Sail one of Europe's greatest rivers and discover its least known part, the Bulgarian bank
Hiding in plain sight is one of the best ways to avoid attention. There is a region in Bulgaria that has achieved that, although not quite intentionally. The Danube region is a treasure trove for visitors, yet few travellers venture along the 470-kilometre stretch from Vidin to Silistra that defines the greater part of Bulgaria's border with Romania. This is in sharp contrast to the popularity of the Danube as a tourist destination in Central Europe.
The on/off relationship of Bulgarians with the Danube started when their ancestors, the early Bulgarians and Slavs, who saw it for the first time, in the 5th-7th centuries. Back then, the river delineated Byzantium's porous northern border, a twisting and often turbulent frontier between what was considered civilisation and barbarity. For these people, the Danube was an obstacle they had to cross to reach the fertile lands and wealthy cities of the empire. However, once Bulgaria was founded south of the Danube, in 681, they soon reevaluated their connection to the river, and it became a route for expansion towards Central Europe. This did not last long, however, because the early Bulgarians were lured by the riches towards the south, where the heart of Byzantium lay. Focused on winning over Constantinople, they turned their back on the Danube and gradually withdrew from its northern bank. The river became a border again; this time the Bulgarians were the ones who had to defend it from the incursions of peoples such as the Pechenegs, the medieval Russians, and the Tatars.
Ironically, the powers of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire, who successfully subjugated Bulgaria for centuries, attacked from the cherished south. During the Ottoman invasion the Danube even became a lifeline for the besieged Bulgarians. The last Bulgarian strongholds to fall under the invaders were those along the river, and the forces of the European states who tried to stop the Ottoman push westwards travelled along the Danube in their doomed attempts to turn the tide of history.
The traditional source of the Danube is in Donaueschingen, in the German Black Forest
For centuries, the Ottomans dominated the Danube's middle and lower course. When their empire started to contract, after their 1688 defeat at Vienna, the impact of the river in that region, and on the Bulgarians, increased. Russian troops crossed over it during the Tsar's numerous wars with the Sultan. On withdrawing, they would be followed by thousands of Bulgarians afraid of Ottoman reprisals. This was how Bulgarian communities north of the Danube, in Banat (now Serbia and Romania) and Bessarabia (now Ukraine), appeared. In the 19th century Bulgarian political emigres plotted uprisings against the Ottomans from the relative security of the lands north of the river.
The Russian army crossed the Danube one final time in the 19th century, in 1877. The war that ensued resulted in the restoration of the Bulgarian state, in 1878. Seventy years later, in September 1944, the Soviet Army entered Bulgaria at Silistra, on the Danube, heralding yet another deep political change – the turning of the nation into a Communist state and the USSR's most trusted ally.
The Danube was not solely connected to war. The route that had linked communities in Central and Eastern Europe with the wider world for millennia became, in the mid-19th century, the conduit through which European political ideas, innovations and fashions permeated into the Bulgarian lands. The latest trends in theatre and classical music arrived, along with newspapers and street lightning. These altered both the minds of the inhabitants and the appearance of their towns.
The Danube canal in central Vienna with the Urania Observatory, built in 1909, in the background
Post-1878, the Danube remained an economically and culturally active region that gave birth to some of Bulgaria's most prominent personalities. Exchanges with Central Europe continued, from trade to ideas to finance. Under Communism, the economy of the Bulgarian Danubian towns continued to thrive, this time under the planned economy, with intense traffic to and from the "brotherly" East bloc nations of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and of course the USSR. However, as the river also led to both sworn and potential enemies, such as NATO-member West Germany, the capitalist shopwindow of Austria and the renegade Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia of Tito, the role of the Danube as a link to the wider world began to disappear.
Life along the Bulgarian stretch of the Danube took a turn for the worse after the collapse of Communism, in 1989. The unpretentious but reliable markets of the Comecon countries were no more, and many factories could not compete on the newly emerged free market. Thousands of people lost their jobs and moved to Sofia – or emigrated, leaving the Danube region struggling economically: depressed and underpopulated.
