends they are paying them. Villages are largely self sufficient and every house has a large garden. Donkey carts are still widely used and spotting one will cause a flurry of picture taking by the tourists on a passing bus, present company included, except I accidentally cut off the donkey’s head in my best picture.

The Black Sea at Varna, Bulgaria

The Black Sea at Varna, Bulgaria

We arrived in Varna and got our first glimpse of the Black Sea, which strangely enough is blue. It supposedly gets its name from its reputation as a dangerous place to be during storms, resulting in many lost sailors, resulting in many widows dressed in black. Another theory is that the seaweed makes it look black but the seaweed we saw was green. The Romans referred to it as the Inhospitable Sea – possibly because the rough seas tended to wreck their galleys. An interesting side note:  from outer space, the Black Sea does indeed look black, and so some people who espouse the theories about aliens in ancient times can have a field day with this factoid.  The Black Sea is comprised of saltwater, with an average depth of 3,600 feet, with sharks, dolphins and many species of ocean fish.  Some say there is evidence of Noah’s Ark on the bottom, but that theory may be out there with the one about the outer space perspective on the Black Sea. There are a number of sea ports on the Black Sea and have been since ancient times, but the only outlet to the oceans of the world is through the Bosporus at Istanbul, and thus the Turks have always had a lot of “say” in the goings-on around the Black Sea.

Varna has about 350 thousand people today and is Bulgaria’s major seaport and home to the Bulgarian Navy, such as it is. Over 60% of the revenue of the city is generated by tourism, with the second largest amount coming from shipping and transport-related industries. We learned a few handy Bulgarian phrases:  Good Morning – Dobro utro, Good afternoon – Dobar den, Good evening – Dobar Vecher. The good morning phrase is good until about 10:00 a.m. and then they switch to good afternoon. The afternoon greeting is good until around 4 or 5, and then they switch to good evening. If that isn’t confusing enough, their head movements for yes and no are totally the opposite of ours. A shake of the head means  yes ( da in Bulgarian) and a nodding motion means no (Ne in Bulgarian. ) But most importantly, we learned the phrase for cheers, which is Nazdrave (pronounced “Noz –drah- vey” with the accent on “drah” so we could drink our wine and blend with the locals.

The Varna area has been inhabited for literally thousands of years, with artifacts found dating back to cave dwelling times, as far back as 5,000 BC.  The good stuff however, was discovered just north of Varna and was made by the Thracians, around 1200 BC who lived in a colony of sorts called Odessos.  A trading colony was founded there by the Miletians in 570 BC.  Odessos was attacked by Philip II of Macedonia in 339 B.C.and they managed to fend off the invaders, but when Alexander the Great (also a Macedonian) came along in 335 B.C. they surrendered, and Macedonia ruled Varna until 281 BC. Varna was independent for a while, then the Romans showed up and took over, and of course started building baths, forums, and assorted engineering marvels during the First, Second and Third Century AD. The city came to be known as Varna with the Slavic conquest of the Balkans in the 6th and 7th Century AD. (Slavs were known as the Barbarians by the Romans, just one group of many to be so designated.) Control of the city changed several times during the Middle Ages and then the Ottoman Empire had a turn for 500 or so years, then the Russians kicked them out, then the Nazis came to power followed by the  Russians in their Communist suits this time around.  Since 1990, Bulgaria has been independent,  and now the invaders are the fast food chains (yup McDonalds, KFC and others are here)  A side note on the use of BC and AD here with regard to the calendar:  after so many years of Ottoman Rule (Muslim)  and Communist Rule (atheists), it is common practice here to refer to the year of the Birth of Christ as the start of the Common Era.

