Tulcea, Romania — AT the end of its 1,771-mile journey across Europe, the mighty Danube River seems to give up trying to reach the Black Sea. It turns north, away from the coast, crosses the lonely steppe country, then frays into myriad channels, marshes, swamps and lakes edged by waterlogged willow trees.
Colonies of birds fly in from Asia, Africa and Siberia. In the stalled, murky water, giant carp and catfish lurk, sought by fishermen who live in villages that can be reached only by boat.
This is the Danube River delta, a 1.6-million-acre World Biosphere Reserve, out of time, unknown and remote, a lost puzzle piece at the wild, eastern edge of Europe. To see it is proof that the meandering river has never lost heart.
All along, it knew that the shortest route is not always the best way to get where you want to go.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Romania: A map accompanying an Aug. 6 Travel section article about the Danube delta labeled Budapest as the capital of Romania. The country's capital is Bucharest.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 13, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Romania: A map accompanying an Aug. 6 article about the Danube delta labeled Budapest as the capital of Romania. The country's capital is Bucharest.
In Romania, summer vacationers make a beeline for Black Sea beaches south of Constanta, about 80 miles east of Bucharest, Romania's capital. But only a few follow the river to its delta, which lines the northern part of Romania's Black Sea coast between Constanta and the Ukrainian border.
In 1999, Diwaker Singh, an Indian investment broker who works in Bucharest, brought his family here. He found thousands of nesting pelicans and cormorants flying in tight V formations, flotillas of water lilies and endless beds of reeds, Black Sea dunes, Greek and Roman archeological sites, painted monasteries and lost fishing villages.
But there were no reliable ways to see them and no interesting places to stay, except for a handful of dour, communist-era resorts and ugly, high-rise hotels in the delta gateway town of Tulcea.
Singh became acquainted with Virgil Munteanu, then-governor of the region, who helped him get approval to build a luxury hotel on a hill near the village of Somova, overlooking the delta. Singh's goal was to create a model eco-resort, showcasing the folk architecture, arts and crafts of Romania and employing local people.
Munteanu, who had just finished his term in office, became the general manager, and the Delta Nature Resort opened in May 2005.
I came here for a long weekend last month after a four-hour trip from Bucharest, mostly on bumpy back roads. I traveled in one of the resort's big Mercedes-Benz vans with Nassim, Singh's eldest son, a tall 16-year-old with the face of a cherub and the experience of a tycoon-in-the-making. He divides his time among an English boarding school, India and Bucharest.
When we passed a horse-drawn hay cart on the highway, Nassim smiled and said sagely, "The old and new really clash here."
Less than 20 years after the overthrow of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Bucharest looks like a city on growth hormones. Big-name foreign companies have opened shop, drawn partly by rock-bottom prices for goods and services as well as a highly literate, high-tech-savvy workforce. Real estate values are skyrocketing, and there is construction seemingly everywhere, spurred by Romania's expected acceptance early next year into the European Union.
The old ways
ONCE we left Bucharest, I saw shepherds moving their flocks of sheep and goats in the age-old rhythms of transhumance, the seasonal shifting of livestock from one pasture to another. In a countryside largely untouched by development, in a nation still manifestly part of the developing world, geese and pigs forage outside tumble-down farmhouses. Families sell colossal watermelons by the roadside, fetch water from wells and ride to town in wagons like the Pennsylvania Dutch. Fields of wheat, corn and ravishing yellow sunflowers stretch in seemingly every direction, with nary a gas station or convenience store to interrupt.
The Danube delta is the region's one major attraction. Eleven thousand years ago, sand banks built up at the mouth of the river, giving it no other recourse than to pool into placid lakes and back up into narrow, stagnant channels. Near Tulcea, the Danube separates into three main branches: the Chilia, bordering Ukraine; the Sfintu Gheorghe, flowing east below a chain of ancient, rounded-off mountains; and the Sulina, straightened by engineers in the 19th century to accommodate freighters.
The road to the Delta Nature Resort turns west at Tulcea, passing a Ceausescu-era factory, with fuming smokestacks and broken windows, that processes the raw materials for aluminum. It keeps the town employed and distributes hot water to several dozen villages nearby, but it also sends pollutants through an above-ground pipe to an earth-embanked reservoir yards away from one of the delta's arms.