Monday, 21 August 2017

Northern Dobrogea: On the Danube and Via Pontica Crossing

Text and photographs by Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu   
How adventurous you are? Test yourself among the snakes, plains and Roman ruins of Dobrogea, one of Europe’s most authentic parts.

Wide and fast after the Ruse-Giurgiu crossing, the Danube could have continued to flow directly to the east, finding the shortest way to the Black Sea. Instead, it swirls to the north and only 200 kilometres further, it finally spreads its wide delta. The swamps and lakes, formed among the river’s numerous branches, are an important stop along the Via Pontica – the migratory birds’ passage route between Northern Europe and the Middle East and Africa.
Supplemented by seaside beaches, a diversity of ethnicities and religions and a rich archeological heritage, this region offers an adventure through a sort of a “no man’s land” – even the Romanians consider Northern Dobrogea as the least “Romanian” region of their country.

Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu from the Romanian website tells about a week spent in exploration of the region.

Dobrogea, Dobrogea!

Sometimes I dream with my eyes wide open. And then I see oceans and wastelands, mountains and forests, sunflower fields and ancient ruined citadels. And thus, when the evening creeps into my room and the sun is red on the horizon, I no longer know if I've seen the strange Dobrogea landscapes for real or in a dream...

Day One

The August heat is melting the asphalt, but we are rushing on the highway, almost tasting the invigorating sea breeze ahead. Eventually, we pass Constanta and Mamaia and enter Navodari, where we are unpleasantly surprised by the new buildings which seem to stifle the space. Navodari is very long, but we finally leave it behind. Shortly, we reach an immense oil distillery, which spreads the smell of oil everywhere.

Then we apparently enter another dimension – around us the space expands and among the yellow and green fields, the village of Corbu appears timidly. At its entrance, a sign points to the beach and we follow it scrupulously. The narrow country road leads us through sun-burnt cornfields, sunflower fields and myriads of thistles. The dust we leave behind looks like stardust, covering the fields with a strange, snow-like powder.

All of a sudden, we reach a tall cliff and from there, the sea stretches to infinity, triumphant and impressive. Thalassa, Thalassa ... Dumbstruck with admiration, we gather enough strength to find the road down the cliff, to the beach. Once there, without delay, we take a refreshing dip. The water is warm and rough in the sweet light of the sunset. The long wild beach is covered with shells and kingfishers.

There are only a few tents and cars and some straw umbrellas. We put up our tents and set up camp, which we will use as a base for our trips in the next few days.

Day Two

Saturday morning starts with dogs barking and with an unbearable heat that drives us out of the tents. We lie on the almost completely deserted beach, populated only by us and the kingfishers.

Around lunchtime, we head to the village for supplies and then to Mamaia, where we have a decent meal, and then take a dip in the sea. There can’t be a greater contrast between our wild beach at Corbu, seemingly out of time and space, and this beach in Mamaia, noisy and full of tourists. As we take a stroll around the resort, the night falls and the atmosphere becomes increasingly strained: the streets get filled with new expensive cars, we hear noisy music coming from different sides and our eyes get irritated by the flashing disco lights.

But we are lucky, because there's a beautiful folk concert on the beach, part of the Folk You Festival, so we stay there until really late. Afterwards, we happily and sleepily head to Corbu for a good night’s rest. On the road there, the lights of the huge oil distillery catch our eye - it looks like an alien town on a strange planet.

Day Three

We are woken up again by the dogs and we take advantage of the early start, because we plan to see many things today. After a frugal breakfast, we head towards Sinoie and from there to the Histria ancient citadel, the oldest town in modern Romania, founded in the seventh century BC and continuously inhabited for over 1,300 years. Initially the small, cosy museum doesn't look that promising, but soon we begin to comprehend the vastness of this town built by the ancient Greeks from Milet. From a small hill we see many impressive ruins, spread on the surrounding hill.

We stroll past the Roman thermae dating from the second and third centuries, past the sixth century Christian basilica and under the gate of the late Roman district, where the ruins are spectacular. We reach the large square of the Roman town, built in the sixth century, and then we head towards the ancient Greek sacred area, seventh till the first centuries BC. Beautifully located on the shore of the Sinoie Lake, at that time it was an important bay of the Black Sea.