The Romans called current day Bulgaria Thracia (and the area across the Danube, current day Romania they called Dacia). The Thracians were the first known jewelers to work in gold and we saw some of their work in a visit to the Archeological Museum. One of the most interesting exhibits was of a male skeleton that had been found with quite a bit of gold jewelry and small gold coin-like discs, about the size of a US quarter. All the gold items were placed so that we could see everything exactly as it was found. The small discs were placed at various points on what had been the body in some sort of ceremonial function. The deceased must have been a very important grand poohbah or whatever his title was, since he was buried with some major “bling” on neck, arms, hands, legs, and ankles. The strangest piece of “bling” I’ve ever encountered  anywhere was in this museum in the shape a small tube made of gold, about the size of a cigar (or maybe half a cigar) that was intended to adorn the king’s private parts (or part should I say). It was very strange jewelry these Thracians had and the beauty part is that they could and did take it with them.  They also made some pieces with exquisite detail such as a pair of earrings with statuettes of Nike the Goddess of Victory from the 4th Century B.C., which I wouldn’t mind having myself.

A Black Sea Resort at Varna

A Black Sea Resort at Varna

Varna sort of reminded us of Atlantic City in the pre- Donald Trump years – kind of a Coney Island for the Proletariat, with many buildings in the Stalinesque Baroque style. However, many wealth people are now building summer homes on nearby beachfront property, so can The Donald be far behind? There is not a boardwalk, but there is an old fashioned bath house and park called the Sea Garden with many buildings that have seen better days. We took a stroll on the beach and were a little surprised to see several topless female sunbathers. Unfortunately, many of the “bosoms” on display were like the buildings of Varna in that most had seen better days.

The Cathedral of the Assumption - Varna

The Cathedral of the Assumption – Varna

We visited the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Mother in Varna, which was built in 1886. In these churches there is a highly decorated wall behind the altar called the iconostasis. The area behind the wall is sacred and is considered to be God’s home. Only priests can go behind the wall, but strangely enough babies and small children being baptized are taken behind the wall to be shown to God only if they are male – no girls allowed.  But I did see a guy go in there with his vacuum cleaner so I guess the cleaning crew doesn’t count.

While Bulgaria is almost overwhelmingly Orthodox, there is a Jewish population with an interesting story from  World War II.  Bulgaria was allied with Germany, and as the head of an allied country, King Boris was ordered to ship all Jews to German concentration camps. King Boris very cleverly wrote a letter to Hitler saying this would be far too expensive and that Bulgaria would build camps and take care of the problem locally, but he had no intention of doing so. It was his way of protecting them.  Bulgaria’s citizens were so protective of their Jewish countrymen that many of them made their own yellow Star of David armbands and wore them in support of their neighbors.

Lunch at the Sunny Day Cove

Lunch at the Sunny Day Cove

We went to a resort called Sunny Day Cove for lunch. It is situated right on the Black Sea on a beautiful stretch of beach, which in the Soviet Era, was reserved exclusively for Communist Party Members and their families. Of course the building architecture is that same blocky style we saw in the cities and towns, but at least it was painted white and was well-landscaped.  We walked the beach and waded in to test the waters. It was by no means warm, but not cold enough to take your breath away.  The wine however, could and did take your breath away. We had some good Bulgarian wine in other places, but this was not one of them. They had two selections, red (which was really more an opaque maroon that frothed a bit on the surface) and the white (which broke a personal cardinal rule of wine drinking which is “one should drink no wine that could be mistaken for a urine sample”).

We went back to our ship and departed for the overnight trip to Ruse (Pronounced Roo-say with the accent on the “Roo”, with a population of around 170 thousand people. It is actually right across the river from our port of embarkation, Giurgiu, Romania so we are again going upriver. There is a bridge across the Danube here, the only drawbridge on the river. Just prior to our arrival in Ruse, we went under the so-called Friendship Bridge between Romania and Bulgaria. Its name is something of an oxymoron since they are often not on good terms.

