Aboard the Leviathan

We get moving for a walk around Kladovo, after a disturbed night because of a few hooligans who had fun by throwing rocks to the boats. I discover an archaeology museum, small but rich of important stones, telling the story of the Traianea road that here, between Kladovo and Dobreta, displayed the longest bridge in history for a long time. It was designed by no less than Apollodorus of Damascus, one of the first Archistars. I wonder if some of nowadays archistars will shine in history for as long as him.

At the police station everything goes well because of Miletin who knows everyone. I hug him and set off in the Dunav that, after a few metres, becomes Dunarea. We’re in Romania as we approach Dobreta Turnu Severin, three names for just one city.

We have tu fullfill entrance forms as if we were accessing another extra UE country, but the police very kindly tells us that this is the procedure if you come from Serbia. One of these days I’ll die by laughs (as said by Bernard Motessier who was allergic like me to human borders).

Costel, a nice guy who takes care of big ships docking, allow us to moor next to his barge. It’ll be vital. Along with Mario, young policeman, we get to the city center and eat an Italian-Romanian pizza at Café Barcelona. In the teeth of local food that I try to eat as much as I can. I love pizza, I’d live by pizza.

Mario tells me about life here. He’s worked in Orvieto but came back. Here, the wages are lower but the life quality much better. I’d take a sleep but it gets cloudy: A thunderstorm is falling upon us, so I take shelter in the barge. Costell sees me and asks me to get in. I sleep a while over a sofa, then Anna end Leon make their appearance too. Outside, wind gusts of 40 knots, full-screen waves and thunderbolts.

The next morning the temperature has dropped by 20°C, it’s nearly chilly. A strong northerly wind weeps away the sultriness. Today I have a meeting with the guys from the environment agency of this region. The director Dragos, with Liliana and Gabriela, warmly welcome me in his office. They’re super. This territory offers many beauties, from 1.400 mt to the Danube. From an Alpine climate to a Mediterranean one, and archaeological areas of great importance, such as the roman castrum, very wide.

The thermae, the gladiator training ground and a recently discovered theatre. Sorina Mataca, the “Portile de fier” museum director, guides us around the excavations in a red and hot sunset.

We see two pillars of the Traianus bridge, caged by some cement protections that are soon to be removed. The museum impresses me, it’s immense, under restauration. It’ll be ready in 2013 and I’ll be back. There’s a scale model of the bridge and a stone bust of Apollodorus of Damascus. We also meet Irina, very likeable geologist, who works in the excavations and in designing the exhibition. She suffers in seeing all this mess, but it’s necessary.

Dobreta is nice. It reveals an architectural richness due to its Danubian history. I’m moved by an abandoned sign saying: “Ukrainian Navigation Company – Turnu Severin Office”. Other times. Here Jews, Venetians, Genoese, Armenian, Turks, German, Austrian, Grecian and Russian merchants did roaring trades.

In the huge Theodor Costescu theatre actors were playing in many languages, Italian too. Sarah Bernardt and Eleonora Duse were quite at home here. The old mansions are now surrounded by the usual ugly buildings of nowadays megalomania. That’s offending. If Dobreta in the future won’t have the success it deserves, you’ll have to thank the boor and violent hand of those architects. A shame.

However, don’t give up. Dobreta is worth a visit, even two. Sooner or lather those monster will fall, they’re already crumbling, the concrete is fragile. A deceiving material.

Time, a great sculptor. I cite Marguerite Yourcenar.

The next morning we pay a visit in the water depuration center of Dobreta. Here they drink the Danube water. Engineer Pisiu, with great passion and competence, takes me to see this little model plant that pumps water up to supply it by gravity to all citizens.

This water has good organoleptic values. Class 2/3 on a scale of 5, where 1 means drinkable. I can drink it straight from the river by using my filter. I often do it, it seems a shame to die by thirst over 15.000 cubic metres of water per second flowing under me.

In Romania’s largest recycling plant, Robsylv, where 120 workers operate 24 hours/day, they’ve organized a press conference for us. Who manage all of this is a group of young people. A very nice girl guides through the useful hell of compactors, selectors, conveyor belts. Some machines are frightening. Just a little mistake and you finish squeezed under a 120 tons press.

They sell the recycled materials all across Europe and beyond, even in China. The business is going very well. The plastic is brought here by syndicates, that sometime buy it from Gipsyes, that are the only ones allowed to carry the heavy work of rubbish collection.

Many people here don’t respect the environment and plastic gets throwed everywhere. This company also takes care of environmental education for kids.

Great guys! Respekt.

In Romania, like in Serbia, too many people litter everything on the ground or on the river.

Why? Most people blame the gipsyes for it, as for nearly all problems. Is it really all their fault?

Wow, too much for two days. But it’s not all yet. From a long time I wished to meet and interview the crew of one of these huge monster boats traveling along the rivers and that I often hated. But I also wished to know, because hating without knowing it’s stupid and unhealty. I see a peniche that Leon helped to dock the day before. I was impressed by the screams of the captain who, from the cabin, was giving radio orders to the sailor 60 metres away. I could clearly hear him from 120 mt, despite his cabin was locked and the music coming from the bar where I was sitting. Amazing!

I walk by, ready to plug my ears, saying: “Buna siua Capitan… I’m, etc etc.” The (apparently) grumpy captain doesn’t think twice and tells me that they’re setting off to Constantia, so we can take a lift aboard Sterlet, that’s the boat name. I answer that’s too much, I only need one day aboard to follow and film their life.