Today, Bulgarian towns and villages along the Danube are mostly quiet and far from the tourist buzz upriver. Few, if any, passenger boats stop at their ports. On the river banks, abandoned factories, and elegant turn-of-the-century public buildings and houses crumble to dust under the blazing summer sun and the freezing winter winds that blow all the way from Ukraine. Beaten down by a life of disappointment and seemingly endless failure, the ageing population congregates in dismal cafés which stock up on cheap beer and liquor but do not sell ice cream outside of summer as no-one would buy it.
Perhaps unwittingly, Communism had an odd preoccupation with UFOs as this bridge in Bratislava illustrates. Everyone in the Slovak capital now refers to it as the UFO Bridge
Let not this bleak picture – and the notorious mosquitoes that infest the Danube in summertime – dissuade you from visiting the Bulgarian part of the river. For this is a landscape of vibrant wildlife, stunning sunrises and sunsets, and intriguing places scattered along 470 kilometres of a majestic river that has carved its place into European – and Bulgarian – consciousness for millennia. If you are really lucky, you might even stumble upon a hotel or restaurant that offers accommodation and food of quality that is hard to find even in Sofia – at much lower prices.
To understand the Bulgarian Danube better, you need to get a glimpse of its entirety and its variety. As a wise Greek once said, you cannot step into the same river twice.
The Danube has already travelled a long way before it reaches Bulgaria. We cannot tell with certainty exactly how many kilometres it has covered as, contrary to popular belief, no one is really sure from where the Danube springs. A beautiful stone pool in a palatial garden at Donaueschingen, in the German Schwarzwald, is the place you see in most photos on the Internet, but geographers have debated for years over the question on how to define the source of a river. If we consider factors such as the length of a river's longest tributary, then the Danube's true beginnings are not in that pool, but at the place where the Breg, its primary headstream, rises. Another possible beginning is the confluence of the Breg and another rivulet, the Brigach.
Devin Castle sits on an over 200-metre-high rock overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the River Morava, just inside Slovak territory on what used to be the border between Austria and the East bloc. Under Communism the castle was open to the public but the area just below it was off- limits with heavy fortifications and barbed wire to prevent would-be refugees from swimming across to freedom in the West. After the 1989 collapse of Communism the area was demilitarised
The Danube's path through German and then Austrian territory is mostly eastwards. A boundary to civilisation in Antiquity, when the frontier between the Roman Empire and the Barbarians ran along its course, the river is dotted with towns that started life as Roman forts and grew into influential trading centres and strongholds of local potentates in the Middle Ages. Their long and often turbulent past has given birth to elegant Gothic churches, Baroque town squares and palaces, and fortified monasteries, and to a rich layer of culture. In Passau, Germany, where the Inn and the Ilz join the Danube in a particularly picturesque way, medieval minstrels composed the the Song of the Nibelungs, an epic about love, loss, betrayal and revenge, which also includes a journey along the river all the way to Hungary.
Vienna, for its part, is the place where the ultimate musical piece dedicated to the river, the Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss II, was performed for the first time to a rather unresponsive audience, in 1867. The city that for centuries was the heart of the continent still feels grandiose, with the polished and carefully exploited glory of its imperial past, Art Deco architecture, coffee-drinking culture, and museums that proudly exhibit art which until not that long ago was perceived as decadent. It is rather disappointing, then, that in spite of its Danube-themed waltz Vienna does not make the most of its river frontage. The Danube here divides into four channels, and the one that passes by the old city centre faces what is the city's most garish tourist site, the Prater amusement park.
To find a city that fully embraces the Danube as a part of its identity you need to travel a long way downstream, past the modernist Most SNP bridge aka Flying Saucer Bridge in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, and through the Instagram-perfect banks of the Danube Bend where, at Visegrád, four ambitious former East bloc countries – Hungary, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia, meet to decide their common EU and NATO policies.