Of course the Romans were here too (sort of like Kilroy – they were everywhere). They called their settlement Sexagina Prista which means the Port of 60 Ships.  They were later invaded by the Slavic tribes (which is the politically correct term for the Barbarians, particularly since the people telling the story are mostly descendants of theirs). And then of course in the 1400’s those pesky Turks came to town and more or less leveled it. I’m not sure how much effort this would have taken – it could be as simple as two Turks with a match, unless you count the stuff the Romans built as part of the town. Then in the 19th Century a Turkish governor of the area decide to rebuild it and he named is Ruschuk and things started to flourish. It has been an important transportation center (if not a premier tourist attraction) for the Danube corridor ever since, even though occupation of the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis and the Communists.

The Communist Renaissance architecture(a.k.a. Lenin Baroque) is also abundantly evident in the buildings of Ruse, along with the ubiquitous graffiti on every available surface as far up as little vandal arms can reach. The Vandals actually were a tribe (using the term loosely) of the people from the “Land Beyond” as the Romans termed lands beyond the area they controlled.  The Land Beyond contained all sorts of evil doers, whom the Romans termed collectively “Barbarians”, including the Goths and Vandals. The Vandals are among the forefathers of the Slavs so it is interesting how the old tribal moniker has come to apply to the hooligans of spray paint today who are “vandalizing” the property of the descendants of Vandals.

Flower Market at Ruse

Flower Market at Ruse

There are still some charming buildings in Ruse that have managed to avoid the Commie wrecking ball and a major earthquake in 1986, including the Battenburg Palace, a pastel yellow structure trimmed in white with graceful arched windows.  The Battenburgs no longer live there, and it became a museum, as was the fate of so many homes of the wealthy under Communism.  Interestingly enough, these centuries old buildings are holding up over time much better than the Lenin Baroque structures. In these buildings there were no elevators unless the buildings were 6 stories or higher, so, you see it was actually a good thing there wasn’t much food in the grocery store – this way people’s shopping bags would be more manageable. They are currently being “sanitized” which is a Bulgarian euphemism for structurally renovated so they will be safe to live in. We (and even more so the locals) can only hope that some cosmetic sanitizing is also going to take place.

On Ruse's Freedom Square

On Ruse’s Freedom Square

We visited the Holy Trinity Church, a Bulgarian Orthodox Church which was built during the Ottoman era, at a time when they were striving for inconspicuous architecture that the Ottomans could pretend to overlook.  The highlight here was quite unplanned and that was we got to watch the baptism of two boys, one and infant and the other perhaps 6 years old. They actually dipped the naked baby into the baptismal font (more like a giant urn than the sprinkling version) and great wailing ensued, until the mother wrapped him in a towel and put new dry clothes on him (New clothes symbolize a new pure life.) Then it was the little boy’s turn. In the interest of personal modesty, he got to keep his underwear on and his mom lifted him up and stood him up in the “urn” where the water only came perhaps halfway to his knees. The priest then splashed him with water to get him wet all over which caused a giggling fit in the young man who was trying, or so we thought, to keep a straight face. He too was dried off and put into different clothes. Then they walked 3 times around the altar and were taken behind  an icon covered wall called the iconostasis (the area designated as God’s Home) by the priest to be shown to God.

The Turks allowed Christians to worship, but had a set of rules of the things that Orthodox Churches could not have. These included no bell towers, nor religions symbols on the outside (no crosses, no icons). A church could only be built in a spot where a previous church had been and so this kept the numbers of churches down, plus the tallest point on the church could be no taller than the shortest mosque in town.  The church today actually has a bell tower, but it was erected after the Turks left, courtesy of the Russians in 1878. Bulgaria was again saved from oppressors (the Nazis) by Russia, but this time they stuck around and did some oppressing of their own from 1944 to 1990.   Bell towers were used for many purposes including letting people know when it was time for church since common people had no clocks nor watches, letting people know about deaths since there was no newspaper and hardly anyone could read it if there were, sounding alarms about fires and invaders, and so forth. So during Ottoman times, individual people were dispatched house-to-house to bang on doors with whatever sort of metal implement they had on hand.

