Photo: Alexander Stemp

Kazan Straits – the River Danube’s best-kept secret

The Kazan Straits is a wonder and splendour in every sense. I had the great pleasure of exploring the area for three and a half very full days this summer. All I had beforehand were picturesque impressions from various chronicles and very limited tourist information. But my greatest asset pre-arrival was a promising hotel that indeed provided all I needed to set me up, so regardless of all else I took my leave by overnight train from Budapest to Orșova, the “Kazan Capital” in south-western Romania, which overlooks not only these rare and significant peaks but also the majestic and equally grand River Danube.

The first thing on my itinerary, when finally at port-side in Orsova, was to get more of an idea of what to finally, physically and monumentally, expect, because until then I had very little idea of size and scale. To achieve this, I found my way to the main road and shoreline promenade, named Bulevardul 1 Decembrie 1918.

I took the first thing offered, which was a speedy tourist boat ride, and cruised the immediate gorge. Now my expectations were met as I took in both sides of this incredible and irregular landscape, with Romania on one side and Serbia on the other. The guide helped shape the local environment by talking about local legends that date to Roman times, for instance the plaque to Emperor Trian on the Serbian side.

Trian built a bridge, parts of which still remain, and a road, but both are now under water. This is mainly due to the Iron Gate hydroelectric power station that opened in 1972, 20 kilometres east of Orsova, raising the water level significantly. A second plaque can be found to aristocratic Hungarian politician and reformer István Széchenyi (1791-1860), who did much to implement architectural and engineering works to benefit the Kazan Straits. This tribute is on the Romanian side beyond the Peștera Ponicova Cave.

Photo: Alexander Stemp

Afterwards I was taken to my riverside residence in Eșelnița, a quaint village 10 kilometres from the main Orșova harbour, which became an essential base to visit these glorious peaks My welcoming hosts lent me a sturdy bicycle that allowed me to conquer the Kazan highway and see these illustrious mountains and waterway close up with relative ease and at my own pace.

I was ready, and the next day, in the fullest of sunshine, I took to the all-important, rugged but highly scenic and westward Number 57 road. Never before have I seen such dramatically impressive and tremendous scenery. In addition to checking out these natural wonders there was a great sense of calm and tranquillity.

The minimal traffic enabled me to really be free and capture the atmosphere on my own accord. I set foot amidst the abundance of rocks, observing the various trees such as beeches, pines, ashes and birches, as well as checking out the natural fauna and general wildlife and birds. All were in very natural surroundings, without undue noise or congestion.

The peaks speak for themselves but one particularly intriguing landmark is the Chipul lui Decebal, the Rock Sculpture of Decebalus, a riverside “artwork” that depicts a local king who fought the Roman Empire. Work began on this exposed area of rock, surrounded by greenery, in 1994 and was completed ten years later.

A bridge overlooks this monument and leads to the enchanting Mănăstirea Monastery, a delightful and welcoming locale with characteristic domes and surrounded by much high scenery. This made a pleasant rest stop and inside I cooled off, paid respects and gave thanks to the Lord for getting this far! Rested, I cycled confidently onwards with further wanderlust into deeper rock and river havens.

Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to the Ciucaru Mic hiking trail or to many other rock-tops from the main road, which provide perfect panoramas of this immediate Kazan area. They will still be there when it comes to next time. But at least there was one final consolation that provided me with a desired bird’s-eye view, namely the Casa Madona and its roadside peak from where I was able to look down from an impressive the Dubova bay and its wide surroundings

Photo: Alexander Stemp

Cycling onwards and upwards, the road soon drifts away from the main scene into Dubova village, and a line of sight to the oddly named Cazanela Mari mountain, which means, “Danube’s Big Boilers”. These two distinctly hefty cliffs, forming a foaming gorge, can also be seen by boat, and at water level are the Peștera Ponicova Cave and the Széchenyi tribute.

And this was as far as I got distance-wise to the main sights by bicycle that day and by boat the day before. Both were remarkable occasions. I would have continued further along the windy roads and sweeping green valleys on to Golubac Castle 100-plus kilometres further, but with limited time and rising temperature I could do no more.

I had to return to base for my own well-being, glad at least to have seen the main attributes on a round trip of some 50 kilometres. A roadside buffet with a parasol provided me with relief from the direct sunshine in full midday flow.

I was overwhelmed by everything. It was mind over matter knowing the maximum depth of the Danube is 75 metres at nearby Cazane, and at Veliki Strbac on the Serbian side this peak is 768 metres above the average water level, while nearer to my position was the Ciucaru Mare mountain (Romania), which is still an impressive 318 metres.

That evening I explored Orșova and made my way to the enlightening Mănăstirea Sfânta Ana, St Ana’s Monastery, high up on a hill that stands out over this immediate area like a beacon, overlooking all roads, rails, rocks and the river in one swoop. I ended that particular day knowing cycling around the natural and unspoilt Kazan area was one of the best bike rides and ventures I have ever had.