The Franz Joseph Bridge in Budapest, now called Liberty Bridge
Until 1873, Budapest was two cities divided by the Danube. Even now the two sides of the Hungarian capital, right-bank Buda and left-bank Pest preserve their differences. The former is more or less residential, notwithstanding the obvious tourist sites by the Gothic Matthias Cathedral and the views from the arches of the Fisherman's Bastion, while the latter encapsulates city life in a network of grand boulevards and stately buildings, crowned by the neo-Gothic Parliament building. The Chain Bridge has connected the two since 1849. In the following decades, more bridges spanned the river and their reconstruction after the damage of the Second World War became a symbol of Hungary's revival.
After Budapest, all the cities the Danube passes by might appear drab and uninteresting by comparison, but this does great disservice to places such as Novi Sad and Belgrade, both in Serbia. With its elegant Baroque town centre and massive fortress, Novi Sad is the last bastion of Central Europe before the Danube gets subsumed into the Balkans. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is a city in flux, where Ottoman heritage coexists with 19th and early 20th century attempts at Europeanisation, brutalist Socialist Yugoslavia construction, traces of the 1999 NATO raids and a restaurant and nightlife scene few places on the continent can beat.
In the past travellers on the Danube feared the Iron Gates Gorge. Today they cannot get enough of its vistas
Soon after Belgrade the Danube carves its way through mountains, creating one of the most picturesque parts of its course: the Đerdap, or Iron Gates Gorge. For millennia this narrow route, full of underground rocks and violent whirlpools, made for a treacherous and dangerous boat trip. In the 1960s, Yugoslavia and Romania built a dam that tamed the area forever. Meandering roads now pass along both banks. The Serbian one leads to the haunted ruins of Golubac Fortress and a modern museum to the prehistoric culture that thrived at Lepenski Vir about 10,000 years ago.
A Romanian patriotic businessman funded the monument to Decebalus (AD 87-106), the last king of Dacia, who fought three wars against the Roman Empire
On the Romanian bank, a 55-metre relief carved in the rocks Mount-Rushmore-style gazes over the Danube. It depicts Decebalus, the leader of the Dacians who opposed the Roman conquest led by Emperor Trajan. Both the Dacians and the Romans are now considered to be ancestors of modern Romanians.
About 100 kilometres after the Danube frees itself from the concrete grip of the Iron Gates Dam, the Timok joins it from the south. This is where the Bulgarian part of the river begins.
Here Bulgaria begins: The River Timok joins the Danube
The first point of interest is downstream, where the Danube makes a sweeping turn to the south. Vidin is a relatively small city now, at the centre of the EU's most economically deprived region. It has yet to figure out how to profit from the recently constructed bridge over the Danube to Romania, but this was not always so. Vidin was for millennia a coveted spot on the river, as is evident from its fortress. Established by the Romans over the remains of a Celtic settlement, it has been claimed by the Byzantines, the Bulgarians, the Hungarians and the Ottomans, who gave it its last facelift. Its sturdy ramparts preserve a selection of monuments and buildings left behind by the diverse nations, faiths and political powers that have inhabited or controlled Vidin. An Ottoman mosque, a library and a barracks rub walls with a couple of churches, fin de siècle houses, shabby Communist-era blocks of apartments and a couple of post-1989 residential buildings that spectacularly fail in their effort to offer "luxury living." Graffiti-covered skate ramps rust at the foot of a towering Communist-era monument dedicated to the fallen in the "fight against fascism," while locals walk their dogs and jog along the pleasant river promenade, oblivious to the swarms of mosquitoes over their heads.
The story about how Vidin's fortress came to be is arguably the Balkans most feminist legend. It attributes the fort's construction to an aristocratic woman, Baba Vida, who never married but ruled wisely over the region. Her younger sisters did not fare as well, they both married bad men who wasted their dowries
One particular building stands out, the neo-Gothic synagogue of Vidin or, more correctly, what remains of it. When it was built, in 1894, it was the largest in Bulgaria, the creation of a vibrant community that lived in a well-to-do town. Jews are no more in Vidin. They emigrated to Israel in the late 1940s, and their synagogue was largely abandoned and left to the elements. The fate of their cemetery, just outside the town, was similar.