Freedom Square - Ruse

Freedom Square – Ruse

There are some interesting structures (such as the library and theater  of Ruse and the History Museum) and sculptures here, including the well done Monument of Freedom in Freedom Square, displayed amid fountains and quite pleasing to the eye. There is a statue of a gentleman named Angel Kanchev, a war hero who fought against the Turks. He reportedly took his own life in 1872 rather than to be captured (although it makes you wonder whether this suicide was a patriotic act, of one of self interest, especially since the Turks’ had quite a reputation for nastiness over the centuries. Of course this must be weighed against the impaling business just across the Danube with Vlad, the Impaler back in the 1400’s.) His statue looks, strangely enough,  like he’s holding a starter’s pistol, ready to start a foot race at a track meet, but he was actually trying to get the Bulgarians to revolt against Turkish oppression. They also have a rather modest monument to Stefan Karadzha, the first King of Bulgaria.

The Happy Cafe - ruse

The Happy Cafe – ruse

After our tour, we had lunch in Ruse’s old town at a place that serves food far too healthy to compete with fast food chains.  Our restaurant, called the Happy Café, had umbrellas and outdoor tables on a really charming square. We ordered the Shopska (pronounced just like it sounds with the accent on “shop”) Salad and it was excellent. It is made with vine-ripened tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, creamy feta cheese and a vinegar and oil dressing with special spices we think included oregano.

Our next stop was to get some snacks for our own personal Happy Hour in our rooms. We bought goldfish, shoe string potatoes and some really awful Cheetoh knockoffs that seemed to be coated in some sort of faux barbecue flavoring. Gary was the only one who seemed to think these were okay. We also bought some Bulgarian gin, which sounds pretty scary, but it was inexpensive, quite tasty and we survived without hangovers so it meets the basic criteria for liquor purchases.  So that night, we had A special Bulgarian toast to our friends and to our voyage  -“nazdrave”.

September 7, 2008

Dateline: Vidin, Bulgaria

Latitude at Vidin 43.59 degrees North, 22.86 degrees South

The Baba Vida Fortress at Vida

The Baba Vida Fortress at Vida

Our ship was tied up at the dock when we awoke this morning and we visited the ancient fortress at Vidin, (it rhymes with Eden), built on a bend in the river in ancient times. Fortesses and castles are so prevalent throughout Europe since they have been killing each other pretty much non-stop for over 2,000 years. Our tour guide, promised that we would be “dazzelated”(she must have been  watching too many of George W. blooper speeches) by the sight of the fortress. Of course English is one of 5 languages in which she is fluent, so I understand a little slip-up from time to time. She explained that most small cities and towns in Bulgaria are actually decreasing in population (really ghost towns compared to the major cities) since many young people have been moving to the larger cities and EU countries looking for work. They are struggling to establish a working capitalist economy, so tourism dollars are much appreciated.

The River Gate to Baba Vida

The River Gate to Baba Vida

We went to the fortress called Baba Vida, which is a massive stone strong-hold first built in 10th Century as a Roman fort and added to over the centuries. For the Romans it served to defend against the Barbarians from across the river (in current-day Romania).  Baba Vida (not what the Romans called it) translates as “Grandma Vida”, a rather strange name for a fortress, but it was named after the youngest daughter of a favorite Bulgarian king. Baba is also “grandma” in several other languages and is the source for the name of the babushka, a scarf worn back in the 60’s by women striving for the dowdy Russian matron look,

 

The Moat at Baba Vida

The Moat at Baba Vida

and the perfect way to deal with a bad hair day. The fortress kept falling into the hands of the enemy, starting with when the Romans tried to defend against the Barbarians.  In the 14th Century A.D., Baba Vida fell to the Ottoman Turks in what they termed the Mother of All Battles, (a phrase the late Saddam Hussein apparently borrowed.  That may have been true for the battle, but it apparently Baba Vida was not actually the Granny of All Fortresses, since it was demolished. The Turks had to rebuild the fort, and occupied it for the duration of their 500 year -rule of the area. The fortress was built of stone and brick and had a moat, now grass-covered, but in the olden days it was full of water  and was intended to slow down the enemy  so they could get the boiling oil ready for when the enemy  started to climb the walls.

