Every year, the River Danube dumps forty million tonnes of alluvium into the Danube Delta (Delta Dunării), the youngest, least stable landscape in Europe, abutting the oldest, the heavily eroded Hercynian hills immediately south. Near Tulcea, the river splits into three branches (named after their respective ports, Chilia, Sulina and Sfântu Gheorghe), dividing the Delta into more than 4000 square kilometres of reeds and marsh, half of which is flooded in spring and autumn. The grinduri, tongues of accumulated silt supporting oak trees, willows and poplars, account for the five percent of the Delta that remains permanently above the water. The distinction between these and the plauri (floating reed islands) is a fine one, since flooding continually splits, merges and often destroys these patches of land, making any detailed map of the delta outdated almost as soon as it’s drawn. Although fishing communities have lived here for centuries, it’s an inhospitable environment for humans: a Siberian wind howls all winter long, while in summer the area is inundated with mosquitoes. If you just want to take a trip down to the sea and back, Sfântu Gheorghe is probably the best choice; it’s prettier than Sulina, has a more tranquil beach, and is within easy reach of several good birdwatching spots. Sulina is more crowded and built-up, but richer in historical associations.
The Delta’s oldest, most winding arm, Braţul Sfântu Gheorghe, is the least used by freighters and fishing boats; it’s wider but shallower than the Sulina arm. It carries a fair amount of tourist traffic and, unlike other parts of the Delta, some of its settlements can be reached by bus from Tulcea. If you plan to visit these, it’s easiest to go direct to Sfântu Gheorghe, then head by boat to Murighiol, from where you can make a boat trip to the fishing village of Uzlina or visit the ruins of Halmyris. There’s plenty of parking in Murighiol; if you’ve come by car, it’s better to leave it there rather than in Tulcea.
SFÂNTU GHEORGHE, 75km downriver from Murighiol, is a small village of brightly painted Lipovani and Ukrainian cottages that has subsisted on fishing since the fourteenth century. Most prized is the sturgeon, whose eggs, icre negre or black caviar, once drew thousands of Romanian tourists here on shopping trips. The catch is not what it used to be, though you still might find some caviar if you come in late August or early September. The reed and mud houses, most of which support colonies of swallows, are the main attraction of the village itself, but most tourists come for the relatively untouched beach (stretching 38km north to Sulina) or to make trips into the surrounding marshes. A large tractor, one of the two or three motorized land vehicles in the village, carries tourists the 2km to and from the beach in a trailer, departing every hour or so from the centre – the schedule should be posted on one of the information boards near the main square. These days, the village is best known for hosting the fabulous Anonimul Film Festival in mid-August, a week-long celebration of independent films from around the world.
The main settlement en route to Tulcea is MURIGHIOL, which, though connected to the outside world by road as well as water, still has some of the isolated feeling of an interior Delta village. Murighiol has its natural attractions – namely black-winged stilts, red- and black-necked grebe, Kentish plover, avocets, red-crested pochards and Romania’s only colony of Mediterranean gulls, all nesting around the late-freezing salt lakes (Sărături Murighiol) nearby, but the principal reason to come here is to visit the ruin at Halmyris or the fishing village of Uzlina. There are dozens of places around the village offering boat trips.
Two kilometres out from Murighiol, on the road to Dunavatu de Jos, lies the ruined Roman city of HALMYRIS. One of the most important ancient sites in Romania, Halmyris was continuously inhabited from the sixth century BC to the seventh century AD, when a combination of marauding barbarians, climatic changes and dwindling imperial support led to its demise. Originally a small seafront fort – in ancient times, a Danube channel met the Black Sea only a few hundred metres to the east – it grew in size and importance until it became the permanent home to Roman troops and a station for the Danube fleet, Classis Flavia Moesica, serving as a stopping point on the road that connected the major Roman settlements of the Delta.
Today, Halmyris is best known for the tomb of Epictet and Astion, two Christians from Asia Minor who were tortured and executed here on July 8, 290, after refusing to renounce Christianity, thus becoming the earliest Romanian martyrs (and earning a place on the Romanian Orthodox calendar). One of their judges was said to have been converted by the resolve with which Epictet and Astion met their fates, and to have secretly buried their remains, which were then kept hidden until the conversion of Constantine, when they were interred in Halmyris’s basilica. The story seemed to be the stuff of legend until 2001, when a crypt containing two skeletons was discovered beneath the basilica’s altar, along with a fresco (currently under restoration) bearing the name “Astion”.
In addition to the basilica and the crypt, the two-hectare site also features extensive remains of an L-shaped private bathhouse. The Western Gate, which dates from the sixth century AD, was constructed largely of stones carved with honorary inscriptions that had in earlier times adorned the homes of the town’s more prominent citizens. Much of Halmyris, as well as the surrounding cornfields that cover its harbour, remains unexcavated (digging only began here in 1981), and its greatest attraction is not the ruins themselves, or the tombs of Epictet and Astion, but the chance to see an ancient city still in the process of being uncovered.
