Eco dream on wild edge of Europe

The fastest route is not always the best way, as Susan Spano discovered when she waltzed into Danube territory.

AT THE end of its 2850-kilometre journey across Europe, the mighty Danube River seems to give up trying to reach the Black Sea. It turns north, away from the coast, crosses the lonely steppe country, then frays into myriad channels, marshes, swamps and lakes edged by waterlogged willow trees.

Colonies of birds fly in from Asia, Africa and Siberia. In the stalled, murky water, giant carp and catfish lurk, sought by fishermen who live in villages only accessible by boat.

This is the Danube River delta, a 647,500-hectare world biosphere reserve, out of time, unknown and remote, a lost puzzle piece at the wild, eastern edge of Europe. To see it is proof that the meandering river has never lost heart. All along, it knew that the shortest route is not always the best way to get to where you want to go.

In Romania, summer tourists make a beeline for Black Sea beaches south of Constanta, about 130 kilometres east of Bucharest, the nation's capital. Only a few follow the river to its delta, which lines the northern part of Romania's Black Sea coast between Constanta and the Ukrainian border.

In 1999, Diwaker Singh, an investment broker who works in Bucharest, brought his family here. He found thousands of nesting pelicans and cormorants flying in tight "V" formations, flotillas of water lilies and endless beds of reeds, Black Sea dunes, Greek and Roman archaeological sites, painted monasteries and lost fishing villages.

But there were no reliable ways to see them and no interesting places to stay, only a handful of dour, communist-era resorts and ugly, high-rise hotels in the delta gateway town of Tulcea.

Singh became acquainted with Virgil Munteanu, then governor of the region, who helped him get approval to build a luxury hotel on a hill near the village of Somova, overlooking the delta. Singh's goal was to create a model eco-resort, showing the folk architecture, arts and crafts of Romania and employing local people.

Munteanu, who had just finished his term in office, became the general manager, and the Delta Nature Resort opened in May 2005.

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I came here for a long weekend after a four-hour trip from Bucharest, mostly on bumpy back roads. I travelled in one of the resort's Mercedes-Benz vans with Nassim, Singh's eldest son, a tall 16-year-old with the face of a cherub and the experience of a tycoon in the making. He divides his time among an English boarding school, India and Bucharest.

When we passed a horse-drawn hay cart on the highway, Nassim smiled and said: "The old and new really clash here."

Once we left Bucharest, I saw shepherds moving their flocks of sheep and goats in the age-old seasonal shifting of livestock from one pasture to another.

In a countryside largely untouched by development, and a nation still manifestly part of the developing world, geese and pigs forage outside tumble-down farmhouses. Families sell colossal watermelons by the roadside, fetch water from wells and ride to town in wagons. Fields of wheat, corn and yellow sunflowers stretch in every direction.

The Danube delta is the region's major attraction. Eleven thousand years ago, sand banks built up at the mouth of the river gave it no other recourse than to pool into placid lakes and back up into narrow, stagnant channels. Near Tulcea, the Danube separates into three main branches: the Chilia, bordering Ukraine; the Sfintu Gheorghe, flowing east below a chain of ancient, rounded-off mountains; and the Sulina, straightened by engineers in the 19th century to accommodate freighters.

The road to the Delta Nature Resort turns west at Tulcea, passing a communist-era factory, with fuming smokestacks and broken windows, that processes the raw materials for aluminium. It keeps the town employed and distributes hot water to several dozen villages nearby, but it also sends pollutants to an earth-embanked reservoir yards away from one of the delta's arms.

You cannot visit this place without being struck by how precious but imperiled it is. This aviary, fish tank, oxygen-producing lung has narrowly escaped damaging development on numerous occasions, most recently in 2004, when dredging began in a channel on the Ukrainian side. The dredging has since halted, partly because of pressure from environmental groups. Before that, former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu drained sections of the wetlands for agriculture, and the straightening of the Sulina allowed mammoth freighters into the delta as far east as Tulcea. Its sturgeon population is critically endangered because of the demand for the fishes' tiny black eggs, known as Beluga caviar.