Vidin's synagogue was once a major town building featuring on numerous postcards. It has been abandoned for decades
The traveller along the Bulgarian Danube often encounters evidence of former glory and present decay. One of the most haunting sites is located downriver from Vidin. When the Romans ruled over the region, Ratiaria was a major city that commanded an elevation over the river, until it was destroyed by the Avars in 568. Centuries later, a village appeared by the ruins, its name a reiteration of Ratiaria – Archar. So far, so typical for the history of Danube settlements that appear, disappear and reappear on the same spot as historical epochs change. But the story of Ratiaria is sadder. After 1989, the ancient ruins were left unprotected and people from Archar village, struggling to earn some cash in a time of closing factories and rising unemployment, took to treasure-hunting. Since then they have combed through Ratiaria for anything of value – statuettes, inscriptions, jewellery, coins, to sell to Bulgarian and international collectors, feeding Bulgaria's notorious trade in illegal artefacts.
Elaborate columns that once adorned Ratiaria are preserved in central Archar, a hint of the archaeological wealth and historical knowledge destroyed by treasure hunters
At Archar, the traveller for the first time comes face to face with the lack of proper infrastructure along the Danube. Here you have to make the first of many detours inland that include driving on potholed roads through villages and towns overlooked by the ribbon-cutting politicians the year round.
Marvellous sunsets over the Danube are Lom's saving grace
In this desperate landscape the next place of interest, Kozloduy, comes as a surprise. The town's prosperity, as evidenced by its neat streets, manicured gardens and well-surfaced pavements is due to a single thing: here is Bulgaria's (so far) only nuclear power plant. Since the 1970s, the mammoth structure humming near Kozloduy has produced electricity for local and international use, and has created well-paid jobs. Today, only two of its six reactors are operational; the rest were closed down as they employed the same compromised technology as the power plant at Chernobyl.
The nuclear power plant at Kozloduy is a source of local pride and boosts the region's median wages
The reason Kozloduy is worth visiting, however, has nothing to do with nuclear power engineering. In 1876, the poet and revolutionary, Hristo Botev, landed near the town with a group of armed men. Botev hoped to inspire the locals to rise up against the Ottomans. He failed. The Bulgarians did not join his rebellion, and within days Botev and most of his men were killed in skirmishes with the Ottomans. After Liberation in 1878, their landing site became a park, complete with a monument and a replica of the Radetzky, the Austro-Hungarian steamer that Botev very politely hijacked to cross from the Romanian to the Bulgarian bank of the Danube. The Radetzky is still moored on the Danube and can be visited. It is now a part of the National Museum of History.
At first glance the village of Gigen, close to where the Iskar joins the Danube, does not seem to merit the bumpy drive, but near it lie the ruins of one of the most enjoyable ancient sites in Bulgaria. At its height, the Roman city of Ulpia Oescus had a population of 100,000 and was deemed so important for the empire that a wooden bridge over the Danube was built there in the early 4th century. Emperor Constantine himself attended the inauguration.
The ruins of Ulpia Oescus are arguably Bulgaria's ultimate archaeological experience
These are now just memories reduced to rubble by the Barbarians who eventually crossed the Danube. Unlike Ratiaria, Ulpia Oescus has been largely undisturbed by treasure-hunters and archaeologists still work there. For the casual visitor, Ulpia Oescus is marvellously untamed: stone columns, reliefs and other architectural elements are scattered in picturesque disarray delineating the location of long-abandoned streets and public buildings. Together with the wild undergrowth and the vaguely Mediterranean atmosphere around, at Ulpia Oescus it is easy to feel like the discoverer of a long-forgotten civilisation. Linger long enough, and you might start to wonder whether Ulpia Oescus is not a metaphor for the whole Bulgarian Danube.
