Iron Gates of the Danube River

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Date of travel

May, 2019

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Our itinerary of Serbia included a 90-minute cruise along the Danube to view the Iron Gates. We expected a large pleasure cruiser, so were surprised when we parked in a layby on a busy main road rather than a harbour. The boat owner met us and led us further along the road and down a tree lined slope to a muddy riverbank.

Two small motorboats were moored, and we were shown to the pristine white one: this was unfortunate, as having stepped into a large patch of mud, my shoes were filthy. I had to be hoisted aboard as there was no gangplank, before lowering myself down a hatch where I cringed when placing a muddy shoe on the bed as I couldn’t reach the floor.

We made our way through the boat to the stern, met our skipper, Sasha, and were offered a choice of local beer, coffee, water or rakija. The latter is a local firewater made from grapes, so we settled for two beers.

Setting off, we discovered that the Iron Gates are neither iron nor gates: it’s the name given to the narrowing of the limestone cliffs which tower above the Danube. This stretch of river, with Romania on one side and Serbia on the other, is considered to be the most scenic. The Romanian side of the gorge constitutes the Iron Gates natural park, whereas the Serbian part is in the Đerdap national park. Steep sides abounded on both sides and we could see how the river varied dramatically in depth via Sasha’s techno gizmo – at a point known as Gospodin Vir (or whirlpool) it reached nearly 82m.

We were told that in 1972, a joint Yugoslav and Romanian project had built the first of the two Hydroelectric Power Stations. The dam had caused water levels to rise 35m, resulting in the loss of the river’s giant sturgeon and associated caviar business. As we sailed on, the weather became perfect; warm and sunny, just right for a slow meander.
Numerous caves lined the rock walls and passing the largest, Ponicova, known as Water Mouth Cave, we received a blast of cool air and “welcome to Romania” text messages on our mobiles.

Having then passed the beautiful Orthodox church on the site of the former Mraconia Monastery on the Romanian side, we saw a face carved into the mountain rock, depicting Decebalus, the last king of Dacia. At 40 metres, it’s the tallest rock sculpture in Europe and was only finished in 2004, with 12 sculptors working on it. It was funded by a wealthy Romanian businessman, who is said to have spent over $1m.

The skipper was chatty, and although his English was good, we couldn’t take it all in and just kept nodding, smiling and taking photos in all directions.

We came to a huge Roman memorial stone plaque in the wall, (“Tabula Traiana”), 4 metres wide and 1.75 metres high which commemorated the completion of a Roman military road. This had been moved from its original location and lifted to the present place when the dam raised water levels. We were invited to get off the boat and get up close: only small boats can do this due to the depth of the water. Our guide went first and not wanting to have to hoist myself up the hatch, I snapped away as Roy ventured out and onto dry land.

On the way back, black clouds appeared, but we saw the remains on a sunken boat: during a severe drought in 2003, a significant number of vessels including German gunboats from World War 2, were revealed.

Our trip took around 2-hours and having got off along the side, whilst the skipper prostrated himself at the front to balance the boat, we avoided more mud. As we found in Serbia, when it came to paying for beers and tips, we received a firm and definite ‘thank you will do’. We set off again, leaving the owner and skipper to return their boat to its former pristine state.

Helen Jackson

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