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New Europe

Day Sixty-five: On the Danube, Romania to Serbia

The Dacian King Decebalus 
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Carved in stone, a massive likeness of the Dacian King Decebalus, who took on the Romans and won. It was paid for by a Romanian businessman, to stir up a bit of national pride.
Michael Palin - New EuropeA fierce and bitter north-east wind scours the banks of the river and sends curtains of spray flying up from the top of the dam. Not an ideal day for a boat ride into Serbia, but Dan is reassuring.

'We are going to the Kazan Gorge. It is beautiful, you will see.'

Sure enough, by the time we are upstream of the dam the sting goes out of the wind as the Danube is transformed from a recognisable flow of water into Leigh Fermor's 'vast pond.'

As our boatman, Sorin, heads us up towards a narrower, steeper channel I've time to take in the contrasts on either side. The Romanian shore is rocky and steeper, and the Serbian, greener, lower and more inviting. I ask Dan how the nations on either side of the Danube get on.

'Fine,' he says. 'You see we are both slaves.'

This produces another volley of apologies.

'Oh, I'm so sorry. Slavs! We are both Slavs.'

He thinks the Serbians good people, emotional, like the Romanians, but refuses to be drawn on whether or not there was gun-running between the two countries during the wars of the 1990s. (In 1989 Romania was the fifth-largest arms exporter in the world, and I know from my time with Captain Sablic in Rijeka that they supplied arms for Croatia.) He knows Serb actors, though, and speaks of them with both awe and respect. They're powerful, expressive, not afraid of pushing the boundaries and he thinks Belgrade theatre more daring and experimental than anything in Bucharest.

As we move into the Kazan Gorge, where a small valley enters the Danube from the Romanian shore, an enormous head is carved into the rock together with the Latin inscription 'Decebalus Rex - Dragan Fecit'.

It turns out to be less ancient than I thought, in fact it dates from the 1990s.
The carved figure, Decebalus, was a Dacian king who took on the armies of Emperor Trajan and is regarded as a great Romanian folk hero. Dragan, more prosaically, is a rich businessman who paid for it to be carved.

On this slightly ominous note of resurgent nationalism, we pass into the gorge itself.

Kazan means a cauldron and this gorge must once have been as fearsome as the Iron Gates. Steep grey cliffs, dusted with a few tenacious conifers, rise 1,000 feet on either side of us.

Dan points out that we are cutting through the mountains at a critical point.
To the east are the Carpathians, which we've been in and out of for the last two weeks, on the west are the Balkans, which we haven't seen for two months.

It makes the Kazan Gorge, physically as well as politically, another European gateway. Now he's led me through it Dan must get back to Bucharest. He'll be in Cymbeline tonight. I'll be in Belgrade.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-five: On the Danube, Romania to Serbia
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Turnu-Severin
  • Book page no: 159

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