Monday, 21 August 2017

Rafting along the Nera River in Romania's Banat Region

The Nera River valley, in Romania’s Banat Region, is a superb destination for adventurers: it is isolated, authentic and it features dramatic landscapes. Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu of the Romanian writes about his journey there, involving some grief over derelict architectural heritage, but also intoxicating rafting down wild waters and fine enough dining on the Cerna River bank
Text and photographs by Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu

Bucharest is melting under merciless summer sun. There couldn't be a better opportunity to leave for a new adventure and we decide to go rafting on the Nera gorges. We take the Timişoara-bound train, heading to the Herculane camp site.

We leave behind the smog and the scorching heat of summer, and the landscape changes fast from the yellow of the sunburnt cornfields to the deeper and purer green of the hills.

And there, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, appears the Danube – so old, yet so new, an unspoken witness to so many millennia of history. The glowing sun melts in the waves of the river as it makes its way gently through the green hillocks and granite walls.

When we get to Baile Herculane, we don't have time to admire the stylish station, as we quickly jump in a taxi which leaves us at the camping entrance, in the new part of the town. We put up the tents fast, change our clothes and rush towards the place where our instinct guides us: to the first restaurant we encounter on the way to the old town. We have a decent meal at a terrace on the Cerna river bank, while night falls with its legions of stars.

The next morning, as we chat over coffee, comes Nae, one of the organisers. He tells us we'll have to wait a few hours until we can start rafting, so we go together to the centre of the resort.

And here is the part I wish I would never write, because what we see in the old town leaves us shocked: this resort, visited since the times of the Romans and which should be a pearl of Romanian tourism, looks completely abandoned. The fin de siècle buildings are a shadow of what they used to be, all seemingly left to a hazardous fate, with broken windows, falling paint, broken statues ... We talk to a few locals and they tell us they were visited by politicians of all governments who made lots of promises and nothing more.

We leave this ghost-town anxiously but, as we get on the road, the landscapes of this part of the country calm us down. We notice the "architecture" of the haystacks, different from one region to another and wonder how long these haystacks will be around.

At the little village of Sopotu Nou, traversed by the Nera River, we find out that the rafting will begin after lunch, so we have time to rest on the banks and take a bath in the surprisingly warm water.

The Nera River is a tributary of the Danube and it passes through the Banat region, which is partly located in southwestern Romania. The area lies about 120 kilometres northwest of Bulgarian town of Vidin and about 200 kilometres northeast of Belgrade.

A jeep with the other organisers finally arrives and a short off-road trip later, we’re at our starting point. We try our neoprene suits on and take goofy pictures while the boats are inflated by electric pumps and, after a short training, we get into the water.

The 12 of us split into two boats: one with seven and one with five people. The commands are simple: "All ahead!", "All back!", "Left back!", "Right back!" and "Stop!". We practice for a while, our clumsiness being a source of great amusement, but eventually we start to function as a team and anticipate the right manoeuvre. We delight ourselves with the newly-learnt ‘Matrix move’, which consists of bending backwards as far as possible when the boat passes beneath low tree branches.

The landscape around us gets wilder and wilder as we enter deeper into the gorges. The water is warm and we find many opportunities to dip our hands and feet in it. From time to time we stop to admire strange natural formations. One of them is The Devil's Lake, an odd green-blue lake suspended above the river in a cave with a partially collapsed ceiling, which reminds me of the Mexican cenotes.

The river is rather shallow and at one point we have to get off and pull the boat. But we are told that only two months ago, the water level was at least three metres above us – a chilling thing to imagine.

Here and there, small islands appear from the water, uncovering sand as fine as on a seashore - it's as if we are in a TV advertisement for an exotic, faraway place.

As evening comes, we feel a pleasant fatigue and acute hunger. The last stop brings us to a canyon paved with fine sand, the undulating walls rising high above the ground, washed by water. At the canyon’s end, there is a kind of a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by vertical walls from three directions. And above us - a sky of an indescribable blue.

The stars begin to shine and soon we reach our final destination – the 17-kilometre stretch took us almost seven hours. We stop at Damian's Hut, where we struggle to take off the neoprene suits. We are exhausted and hungry - luckily the organisers welcome us with a campfire and some food and drinks. With a supreme effort we put up the tents, then sing songs around the fire and finally we fall into a deep sleep directly under the sky with its myriad of stars.

On the third day, we are woken up by the barking of a dog. The morning is fresh; it makes me feel like the world was just created. We wake up slowly, eat and pack the tents. Influenced by our exhaustion on the previous night, we had decided not to go rafting today – a decision we regret today.

But we get on the jeep for the off-road tour. We ride a while through the thick forest on the Nera bank and the landscape becomes increasingly spectacular. At a certain moment we leave the river somewhere underneath and ahead we see vertical walls and forested hillocks. The first part of the off-road trip comes to an end and we get off and walk on a picturesque path. We cross tunnels dug in the rock of the mountain - some say the Romans made them, others claim it was the Turks and others yet insist it was the Germans. But they are here, either way, and they are beautiful.

We climb the stones and, at a certain moment, we are just above Nera – our narrow path floating over the river as it meanders on the edge of a vertical wall. The landscape changes constantly – some of the time we walk on a flat surface, admiring the green ridges around us and we even see traces of habitation in the form of haystacks; other times, we climb on the steep rocks that appear in front of us out of the blue; a few time we even cross the river on beautiful wooden foot bridges or traverse fields of wild flowers.

Here and there, we stop to pick wax cherries and plums from the trees along the path. After walking for an hour, we reach the jeep and start the second part of the off-road. This time we pass through villages, leaving behind clouds of dust. Some old men look at us, confused, from their porches.

We pass through a number of villages – they are modest but pretty, with their neat, vividly coloured houses. We’d like to stop for a while but we’re running out of time. And thus we arrive where we started the trip just one day ago, in Sopotu Nou.

From there, we head towards Herculane by car. On the road, in one of the beautiful villages, there's a big commotion: a wedding is going on and the hora, a Romanian round dance, blocks the road - an opportunity to stop and admire the colourful traditional dress of the Banat region.

Some of us decide to stay in the resort a bit longer, while the rest head back to Bucharest. We take a dip in pools with thermal water and then a taxi brings us to a wonderful place, just above the resort, at the foot of the rocks. We put up the tent, collect some firewood, cook, eat and then we fall in a deep sleep, dreaming already of our next adventure.

The article is courtesy of the Romanian web-site




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