A tour of the largest reserve in Europe, a World Heritage Site
When you think of Romania, the seductive image of the churches and monasteries of Bucovina on the eastern slope of the Carpathians, with its variegated frescoes that range from biblical scenes in the purest Orthodox tradition, to the siege of Constantinople in the XV century; For its unparalleled beauty and also to help its conservation, they have been declared a World Heritage Site. They compete in splendor with them, the churches of wood, with roofs of tablets and ajados bell towers of Gothic style and their exquisite interiors with frescoes of biblical theme, farms with delicately carved doors and the infantile gravestones of painted wood of the cemetery of Sapanta in Maramures. which for many is the most beautiful region of Romania, where the last peasant culture of Europe survives.
You think of Romania and of course there are some of its most outstanding cities, like the original Sibiu, with its two well-differentiated areas, with its three cathedrals, one for each cult, its streets and facades of faded colors, chipped and cobbled patios and, above all, with its roofs that look at you … Yes, they look at you from some windows in the mansards and garrets that look like eyes with their eyebrows, their white curtains and the pupil dilated in the center. Not far away is Brasov, framed by mountains and dense forests, one of the most beautiful and most touristic cities in the country, with a medieval historic quarter dotted with colorful houses that flows into the always lively Sfatului Square. Further north is Thimisoara, which some call the «Romanian Barcelona» because of its competition with the capital and its industrial wealth. Here began the revolt against Ceausescu at Christmas 1989 and on the steps of the cathedral you can still see the traces of blood (perhaps reinforced with some paint) of the first victims of repression.
But when speaking of Romania it is essential to refer to its capital, Bucharest, which for many does not have much charm, despite its Parisian air in which there is no lack of the Arc de Triomphe or the grand boulevards. But Bucharest has changed a lot in recent years and is now a very vital city, full of young people, with large buildings and all brand stores. It is inevitable to talk about its mammoth Palace of the People built by the dictator that many still yearn for in the country with its 1,100 rooms, its Bohemian crystal lamps up to 10 meters high and its carpets 8 centimeters thick. It is the largest building in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington.
The inevitable Dracula
And, of course, to think of Romania is to evoke Transylvania, with its picturesque cities like Cluj-Napoca, the second largest in Romania, which now has bohemian cafes, restaurants, music festivals, nightclubs and bars, as well as being the art center contemporary of the country, or Sighisoara, a medieval city with a lot of charm in which highlights the superb Clock Tower and its walls, but whose main merit is that it is said here that Vlad Tepes the Impaler was born, nobleman of the fifteenth century famous for its cruelties that received the name of Dracula, literally son of Dracul, or of the Dragon, title of his father.
And since we are in it, naturally in Romania we have to speak, although some do not like it, of Dracula; but what Dracula? Because the best known is the one created by Bram Stoker, a mediocre Irish writer who never left his country and, naturally, did not step on Romania, but he took advantage of the name of Vlad Tepes and his terrifying fame to baptize his new monster. The play was well applauded at the time, Oscar Wilde said of her that it was the best written horror play of all time, and also «the most beautiful novel ever written».
Although mentioning Dracula was forbidden in Ceausescu’s time, he still finds defenders today and criticisms must be made in a low voice. After all, do they remember you ?? he freed us from the Ottomans (of those he learned when he was held hostage to guarantee his father’s peace agreements, the sophisticated formula of impalement, his master the sultan of the time, Ibrahim I, did not fall short in cruelty: believing that one of the women in his harem deceived him, ordered that all of them were drowned, in total 280) and although his methods were brutal they were no less than those used by the great powerful of those times, and we are talking about more than 600 years, like Ivan the Terrible, Mary I of England, nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’ and not because he liked vodka, but bloody and many others. There they are, for example the tortures of the Holy Inquisition that applied to people whose crime was not to say the same as them in matters of religion and also other cruelties that have been carried ahead to millions of people in recent times by Hitler, Stalin , Mao, Idi Amin or Pol Pot.