Maybe the most beautiful part of the citadel is the residential district dating from the sixth century, where one can reconstruct from the ruins old stone homes, with beautifully ornate pillars and a main street leading to the lake. We stop on the shore to admire this wild region: tall reed sticking out, water snakes raising their heads from the water, green frogs hiding in the silt.

Towards lunch we leave Histria for Babadag. The trip reveals a fascinating landscape: green and sometimes arid hills stretching lazily under the hot sun, everywhere immense sunflower fields, lakes, valleys with small forested villages, foxes crossing the road; everything seems to be made to amaze us.

In Babadag we stop to visit the mosque dating from 1522 and we meet more and more people with Turkish-Tartar looks. Obviously, this is a region of cultural and social confluences, inhabited in antiquity by Getae and Dacians, Greeks, Romans and later by Turks, Tartars, Bulgarians and even Italians who came here for the high quality grit stone.

Shortly after we leave Babadag, we see a hilltop with an impenetrable citadel in the distance, perched above a small village, on a lake shore. It's Enisala. If we didn’t know where we are, we could have believed we are somewhere in the Middle East, together with the pilgrim crusaders headed towards the Holy Land and that, from behind any hill, packs of camels with Bedouins are about to appear.

The road to the citadel crosses fields of sunflower and suddenly the landscape becomes arid and we start climbing a hill pierced by reddish rocks. Here lies the Byzantine citadel from the twelfth century – a romantic ruin perched on a summit dominating the horizon. At its feet the village stretches in one direction and in the other direction there's a big lake beyond which, we can guess, is the Danube Delta. Just in front of the citadel, another yellow hill with terraces meandering across it seems to come directly from a science-fiction movie. And they went as far as New Zealand to film The Lord of the Rings! And they even used special effects! How could they know that, at Enisala, they would have everything already there? We are speechless; we don't want to leave the place.

But, as the evening nears, we hurry up to another legendary place – the ancient citadel Halmyris. The road crosses villages with small but cosy houses, vividly painted, and with reed roofs.

In Sarichioi we meet many Lippovans, returning from church service. They are beautifully dressed in their traditional costumes, the men wearing their patriarchal beards. Another trip into history, a history we live and which stubbornly rejects modernity.

The landscape becomes increasingly wild as we approach the Danube Delta – storks stand undisturbed in the middle of the road; cows cross our way; Dobrudja donkeys pull huge carts of hay.

We enter Murighiol and go directly to an inn to satisfy our hunger. We eat, of course, fish – a fish broth and grilled fish.

Satiated and refreshed, we conquer the last citadel we had planned to visit today: the Roman citadel Halmyris, where the first Romanian saints were martyred, namely Astion and Epictet. This recent discovery lures archaeologists from all over the world to this place. But now, towards sunset, there is nobody and we frisk about the ancient ruins, like the true explorers we have become

Under a wooden building serving for protection, we discover the old Christian basilica where the martyrs were buried. We descend the traps and, using a flashlight, we run into the two tombs and an inscription on a disk painted on stone. Then we walk through this revived city and under the surrounding hills we guess the vastness of the citadel. We realize that many generations of archaeologists will dig here and many interesting discoveries will be made.

The last rays of light play with the clouds, contributing to the feeling we are exploring a mysterious land, a new terra incognita. We return on the same dusty road, guided by the red sun.

Day Four

Today we decide to rest, so we lie on the beach and dabble in the warm and clean sea. Towards lunch we leave for the village and we stop on a lake shore, at a motel. There, we finally take a shower and then we eat. We rent a couple of two-person yachts and spend the next hour and a half going around the lake, helped by a strong wind.

Later we reach the Dervent Monastery, on a picturesque hill with a wonderful view over the Danube. There, we freshen up and go on. We ride past the Bulgarian town Silistra and, surprisingly, the border consists of a fence, behind which we can almost reach out and touch the blocks of flats.

It's like we are passing through the town. And thus we are on the Danube bank, where the ferryboat is waiting for us to load the car. We couldn't find a better time to cross the Dunarea: the sun is setting, slowly sinking into the river and we head towards it. Two priests observing the horizon deepen the sensation of mystique. The scene is complete when a lonely fisherman paddles against the wonderful red sun. The crossing takes less than 20 minutes, but it seems we are out of time again. Spellbound, we get off the ferry and continue our trip to the sleepy city, where we arrive under a full moon.

