After we left Bulgaria we had a full day of sailing upstream on the Danube, with Romania to our right and Serbia on our left. Our destination was Belgrade, but first we had to pass through two sets of locks and the Iron Gates gorge, also known as the Cataracts. At various times during the day our program directors provided commentary on our surroundings. They also shared their knowledge of life under communism and the challenges of transitioning to democracy.
The Iron Gates
The Iron Gates is an 80-mile section of the Danube between the Carpathian Mountains to the south and the Balkan Mountains to the north. Originally, a long section of rapids in this area was barely navigable. During the middle ages only local pilots were allowed to guide river boats through the gorge. Beginning in the 19th century, various channels constructed to improve navigability had mixed results. The currents in one channel were so strong that ships had to be towed upstream by locomotives as late as 1973.
All of this changed with the joint Iron Gates I and Iron Gates II projects between Yugoslavia and Romania. The joint projects between the two countries built two hydroelectric dams and associated shipping locks between 1964 and 1984. They raised the water level up 100 feet near the first dam, eliminating all navigation issues. In the process however, they also displaced 17,000 people in six villages, including the historic island of Ada Kaleh. Also, many significant historic and natural features were submerged. Some of the historic features were moved or recreated above the new water level. One that was moved was a plaque carved into the rock wall honoring Roman emperor Trajan who constructed a bridge over the gorge between 103 and 105 AD. The 11th century Mraconia Monastery was recreated in 1989 at the base of cliffs, just above the high-water level in a narrow section of the river.
We came to the Iron Gates II lock first, where it took only about 45 minutes for ship to raise to the next water level and exit into the reservoir above. The Iron Gates I locks took much longer. There are two consecutive locks there, each one raising the water level by 24 feet. It took us three hours to get through.
The next morning we awoke in Belgrade, Serbia. A walking tour took us past various sites of interest, including the University of Belgrade with its ruins of Roman baths outside the main entrance. We then went to the “House of Flowers” museum, the former offices and now final resting place of Josip Broz Tito, “president for life” of the former Yugoslavia. In addition to the marble tombs of Tito and his wife, the museum has a lot of information about, and mementos of Tito’s life.
During World War II the Axis powers invaded, occupied, and split up Yugoslavia. Tito became a leader of the pro-communist Partisan resistance forces, the largest in occupied Western and Central Europe. After the war he became prime minister of the Federal Peoples’ Republic of Yugoslavia, a federation of six independent states. Unlike most of the communist bloc leaders, Tito refused to be controlled by Stalin, and was seen by many as a benevolent dictator. During the Soviet era he managed to keep Yugoslavia united with a combination of repression and concessions. After his death in 1980, ethnic, nationalist and political tensions began escalating, eventually leading to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. By 2003 Yugoslavia no longer existed, initially replaced by five independent countries, which later became seven.
After lunch Connie and I walked across a bridge over the Danube to a large shopping mall. With over 150 stores on three levels it was like any contemporary mall in the US, except that it was packed with people even on a weekday afternoon. On the way back we had a wonderful view of our ship with the city in the background. Onboard that evening we were entertained by members of the magnificent Talija Art Company folk dance group, which has performed in over 100 countries worldwide. The energy of the dancers and the artistry of the musicians was a joy to watch and hear.
Novi Sad, Serbia
After Belgrade’s big city feel, Novi Sad was much more relaxed and scenic. Our walking tour took as through the lush green Danube Park to the open-air food market. Here we sampled the delicious locally-grown strawberries. Next we arrived at a long, wide pedestrian mall with the imposing yellow Bishop’s Palace at one end and the historic city hall and gothic Name of Mary Catholic church at the other.
After a lunch of traditional “cevapcici” skinless sausages with “kajmak” salty cream cheese we spent some time exploring the shops and made our way back to the ship. I then joined a group walking up the 235 steps to the Petrovaradin Fortress on the other side of the river. A walk around the 17th century fortress provides panoramic views of the Danube, the city, and surrounding countryside. At 275 acres it is one of the largest and best preserved in Europe. Archeological discoveries indicate there was a settlement on this site dating from 19,000 to 15,000 BC, and there are remnants of a fort from around 3,000 BC! The monastery inside the fortress was built in the 13th century.