The Iron Gates

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Europe » Romania
June 23rd 2016
Published: June 10th 2017
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Geo: 45.9432, 24.9668

Sailing all day on the placid, quiet, not blue Danube River is a mixed blessing. Sailing is truly lovely on this now gentle stretch of water, but we will not dock anywhere until early tomorrow morning, so there is no escape from the boat; we cannot run off to walk around a town or city, to stretch our legs and minds seeing new sights and meeting new people. But it is hot, close to 100F most days, so perhaps I would not have walked very far anyway. Since my earliest memories from childhood I've always enjoyed a break from routines; unique impressions from the previously unknown are stimulating and exciting. A year ago on our sail down the great Yangtze River in China, I felt even more constrained when we were not allowed to leave the boat. But one time there was a 15 minute grace period when we could go ashore, so I quickly asked for a boarding pass, ran outside over pontoons and up the hill behind, looked around for a bit, and ran back down again, jumping over the pontoons in pure joy of the freedom of movement. It was a delightful break. Some people here do laps on the sundeck, but I tried it once, and to me the repetition is boring. When I was a distance runner years ago, I ran cross-country, on trails through shady woods, and, when necessary, on city streets. There was always something new to discover; that was part of the enjoyment and fun.

So here we are on the wide, gentle Danube. It is the second longest river in Europe, and we are making our long way from Vidin, Bulgaria to Belgrade, Serbia; in point of fact we are sailing between two countries, Serbia and Romania, so there is no country's flag hoisted on the bow of our ship. We have passed through two locks, one a double lock; it is interesting to see the boat rise up 45 feet and then to see the cement door open to let us through. Some of us guessed whether the door would slide sideways to open, or if it would sink down to let our boat pass over. The people who guessed the latter were correct. The locks are impressive structures! These last two are called the Iron Gates, and are a series of hydroelectric dams. Construction began in 1960, a joint project of Yugoslavia and Romania, built so boats could navigate the formerly raging river on this part more safely, easily, and quickly. Sadly, the Iron Gates project has changed one of the world's greatest river gorges, the Kazan section of the Danube, and it has also submerged the island of Ada Kaleh and the town of Orsova. Along with 8,000 people from Yugoslavia and 15,000 from Romania being resettled, the gorge was hugely changed, a railway was removed, forests were drowned, and ancient, whole communities, complete with mosques and fortresses, were lost. Such is the price of progress. The first ship passed through the Romanian canal lock in 1969. There is still no charge for boats to pass through either on the Romanian or Serbian side. Most people, I think, would consider the Iron Gates to have been a wise investment. I don't know what to think about it, never having seen the river, the communities, the forests, and the gorge before, but weighing human life and history against human life and history, how would one choose? I am glad I did not have to make the decision whether to raise the waters of the great Danube.


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