Nearly 3000km downstream from the Black Forest, the Danube Delta is a vast network of reeds and shifting land clinging to the far eastern side of Romania. Rich in wildlife, the Delta provides a unique habitat for 330 species of bird, many of which are found nowhere else in Europe. To really appreciate the diversity of birdlife, however, you’re best off taking a tour or paying one of the local fishermen to row or motor you into the backwaters and lakes; travel in the Delta can be time-consuming, so if you’re seriously bent on birdwatching, be prepared to spend at least a week here.
To the south, Romania’s Black Sea coast is blessed with abundant sunshine, warm water and sandy beaches, but due to the popularity of summer resorts such as Mamaia, Neptun and Venus it’s best to book a package holiday from home, or head to one of the prettier former fishing villages near the Bulgarian border: Doi Mai is quiet and family-oriented, while the more independent-minded resort of Vama Veche grows more fashionable by the year. For a drop of culture amid all this sea and sand, the port city of Constanţa offers a splendid array of museums and historical riches, particularly throughout its atmospheric old quarter. The remainder of the region is often bypassed, though it’s not without its attractions, not least Roman remains at Adamclisi and Histria, as well as the superbly sited citadel at Enisala.
The Danube Delta is a paradise for wildlife, and after years of environmental neglect culminating in Ceauşescu’s plan to drain the Delta for agricultural use, it was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1990, with over 500 square kilometres strictly protected, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site the following year. The reserve is also a member of DANUBEPARKS, a network of seventeen protected areas along the length of the Danube, which was formed in 2009.
The area is particularly important for birds, which pass through during the spring and autumn migrations, or come from Siberia to winter here or from Africa to breed in summer. Besides herons, glossy ibis, golden eagles, avocets, shelduck and other Mediterranean breeds, the Delta is visited by reed buntings, white-tailed eagles and various European songbirds, as well as whooper swans, arctic grebes and half-snipes from Siberia, saker falcons from Mongolia, and egrets, mute swans and mandarin ducks from China. Its lakes support Europe’s largest colonies of pelicans, which come from Africa to breed. The best time to see birds is from April to early June (the latter being the wettest month of the year), and September. Some 135 species of fish have also been catalogued in the Delta, with healthy stocks of carp and pike, as well as a resurgence in sturgeon; the best time to fish is September and October. The Delta is also home to otters, mink, boars, wolves and other animals, while at night streets in the Delta villages are alive with frogs, beetles and hawk moths.
The overland approaches to Constanţa cross one part or another of the bleak northern Dobrogea, a poor area where donkeys still haul metal-wheeled carts. While there’s no reason to break your journey here, the changes wrought over the last forty years certainly merit some explanation. Driving on the DN2A, you’ll cross the Danube at Giurgeni and see orchards and fields planted on what used to be pestilential marshland; this transformation is nothing compared to the great works further to the south, starting at Cernavodă, where the Danube is spanned by what was, when it opened in 1895, Europe’s longest bridge (4037m, with a main span of 1662m); trains now run alongside on a bridge built in 1987. A road bridge was added in the same year, linking the DN3A and the DN22C to provide the most direct road route to Constanţa, parallel to the rail line and the Danube–Black Sea Canal. The motorway bridge, opened in 2006, passes diagonally under the 1895 rail bridge, with its carriageways continuing on either side of the railway.
CERNAVODĂ, whose name rather ominously translates as “Black Water”, was chosen in the late 1970s to be the site of Romania’s first nuclear power station, but it’s better known as the western entrance to the Danube–Black Sea Canal. Opened to shipping in 1984, the canal put Cernavodă a mere 60km from the Black Sea, offering obvious savings in time and fuel. However, realizing a profit on such a huge investment remains dependent on European economic revival and on the success of the Rhein–Main and Nürnberg–Regensburg canals. Charlemagne’s vision of a 3000km-long waterway linking Rotterdam with the Black Sea finally came to fruition in 1993, although environmental protests in Bavaria and soaring costs had stalled the final stage of the project for ten years.
Standing just north of the DN3 and the village of Adamaclisi, an armoured, faceless warrior gazes over the surrounding plateau from a height of 30m. This arresting marble figure is a reconstruction of the TROPAEUM TRAIANI, a trophy-statue erected here in 109 AD to celebrate Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Every facet reflects unabashed militarism, not least the dedication to Mars Ultor. Carved around the side of its 32m base are 49 bas-reliefs or metopes portraying the Roman campaign. Each of the six groups of metopes comprises a marching scene, a battle and a tableau representing victory over the enemy, an arrangement identical to the one that underlies scenes XXXVI–XLII of Trajan’s Column in Rome, a copy of which is in Bucharest’s National History Museum. Around the statue are ruins of buildings once inhabited by the legionary garrison or serving religious or funerary purposes.
Descendants of the Old Believers who left Russia around 1772 to avoid religious persecution, the Lipovani (identifiable by their blond hair, blue eyes and, among the men, beards) were once dispersed all over the Delta but are now found only at Periprava, Mila 23, Mahmudia and Letea, as well as Jurilovca and Sarichioi on Lake Razim.
Adapting to their environment, the Lipovani became skilled fishermen and gardeners, speaking a Russian dialect among themselves but equally fluent in Romanian. Since you’re likely to rely on Lipovani boatmen to guide you through the confusing side channels (gârla), smokers should be prepared for their fundamentalist abhorrence of the “Devil’s weed”, tobacco; their consumption of vodka, however, is legendary.