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New Europe

Day Fifty-three: Tulcea

Michael Palin - New EuropeA few miles from Tulcea, the biggest town on the Delta, a hotel has recently been built to provide seriously comfortable accommodation and an equally serious amount of information about this unique environment. Thirty slate-grey wood cabins look out over a labyrinth of water, reed-beds and low spits that provides shelter for millions of birds and very few humans.

Perhaps because he grew up with President Ceausescu's disastrous policies for the Delta, including toxic waste spills from a gold mine and plans to drain it and grow crops, Virgil Muneanu, a former governor of the Delta region, is almost fanatically dedicated to the preservation of the environment and the protection of rare birds. Ninety-five per cent of the world population of red-breasted geese are here. Three thousand pairs of pelicans breed every year, Arctic grebe and mandarin ducks migrating from Siberia stop on their way to and from Africa.

Pollution remains a constant threat, and he doesn't minimise Romania's responsibility.

'Romania has 1,000 kilometres of the Danube River and is one of the most
important polluters, you know.'

The good news is that the reed-beds, which cover 300,000 hectares of the Delta, act as a natural filter, with the plants trapping much of the heavy metal and
chemical waste that comes through.

Despite the fact that the wind is now blowing a steady rain across the marshes, Virgil is determined I should sample Delta life from an open boat. We negotiate the threads of clear water between thick stands of rushes and spits on which poplar, willow and small oak trees grow. In some places the water level has risen so high that some of the trees are left with only their upper branches above the water, as if making one last cry for help.

The Delta, or to give it its official UNESCO title, the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, is not an hospitable environment for humans, which is why there are only some 25,000 of them living in the whole area, and I have the feeling that Virgil, hunched beneath his cape, rain dripping off the end of his nose, thinks that's quite enough. His problems are all man-made, from the control of illegal sturgeon-fishing (feeding the world's insatiable appetite for caviar) to Ukrainian plans to develop their part of this fragile ecosystem for hunting and shooting.

The wind strengthens, the rain intensifies and we head for the jetty and the welcome shock of open fires and a taste of very fine Romanian wines.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifty-three: Tulcea
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Tulcea
  • Book page no: 131

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