At Nikopol, to the east, this feeling will grow stronger. The name of the town has changed little from its Latin origins, "Victory City." Several important battles were fought there, including one that featured crusaders. Today Nikopol is anything but victorious. Spread along a narrow ravine that ends at the Danube, the town is poor and desolate, its sad streets dotted with little-known sites of interest: a toy-like medieval church leaning dangerously over the ravine, an ancient Roman sarcophagus repurposed by the Ottomans as a public water fountain, a vandalised monument to the Russian troops who landed at Nikopol in 1877.
The towns and places so far on the Bulgarian Danube have been largely defined by their ancient, medieval, Ottoman and early 20th century past. Belene, too, claims Roman origins, but its past and present are dominated by another period in Bulgarian history: Communism.
Remains of the Belene political prison. Its location on the island was chosen as it borders Communist Romania
In 1949, soon after Bulgaria turned from monarchy to a "people's republic," the most notorious political prison of the new regime was established at Belene, on the Isle of Persin. The prison was shut down in 1953, after Stalin's death and the subsequent relaxation. Three years later it reopened following the orders of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who feared that the 1956 Hungarian Revolution would inspire organised local opposition in Bulgaria. Belene prison continued to function until 1959. It would reopen again in 1985 to house those protesting against the forcible Bulgarisation campaign of the country's Turkish minority.
Today, there is still a regular prison on Persin Isle.
A pontoon bridge is the isle's only land connection to the outside world
Just by the gates to the prison stands the Nativity of the Holiest Mother of God Roman Catholic church, built in 1860. The local parish has existed since the 17th century, and its most famous leader was Bishop Evgeniy Bosilkov. In 1952, he was sentenced to death and executed by the Communists on trumped-up charges, and in 1998 he was beatified by the pope. A small chapel next to the church is dedicated to him and preserves his blood-stained shirt.
Entrance to the yet unbuilt Belene Nuclear Power Plant
And then, there is the nuclear power plant. Actually, the plant has yet to materialise, but its construction has been on and off for the past 30-odd years, while the costs have spiralled out of control. The only bit of the project that was built was a residential compound for the future workers at the power plant. The unfinished apartment blocks still stand on the outskirts of Belene, their empty concrete rooms gaping with their missing windows at the vast Danubian sky.
Persin Isle nature protected area is a heaven for birdwatchers
Belene's dark past and unfulfilled dreams of an industrial future are in sharp contrast to the little-known fact that the swamps on Persin Isle are a protected wildlife area: a haven (pun not intended) for various water-fowl.
After Belene, Svishtov is a breath of fresh air. Its centre, adorned by some fin-de-siècle houses and an 18th century clocktower, is livelier than you might expect for a place of such a size on the Bulgarian Danube because of the students at the Academy of Economics, this nation's first business school. Plaques and statues to prominent Svishtovers, such as the author of the national anthem, are scattered all over. The town's most famous son was the satirical writer, Aleko Konstantinov, whose antihero Bay Ganyo epitomises the worst and, arguably, some of the best traits of the national character. Konstantinov's family house is a museum where, besides covers of the many translations of Bay Ganyo, you will see a macabre exhibit: the writer's embalmed heart. It was pierced by the bullets that killed him in 1897, when he was caught up in an assassination attempt aimed at another man.
Svishtov's clocktower has measured time in the town since 1763
East of the town are the remains of Svishtov's Roman predecessor, Novae. For some reason, the ancient ruins were "restored and socialised" with exposed concrete and stainless steel. Even more puzzlingly, they are the popular venue for an annual historical reenactment event.
Opposite Novae's modern ruins, facing the Danube, is the leafy and pleasant Monuments Park dedicated to the Russian army whose landing at Svishtov, in 1877, marked the beginning of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. The name of the park comes from the memorials to those troops. It is in every guidebook and tourist website about the region, but few people are aware that there is another monument to foreign soldiers in Svishtov. Located in a neighbourhood of prefabricated apartment blocks, it is dedicated, unexpectedly, to French POWs who died of cholera during the Great War. Until recently, the remains of over 200 French troops lay in a dedicated military cemetery. In the 2000s, they were reburied in the French military cemetery in Sofia, but the monument remained in Svishtov.