Heading south from Babadag and Baia and turning left at Mihai Viteazul, you’ll pass through the village of Istria, jumping-off point for CETATEA HISTRIA (ruined city of Histria), with its shattered Greek temples to diverse deities, as well as Roman baths and other Romano-Byzantine edifices. The ruins cover a fairly small area, despite the fact that this was long the most important of the ancient Greek settlements along the coast. It was founded in 657 BC, though none of the remains dates from before 300 BC. Histria’s decline began soon after that, but it was inhabited until early in the seventh century AD, when the port was smothered in silt and the town abandoned after attacks by Avar-Slavic tribes.
The museum, in an ugly glass building next to the entrance, holds an exceptional hoard of Greek and Roman finds, the first of which were unearthed in 1914 by the eminent historian Vasile Pârvan; prominent among the display are dozens of pillars, altars and funereal stones (stelae), some beautifully sculpted marble friezes with reliefs of Greek deities (Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite and so on), superb Roman Corinthian capitals, terracotta statuettes and ceramics.
Another very good reason to head out this way if you have wheels is for the birdlife; this bleak but beautiful wilderness is one of Europe’s best areas for birdwatching, with more than two hundred species making an appearance in the winter months.
A quiet, attractive village of reed-thatched cottages, ENISALA lies 8km east of Babadag, which is itself some 27km south of Tulcea.
Commanding a superb spot atop a dry rocky outcrop overlooking Lake Razim is the Cetate Medievală (Medieval Fortress), built by Genoese merchants late in the thirteenth century at the behest of the Byzantine emperor, on the site of a seventh-century Byzantine fort. Taken by Sultan Mehmet I in 1417, it was held by the Ottomans until they abandoned it around the sixteenth century. The views out to the lake, and beyond to the Black Sea, are fantastic. This area is one of Europe’s prime birdwatching sites, thanks to a mix of habitats: a vast area of reedbeds along the shoreline, stretching back to open land and the Babadag forest. You’re likely to spot white-fronted and red-breasted geese, terns, waders, pelicans, herons and warblers. If you’re coming from Tulcea, watch the left side of the road: shortly before passing the citadel, you’ll see an apiary that supports a sizeable colony of bee-eaters.
The tiny fishing village of JURILOVCA was founded by the Lipovani at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it’s one village where traditional customs remain strong; it still retains one of the coast’s largest fishing communities.
From Jurilovca, boats sail to GURA PORTIŢEI, on a spit of land between Lake Razim and the sea. Before 1989, this was one of the few remote corners of Romania where it was possible to escape the Securitate for a week or two; today, it consists of a few Lipovani huts and, primarily, the Gura Portiţei Holiday Village. Both rowing and motor boats are available in addition to fishing and birdwatching excursions to the Periteaşca-Leahova reserve, just north, where twenty thousand red-breasted geese (half the world’s population) spend the winter. Continuing towards Constanţa, you’ll rejoin the main DN22 at the north end of BAIA, better known as Hamangia, site of Romania’s most famous Neolithic finds.
South of the Delta proper, Lake Razim is separated from the Black Sea by two long, tongue-like grinds. Like other parts of the Delta, Razim has been adversely affected by development: the western shores were reclaimed in 1969 for fish farming, and in 1974 a sluice at Gura Portiţei cut the lake off from the sea, causing it to fill with fresh water, which has led to frequent algal blooms, deoxygenation and a steady decline in fish yields and biodiversity. It’s still a good spot for birdwatchers, however, particularly in November and December, when the western shoreline is invaded by a million white-fronted and red-breasted geese from arctic Russia, which stay here and on Lake Sinoe just south until the reedbeds freeze. In the north of the lake, Popina island is now a closed reserve.
Clustered around the south bank of a bend in the Danube, TULCEA has been tagged the “Threshold of the Delta” ever since ancient Greek traders established a port here. Its maritime significance was slight until the closing stages of the period of Ottoman domination (1420–1878), when other powers suddenly perceived it as commercially and strategically important. Nowadays, the outskirts of the town are heavily industrialized, and the port is too shallow for large modern freighters, but it’s still the chief access point for passenger vessels entering the Delta, which is why most people end up here. Otherwise, the largely systematized, hence mostly uninspiring, town centre has enough attractions to fill a few hours, not least a cluster of enjoyable museums around Piaţa Republicii. Moreover, there’s plenty of accommodation here should you wish to stay before pushing on into the Delta; note that ferries to the Delta’s three channels all depart at 1.30pm.
Tulcea is busiest in August, when its two main festivals take place, namely the International Folklore Festival, a week-long jamboree of music, dance and colourfully patterned costumes taking place at the beginning of the month, and on the last weekend, the wonderfully entertaining Rowmania Fest, in which competitors participate in river races on canotca, specially crafted wooden boats (a cross between a canoe and a dinghy) set against a backdrop of live music, and food and drink along the promenade.