The Ramparts of Baba Vida

The Ramparts of Baba Vida

Our tour operator has arranged for a quartet concert for us in one of the ramparts of the fortress which included 3 violinists and a cellist who treated us to Mozart’s, A Little Night Music, and several other light classical pieces as we watched the Danube flow by below us. After the concert we got to peek into a few of the dungeons and barracks, as well as the torture and execution rooms which they had set up with mannequins and props so you could get the visual. On the bright side,it’s pretty toasty up on the ramparts with very little shade. The dungeons were quite cool by comparison so at least in the summer, torture and beheadings aside, the dungeons were really the place to chill out – in the literal sense.

A Quite Street in Vidin

A Quite Street in Vidin

Our next stop was a wine tasting at a local restaurant called – as best I can tell since it was written in Cyrillic alphabet – Gahcka Klwa. I think the translation must be “hotter than the hinges of hell”.  It was, in addition to being toastier than the Baba Vida ramparts, pretty small quarters for 140 or so people who had been inside a stone fortress for a few hours – lots of personal humidity, if you get my drift. If the décor were properly interpreted from a cultural perspective, we deemed it to be a Mexican-Bulgarian restaurant. Plus it was subtitled, again in Cyrillic Mexaha-Pectopaht, and we interpreted the first half of the name to mean Mexican, the second half, well, we gave up on the second half.  They had bread and cheese on the table for snacking, but thankfully, they took us back to the ship for lunch, and we were spared what we believed to be the Bulgarian tacos on the menu. The wine was, well, I guess if you look on the bright side – free. If you choose to be a little more critical, it was not so good as to induce you to finish the half inch they poured into your glass. There were five tastings, the first called Targovishte Muscat Ottonel. The other four were from the Magura vineyard – a chardonnay, a merlot, a gamza (whatever that it is) and a cabernet sauvignon. I mention them only as a warning – suffice to say, my friends, please do not try these at home.

Our Ship, the River Explorer

Our Ship, the River Explorer

We went back to our ship in the early afternoon, had some more palatable wine with a late lunch and sailed up the Danube toward our next destination, Serbia. As a side note: the Danube is not always called the Danube – that is just the English name for it. It can be called the Duna in Hungary and Romania, the Donev in Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia and the Donau in Austria.

A note on our waiters: We have Miro (from Serbia) who is almost too tall for the job. Ceilings in dining room are 6”8, he is 6”6. He looks very much like his countrymen who play in the NBA. Other waiter is Ivo (pronounced E-vo) who is from Bulgaria. He seems to be a strange mix – a little bit Dracula, a smattering of Mafia.  First the Dracula – he has jet black hair with a widow’s peak that he combs back with some sort of “Slicky-do” hair product. He has big white teeth with the incisors, just a fraction longer than the others (but maybe it’s my imagination). All I know is that when he’s serving, (and he can be at your elbow in a heartbeat without a whisper of a sound) I keep my collar turned up. But then as several days went by we became convinced he has some Sicilian named Guido in his bloodline somewhere because he is also a dead ringer for a NY wise guy – I think it’s the attitude. Just picture a shorter smaller version of Don Corleone in a waiter’s uniform. Dracula and Don Corleone aside, he is really a nice guy.

Tomorrow we will be, as the lyrics of Proud Mary describe, “rolling on the river”. To this point, the Danube has been wide and seemingly placid, although the current appears swift. The riverbanks were lined with trees, and surprisingly there was not much population in evidence. We have seen several people taking advantage of last few days of summer on the beach as we have gone upriver, with their boats, picnics, tents and so forth. That scenery changed literally overnight as we left Bulgaria behind and crossed into Serbia, now on our port, but Romania is still to our starboard.

