Over The Yardarm: Cruising The Iron Gates

May 31, 2017


Over The Yardarm - Cruise Musings

Tenny loves his sea days. Give him a ship that does nothing but poodle around the ocean going nowhere and he’s in maritime heaven. Trivia in the sports bar? He’s there. Ice carving demonstrations or a lecture on the joys of photographing tropical birds?  Why not? Martini tasting session? He wouldn’t miss it.

Alright, neither of us would miss martini tasting, but that’s not really the point. It’s the slow pace he enjoys; the chance to lunch around the pool without rushing off on an excursion, and then eat again four hours later. For him, it’s a shipload of relaxation. For me, not so much.

I did enjoy the dance lessons we took on a sea day once, which lasted all of 30 minutes, but other than that, I want to jump out of my skin. The problem is, there’s nothing to look at. I can read a book for an hour, but that leaves a bleak, empty abyss of eleven hours to fill before a respectable dinner hour arrives (ten and a half, if you count pre-dinner drinks, which we do). I want to be somewhere; see somewhere new every day. I love stepping off the ship onto land I would not otherwise have explored, and get out there and soak up the culture.

So it was with great interest on Tenny’s part and trepidation on mine that we began our only no-port day on Uniworld’s River Duchess, traversing the Danube from Romania to Austria. Our third day found us with Romania to our right and Bulgaria to our left as we sailed toward the massive gorge known as the Iron Gates, where the Carpathian and Balkan mountains would soon rise up on either side like great vertical castles.

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Bulgaria would slip away as Serbia took over, and I was certain I’d slip into a coma, with nothing but lifeless hills and the occasional decrepit gypsy-style cart, its owner fishing for dinner along the riverbank, as my companions.

But first, we had some locks to get through.

I shall spare you the next 90 minutes and just say that we went into the lock, took all the time needed to rise up to the level of the lake in front of us, and, as we were ready to pull out, the retaining wall stuck fast. It simply would not budge. And just like that, we were trapped in a lock in Eastern Europe with no escape ladder and a slow internet connection. Tenny’s day was getting better and better.

Half an hour later the captain came down to the front of the ship and told us not to worry too much. “The Romanians will talk about it for 10 minutes,” he said, “then they’ll try to do something for 15 minutes, then they will talk about it again, and so on.”

“We could be stuck here forever,” I wailed, but he sought to reassure me.

“Not at all, dear lady. A colleague once told me the longest he’s ever been stuck in this lock was nine hours.”

I remained un-consoled, but Tenny was in his element, scampering about like a madman and shouting suggestions having to do with WD-40 and a crowbar, while I staved off a catatonic state watching an abandoned dog on the wing wall next to us, scavenging through someone’s cast-away lunch scraps.


An hour later, whatever technological magic the Romanian engineers performed upon the lock had worked, and we were back in cruise mode. Christina, our Cruise Manager, kept up a history lesson over the intercom system, telling stories of sunken islands and roads to nowhere.  Communism made a lot of promises, she told us, but like the islands and the Romanian roads, most of them faded into obscurity.

By the look of the road on the Bulgarian side, they hadn’t fared much better. But I was oddly fascinated by Christina’s insistence that Bulgarian hermits lived in the few caves carved into the rocky hillsides, and I spent several happy minutes wondering how they coped with the damp seeping into their Eiderdown pillows and plush bath towels.

Due to our delay at the locks the captain wasn’t certain we would reach the Iron Gates before darkness fell, but he ignored the No Wake restriction, if there was one, and we arrived at the mouth of the gorge in no time.

The first historical highlight upon entering the gorge was the Tabula Traiana, carved at the request of Trajan, the Roman Emperor, 2,000 years ago as a memorial to the construction of his military road. The stone plaque was originally in a different location, Christina told us, but was moved when the hydraulic power station dam was built, to avoid its being submerged as the water level rose.

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Further on we came upon a former monastery, currently owned by an artist, and Christina pointed out a cave behind it that was now inhabited by a hermit. I was riveted, chattering on about how difficult it would be to install kitchen appliances, and where guests would park when the hermit threw dinner parties. Tenny’s eyes glazed over, and I sensed he preferred our near-death experience in the lock to the lesson in hermitology he was now enduring.

“Do stop prattling on, Treadwell,” he intoned, but I was overcome with the glories of cultural immersion that required no effort whatsoever on my part, and could be had with a mimosa in hand whilst the sights came to me and someone else pointed them out.

Next came a monastery that was still in use, not only for religious worship but, in the spirit of enterprise, also as a restaurant. The Patriarch came out and waved, and I returned his salutation enthusiastically, curious about his long, black dress and jaunty square hat with a veil cascading down the back.

But the most remarkable element was Decebalus, an enormous stone monolith dedicated to the Dacian king who committed suicide when the Romans conquered his city. A multi-millionaire named Iosif Constantin Drăgan took it upon himself to create the memorial, and, over the course of 10 years, his sculptors chipped away at the granite at a cost equal to a million dollars. Decebalus looked down upon us, his expression stern but endearing, confident in the knowledge he held the title of Europe’s largest rock sculpture.

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We had another hour of daylight to relax and enjoy the scenery, and with the sounds of thousands of birds settling in for the night in the trees along the mountainsides, I decided sea days, as long as they were taken on a river, were pure bliss.

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