Like so many falsehoods about Dracula some of the castles in which he presumably dwelt were built decades after his death the misunderstanding of the vampire Dracula and the impaler is still valid and extended by the more than 200 films that have been made about the character of Stoker , but in reality this was a little angel compared to that one. After all, it is always preferable to suck your neck to have a stake stuck in your ass until it appears by the throat …
But once the most obvious images of Romania have been overcome, we have to talk about other much less known places that are still a great secret of the country. Undoubtedly the main one is the Danube Delta, that great river of almost 3,000 kilometers, a muscular vehicle of cultures and civilizations, that after crossing half of Europe, crossing ten countries and bordering big cities like Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, penetrates into Romania to cross it also from west to east and rest at last in the Black Sea, creating before the largest Delta in Europe and one of the great Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage. It is the newest land in Romania, an intact land of beauty, nature and desert, although its origin is remote, since it began to form about 6,000 years ago on one of the shores of the Black Sea, when a barrier of sand blocked the bay of the Danube Over time, the bay was filled with sediment, and the Delta began to move towards the sea.
The waters of the Danube are brown and gray, according to the quality of the mud that it drags and that it has received from the more than 300 tributaries during its journey. The blue Danube that inspired Johann Strauss probably never existed. A myth or an urban legend attributes it, curiously, to the musician’s taste for drinking. There is a saying in Vienna that says to turn blue to those who exceed drinking, in the same way that in Spain it is said to get purple when eating a lot. Maybe the genius had spent his waltz celebrating and saw everything blue. In any case, these brown waters, in addition to mud and pieces of wood also drag plastic, cans, industrial waste and all kinds of waste (up to 1,500 tons each year) that the incumbent inhabitants of these countries throw into the great river. But the color of the waters and the shipwrecks that sometimes sail through them do not detract from the beauty of the Delta, the largest and best preserved in Europe, made up of an intricate network of waterways and lakes divided between the three main channels of the Danube estuary. . This area of floating reed islands, forests, grasslands and sand dunes covers 580,000 hectares and is home to a fascinating mix of cultures and people, as well as a wide variety of wildlife that includes more than 300 species of birds and 160 of freshwater fish in its many lakes and marshes. In the extensive area live about 20,000 people of which almost 75% do so in remote villages, which gives an average density of approximately 2 inhabitants per km2. Interestingly, the Delta grows every year at a rate of about 67 million tons of alluvium and also every year increases the area of prohibited areas for tourists so that more than 50% of the Biosphere Reserve is intact.
Where the Delta begins
Located at the tip of the three canals, Tulcea is an excellent starting point to explore the Danube Delta. It is a very touristic city precisely because of its privileged location, although it has little else to offer, except for an original museum dedicated to the Delta and with a good aquarium that collects fish species from the river and the not too distant Black Sea, with some concessions to tropical fish. Maybe before getting into the Delta and its surroundings, it’s worth visiting the Macin Winery, which produces a dozen good wines and the Paleochristian church of Niculitel that venerates six Christian martyrs of Roman times. Along the way, scattered some Orthodox monasteries, many of them inhabited by monks who still raise chickens in the old way, drink water from the well and sow what will come to your table.
The tour of the Delta must be done by boat, better if it is small and that you sail slowly to appreciate the varied vegetation and that the birds do not get scared by the noise. Sometimes the navigation becomes a little complicated in the narrow channels where the tropical vines join from one shore to another. Along with the native vegetation there are exotic plants whose seeds have been transported by migratory birds from Africa: water lilies, reed beds and reed beds, salt marshes and riverside forests, differentiated according to the frequency of their flooding, permanently flooded willows and periodic floodwaters. There are forests, such as Letea, notable for the asymmetrical canopy of their trees, which include oaks and border the canals; with luck you can see a rare aquatic plant that the experts call «noctiluca miliaris» and the town has baptized as the «sail of the sea» whose fluorescent color transmits the effect of a magic water.
Crowd of species
During the summer, the Delta hosts more than 320 species of birds, including the largest pelican colony, with a community of 6,000, more than half of the European population of these birds, and more than a million individual individuals that swim here, including swans, cormorants, herons, martinetes, wild geese and coots. Located on the 45th parallel, the Danube Delta is a perfect stopping point between the Equator and the North Pole for millions of migratory birds. With luck you can see the majestic white and pale pink Dalmatian pelican and huge flocks of bright crimson ibis, with its long and curved beak. During the breeding season, when the colors of the birds are brighter, it is possible to see other rare species, such as the pygmy cormorant or the red-breasted goose or maybe listen to the song of a heron while a group of pelicans it rises gracefully in the air in a blur of white and black wings. This is also one of the last remaining places in Europe where wild horses roam free in the Letea Forest. And although it is not easy to see them, beyond the cane fields there are wild cats, foxes and wolves, and even an occasional wild boar or deer.