“Nicio problema” (Romanian for “No problem”): Captain Florian Constantin tells me to harness the boats on the left, we’re going in half an hour. Half an hour!!?? I wasn’t even prepared to a yes! I quickly think. Do not look a gift horse in the mouth. Also Serena would save many litres of petrol, that’s always been a pain on my neck. But it’s necessary to film our journey. Going or not? Let’s go, I don’t want to miss this chance!

We leave with a strong northerly wind, and everything if fine until it’s astern. At the first 180° curve, the situation changes, and the problems appear. Serena gets mad and start jumping over the waves against the current that, as you already know, mean troubles. The anchor break loose and hits the boat. Leon jumps aboard and try to fix the ropes, but it doesn’t help. I’m a bit more experienced, so I give it a try.

It’s quite tough and I swear when a rope, unleashed, nearly gets entangled in the screw. The chain and the anchor, hanging outboard, make it difficult to reach Sterlet. In the end, everything is fine. Then it’s the turn of Clodia that’s not protected by Serena anymore, so it’s in an awkward situation too. But it’s easier to fix. The only time when we risked to loose a boat, or maybe all of them, they were towed by a bigger one.

When the coast is clear, we dock at km 905. The captain is a master and Ion the sailor, a big man made of kindness and smiles who could break a buffalo’s head with a punch, makes all anchor maneuvres as he was playing a musical instrument. Well. Sterlet is a fluvial freight ship, made of steel and built in 1957 in Holland. It sails under Romanian flag. It’s 67,60 mt long by 8,20 mt wide, 2,60 mt draught and 1.000 ton tonnage. Actually, it loads corn, taking it from Novi Sad to Constantia. Captain Florian Constantin has 31 years of experience across the rivers of Europe.

The day aboard is too short. Ion pampers us. We get offered two cabins: Anna and Leon at fore, 60 mt away from the captain cabin, while I go in a smaller one at stern. Aboard, every comfort. As said, the day gets by so fast and life on this boat intrigues me, despite my hate for motors and big ships: In the end, we’ll stay three days. And in three days this boat covers 630 km. Taken away from my duty, which make me feel ashamed.

But it was my decision, and a positive one too. I understood the nice people often working aboard, and at least here, about how they care to the environment, navigation (not making waves if traveling within 17 km/h). However, there’s consumption. The Volvo engine by 550 ph consumes about 400 litres of petrol a day (just think about the maxy yacht consuming over 800 litres per hour just for leisure). It transports 2.000 tons of corn. To move by ground such a quantity, you’d need 66 trucks.

A single truck from Novi Sad to Constantia (about 600 km and 9 hours of trip) would use about 200 litres. Multiplied by 66 it’s 13.000 litres. Sterlet in 4 and a half days of travel, 14 hours a day, at an average of 13 km/h consumed about 1.800 litres. It’s convenient, I think. Serena thank to this lift saved 50/60 litres of petrol, while Clodia and myself have saved much water and food. And sweat.

Of course from a “by fair means” point of view this is a contradiction. I know it. And somehow I regret this choice because I could have traveled slower to enjoy the scenery that’s not as flat as I was told. The Bulgarian side displays many hills and cliffs, especially near Nicopol. It slightly remembers Dover. The Danube is huge: It often splits in different inlets and there are many islands.

From the cabin, I’ve tried not to miss a single km of the show. But I can’t tell you things in the same way. By rowing, you remember every metre gained. Completely different.

Life aboard Sterlet is very regular. Wake up at 5. Coffee. Anchor raising and set off. At 8:30 breakfast. True: Eggs, bacon, tomato and more coffee. It’s all biological food from Ion own farm. At first the crew, then the captain, so fast, while Ion takes his place for a few minutes. Usually, it’s just the two of them, perfect. A mistake can be pricely paid. At 14:00 lunchtime. Iuan is always the cook. At 19:30 – 21:00 docking for the night in the allowed areas. Dinner together and bed at 21:30 – 22:00. Some television. It’s nice, a good job.

It’s a little like having a wide screen in front of you for 14 hours a day, with sun, wind and everything nature wants to give. The captain knows it all, however the river often changes so it’s necessary to listen to the radio, to watch the radar and to keep an eye to the computer with route and information about all other ships. Ion has to take care about engine, plants and kitchen, dockings, anchor and storeroom, not to mention fixings. Such as the jamming of a toilet.

Not having aboard a plunger, I remembered a suggestion by Bruno who told me that with a cutted plastic bottle you can make a great pressure on the drain. It worked, so I had my little moment of glory before the goodnight. Thaks to Bruno, who’s crossed the Atlantic aboard Miss Carol, with Josephine. Great Bruno, I miss you.

Our journey on sterlet ends in Cernavoda, at km 300. Ion stuffed for us a huge bag of food, but in the rush due to an anticipated separation because of a communication by the lock keeper (Sterlet enters the canal of Cernavoda that in 60 km takes to Constantia by cutting more than 300 km of the Danube) I forget to take it. A shame. We’re all moved in leaving these great friends. La revedere, goodbye and muzumesk.

In Cernavoda we moor to wait for Nicola and Tommaso, our friends from Sharazad. It’s quite hot, sunny. It won’t be a relaxing experience.

But this is another story.

With many surprises…


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1 Response » to “Aboard the Leviathan”

  1. Daniel says:

    I have read the article and I am now watching your voyage. It is a beautiful story and I happily congratulated the crew members for the hospitality they’ve offered. They are indeed the nice people you’ve witnessed and I am glad they acted on they hearts and did what I would’ve also done and offered their support.

    best regards and safe journey!

    the owner of M/S STERLET

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