When we went to the Danube Delta’s Sf. Gheorghe channels in a one-day flying visit with Hello Holidays on May 23, the fishing prohibition was still in place till June 9. So, the turquoise watered channels and lakes of the arm were still quite and peaceful, yet undisturbed by the fishermen or too many tourists.
As our guide tell us, May is the best month to visit Danube Delta, for it is the time when water lilies are blooming, the weather is warm and friendly and the mosquitoes less annoying. Besides, the show of the birds nesting and feeding with the generous plankton and fish is “rara avis“, a rare thing, as they say.
We sail gliding down the small channels among the weeping willows, water lilies, reed and rushes, sometimes gently to catch glimpses of the delta’s wonderful plant and animal life, sometimes speeding away with our little motorboat, with a headwind.
So, we pass by Litcov channel, the longest channel in the birds’ paradise, stretching on almost 50km, which faces Caraorman lake and Sf Gheorghe arm: the eye is enchanted by vines groves on the shores, a glimpse of two roamed wild horses, a few fisherman’s cottages, some abandoned, others still inhabited, white and yellow water lilies popping up on the water surface, cormorants perched up in the highest branches.
Our guiding boatman is shy and quiet at the beginning, but stirred by the journalists’ curious questions, he starts revealing us the hints and stories „behind the scene” of this unique, exquisite water world which is the Danube Delta and its channels. So, we find out that Litcov arm is not only the longest of the delta, but it’s also rich in mackerel, which it is also the only fish that has the green light amid prohibition and that can be fished till the end of May.
Slowly we pass by the Gorgova, Potcoava, Crulic lakes and corresponding channels, indulged by their beauty and particularities: ancient willow trees bent and twisted into the water, fresh water lilies in bloom, colourful boats hidden among the picturesque branches and a symphony of croaking and merry chirping.
Our path crosses with several cheerful tourists wearing colorful clothes rowing with the canoes on the channels. We salute and ask them where they are from. “From far and wide“, they reply, telling they have a real good time here.
Jack the fisherman and guide for tourists, a living legend around here
Our guide, a 43-year-old fisherman from Mahmudia, Stefan Gigi had an interesting, challenging life, but he doesn’t see himself somewhere else than here in the delta. He practised canoeing while he was a child, with the famous Ivan Patzaichin, the most decorated Romanian canoeist of all times, coaching him, but he had to give up suddenly following a cruel diagnosis: lung cancer. Not only did he beat and survive the disease, he took his life in his own hands and made a living here. „I drive the boat here since childhood. You can blindfold me and let me sail anywhere on the channels, I know how to navigate, I don’t need no GPS, Google-moogle, stuff like this.”
“I have brothers abroad, I was in the Spain or Northern countries, but I couldn’t resist, I came back here, there is no place like home. Everyone with his destiny”, he said, warning us that, even if he’s name is Stefan Gigi, his nickname is Jack and everybody around here knows him by Jack. „If you mention about Stefan Gigi, nobody heard of it, but I am famous here by the name of Jack…Jack is a rare living legend, mark my words”, he says giggling.
Amid chatting and laughing, Jack takes us to have a close-up look at the cormorants queuing and chattering on top of tree branches, and we don’t miss the opportunity of making fun of Daea – cormorant story (a former Agriculture minister who stated two years ago that „Cormorants are having bath in the pools in Romania“, with his war against cormorants becoming notorious ever since).
But you cannot come to the Danube Delta without seeing pelicans. In our case, pelicans are hard to get right now, as they can be seen nowhere. Jack is determined to track them, saying all over again how sorry he is we cannot see pelicans, as there were plenty of them on the channels the past days, and speeding away through the narrow water alleys to catch a glimpse of them. He promises he won’t let us down and to ‘procure’ some for us.
Despite his umbilical connection with his birthplace, Jack has some complaints about the delta though: one is the authorities’ lack of an integrated perspective on the delta, to service the Delta, to clean up the trees fallen in the water. „They only come to make raids and conduct checks, lest fishermen are poaching, but they don’t bother to maintain the delta, to provide for the cleanup,” Jack complains. “We are cleaning the trees fallen into the water,” he adds.
The other complaint is related to mosquitoes, the true trouble makers of the delta. “During the communist regime, authorities would come and sprinkle with mosquito repellents, but now they say you cannot use repellents for they damage the plant and animal life”, Jack notes.
