The Danube River flows through 10 countries, more than any other river in the world, but its in the details of life along its banks that reveal how integral to Europe's history the river really is. Here are some hidden gems and little-known facts about the Iron Gates: the Danube gorge that's rapidly becoming a tourist hotspot.
A face fit for a king
Nestled among the greenery along Romania's border with Serbia is a man's face carved into the surrounding rock. Decebal was the last Dacian king who resisted Roman rule until his defeat by Emperor Trajan in 102 AD. During the 19th century, Decebal grew to the status of Romanian national hero, embodying the ideals of independence and resistance to imperalism. The borders of the Dacian kingdom correspond to modern-day Romania, and in the 19th century Decebal grew to the status of national hero, embodying ideals of independence and resistance to imperialism.
Carved between 1994 and 2004, this is the tallest rock relief in Europe. The statue was commissioned by Romanian businessman Iosif Constantin Dragan who also ensured the inscription beneath the sculpture included his own name. The Latin inscription translates to: "King Decebalus - Made by Dragan."
A Roman road
The gorge of the Iron Gates, which forms part of the border between Serbia and Romania, has been a strategic point for both countries for centuries. Here, the Danube narrows, forming a deep but thin gorge that's been inhabited by humans since the early neolithic era. During the Roman period, a long-disappeared bridge was built by Emperor Trajan, and on the Serbian side of the river, a Roman-era plaque memorializes his efforts. This is part of the reason for the large, somewhat puzzling statue of the last Dacian king: an effort to set Romanian identity in stone in a region that has largely been shaped by its interconnectedness.
The hidden island
This section of the Danube has been ebbing and flowing for millennia, and as with most things the population has tried to bend it according to their will. Sunk deep beneath the river's swift current is the remains of an island that was once full of life.
Ada Kaleh was submerged beneath the Danube when the Iron Gate Hydroelectric Plant was built in 1970. Most of the island's inhabitants were Turkish, due to its lengthy time under Ottoman control. Much of the town was moved to neighboring Simian Island, but most of its residents decided to emigrate to Turkey, and a planned community of "New Ada Kaleh" never reached completion.
A world in and of itself
The towns dotting the banks of the Iron Gates on both the Serbian and Romanian sides of the river represent several epochs of Balkan history from Roman times all the way up to the Communist era. While these periods were also marred by conflict and difficulty, they highlight the diverse, multicultural and varied history of of the Balkan Peninsula. Across all countries in the region, words, food, traditional clothing, and religious practices are now borrowed and given freely, making it difficult to tell who started what. In many ways, these blurred cultural borders aren't so much a point of contention anymore, but an integral part of Balkan identity: one country cannot exist as it is without its neighbors.
A peaceful escape
A visit to the Iron Gates might seem like stepping into the past. At times, it's as if the towns perched at the edge of the swift, changeable current of the Danube have always remained the same, flying in the face of the empires and regimes that have come and gone. But tourism is catching on as bed and breakfasts pop up along the river in towns like Orsova and Dubova, offering fishing trips, boat outings, and cave tours along one of Europe's most important rivers. Summer is the best time to visit, as the weather is at its sunniest, but tourists from around the world have slowly started to realize the area's beauty. A visit in late spring or early fall will yield plenty of nice weather, and there are fewer tourists vying for the riverside rooms.