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New Europe

Day Sixty-four: Bucharest to the Iron Gates

The Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest 
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Meeting up with actor Dan Badarau, a charming man always cast as villains in Hollywood movies, outside the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest.
Michael Palin - New EuropeBy late afternoon, we're standing beside the Danube at Turnu-Severin, one of the most significant points on the river. Almost exactly 2,000 years ago this was where Emperor Trajan ordered the formidable limestone cliffs they called the Porta Ferrea (the Iron Gates), to be bridged, so that he could consolidate his conquest of Thrace and move north to take on the Dacians. A Greek, Apollodorus of Damascus, was given the epic task and he duly completed what must have been in its time one of the technological wonders of the world. All that remain now are the crumbling portions of two chunky piers below us, and a third which can just be made out on the far-off Serbian shore.

But turn the eye a few degrees north and you will see, depending on your prejudices, a powerful example of today's technological ingenuity, or one of the great outrages against nature.

The Iron Gates was one of the most famous gorges of the Danube. 'For hundreds of years,' writes Patrick Leigh Fermor in Between the Woods and the Water, 'rocks like dragon's teeth had made the passage mortally dangerous.' The first attempt to tame this lethal stretch of river was taken in 1896 when a safe channel was blown from the rock of the river bed, but sixty years later, lured by the potential of these mighty, rushing waters, the governments of Romania and Yugoslavia combined to build the turbine plant and linking bridge that we see today. It is quite a sight. The dam wall is 1,500 feet thick at its base and almost a mile long across at the top. It rises 100 feet above the Danube, and produces billions of kilowatts of power every year. Watching walls of water spilling over sixteen sluice-gates it seems a tremendous, almost inspiring achievement, except that the depth of the Danube, behind the dam, has risen well over a hundred feet. In effect the Portiles de Fer hydro-electric project has destroyed the very Iron Gates after which it's named. The drama of thundering, whirling waters has gone, along with the old frontier town of Orsova and a Turkish settlement with mosques and fortresses where, by legend, the Argonauts found the olive tree.

Leigh Fermor, so excited by the old Iron Gates, added an elegiac postscript to his book. The plant, he writes, has 'turned a hundred miles of the Danube into a vast pond... . It has abolished canyons, turned beetling crags into mild hills... myths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of the shadow.'

I feel a similar, if less focused sense of loss and regret when, later, Dan and I stand outside the classical, pedimented Turnu-Severin theatre, where he first played on stage in amateur productions. It's now a library and cinema as well as a theatre and though it seems fine, if not exactly flourishing, to me, Dan finds it dowdy and run-down and apologises for wasting my time. He's even more dejected when we cross the street to an area he remembers as lively, full of coffee shops and other meeting places, and which has been flattened and replaced by a concrete fountain, no longer working. Dry, rusty and filled with trapped litter, it is an awful indictment of the whole paternal concept of 'civic improvement'. He shakes his head.

'It's putting things here for people, rather than people themselves making what they want.'

I tell Dan, in an attempt to cheer him up, that it all reminds me of Sheffield in the 1960s and 1970s. Another area where our childhood experiences seem to coincide.

He's a good companion, Dan, but cursed with an apologetic nature.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-four: Bucharest to the Iron Gates
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Turnu-Severin
  • Book page no: 158

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