So, the annoying insects are screwing around on the channels, particularly in the summer months, from June to August. In Jack’s view, there is no solution against them. „How can you avoid them? No spray can do it. If you shut the engine down here in the reeds you’ll cry by the time you count to three. You’ll have hundreds of mosquitoes on one arm. Believe me, it is here the biggest confession, not at the priest”, Jack ‘confesses’ while laughing.
Other challenging hitch here in the Danube Delta are the harsh winters, with water freezing and the wind blowing hard, which causes troubles to the locals, who find themselves isolated.
Fish dishes, the highlight of the Danube Delta cuisine
However, Jack doesn’t allow that we remain with a gloomy perspective, luring us with another strong point of these realms: the cuisine, particularly that our stomachs are rumbling after a few hours of sliding on the channels. His favorite fish dishes are based on pike and pike-perch, that imperatively goes with garlic, plenty of garlic. As we sail on Gorgova lake, the third largest lake in the delta (Razem ranks first), Jack discloses it has deep waters, full of pike, carp, crucian carp and many others.
Among the most common fish dishes in the Danube Delta, there are the fish brine, smoked or marinade mackerel, fish fried cooked in pot with garlic sauce and polenta, fish „zacusca” and fish balls, and the one and only fish soup, which actually it is not just one soup, but it can be cooked in tens of ways and has tens of flavours. „If I cook a fish soup, it doesn’t taste the same with the one cooked after several days even if the recipe is the same”, Jack tell us. Besides, the old custom among the Lipovans living in the Danube Delta who would cook the fish soup with the water taken directly from the Danube seems to be a legend now.
As we talk about food, we slow down and Jack takes the boat to one shore of the channel, announcing us that lunch is ready in open air, in the middle of the nature, within an improvised venue prepared by Casa Teo pension from Mahmudia. The hosts welcome us with plum brandy, sweet rose wine, appetizer of fish eggs, smoked herring and delicious organic tomatoes, the inherent fish soup, fried fish with polenta and a tasty Dobrudjan pie with sweet cheese and raisin.
A very talkative Chef Mihai, who confesses to us he is of Greek origin, performs a live demonstration of how the fish soup is usually cooked and eaten. First you boil the vegetables such as onions, green peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, then you add vinegar to prevent the fish from crumbling, and the fish in the end, but you let it boil only several minutes. The secret of a tasty fish soup is to mix several types of fish: pike, catfish, crucian carp, carp. Don’t forget to put lovage at the end to give the well-deserved taste to the soup.
As for eating the soup, well, there is a whole ritual for that. Chef Mihai explains: first you take the fish off the bones, you put it on the plate, you crumble a potato over it, add a spoonful of garlic sauce and in the end you add two or three ladles of soup.
Our feast is crowned with some cheerful moments of artistic show performed by several members of the Lipovan community in the area.
Lipovans are mostly from Russian ethnic origin who settled in Moldavia, Muntenia, and the region of Dobrudja during the 17th and 18th centuries. Roughly 30,000 Lipovans are living in Romania, with over 21,000 living in Dobruja, including in the Danube Delta towns and villages.
Now, our bellies full and our eyes and ears delighted by the beauty of the lunch in the nature, we get back to the boats, making sure we find ourselves in the same boat driven by our guide Jack, graced by his stories and jokes.
Pelicans caught on camera
We slide back on the channels to the shore in Mahmudia, this time with less talk, but scoring high, more precisely ticking the cherry on top: the pelicans. Jack quickly detects their presence and turns the boat to the spot where some flocks of pelicans are resting and enjoying meal. We slowly approach them, as the sound of the motorboat can scare them and make them fly away.
We manage to take some pics and videos of these peculiar, but graceful giant birds, which add uniqueness to the Danube Delta and justly provide it with the title of UNESCO heritage site. We even get to capture the pelicans’ takes off as the noise of the boat disturbs them: what a view, a sight for sore eyes.
We end our one-day trip to the Danube Delta with the impression that we saw so much, but so little at the same time and with an an even higher appetite to come back…as soon as possible.
One-day trips to the Danube Delta from Bucharest are available within Hello Holidays’ „O zi cât o vacanță/ A day as a holiday” programme. It is run during the weekend, with prices starting from RON 150, including the transport and the ride on the channels. Three hours of boat circuit on the channels are around RON 80/person.