After a few days spent exploring Sfântu Gheorghe and its surroundings I moved on to the village of Crisan, two hours away by boat. In a small wooden lotca powered by an outboard motor, we navigated the thin and winding channels, ducking under fallen trees and following a route that the fisherman had clearly done a hundred times before; even so, we still needed to double back on occasion, as one channel can look very much like any other. As we progressed, narrow, overgrown channels suddenly opened out into majestic freshwater lakes, with pelicans and cormorants circling over vast expanses of reed beds. It was hard to focus on anything for more than a few seconds before something else caught my eye.
Crisan is barely more than a single road running alongside the water’s edge; it didn’t even exist until the late 19th century, when engineers began straightening the central of three main branches of the Danube that run through the delta. In the village church, just 20 meters from the water, Father Aurel Codris guided me around his small chapel, pointing out the 100-year-old paintings of saints that adorn the walls.
“I went to agricultural school to train as a vet before joining the priesthood,” he told me, adding that he moved to Crisan five years ago and fell in love with the place. “With God’s help I will retire here,” he said. His church was once the center of the community, but like elsewhere in the world, fewer and fewer people of the younger generation are attending; later I joined around 20 villagers, mostly elderly, for Sunday service.
A picturesque village, Crisan in recent years has become a hub for those looking to explore the Danube Delta in a more adventurous way. Rowmania, an organization set up by former Olympic canoeist Ivan Patzaichin, has a tour center in the village where people can hire “canotcas” (a cross between a lotca and a race canoe) for daytrips or several days’ exploration. “We have route maps and people can just rent the boats, or they can be guided by me, my brother, or my son,” said Adrian Oprisan, the 48-year-old owner of the small guesthouse that partners with Rowmania.
As in many of the smaller delta communities, when the sun sets in Crisan, those left in the village go to sleep. So I whiled away my one evening there sitting on a small jetty watching the sun set over the still water, and then the stars filling the sky.
I spend my final two days in Sulina, the largest community in the delta. With 3,600 people, the town feels like another world: young couples, families, and tourists crowd the waterside restaurants and bars, with live music played into the evening. A short walk outside town is a beautiful sandy beach that marks the end of the delta and the start of the Black Sea.
Legend has it that a community first sprang up in Sulina in the 10th century, when Greek pirates established a base here. The population boomed during the time of the European Commission of the Danube, the international body created in 1856 to ensure that the mouths of the Danube remained navigable. But the town was heavily bombed during World War II, and the commission was eventually superseded by a Soviet-controlled agency. Over the last few decades Sulina has lost even more relevance with the closure of its fish canneries and shipyards.
Despite this, it’s easy to spend hours just wandering along the banks of the Danube watching the boats go by and checking out Sulina’s old merchant buildings, the European Commission’s neoclassical former headquarters, and the various churches, all of which appear to be dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. On my last night in town, I sit down to a plate of grilled catfish, a local specialty. It’s a final, succulent reminder of the Danube Delta.
Fly to Bucharest via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and then take a train from Gara de Nord station to Tulcea, approximately six hours away. From Tulcea there are daily ferries to Sulina and Crisan and less regular services to Sfântu Gheorghe and other delta communities.
Where to stay
Tulcea has a handful of decent hotels, but once you are in the delta proper it is mostly a case of staying in family-run guesthouses or hotels. In the smaller communities you will simply need to ask someone to point you in the direction of a family that rents out their spare rooms. Alternatively, arrange a visit through DiscoveRomania, a leading Romanian tour company.
This article originally appeared in the February/March print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Where the Danube Meets the Sea”)