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  • Ilinca Stroe

Dipping the Soul into the Autumn-clad Danube: A Boat Ride

Tulcea waterfront

Places, it seems, have their own identities which they lend to their inhabitants. The classical contrast is between the mountains and the seaside. The former, with their crisp air, rugged trails, limpid sounds which need accurate decoding, and awe-inspiring heights and peaks that instil a stubborn sense of purpose, make people deep, taciturn and determined. The seaside, with its unbroken horizon, breezy atmosphere, the shifting ground of sand and the undulating expanse of deep-coloured water, gives people a feeling of freedom – it’s openness, permissiveness and relaxation that make up the spirit of the place, there.

And rivers? There are impetuous rivers which rush frantically down ravines, and then placid rivers with a barely perceptible flow. The Danube, in Romanian territory, just before reaching the Black Sea in the Danube Delta area, belongs to the latter category. Massive, with muddy banks set wide apart, whose deep brown conjures up primeval times when creatures of the Earth took shape, and flanked by chubby rolls of green foliage on trees with sinewy roots exposed to view, when the water level is low, the Danube can be explored by boat from the city of Tulcea.

There are several boat cruise companies operating rides from that city’s waterfront, Karpaten being just one of them, with a fleet of two: the 100-seat Karpaten Queen and the 30-seat Karpaten Princess, both double-deckers. A ride is about four hours long and, at a laid-back pace of 12-20 kilometres per hour, it can take you from the asphalt-and-concrete civilisation of the city to the deep-green realm of water branches and canals, where the Delta’s birds watch impassibly the passing humans, and further still into the inner world of dear old memories and soul-clearing introspection.

As you leave behind Tulcea’s waterfront with its string of restaurants, hotels and pubs, you glide smoothly past the docks where dozens of boats of all types and sizes line up like just as many wood-and-iron mementos of diligent nautical commerce, past the hilltop obelisk honouring the heroes of the Independence War (1877-1878), when the Romanians shook off Ottoman rule, while on the left bank nature is already taking over - with its wooden infantry of bent trees whose dense crowns hover solemnly over the fat mud banks. And then you turn left away from the city, into the narrower Canal Mile 35.

This is a world of hazy green, brown and silence. The trees with bared roots seem to tiptoe on the shore. The occasional white egret, which the keen boat riders have been so greedily expecting to spot, sets its piercing eyes on the cameras that are photographing it warily, so they don’t scare it away. The makeshift “households” of the weekend fishermen, with shabby tents made of plastic foil on wooden poles, improvised outdoor hearths where a log is burning slowly, and pots, pans and saucers strewn on the ground, await the capture promised by fishing lines tensely immersed in the murky water. As social barriers and formality have vanished into the thin air of wild nature, spontaneous short exchanges between the boat riders and the fishermen kick off in low voice:

“Where’s the sheatfish?”

“In the water.”

And the words float briefly in the air before the thick vegetation swallows them up, as the humans smile whimsically at each other and the boat takes the curious tourists slowly away from the expectant fishermen.

Further on, as the boat approaches the natural border with Ukraine, the vegetation gives way to yellowish pastures where scattered cows are grazing peacefully and the random human figure dwindles in the bush. There’s now a certain openness of scope which adds up, grows gradually, as the boat progresses, and finally explodes into the breathtaking majesty of the Chilia branch.

This is the Danube at its final best. It has crossed half of Europe. It has washed the shores of Sigmaringen, Ingolstadt, Linz, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, between towering buildings and imperial monuments. And it has now come to rest - wide, massive and tranquil - in this delta. From the intimacy of its plethora of quaint canals to the vastness of the Chilia branch, the waters of the Danube allure the mind and spirit to roam freely over their soothing surface. This is healing peacefulness and bliss. Elixir for the soul.

Picture & video credits

Ilinca Stroe, International House Bucharest

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