"The biggest problem," Singh told me later, "is that no one seems to know who is responsible for the delta. It's now under the Romanian ministry of agriculture, and that's a contradiction. There is no master plan for it, and the people of the delta see no reason why they should be involved in its conservation."

Outside the ramshackle village of Somova, we ascended a hill covered in shaggy grapevines. Suddenly, I saw the delta, a petit-point tapestry in shades of green that stretched to the horizon. A wattle fence banked by a riot of wildflowers marks the beginning of the resort, centred on a courtyard building with a bar, restaurant and observation tower. Below it, 30 villas and a swimming pool watch over Lake Somova, connected to the main river channel at high tide.

I met Munteanu at the reception desk. He described the sightseeing included in my package and warned me to stay indoors between 10pm and 6am, to avoid the hordes of mosquitoes. The resort was preparing for a corporate event, but for now I had it virtually to myself.

A few months after the resort opened, avian flu was discovered in delta ducks and swans, the first instance of the potentially lethal virus in continental Europe. The bird flu has spread as far west as France. Transmission of the H5N1 virus from birds to humans is rare, yet thousands of contaminated birds have been killed in Romania, and the fear of a pandemic has kept the resort's villas largely empty.

That's a pity, because they are charming, green shingled structures with stone fireplaces and wide front verandas where greenery hangs from the roof to the balustrade, framing the view. Each one has a spacious living room, bedroom and bathroom, decorated with such craft touches as woven rugs, wooden lamps and ceramics chosen on forays through the Romanian hinterland by Singh and his wife.

My two days at the resort were devoted to delta sightseeing, first in a speedboat that took me into a network of river veins north of Tulcea, marked by signs, like city streets. I saw egrets, herons and immature cormorants in treetop nests, isolated wildlife viewing towers, dilapidated excursion boats and weekend anglers in dinghies underneath an awning of willows, hoping for a strike from one of the delta's mean trophy pikes. Along the river, children in mismatched swimming suits dived off the banks while their parents played cards and drank beer at waterfront camp sites.

I got all the way to Sulina, the biggest town in the delta with a population of about 5000. A century ago, it was the headquarters of the European Commission of the Danube River, which engineered the removal of seven wide "S" curves in the Sulina channel, shortening the trip for freighters from Tulcea to the sea by about 27 kilometres. At the time, the town had about 35,000 people, foreign consulates and a busy port.

But no engineer can change the fact that the Danube is a great sieve, carrying silt and debris that it leaves behind on entering the Black Sea, incessantly reconfiguring the coastline. Sulina is now about eight kilometres west of the sea, a town in dry dock.

The next day, resort guide Catalin Stonescu took me to the mouldering natural history museum in Tulcea to inspect an array of stuffed delta birds, plus fish swimming in tanks in the basement. We also crossed Lake Somova in a motorboat, where I saw something better: a pale yellow squacco heron poised on a lily pad, as motionless as the ones at the museum.

Then it was on to the Christian Orthodox Saon Monastery, whose silver domes loom above reed beds. We lunched in the refectory, served by a nun in a black habit who served up delicious stuffed peppers, chicken stew, home-made cheese, bread, wine and pastry.

Too soon, the idyll was over and I was back at the Bucharest airport, watching Romania rush into the future, half wondering whether the weekend had been a dream. So I got out my map and traced the inefficient, indirect course of the Danube, which I now know reaches the Black Sea in its own good time.

TRIP NOTES

* Austrian Airlines flies from Sydney to Bucharest via Vienna. Qantas/British Airways flies there via London. Australians need a visa.

* Delta Nature Resort, phone +4021 311 4532 or see http://www.deltaresort.com, organises return road transfers from Bucharest to the resort. The 300-kilometre journey takes 3 1/2 hours.

* Rates start from EUR98 ($165) per person per night, double occupancy, including breakfast and local taxes.

* See the Romanian National Tourist Office website, www.romaniatourism.com.

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