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Come Sail Away

Come Sail Away

You get off the train after a five-hour ride from Bucharest, or leave the car not too far from the railway station. A five-minute walk takes you along a wide quay and then very soon it’s farewell to traffic, city noises, concrete, steel and glass… with only the endless greenery and the ever-present water to complete the vista around you. Somehow, at a certain point you find yourself sitting at a table on (more or less) solid ground, facing a bowl of steaming fish borscht while the smell of catfish on the grill fills the air. Just while thinking about it, your experience is about to begin. Sailing along canals, fishing, bird watching, lazily hanging around and leaving everything behind. More? What about listening to old Russian Lipovan music, visiting fascinating churches, and a picturesque graveyard which offers endless tales of the different nationals that either passed through or lived here? How about sunbathing on the beach, or cycling across bare steppes and through ancient forests with even the occasional ankle-or knee-deep stream to ford?

Some 547,000 hectares of Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage site. Around 300 species of birds (cormorants, pelicans, eagles, teals, geese and mallards, among others), 45 freshwater species of fish (carp, pike, perch, catfish, sterlet and Danube mackerel), as well as otters, weasels, foxes, wolves and wild boar. The lush vegetation includes willows, poplars, alders, acacias and oaks, feathergrass and thorn bushes as well as the greatest expanse of reed beds in the world (some 170,000 hectares plus reed-covered floating islands adding up to over 100,000 hectares). And at the same time, sand dunes and dry river banks. A river splitting into three branches and a handful of villages, many of which lack road access. Certainly not crowded, with a population of only 20,000 residents. The second largest delta in Europe, and arguably as remote as one can possibly get in the old continent. This, my friends, is the Danube Delta.

If sailing, bird-watching and fishing are the first things that come to mind when talking about a delta – any delta, that is – there is slightly more to this story: several different sailing routes with their Genoese, Jewish and Greek merchant stories; small villages where locals still sail their boats along canals rather than driving their cars on the roads, and, last but not least, good access to that cormorant or pelican colony you have seen on countless television nature programs.

Take 1. Follow the Northern branch, the Chilia, and sail along the border with a good history book in hand. Have a glance at the old town of Izmail to the north with its domed mosque from the 16th century and its 19th-century coloured tin roof churches. While you are sailing, look at the loads being taken off boats at Chilia Veche as the boat still remains the main commercial transport means in the area and locals heavily depend on it. It is only later when you find yourself in a local house in remote Periprava and get that “end of the world” feeling that you realize it was well worth it, with no car to spoil your going back to basics before heading off into the Letea reserve with its sand dunes and wild horses. Stay in Periprava: in a 4-star hotel, a wooden bungalow colony, or in one of the local houses that offer guest rooms.

Take 2. Opt for the highway-like Sulina canal and go to the town of the same name with its abundance of guesthouses at the mouth of the Danube. Do remember that grilled catfish we mentioned earlier, and get your bathing suit as there actually is a beach at the Black Sea. Leaf through that history book again while walking through the fascinating graveyard with its many stories of the Germans, Jews, Turks, Romanians, Greeks and Russian Lipovans living here or passing through. Visit the Old Lighthouse. As you return to the world of roads, cars, and airplanes, take the Old Danube via the atmospheric village of Mila 23 in order to take a boat to the lakes up north. Stay in Sulina: choose one of the several guest houses (up to four stars) while other accommodations can also be found in Crişan or Mila 23, about midway in your route.

Take 3. Another town and another beach await you in Sfântu Gheorghe, with its convenient and varied accommodations. Do a detour to Erenciuc Lake for its profusion of water lilies and also for the white-tailed eagles that nest there. Still in Sfântu Gheorghe, the young-at-heart can experience an exuberant music festival, while the more… sedate can taste an independent movie festival… When the festivals are over, feel free to head south to the Sacalin-Zatoane lakes where over 100 species of birds congregate. Stay: Sfântu Gheorghe offers many guesthouses as well as an extensive four-star tourist village, and the Danube branch on the way has several three and four-star hotels along the lagoons and canals.

Contrary to what one might think at first, there is plenty of diversity in lodging and dining offerings in the Danube Delta – from the many home stays available in the villages of the reserve, to the “old time” bohemian Jean Bart Guesthouse in Sulina, the larger hotels off Uzlina Lake, and all the way up to the high-end Delta Nature Resort in Somova that comes complete with its own helipad. And there is always a very different option for those short of time or inclined towards large international-style hotels within 20 kilometers of an airport: a four-star stay in Tulcea can easily be combined with half a day’s boat ride to Nebunu Lake and its surroundings, even though you will spend more time on the larger canals and less time off the beaten track. Otherwise, if you have just discovered your inner Hemingway: why not get a few friends together, get on a floating hotel, and go deep into the Delta? Take your time to experience the fragrance and atmosphere of the wonderfully secluded spots in this vast area and, when back home, don’t forget to send us that new recipe for carp stew that you learned there. One last thing: please don’t attack what you might think is an UFO dropped from the skies in the Tulcea parking lot. It is only the car that you came in for your two-week stay in the Delta, and that strange noise you hear is not the roar of some beast but only the car’s engine.

Steady now – you are back in civilization and you must return home for now. Perhaps you should stop adding that wonderful fresh garlic and sour cream sauce to everything – especially before heading to work! But you know that you can always come back again next year. We’ll be waiting for you, so see you then!

Note: ‘Come Sail Away’ is a song featured on Styx’ ‘The Grand Illusion’ album issued in 1977.

About the author:
Shortly after getting his degree in tourism, Alex started traveling across Eastern Europe. He then went farther on, Eastwards, riding trains, bicycles or overloaded trucks, as well as trekking through the Middle East, Central Asia, the Subcontinent he never gets tired of and, more recently, Central Africa. When at home, he spends his spare time hiking, cycling and camping in the Carpathians, respectively researching and exploring Bucharest. His passion towards these places can be read about in the guidebooks on Romania he worked for, or in his websites, bucharestian.com or notrails.info

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