28 December 2013

Between the woods and the water - From Orsova to the bridge of Traian

Patrick Leigh Fermor's entry on the Iron Gates gorge will guide us between Orsova and the bridge of emperor Traian in Turnu-Severin. This is the place where the Danube leaves the Carpathian Mountains, and flows on the Walachian Plains until reaching the Black Sea. You won't recognise anymore the landscape Fermor has seen. Since the Iron Gate dam was built in 1972 most of the landmarks mentioned in Fermor's journals are under water now.

The risk of letting the surveyors take me far beyond the point of no return (on foot, at least, in a single day) had been rewarded by finding the little steamer at Moldova Veche; and by mid-morning I was back at my Orsova starting point. Thank God for those surveyors! Carried away by the stirring name of the Iron Gates, I had almost missed the amazing Kazan. It was my last day in Middle Europe; I determined to rik my hand still further: instead of landing when we drew alongside Orsova quay, I would keep the doctor company to the next stop, and get back there again as best I could.

There was almost too much happening on this strech of the river. Soon after the anchor was up, the doctor pointed out a polygonal chapel at the end of a line of trees beyond the north bank. When the Austrians drove the Hungarian revolutionary army eastwards in the 1848 uprising, Kossuth, to prevent the young Franz-Josef from being crowned King, seized the Crown of St. Stephen from the Coronation Church in Buda and carried it off with the entire coronation regalia, to Transylvania. After their defeat, the leaders secretly buried it in a filed and escaped across the Danube into the Turkish dominions. All Hungary mourned the loss, but in due course the treasure was found and dug up; the Emperor was crowned King after all, and this octagonal chapel was put up to mark the hiding place. Before Trianon,a village on the same bank had been the south-westernmost Rumanian frontier-post with Hungary. We left the leafy island to port, and, as the doctor told me its history, a new plan began to take shape.
Meanwhile the mountains on either side had drawn together again, tight-lacing the river into a milder version of the Kazan, and the sudden flurry round our vessel meant that we were actually inside the Iron Gates. But here, al the drama took place under water and the upheavals in the stream-bed stirred up fierce and complex currents. For hundreds of years rocks like dragons’ teeth had made the passage mortally dangerous, only to be navigated when the water was high. At the end of the last century, close under the Serbian shore, engineers blew, dug and dredged a safe channel a mile long, then dammed it off with a subflumial wall. Threading these hazards, we learnt, made the upstream journey slow and toilsome, the opposite of our swift and buoyant passage downstream and we soon entered a serener reach where the mountains began to subside, and when we landed at Turnu-Severin, I was setting foot in the Regat – pre-Trianon Rumania, that is – for the first time.

It was the remains of Trajan’s amazing bridge that we had come to see, the greatest in the Roman Empire. Apollodorus of Damascus, who built it, was a Greek from Syria, and two great stumps of his conglomerate masonry still cumbered the Rumanian side; a third stood across the water in a serbian meadow. Swifts were skimming over the water and red-legged falcons hovered and dived all round those soiltary survivors of twenty massive piers. Once they had risen tapering to a great height and supported over a mile of arched timber superstructure: beams over which the cavalry had clattered and ox-carts creaked as the Thirteenth tarmped north to besiege Decebalus in Sarmizegethusa. On the spot, only these stumps remained, but the scene of the dedication is carved in great detail on Trajan’s Coulmn in Rome, and the Forum pigeons, ascending the shaft in a spiral, can gaze at these very piers in high relief: the balustered bridge soars intact and the cloaked General himself waits beside the sacridical bull and the flaming altar with his legionaries drawn up helmet-in-hand under their eagle standards.
This was the end of the great cleft. East of here the Carpathians swoop away to the north-east and the river coils south and then east, simultaneously defining the edge of the Wallachian plain, the northern frontier of Bulgaria and the edge of the Balkans. It reaches the Balck Sea at last in a delta rustling with a thousand square miles of reeds and tumultuous with many millions of birds.

… I was beginning to get the hang of the hardly beliveable chasm I had been exploring since the small hours and into which I was now doubling back. It was the wildest stretch of the whole river and the pilots who sailed on it and the dwellers on its bank had many scourges to contend with. The worst of these were the Kossovar winds, named after the tragic region of Kossovo, where Old Serbia, Macedonia and Albania march. terrible south-easterly storms, linked with the monsoon and the earth’s rotation, spring up in a moment and strike the Middle and Lower Danube. At the spring equinox they reach a speed of fifty or sixty miles an hour and turn the river into a convulsed inferno, unmasting ships, smashing panes, and sending strings of barges to the bottom.
In autumn, when the water level drops and the steppe-like country dries up like an oven, gales turn into dust-storms that blindfold pilots in hot whirlwinds and strip one bank of the river to the water level, eroding it sometimes to the point of overflow and flood; while simultaneously and at amazing speed, intantaneous dunes build up the other bank with shoals and sand-banks, blocking channels and closing the river-bed: seasonal disasters only to be righted by months of dyking and dredging. As I listened, the charasteristics of the river became clearer: the hundreds of underwater streams feeding the river like anonymous donors; rolling gravel, which, in certain reaches, signs audibly through the muffling flood; millions of tons of alluvia always on the move; boulders bounding along troughs and chasms which suck the currents into rhe depths and propel them spiralling to the surface the peristaltic progress of slime and the invisible march of wreckage down the long staircase of the bottom; the weight and force of the river in the mountain narrows, forever scouring a deeper passage, tearing off huge fragments of rock and trundling them along in the dark and slowly grinding them down to pebbles, then gravel, then grit and finally sand. At the eastern end of the defile, in the flat region of southern Wallachia, there is an appalling winter wind from Russia they call the buran. It becomes the crivatz in Rumania, and when it blows, the temperature plummets far below zero, the river freezes over within forty-eight hours and a solid lid of ice shuts over it, growing steadily thicker as the winter advances. It was an effort, in this summer weather, to conjure up all this - the tracks of sleighs on the grey or glittering waste, and the fields of pack-ice like millions of joined icebergs crowding each other into the distance. Woe betide unwary ships that are caught in it! When the water expands into ice, hulls crack like walnuts. 'We put a bucket of water on the bridge and keep dipping our hands in when the temperature begins to drop,' the pilot had said,' and make for safety at the first ice-needle. 

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