The Danube Delta is located precisely half way between the Equator and the North Pole. Among its trademark attractions are rare species of birds and animals, such as pelicans, sturgeons or the gone-wild horses of Letea, but also the ways of living of different ethnic communities such as the Russian Lipovans, the Ukrainian Hahols, Romanians, Machedons and so on, communities living among waters, surrounded by reeds and water lilies.
The Danube Delta is one of the Europe’s most spectacular location in terms of wetland. Included in UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in 1991, the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve is The place where the Danube River leaves Europe behind and flows into the Black Sea under constant transformation. Europe’s best preserved delta is far from being frozen in time, or a site that has remained still for millennia. On the contrary, the Danube Delta is perpetually changing, expanding every year with a few dozen square meters due to the 67 million tons of river deposits washed over half a continent.
Nevertheless, the ever-changing delta is the natural habitat for ancient fish species, such as sturgeons, a species as old as the dinosaurs managing to survive until present. The 45th North parallel crosses the Danube Delta, marking half the distance between the Equator and the North Pole, turning this site into a spring destination for birds migrating from tropical countries, in search of cooler summers and fish galore, while hosting the Northern species for the winter.
The largest section of the Danube Delta is part of the Romanian territory (5,050 square kilometres), with only one small area (738 kilometres) belonging to Ukraine. In fact, we are referring to a land that belonged to the old Romanian province of Basarabia, occupied by USSR in 1940 and later divided by Stalin, who offered the south and the north of Basarabia to the Soviet Socialist Union of Ukraine.
2,000 years ago, the lagoon complex Razim – Sinoe was a very well protected bay in the Black Sea. Over time, the coastal sand, deposited as sediment, turned the bays into lagoons, with a different ecosystem.
The Danube Delta enters the Romanian territory where the river splits into three main branches: Chilia, Sulina and Saint George. Between these branches lies a world of reeds, water lilies and water holes, which accommodate 360 species of birds and 45 species of fish. Some of these birds are quite alluring, such as the pelicans and the swans. Among the fish species, apart from the sturgeon, banned from fishing, the most popular are pike and cat-fish. There are also many banks and islands which harbour land animals. The landscape is always changing, owing to the river deposits which indefinitely alter the configuration of the banks, but also the floating islands of reeds, also known as floating reed islets (plaur). The diversity of the bird species have made the Danube Delta a must-visit destination for any ornithology enthusiast, as well as a dream vacation for fishermen.
Danube’s biggest branch, Chilia, draws the actual border between Romania and Ukraine. The Chilia Branch has a length of 104 kilometres and collects almost 60% of the river’s water. The Sulina Branch has a length of 71 kilometres and amasses 18% of Danube’s water. Inside the Delta, this channel represents the main navigation route. The southern branch, Saint George, has a length of 112 kilometres and collects 22 % of the river’s water. This particular branch began to form a secondary delta hundreds of years ago. One could guess the the evolution of the Danube Delta intuitively by comparing present maps to medieval maps, which show that the shore of the Black Sea was further west compared to the present-day coastline. The differences are visible even when comparing the interwar maps to current maps. Paradoxically, although it is a genuine realm of waters, the Danube Delta is the last when it comes to the percentage of rainfall in Romania. Swamp vegetation (reeds, cattail, bulrush and dwarf willow) prevails in the area, covering 78% of the entire surface of the Delta. . The thickets comprise species such as willow, ash, alder or poplar and cover approximately 6% of the surface of the Delta, while the rest is covered by water holes with blooming lilies.
The Delta also hosts two of Europe’s most intriguing forests: Letea and Caraorman with their old oaks and sand dunes. Fun fact, the woods of Letea still have wild vines, which add to its exotic touch. The population density is one of the lowest in Europe: only 5 inhabitants per square kilometre. Romanians make up the vast majority of the population. The Russian Lipovans are the most numerous minority, they form an archaic community that took refuge in order to escape the religious persecution of the Tsar Peter the Great. There are also Ukrainians, Greeks and even Hungarians.