The next day I wanted to visit the Iron Gate Hydroelectric Power Station and Iron Gate Museum, which was going to be an about 40-kilometre round trip. The Danube is more than a kilometre wide at this point and so therefore so is the dam, along which cars can travel between Romania and Serbia.  As nothing was likely to compare to my exploits of the previous day, I put aside all expectations and made my way directly there. Sure enough, the scenery was much less monumental and, what’s more, the Number 16 road proved to be much busier and more hazardous.

Although bikes are allowed, I was the only cyclist and it soon became obvious why, as lorries and general congestion swooshed by at high speeds, in much the same way as they do when at home. The tunnels were an especially tight squeeze and getting there wasn’t as enjoyable as hoped. When I finally arrived I felt it was a big accomplishment and I was grateful.

Photo: Alexander Stemp

It was plain that Serbia was in close range for on the opposite hillside was a clearly visible homage to Marshall Tito, with his name picked out among the trees in large red letters. In the 1960s and 1970s he and dictator Ceaușescu of Romania collaborated in constructing this hydroelectric power station to deliver energy to the two countries.

I cycled across the vast, immense feature and entered with passport into Serbia for a quick spin around. The “Tito” sign had surprisingly disappeared from sight due to the abundance of wild trees and shrubs.

Back on the Romanian side it was all-systems-go as I rested at a riverside restaurant with the power station in full view. Boats and ships passed by. And once again, like the day before, this man-made construction appeared on an equally grand scale as the towering rocks. This was also something of a novelty and by the time lunch was over I was perhaps overwhelmed by it all, but in a good sense as I felt very satisfied to be there.

Suddenly though I felt I could not manage anything more, perhaps due to too much sun, and all came over like an eventual loss. Nor was I going to be able to cycle back to my lodgings along that same shuddery road, and the concerned waitress called for a taxi. My bicycle got stuffed into the boot and I was driven back to base in an emotional haze.

I was right to have made that particular move, and the momentary lapse worked out well as I took a slow and idyllic boat ride back in Orșova. We sailed in timeless and unhurried bliss around the Kazan peaks in their calm and graceful scenery, and I recovered from general culture shock and brief exhaustion. By the end of this genteel mini cruise I was clear-headed again.

Although I had perked up, I was upset I had missed out on the Iron Gates Museum, down by the dam. I had a few hours spare the following day before my departure on a middy train, and this really was the last thing I had to do to fulfil my introductory mission to the Kazan Straits, so I presented the matter to my hospitable hosts and they agreed to take me.

It was most enlightening. Construction work on the dam began in 1964 and it was completed in 1972. There was a last-minute chance to see from afar the enormous “Hall of Turbines”, each of the six having 194.5 MW installed power.

Once again this was another day like no other and requiring real fortitude to fully grasp. There is also the smaller Iron Gates II power station, 60 kilometres further downstream, operating in the same way and again functioning as a cross-river border between the two countries.

Then with some sudden knowing and light sadness my visit was all over. There was also some emotional relief too, knowing this mission was complete. I gave much grateful thanks to my marvellous hosts before taking my leave from this wonderful place and a most memorable holiday.

Although my introduction to this lesser known region was very inspiring and invigorating throughout, it was an incredible accomplishment to achieve what I could. Fortunately for me my time there was most rewarding in other unexpected ways too. Tip-offs and referrals continually came my way from gracious local people, which really made the difference and saw me through.

One negative – the Orșova Tourist Office was continuously closed in all my time there and no one replied to my earlier e-mails. Romania really should promote this wonderful region and not keep it as a secret when it has so much to offer.

Another matter – which is the better, the Kazan Straits or the Danube Bend? Of my few Hungarian-related friends who have been to both, they say the Kazan. But I personally think that although both are different, they are equals. The Kazan Straits is clearly wilder, more dramatic and rugged. The Danube Bend is softer, lighter but equally high on atmosphere.

To get to the Kazan Straits is achievable from Budapest by car or train. This 500-kilometre southern journey may take up to one day to achieve by either of these preferences. There is a daily direct train leaving Budapest at 7.10am and arriving at Orșova 10 hours later. Then there are the overnight train options, which always involve changes at Arad.

My final tip is that if you want a challenge and an adventure without the crowds, then go! The whole Kazan trip was a great experience and a personal triumph. It can be as active or relaxing as you like. But prepare in advance. Don’t assume that tourist information, bicycles, public transport and money-changing opportunities will be found easily. Without a car, a bicycle is essential.

I would love to return and explore more of the rocks and hike the nature trails. Taking time out to go there, providing everything is in order beforehand, comes highly recommended.

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