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New Europe

Day Fifty-two: Sulina

Michael Palin - New EuropeThe Delta is a desolate waterscape which even the most zealous pursuers would think twice about entering. Perhaps it's not surprising then that the area around it became the home of a people called the Lipovani, who originally fled here at the end of the eighteenth century to avoid religious persecution in Russia. Many of them are fishermen working the network of narrow channels around the town.

They're not easy to find. They go about their business discreetly in wooden canoe-like boats. This morning they're pulling in the nets they laid the night before. One end is attached to a sharp stick, which is plunged into the mud only a few feet below the surface, whilst the other end is reeled out some 10 yards and marked by plastic bottles. Once they've pulled in the nets they paddle down a side channel to a small island on which stands a long, high rectangular wooden building with a reed-thatched roof. This serves as cold store, workshop, supply depot, kitchen and dormitory. The fishermen leave their wives and families in Sulina on Monday morning and work through the week, keeping their catches of pike, bream and perch on ice, to be collected and shipped back to the town at the weekend.

They're taciturn, hard-looking men who come in off the water and sit at a table with plates of sausage and a bottle of vodka to warm them up. Around them, a crowd of dogs and cats, bred to keep the rats down, root around in the untidy mess of salvaged nets, discarded rubber boots and the detritus of grass and weeds hauled from the river.

Back in Sulina, at a pretty light blue and white painted house off a dusty backstreet, we meet some of the womenfolk they've left behind. They're an altogether more jolly bunch: buxom middle-aged ladies who have donned the traditional dress of deep blue skirts with silver bands around the hem, pale blue sequinned caps on the back of their heads, and floral scarves. We could be in the fields near Moscow. With their fair hair and blue eyes, they're textbook Slavs. They talk Russian and sing in Russian, sad songs about love and the Danube, and, like any self-respecting Russians, they have to stop the singing for frequent toasts in Stalinskaya vodka.

This is the Women's Institute with a twist. Just as their menfolk make a living from the long, anonymous channels of the marshes, the Lipovani ladies hint at hidden liveliness in the windswept, arid backstreets of this neglected little town at the very end of the Danube.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

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

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