September 8, 2008

Dateline: The Iron Gates between Romania and Serbia

Latitude 44.40 degrees North, 22.31 degrees East

At the Lockkeeper's House on the Danube

At the Lockkeeper’s House on the Danube

We awoke this morning to find our ship entering the first of two locks that will take us through the Iron Gates, where the river separates the Carpathian Mountains on the Romanian side, from the Balkan Mountains on the Serbian side. This section of the river is 84 miles long and has 3 distinct sub-sections which will take all morning to traverse.  The northern-most gorge (which is actually the one we see last) is called the Golubac and is approximately 10 miles long and 700 feet wide. It derives its name from a medieval fort built on a rock called Baba Kai (there is Baba again – they are fond of naming things for granny in

 

The Great Kazan

The Great Kazan

these parts.) The cliff walls and peaks are as high as 1,650 feet above sea level. Then comes, the Great Kazan, which translates as “big kettle”, and which is at the narrowest part the river – 495 feet across and 175 feet deep at this point.  One of the most amazing things here (which we have to imagine since it is no longer visible because the river was dammed in 1972 and the water level raised by 115 feet), was provided courtesy of the Romans. Emperor Trajan had a bridge erected in this gorge and had roads built that were actually suspended from the cliff tops because the walls of the gorges were too steep to carve out

Trajan's Tablet

Trajan’s Tablet

roads. He needed the road in order to get to the bridge to enable the Roman legions to capture the land they called Dacia (current day Romania). The only thing visible still above the waterline is a commemorative plate carved in granite by the Romans called Trajan’s Tablet. When the dam was being built, in a addition to covering the Roman Road,  as many as 17,000 people were displaced and several villages covered.

We also saw the Romanian version of Mount Rushmore, but with only one face, that of Decebalus Rex, who was the last Dacian king to fight against Trajan’s Romans between 101 and 102 A.D. We also saw two  watchtowers called Trikule from the olden days which were used to signal when the Turkish invaders were coming. Today signaling stations are also in use, but in this case they are used to control river traffic through the Iron Gates. Most are quite utilitarian looking, but one Called Mraconia Station is quite charming, looking more like a church than watchtower.

Prior to the dam being built, there was a canal built in 1896 to circumvent the most dangerous rapids and cataracts to make the river mover navigable. Despite the attempts at mitigating the risks, there were many ships wrecked and supposedly $2 million in gold coins lost on one ship alone. And speaking of legends, there are also reportedly sturgeon in the river so large that they regularly feast on small dogs which, for whatever reason, might be dog-paddling, so to speak, in the river.

Highway Along the Danube

Highway Along the Danube

Prior to the canal, boats and cargo had to be portaged around the various gorges which really restricted how much shipping could take place.  It was a common practice in the days before marine engines to ship downstream only (too narrow for sails, too rough for rowing) and then the ship would be broken up to be used as lumber. No one can say for sure where the source of the Danube is since it disappears under limestone in several places and reappears miles away. In fact some of the Danube water could actually end up in the Rhine since is seeps into limestone all over Germany. Because of the uncertainly over the source, the usual form of numbering kilometer markers (source to sea) is reversed and Marker #1 is at the Black Sea. Of course, now that the Rhine-Main canal and locks are in place, it is possible to travel by river from the Black Sea to Amsterdam.

As we are rolling on up the river, we had a leisurely afternoon so I took the time to record a few “ship facts” about our vessel, the River Explorer:

It was launched 2001, weighing 2,082 tons, with two 1,050 horsepower Caterpillar diesel engines. It has 2 pod type propellers with 360 degree swivel. It is 410 feet long, 37.39 feet wide, 28 feet high, with a draft 5’4”, and a maximum speed 17 mph. It carries a crew of 44, serving 170 passengers.

The Iron Gates of the Danube

The Iron Gates of the Danube

Once through the Iron Gates, the character of the Danube changes back to a more tranquil version, but we found that it is much more scenic than the Lower Danube, with haystacks, prosperous looking farms, small villages with matching houses and most importantly, no sign that the Communists ever built here.  We continued through the night toward Serbia’s capital, Belgrade where we will dock early tomorrow morning.