A Haven on the Danube

No other place in the world has a more varied landscape than the Balkans. In Yugoslavia one can drive from the peak-roofed European village of Ljubljana, nestled in the rolling greenery of the Slovenian Alps, to the hot, dry plains of Macedonia where slender minarets pierce the evening sky and black-eyed men in turbans squat by the city gates; from the mellow stones of medieval Dubrovnik, with its sophisticated tourists enjoying Hamlet while the Adriatic pounds at the foot of the city walls below, through the drifting mists of the Dinaric Alps, whose steep slopes shelter fierce Serbian horsemen, on to the modern city of Belgrade, sprawling between the River Sava and the Danube, which flows quietly here. Even in Bulgaria, smaller than the state of Pennsylvania, there are four distinct mountain ranges, each with a flavor of its own, and valleys such as Kyustendil, where the fruit trees grow on sunbaked slopes, or Kazanlik, where the attar roses bloom, or the wide, black-soiled Thracian Plain, famous for its horses when Troy still flourished and not much changed since then.

The deep blue waters of the Adriatic wear on the rocky coasts near Kotor and carve a beauty that surpasses the isles of Greece. The mild shores of the Black Sea, tideless, surfless, stretch along miles of powdery sands in both Bulgaria and Romania. There are cities here with crooked medieval streets and tall, curved modern buildings with floating roofs. One can pick out, among the old tiled roofs or the colored balconies of newly built blocks of flats, the rounded tops of the mosque and the Turkish bath, the gilded Orthodox cathedral, the spires of little churches, and the worn squat painted buildings of ancient monasteries.

But of all those things romantic in the Balkans, it is perhaps the River Danube that most excites the traveler. So, with a young companion for my interpreter, Mircea Spinedler, who called himself Mike, I crossed that fabled river from Bulgaria, with Romania before me. Mike knew his country and its rivers, mountains, wines. He took me first to the Black Sea where there is a strip of yellow sand that stretches without interruption for ten miles, a strand that men have loved at least since Ovid spent his last days there 2000 years ago; then northward, where the great river runs parallel to the coast, until we met it once again as it turned toward the sea and followed it down to its very mouth, where it is lost at last among the marshes and flows out to sea.

Gusts of wind swept the undulating black lands, whistling over the car and pinging it with chaff, the morning we drove north along the coastal hills from Constanta, once a Roman town and now Romania’s leading seaport. We had just turned into September, and the light had a new dimension, cold and sharp, presenting the Danube down below us as something like a hemp rope which had snapped and snaked.

Winding out of the hills, we came onto cobbles and into the river port of Tulcea, one of Romania’s two principal fish-processing centers, where men and animals and carts and trucks moved goods back and forth along the great stone quays, loading boats and unloading them, and the brown, silted waters turned white against the bows and holding lines. As in all river scenes, there were men who sat apart, some motionless on capstans, others crouched on the rock-riprapped embankment holding fishing lines, detached from all around them. The boats had changed with time, and the clothing, and although some people still carried their burdens in reed baskets, others lugged them in plastic bags. And there were signboards extolling the progress of socialism. But otherwise, the scene at the port had not changed much since Roman times. In the overlay of centuries, it is at the river that one feels the mood of long ago.

Tulcea stands on the St. George (Sfântu Gheorghe), one of the branches of the Danube which in the last forty miles or so, east of Tulcea, turn their own way and wind through vast delta land to the Black Sea. This delta region is rich in game and birds and especially in fish. The area is largely morass, and the only highways into it are the rivers. Much of it cannot be traveled upon, and an invitation there for a foreigner is unusual. “It is a land rich in many things, but especially it is a paradise for pictures,” a government representative told me. “So we are going to send you there.”

A small river tug, the Dimitrie Cantemir, was placed at my disposal, and Mike and I provisioned it at Tulcea for the two-day trip. It had a crew of three, each of whom had grown up on the river, and as the trip progressed I came to feel that I had known them all before in the mixture of fiction and actuality that is now the American memory of the Mississippi.

“Good river,” one of them said to me as we pulled away from the quay. “Good river,” he repeated, his foot on the rail and his eyes roving. The love and pride of river dwellers are universal.

Tulcea quickly fell away behind us, and almost at once treelined green formed the shoreline. Swift diesel craft, and old paddle-wheelers belching black smoke, and oar-propelled boats shaped like great canoes shared the river with us. The embankments grew lower and richer, the grass and reeds more luxuriant; the birds increased in number, and the fish leaped, leaving eddying circles all around us. By the end of the day, as we neared the mouth of the river, the delta had become almost uninhabited except for wildlife, so rich and overgrown and with such a balmy smell of bogland that I had the illusion that I was in a mangrove swamp on the Mekong or in Africa. Great willows lined the riverbanks, the lacy network of their roots standing in the water. White ibis and storks and herons and geese and ducks flew in the sky and contested noisily for roosting branches. Cranes stood like statues at the river’s edge.

Little streams opened into the marshland and thrust sandbars into the river, and our pilot, knowing each one, turned wide to avoid them. It was the low-water season, the pilot said, and a time when a boatman must be at his best. A good boatman, he said, feels the river; he knows when a snag or a bar is coming along. He knows because something tells him it is there. This is a river sense that belongs only to river people. The fisherman has it too, he said. He knows where the fish are not because of what the books say, but because of something that has been handed down to him through birth, like a strong back or blue eyes.