The grandest construction in Svishtov's Monuments Park, a 24-metre- high concrete arch with reliefs of Russian soldiers, was inaugurated in 1979
To reach Ruse, Bulgaria's largest city on the Danube, you need to make another detour inland. Ruse flourished as the largest Roman port on this part of the river and under the Ottomans became a major trading centre. Few traces now remain from those times. Instead, Ruse took its influences from Central Europe. Early 20th century buildings line its central streets in numbers unseen elsewhere in Bulgaria, along with mementos from a multicultural past: a Catholic cathedral, an Armenian church, a former Ashkenazi synagogue turned Sephardic culture centre, a former Sephardic synagogue turned Protestant church, two mosques.
Ruse's History Museum is in the first administrative building erected in Bulgaria after Liberation in 1878. It was designed for the regional administration in 1882 by Austrian architect Friedrich Grünanger. The tale that it was meant to be a palace for the first Bulgarian prince, Alexander of Battenberg, is fictitious
The Ruse cityscape began to take its current form in the 1850s, when a progressive Ottoman governor and increased river traffic and contacts with Europe brought in scores of foreigners and ignited in locals a taste for innovation from modern farming techniques and beer brewing to street signs and telegraph communications, from railway construction to modern printing. After 1878, Ruse kept its momentum for a while and became the powerhouse of the modern Bulgarian economy. Much of the money made in the new factories, banks and insurance companies was spent on private and public construction and the adoption of a European lifestyle, in the areas of fashion, home decoration, cinema, and automobiles (imported from Germany).
Ruse started as a major Roman harbour. It remains Bulgaria's largest port on the Danube
The atmosphere of those times can still be sensed in parts of central Ruse, although in many places it struggles under the pressure of post-1944 prefabricated apartment blocks and post-1989 "modernisation" with its appetite for vinyl window-frames and air conditioning units tacked onto historical buildings. Many of Ruse's beautiful old houses are now abandoned and slowly disintegrating. Until recently this was the fate of the family house of the writer Elias Canetti, Bulgaria's only claim to Nobel fame. A Jew, he left Ruse as a six-year-old. He did not speak Bulgarian, but he provided some mesmerising descriptions of his native town in his emblematic The Tongue Set Free.
Ruse is also the home of the Stalinist Friendship Bridge, until recently – the only land connection between Bulgaria and Romania over the Danube. Bulgaria and Romania jointly built the structure for railway and vehicle traffic in the 1950s, hence the name. Five-pointed stars still adorn its wrought-iron lampposts, but travellers rarely notice them, as traffic on and around the bridge is notoriously jammed and the potholes in the road do not help.
The Friendship Bridge remains a vital transit connection between Bulgaria and Romania
To the stranger, Tutrakan might be of (slight) interest because of its tongue-twisting name. However, the sound of the name Tutrakan in September 1916 was enough for German Kaiser Wilhelm to throw a champagne party. Why? Because Bulgaria, a German ally, had taken the heavily fortified Tutrakan Fort against all odds, and had significantly reduced Romanian and Russian pressure on the eastern front.
Yes, for a time the Danube east of Tutrakan, along with the Dobrudzha region, belonged to Romania, the result of the disastrous Second Balkan War that Bulgaria fought with all of its neighbours. This is why, during the Great War, the Bulgarians were more than eager to win back Tutrakan. They won the battle, with Ottoman and German support, but Bulgaria still lost the war. The 1919 Treaty of Neuilly gave the whole of Dobrudzha, Tutrakan included, back to Romania.
Monument to the fallen in the 1916 Tutrakan siege
In the 1920s, on a height south of Tutrakan, the Romanian authorities created a military cemetery to the fallen of the 1916 siege. This cemetery is well maintained today, and its centrepiece is an obelisk with the words "Honour and glory to those who knew how to die heroically for their fatherland," written in Bulgarian, Romanian, Ottoman Turkish and German.
Tutrakan itself is far from exciting, but if you have not yet tried some Danube carp or catfish, your best chance are the fish restaurants in the humble traditional part of the town.