Sulina, the lost city between the Delta and the Black Sea
The small city of Sulina, one of Europe’s most picturesque ports, can be regarded as an authentic capital of the Danube Delta. With just 3,600 inhabitants. It can only be reached by boat. According to legend, the city was founded by Cimmerians, a population that inspired the modern lore of Conan the Barbarian. Sulina developed alongside the establishment of the first Greek colonies at the Pontus Euxinus, the Latin name of the Black Sea, in antiquity. Legend tell us about Roman galleys reaching this port, one of the main commerce hubs for the Getae, Thracians, Scythians, Greeks and Romans. Sulina is first mentioned in historic documents during the Byzantine period. The erudite emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos references the city under the name Solina, in his paper entitled De Administrando Imperii. During medieval times, the Danube Delta was also explored by the Vikings, on their way to Constantinople. Moreover, this paradise was part of the states of the Dobrudja Romanians, the Tsardom of Bulgaria, the Byzantine Empire, the Principality of Walachia, and for four centuries it was part of the Ottoman Empire.
Following the Turkish-Romanian conflict in 1877-1878, known in the annals of Romanian history as the War of Independence, the Danube Delta, Dobrudja and, of course, Sulina, became part of the Romanian Kingdom. Sulina regained its city title a few decades before, after it served as headquarters for the Danube European Commission, an international body whose mission was to ensure free navigation on the river. Despite the damage incurred during War World II, when 80% of the city was destroyed due to Soviet bombings, the city still preserves a series of fascinating vestiges. For instance, a naval cemetery – one of its kind in Europe or a lighthouse built in 1802.
The biodiversity of the Danube Delta could not be fully appreciated without taking into account the sturgeons. Romania is home to six species of sturgeons producing the celebrated caviar. Furthermore, Romania and Bulgaria still shelter viable populations of wild sturgeons, which constitute a priceless treasure.
The fishing of wild sturgeon has been banned in Romania since 2006 due to different reasons such as heavy pollution, habitat loss, migration patterns interrupted at the Iron Gates, intensive fishing and poaching. Nowadays, the sturgeons and caviar coming from Romania are produced in fish farms. In the twelfth century, during their migration, the sturgeons use to reach Germany. Now, they only get to Danube’s Canyon, the site where Yugoslavia and Romania have built hydro-electric water plants Iron Gates I and II, during the communist era.
Europe’s last wild horses
The horses from Letea are the descendants of a mix of races such as the Middle Age Moldavian horses and those of the Arabian horses, introduced by Ottomans in Dobrudja. At this time, there are roughly 2,000-4,000 wild horses. The biologists are looking for a solution to keep the population under control, because they consider that the uncontrolled increase in the gone-wild horses number could threaten the fragile ecologic balance of the Letea Woods.
The Russian Lipovans, refugees from the path of Peter the Great
The story of the Danube Delta would not be complete without the cultural aspects of this corner of the world. A one of a kind community in the world has found its refuge in the delta, that of the Russian Lipovans. These are Russians who refused to accept the religious reform advanced by Tsar Peter the Great in the Russian Orthodox Church. Persecuted by the Tsar, the Lipovans took refuge inthe swamps of the Delta, far from reaching the Russian emissaries. The Russian Lipovans preserved an obsolete dialect of the Russian language, but also religious traditions that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Tulcea, the city of the seven hills
The city of Tulcea marks the gateway into the Danube Delta and administration of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, the headquartered and the departure point for the majority of vessels exploring this paradise. Tulcea was founded in Antiquity by Greek colonists who settled amid the Getae, under the name of Aegyssus. The city became a part of the Roman Empire, that of the Byzantine Empire and finally, the Ottoman Empire. The ancient vestiges can be admired outside or inside the museum assembled by local authorities. Tulcea is an ethnic mosaic. Here live Romanians, Russians, Turks, Tartars, Ukrainians and even descendants of the Germans colonized here in 1840. Orthodox churches exist alongside mosques built during the Ottoman period. Just like Rome, Tulcea was built on seven hills. Tulcea still holds its fame acquired in pre-Roman times for the grapevine grown by Thracians. Some of Europe’s best wines are produced here on the outskirts of the Danube Delta, where an old legend says that the Greek God of Wine, Dionysus might have been born here.
Position: Tulcea County, Romania
Nearest city Tulcea
Coordinates: 45°0′N 29°0′E45°0′N 29°0′E
Surface 5.762,16 km²
Distance București – Tulcea: 280 km
Distance Cluj-Napoca – Tulcea: 727 km