And if all this was just a dream, all I can add is this: a necessary condition for the dreams to become reality is to dream as much as possible. I say it based on my experience.

Day Five

We can't leave the region without visiting the mountains of Dobrogea. So be it. Early in the morning we head towards the Greci village up north, and on the way we stop at a picturesque restaurant in Istria, where we eat scrambled eggs. The Dobrogea landscape continues to fascinate us with its interesting colours and its special light.

We enter the village Greci (meaning ‘Greeks’), which boasts a community of stone masons of .... Italian descent. Ahead of us, a vast perspective reveals the Pricopanului Range, with the 468-metre Tutuiatul Peak, the highest in the Macin Mountains.

As we climb the range, a strange landscape unveils, arid and rocky, but with wonderful forests with trees clinging stubbornly to the rocks, wrapping their roots around them. On the stones, the lizards lie in the sun and we even see a turtle.

In less than an hour we reach the peak and the panorama towards the Greci village and to the other ranges is impressive. You could as well be in the Fagaras Mountains, not on a mere rock at less than 500 metres altitude. We eat on the peak and then descend using another path, guiding ourselves permanently by the village at the foot of the range. On the path we pick blackberries from bushes that seem to grow directly from the rocks.

On the village alleys we reach out to plums and wax cherries, we stop at a well to drink from the fresh water and wash up.

We find out that Arrubium citadel still lies uncovered under the hills and since it is already late, so we leave directly for Corbu. Once there, we find our tents ravaged by the strong wind, so we pull them back up and strengthen them with the few rocks we can find around.

Day Six

I wake up at sunrise and take a walk on the deserted beach. In the sea, I notice fishermen in their boats coming towards the shore, with fish still struggling in the trawls. The fishermen are Lippovans and Romanians – they have the harsh complexion and hands of hard workers; they are thin and ageing, but they have resolute sights.

Back to our small camp, we pack the tents and prepare to leave. But the day will offer us enough adventures. After a last dip in the sea, we leave for Constanta and further to Basarabi, for the interesting catacombs dug by early Christians. There we get an unpleasant surprise, as we are told we have to get a special permit from the Museum of Archeology and History in Constanta. We leave disappointed and we choose the South Dobrogea route, to Adamclisi.

At Adamclisi we have a wonderful revelation: besides the famous monument Tropaeum Traiani, known from history books, which we visit quickly, we notice on a hill the impressing walls of a citadel towards the exit out of the village. It's the citadel called also Tropaeum Traiani, built by the Roman emperor Traian in the second century in the place of an ancient Getic-Dacian settlement. Spread over more than ten hectares, we walk on broken pottery, just like in Halmyris. The ruins are impressive, especially the Basilica Forensis with its forest of chopped off pillars. Again, we are the only ones here – explorers in a city woken up after so many centuries of oblivion.

When we leave, two turtles cross the road, so we pick them up and put them back in the grass. We go up and down the hillocks spotted with sunflower fields and at a certain moment the Danube appears, the Bulgarian bank visible on the other side.

The article, courtesy of, was republished by Balkan Travellers with the author's permission and with some changes.




Balkan Culinary Wars III: Other People’s Meatballs

Ćevapčići from Leskovac, köfte from İzmir or Bulgarian kebapche? Greek keftedes too, please!
Full Story

Curiosity Chest

The Balkans' Street-Renaming Obsession

The battle over renaming streets in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism reflects their importance as symbols of identity, history and power. Full Story

Useful Reads

Through Another Europe (2009) | Edited by Andrew Hammond

When Henry Blount journeyed through Bosnia in the 1630s, two things struck him: the purity of the water and the great height of the Bosnians, which, he noted, “made me suppose them the offspring of those old Germans noted by Tacitus and Caesar for their huge size.”
Full Story


Romania Places Eurovision Hopes on Elena Gheorghe

Elena Gheorghe will represent Romania at the Eurovision semifinal in Moscow in May with the song "The Balkan Girls" after winning the national competition against 11 other acts on January 31. Full Story