Valley of the shadow
May 26, 2012
A week ago I met the Danube again, for the fourth time on my journey – flowing between Romania and Serbia, dividing Middle Europe from the Balkans.
Here, in the the riverside town of Orșova, is the point where Between the Woods and the Water ends. Since Paddy sailed from here, however, on a steamer bound for Vidin, Bulgaria, the town and the landscape around it have undergone apocalyptic change. Between 1972 and 1984, the communist governments of Romania and Yugoslavia constructed two vast hydroelectric dams across the legendary Iron Gates, turning one of the river’s wildest and remotest stretches into an enormous reservoir. The valley was flooded for hundreds of miles, displacing many thousands of people from villages along both banks, completely submerging Orșova’s old centre and wiping the island of Ada Kaleh – an ancient Turkish enclave oddly left behind when the Ottomans withdrew – out of existence.
Paddy wrote later, in the book’s appendix:
Let us hope that the power generated by the dam has spread well-being on either bank and lit up Rumanian and Yugoslav towns brighter than ever before because, in everything but economics, the damage is irreparable. Perhaps, with time and fading memories, people will forget the extent of their loss…
Myths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of the shadow.
These words, along with those I wrote about in the Persenbeug prediction, inspired me more than any others to recreate his journey. My intention was to discover how much of Europe’s wildness has vanished, what remains, what has been lost, and what has grown up in its place. As I really, really hope comes across from what I’ve been writing on this blog, I’ve encountered much wildness, much mystery, much myth and adventure on my journey – I’ve seen extraordinary places, and met wonderful people. Of course I’ve also encountered ugliness, loss, degradation and dullness – I’ve come to dislike business parks and industrial estates with a passion. But questions like ‘has Europe been tamed?’ or ‘has everything vanished?’ or ‘what’s it like to walk from Holland to Turkey in 2012?’ will have to wait until my journey is finished, and my book is written. These themes are too intricate to deal with here.
So too, while I’m still on the move, is the full story of this flooded valley, these drowned towns and villages, the submerged and already half-forgotten landscape from the Kazan to the Iron Gates. It’s a lot to take in, and needs time to process. So for now, all I will say of Orșova is that, along the waterfront, is a little artificial island with a wooden pier sticking out, jutting into the raised and swollen waters of the Danube. Somewhere below, in the murky depths, lies the submerged quayside of the old town, where the second stretch of Paddy’s journey ended. On a rainy afternoon, I walked to this point and dropped my battered copy of Between the Woods and the Water — the guidebook I’ve followed from the bridge at Esztergom – onto the still surface of the water. Face-up, it drifted away towards the main channel of the river, revolving very slowly in the current. Perhaps it reached the Iron Gates Dam, or perhaps it sunk long before then – even, perhaps, to Ada Kaleh, to be nibbled by fish or disintegrate quietly among the submerged streets and alleyways that Paddy once walked down.
And now, without his words to guide me, the final part of my journey begins. I am in Bulgaria now – tramping on, towards Istanbul.