The village of St. George stands near the end of the river. We saw the spire of its Orthodox church first, rising only a little above the willows, and then the lovely reedthatched houses of white and pink and lavender. A small channel carried us a couple of hundred yards into the very heart of the village, the public square, and suddenly from the solitude of the river into a busy, sound-filled community. We threw a line ashore, and a soldier, rifle hung stock up on his shoulder, made it fast to a log and then stood at the water’s edge to inquire about us. A small army of ducks trotted between the soldier and our craft, all talking to each other. The soldier gave up trying to make us hear him and waited for them to pass, some of them treading on his boots, before he continued his questioning.

There were formalities about my visit, and Mike and the tug’s captain went ashore to complete them. I sat at the bow of the boat waiting for them, looking down at the village. Not since I lived in China, many years ago, have I felt the charm and vitality of village life as I did here on the Danube. In a nearby field, the play of a soccer game was coming to an end; the frantic shouts of the small standing crowd and the last of the day’s sun spreading the red and blue of the players’ uniforms into a blaze of color predominated the scene. Below me on the beach were two of the great canoelike boats which men of the Danube have used for centuries. They were piled to the gunwales with watermelons and were being unloaded. The melons were tossed from hand to hand along lines of men and women, boys and girls, amid talk and laughter and song, and finally ended up in an oxdrawn wagon. The machinelike efficiency often broke down, however, when an unusually fine melon or an unfortunate oddity came along. Then this was examined and appraised or laughed about as it went down the line.

Nearby, a man worked alone on his boat. It had been beached and turned bottom up, and he was driving cotton into its seams with a mallet while geese and ducks worked around his feet and he watched carefully where he stepped. Lines of women and girls came down from the houses carrying buckets on yokes. They kicked off their shoes and waded into the water. Then, with the buckets still on the yokes, they touched the water with the bottom of one bucket, deftly setting up circles of ripples which floated away the scum. Then they quickly filled their buckets and strode off, swinging their loads.

The day’s laundry, hung on whatever was available, was now dry, and the housewives were gathering it while others stooped over the water washing vegetables for the evening meal. Just below me two men passed with shotguns on their shoulders and game birds dangling bloodily from their hips. Fishermen who have had a good catch, and hunters too, like to travel through the heart of a village on their way home, and when they do they have a special way of walking.

Some boys came over to the boat to look. They talked in Russian, and when they learned that I was an American, they drew a small crowd. Americans had not been there before, they said, and someone brought me a watermelon and another beer, as gifts.

Mike and the captain returned, and we all went ashore. It was dusk, and many of the villagers were now parading back and forth in their dress-up clothes. Some were eating ice-cream cones or smoking as they sauntered. Some were sitting around little tables in the street drinking beer from bottles. Children ran in and out playing their games, and the adults moved aside for them as they would for the ducks. The language I heard most was Russian, for the village descends from Russian origin, and some of the drinking songs were Russian too.

On the way back to the boat we passed a small group approaching a church. They were all carrying candles, cupping them against the wind, and when they reached the front of the church they crossed themselves and knelt before a large glass-covered icon which stood before the church. Then each planted his candle in the sand near it and went away.

The church bells rang long that night after we stretched out on the tug’s deck, and I fell asleep to the pleasant murmur of voices and laughter and bells that made up the sounds of that summer night on the river.

The next morning we went down to the mouth of the Danube and went ashore on the white delta sand where men sang as they dug their heels in and pulled their nets ashore. And each time their nets were full and they poured the silver fish into their half-beached boats, they raised their voices. Now and again I had an impulse to reach into the glistening catch and pull out an especial beauty and hold it up and exclaim over it. But someone among the fishermen always saw it first and beat me to it and exclaimed himself.

Later, when the boats were unloading sturgeon on the river dock, I saw the quest at its most exciting moment: each great fish, some weighing 600 or even 700 pounds, came ashore as men pulled and called in cadence. Then they stopped, and all watched as the prehistoric monster with its shelled outer spine was slit open. Sometimes it was empty of roe, and the men quickly turned their eyes to the next one. But often a great sack of the silvery black eggs — caviar — came into view, and there was a cacophony of cries, appraisals, and congratulations, as though these men were all new at the job and seeing for the first time how lavishly a fish could repay their labors.

When we returned to Tulcea, I was put aboard the Libertates for the night. I could see from its lines that it had once been a grand yacht. But now it was a floating hostel and restaurant and lay alongside the quay hung with colored lights. When I was shown to my room by the maîtresse d’hôtel, I exclaimed over its lavishness and its size, and especially over the hugeness of the bed. “It’s the biggest bed I have ever seen!” I said. “Me too,” she replied. “It is because you and I are not used to seeing a king’s bed. This was King Carol’s yacht, and this was his room. And you are to sleep tonight in his bed. It is not what we in Romania think of as a privilege. We call it only an experience.”

We had breakfast the next morning sitting on the afterdeck, looking down upon the river over which so much traffic was moving and along which so much history had traveled. And in that mood, it seemed to me that it was indeed an experience to have spent my last night on the river in a king’s bed.