Central Tutrakan preserves some nice early-20th century buildings
Tutrakan and the next town, Silistra, were returned to Bulgaria in 1940, after Hitler convinced his ally Romania that this was a reasonable price to pay for having Bulgaria join the Axis. Ironically, this saved the Jews who lived in Silistra from the Holocaust, as Bulgaria deported to extermination camps only the Jews from the newly-acquired territories of Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia, but not those in the rest of the country.
Today, only a couple of Jews live in Silistra. The Jewish cemetery, on the border with Romania, is overgrown and the synagogue has become a Protestant church. Still, Silistra is a place of Jewish pilgrimage from all over the world. People flock here to pray at the symbolic grave of Rabbi Eliezer Papo. A prominent ethics scholar, he was the head of the local Sephardic community during the 1828-1829 Russo-Turkish War. When the frontline reached Silistra, a cholera outbreak threatened the town. Rabbi Papo had the brave idea of imposing a quarantine. He saved the town, but he lost his own life to the disease. His grave became a place of reverence to all Silistrians, but with time and new construction it was forgotten and disappeared. The symbolic grave was built after 1989.
Excavated ruins of an early-medieval church and fortification walls in Silistra's riverside garden, just off the point when the Danube leaves Bulgaria and becomes a thoroughly Romanian river
Just like Vidin, and unlike so many other Bulgarian towns on the Danube, Silistra has a pleasant riverside garden. Among the greenery and the modern sculptures lurk the remains of ancient and medieval Silistra – a basilica and some elaborate fortification walls. Sadly, much more was lost in the 2000s, when new developments sprang up in this part of the city. The most impressive ancient monument in Silistra is at a remove from the centre: a late-Antiquity tomb covered with lively frescoes of the deceased, his wife, his servants and... his trousers.
The second best preserved fortress on the Bulgarian Danube, after that in Vidin, is a short drive from there. It was constructed in the mid-19th century by a German engineer and soon after found itself besieged by Russian forces during the Crimean War. Today it houses an exhibition of historical weapons and uniforms, plus busts of some Communist dictators.
Silistra tomb's frescoes depict vivid and charming details of 4th century lifestyle. It was never used as intended. Its owner probably fled Silistra fearing one of the Barbarian raids from across the Danube that ravaged the region at the time
Before leaving the Bulgarian Danube for good, do backtrack for a couple of kilometres to the west to see Lake Srebarna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site frequented by rare local and migratory birds.
The Bulgarian part of the Danube ends at Silistra. From then on the river flows mostly through rather unexciting flatlands. At Cernavoda begins the artificial canal that, since the mid-20th century, has diverted river traffic to the major maritime port of Constanta, thus significantly shortening the distance to the Black Sea. What is a boon for shipping became the ruination of Braila and Galaţi downstream. Once, dozens of ships from all over the world docked there, but today they are no more. The deserted buildings in the historical centres of Braila and Galaţi are now the only thing that remains of the former glory of these formerly busy and cosmopolitan ports.
The Danube meets the Black Sea through an extensive delta that consists of three main canals and thousands of waterways divided by swamps, marshes and isolated patches of stable ground. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the region is mostly left to wildlife and farming and fishing communities, who, due to lack of proper roads, travel by boat.
Disused hearse at Sulina cemetery
You can do the same at Tulcea, where the road ends, to reach a fascinating, ghostly place just before the Black Sea coast. Sulina is now little more than two streets and a handful of houses. However, in the 19th century, it was under the authority of the international Danube Commission, which regulated traffic along the Danube, and as such attracted vessels and people from all the corners of the continent. British, French, Germans, Russians, Greeks, Turks and others called Sulina home. After the commission stopped work before the Second World War and the Cernavoda canal opened, Sulina was largely abandoned. What remains of its once cosmopolitan community is an atmospheric Victorian cemetery by the Danube.
From Sulina, it is a short boat trip to the choppy waters of the Black Sea, which mark the end of a journey of thousands of kilometres and countless adventures along one of Europe's greatest rivers.
After 2,850 km the Danube finally meets the Black Sea in Romania-Ukraine
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners