Meandering its way across central and southeastern Europe, the Danube creates a myriad of enchanting landscapes, yet none more spectacular and impressive than the small portion caught between the mountains of Romania and Serbia. Enclosed by the Carpathians and the Balkans, the otherwise peaceful river used to become tormented and impetuous. After centuries of being the nightmare of sailors that had to try their luck crossing the most dangerous parts of this area, it was finally domesticated after the creation of the Iron Gates complex. Driving or walking through this magical area, travelers are always accompanied by the emerald ribbon of the Danube, while the ridges on both sides are filled with vegetation and wildlife. The rich variety of birds and wildflowers that can be encountered in the mountains along the defile is astonishing, and anyone can feel overwhelmed watching the Danube from above, surrounded by birdsongs and the subtle scent of wild lilac.
The Iron Gates Natural Park covers the area mostly known as the Danube Defile in southwestern Romania, along the border with Serbia. An area of immense natural beauty and unique cultural significance, it includes the spectacular defile created by the Danube between the Carpathian and the Balkan Mountains. On the Romanian side, the park includes the defile of the Danube, the southern ridges of the Locvei and Almăj Mountains, as well as small areas of the Mehedinți Mountains and Plateau. The highlight of this natural park is the sector known as the Cauldrons of the Danube, where the steep mountain walls get close together, creating a magnificent landscape. Before the construction of the Iron Gates Dam, this area was extremely dangerous to sail through, with many rocks breaching the water surface. The natural park was created to protect and conserve the splendid landscapes, the unique biodiversity and the cultural heritage of this fascinating area of Romania.
There is an overwhelming number and variety of tourist attractions inside the Iron Gates Natural Park, concentrated mostly along the defile of the Danube. Nevertheless, the true highlight of this destination is represented by the breathtaking scenery created by the contrast between the majestic river passing through the impressive mountains between two countries. The main sights of this area include the town of Orșova, the Great and the Small Cauldrons, the monumental Rock Sculpture of Decebalus, the Mraconia, Saint Anne and Vodița monasteries, the Veterani and Ponicova caves, the Tricule Fortress ruins, the Iron Gates Dam and Museum, as well the many tourist hiking routes. On the Serbian side of the river, the Djerdap National Park protects equally fascinating landscapes and attractions.
Location and Getting Around the Natural Park
The Iron Gates Natural Park is located in the southwestern extremity of Romania, along the Danube Defile that forms the border with Serbia. The Danube enters Romania before the village of Baziaș and continues for about 150 km through until the first Iron Gates dam and hydroelectric power plant, a few kilometers west of the city of Drobeta Turnu Severin. The natural park includes this defile and the mountain ridges on the Romanian side, including the several mountain groups in the counties of Caraș-Severin and Mehedinți. The main access way through the park is along the national road 57 that follows the river defile, with various local roads and paths following the smaller valleys into the mountains. The closest international airports are in Timișoara and Craiova, about 150 km from Baziaș (2-3 hours) and 110 km from Drobeta Turnu Severin (1.5 hours), while Bucharest is about 350 km (5 hours) from Drobeta Turnu Severin. There are also several daily trains from Bucharest (6 hours). He best way to explore the Iron Gates Natural Park is by driving through and spending a few days to a week exploring the hiking paths and discovering the beauty of the area. There are plenty of accommodation options along the Danube Defile.
Iron Gates Natural Park Travel Guide
A trip through the Danube Defile can start from the east or the west, yet most travelers will likely start exploring this marvelous area starting from the city of Drobeta Turnu Severin, arriving from Craiova or Bucharest. Just about 15 km from the city, the first attraction along the way is the mighty Iron Gates Hydroelectrical Power Plant and its impressive dam on the Danube.
The Iron Gates
A few kilometers west of the city of Drobeta Turnu Severin, where the Romans once built the first bridge over the Danube two millennia ago, travelers can admire the impressive Iron Gates Hydroelectric Power Plant, the biggest one on the Danube and one of the largest in Europe. It was created by Romania and Serbia between 1964 and 1972 and rose the level of the Danube upstream with more than 35 meters, completely covering the island of Ada Kaleh and several settlements on both banks of the river that were relocated at higher altitudes. The dam itself is an engineering marvel, spanning for almost 1.3 kilometers and featuring sluices on each side to let boats get through. It is more impressive viewed from downstream and truly magnificent if visitors get inside to see the enormous turbines. The installed power of the plant was about 2050 MW with twelve turbines equally divided between the two countries. The power was increased after further developments in the last decades. The lake created after the creation of the dam is huge, covering an area of over 100 sq. km. And a length of about 150 km, up to the entrance of the Danube in Romania at Baziaș. This area is known as the Danube Defile and along the Romanian side, it is included in the Iron Gates Natural Park. The dam is also a bridge between Romania and Serbia. Just about 8 km further along the defile, a small monastery can be spotted from the road on a narrow side valley.
Considered the oldest monastery in Romania founded by a ruler and the oldest autonomous Orthodox monastery in the country, the monastery of Vodița is a superb attraction located in an enchanting hidden valley of the Iron Gates Natural Park. It was built in the second half of the 14th century by the Saint Nicodemus of Tismana and with the help of the ruler of Wallachia Vladislav I. During those times, it was located close to the border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Along the centuries, the monastery passed through flourishing times, when it became an important monastical center in the area, but also dire times when it was completely destroyed by the Ottomans. From the old monastery, only a few ruins remain that can be seen on the way to the new location. Vodița Monastery is located in the Danube Defile, about 1 km from the Danube along a side valley. The new monastery was built starting with 1991, with a new wooden church that resembles the churches of Maramureș. Leaving the monastery behind, travelers will soon catch their first glimpses of the town of Orșova, located along a charming gulf.
One of the most picturesque towns in Romania is locate along the defile of the Danube, tucked away on the gentle slopes overlooking a small charming gulf. The new town of Orșova was created during the development of the Iron Gates hydroelectric complex in the 1970s, when the Danube level rose over 30 meters and the old town was entirely moved on its current location. During ancient times, Orșova was known as the Roman settlement Dierna, being disputed along the centuries between various local powers. Today, the town is a quiet and enchanting place, mainly known for its little port and shipyard. One of the most interesting sights of Orșova is the monastery of Saint Anne, located on hill south of the city center, built between the two wars and offering a breathtaking view of the bay. In the city center, travelers can also admire one of the most unique and futuristic churches in Romania. The Roman-Catholic cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was built in the 1970s, featuring a spectacular and unusual architectural style, with its tent shape and cross-shaped roof, as well as the separated tall bell tower. Travelers can also wander along the Danube promenade, charter tour boats and admire the athletes of the national rowing complex. After about 16 km from Orșova, the road enters the most spectacular areas of the Danube, known as the Cauldrons or the Boilers.
Cauldrons of the Danube
Also known as the Danube’s Boilers, these narrow gorge sectors are probably the most famous sights along the Danube Defile. The Big Cauldrons and the Small Cauldrons are just a few kilometers apart, divided by the enchanting Gulf of Dubova. Before the constructions of Iron Gates dam, these areas wee notoriously wild, with dangerous rocks breaching the water or hidden beneath the waves, as well as raging cataracts that gave them their name. Travelers arriving from Orșova will first enter the Small Boilers located between the Ogradena river and the bay of Dubova. The steep banks of the river are just 150 meters apart, with the water depth reaching 100 meters. The Serbian ridges rise at over 600 meters, while the Romanian Ciucaru Mic peak only reaches 313 meters. There is a hiking path to the peak, offering a breathtaking panorama of the area. This ridge is divided by the gulf of Mraconia, with the massive rock sculpture of the Decebalus, while the monastery of Mraconia is located a short distance further along the gorge. Following the road further along the Gulf of Dubova, the Big Boilers begin, although the road actually goes around the steep Ciucaru Mare mountain (318 meters). They are about 200-250 meters wide and 80 meters deep, with the Serbian mountain side being a lot taller (768 meters) and creating a magnificent scenery. There is an easy hiking path climbing up to the ridge of Ciucaru Mare and offering breathtaking belvedere points towards the Cauldrons of the Danube and the gulf of Dubova. Inside the mountain, there are two fascinating caves, Veterani and Ponicova.
Decebalus Rock Sculpture
Upon arriving at the entrance of the small bay of Mraconia, travelers are greeted by the majestic statue of Decebalus, king of the Dacians, carved in the rockface and seemingly looking towards the other bank of the Danube, from where the Roman invaders arrived two millennia ago. Decebalus was the last king of the Dacians and fought against the Romans at the end of the first century AD, fending off their attacks several times, until final defeat against emperor Trajan. The largest stone sculpture in Europe was created between 1994 and 2004 and has an impressive 55 by 25 meters. It was commissioned by the Romanian businessman Iosif Drăgan and twelve sculptors worked on it throughout the ten years. It is a truly impressive and inspiring sight that cannot be overlooked while cruising along the Cauldrons of the Danube. On the other side of the Danube, a more ancient site and a memory of the Romans can be admired above the level of the river. The Tabula Traiana or Trajan’s Plaque was commissioned by the Roman emperor after the conquest of Dacia, being the only one that was preserved from 10 such plaques. It also marks the beginning of the suspended Roman road along the Danube, whose remnants can still be seen today.
Just a few hundred meters from the monumental sculpture of Decebalus, a small white church is precariously perched on the side of the road over the raging river. Known as the monastery of Mraconia, it actually stands over several older monasteries that were built in this area. The oldest one was built around the half of the 15th century on the spot of an old observation point on the Danube, used to guide ships through the treacherous waters of the cauldrons. It was followed by other monasteries that were destroyed during the ongoing wars in this border area. The last monastery of Mraconia was covered by the waters of the Danube after the construction of the dam downstream, gaining the surname of the “monastery below the waters”. The present one was built starting with 1993 and devoted to the Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel, as well as the Holy Trinity. Given its stunning location in the middle of a spectacular landscape, this is truly one of the most fascinating monasteries in southwestern Romania.
Although quite small and only accessible by water, this is one of the most unique and impressive caves in Romania. There are local boats in the area that take visitors to this grotto located in the Great Cauldrons, south of Dubova village. The true magnificence of the cave is given by the small opening in the ceiling wall that lets the sunrays in at a certain time each morning, creating on almost ethereal scene. The cave was known and inhabited in prehistoric times, being considered a sanctuary of the Dacian god Zalmoxis. It was also used as a garrison by Austrian troops and there are ruins of several fortification walls still visible. There are many legends connected to this small cave, including many claiming that it hides various treasures, but travelers are usually stunned by the spectacle of light created inside.
Located close to the Veterani Cave in the same mountain ridge known as Ciucaru Mare, the cave of Ponicova has several entrances, one of which is from the river. The other two are from the road on the other side, although just one being easy enough for regular travelers. Nevertheless, it is advisable to use the minimum equipment of lanterns and rubber boots. The cave has several galleries disposed on two levels, the lower one being subfossil and having a length of about 400 meters. There are several galleries that are worth exploring, with various heights of up to 30 meters and plenty of speleological formations. The cave can become flooded during rainy times.
Tri Kule Fortress
About 20 km south of Dubova, there is an often overlooked and unusual sight, with two medieval towers rising from the waters of the Danube. The old Tri Kule Fortress used to guard the bank of the river and was built sometime during the 14th or 15th century. It used to have a triangle shape with three towers, one of them being destroyed by ice and completely submerged. Most of the times, the other two towers are surrounded by water and only accessible during drought periods. The fortress of Tricule or Tri Kule is located over the river from the Serbian town of Donji Milanovac. Continuing for about 12 km through the village of Svinița, travelers can stop to admire a majestic peak rising above the forest to the north. It is actually known as Trescovăț Ridge and is an old volcanic neck with steep walls that rise at 755 meters. There is a fascinating hiking trail that goes to the top of the peak and offers superb views of the Danube valley and the mountains around.
The Water Mills of Sichevița
Continuing along the defile of the Danube for 35 km, travelers finally arrive at a bigger side valley between the mountains of Almăj and Locvei. A lesser-known attraction of this charming valley is represented by the old water mills that can be found for about 10 km along the small river. Known as the mills of Sichevița, there are still about 10 of them from the 30 that once stood along the river. Some are still being used by the locals and are extremely interesting, using unique mechanisms and with traditional wooden architecture. The many villages of Sichevița commune are spread around the enchanting valleys and hillsides of the area, being regarded as the origin of all Romanian people that inhabit the Danube Defile.
Further along, a magnificent sight appears on the Serbian bank of the river, an imposing fortress with ten tall towers rises on top of a rock that resembles an elephant drinking from the Danube. The old fortress of Golubac dates back from medieval times and was developed on several stages, being completely renovated today. The fortress has had a tumultuous past, always disputed between European powers and renowned for having repelled more than 120 attacks across its history. Today, it is a splendid tourist attraction, with the road passing through a tunnel beneath the fortress. The view is quite breathtaking, especially when seen from the Romanian side. In the past, there used to be a fortress on the Romanian bank of the river, on a small rock opposite Golubac. It is known as the Ladislau Fortress and its ruins are being currently consolidated to receive visitors. The beginnings of the fortress are still debated, the present ruins dating from the 15th century, although it might have been built upon an older fortification. Once the renovation is finished, the fortress of Ladislau will become an interesting attraction along Danube Defile, with beautiful panoramas of the valley. From the village of Coronini, where the fortress is located, the road along the river continues for about 35 km to the village of Baziaș, where the Danube enters Romania and the Iron Gates Natural Park ends.
The Iron Gates Natural Park features a rich and unique biodiversity, with a variety of rare and valuable species. About 80% of the park is covered by forests and there are still many exceptionally wild areas. The park is extremely rich in endemic or rare floral species, with some splendid examples like the Cauldrons Tulip (tulipa hungarica) that only grows on the steep walls of the Ciucaru Mare mountain and can only be admired from the river. There are other beautiful vegetal elements, including Mediterranean species that greatly increase the attraction of the landscape. From the animal species, apart from the large diversity of birds, there are also many insects and reptiles. To protect the astonishing biodiversity of the natural park, it also includes almost 20 areas of integral protection, where activities apart from hiking are forbidden.
Inside the natural park, there ae a series of superb ecotourist hiking trails that usually explore the mountain slopes along the Danube Defile. Along these fascinating journeys, travelers can discover the rich biodiversity and amazing cultural heritage of the area, as well as admire the stunning and diverse landscapes along the way. The park’s administration maintains a network of 15 ecotourist trails of various lengths and difficulties, all of which presenting marvelous highlights of the park. The trails are perfectly marked and travelers should always follow the signs along the way.
- Trescovăț Ecotourist Trail / 10 km / Red Triangle
- Svinița – Tricule Ecotourist Trail / 9 km / Yellow Triangle
- Cioaca Cremeneasca – Rudina Ecotourist Trail / 8 km / Red Triangle
- Liubotina Valley – Rudina Ecotourist Trail / 12 km / Blue Triangle
- Big Cauldrons Ecotourist Trail (Ciucaru Mare) / 5 km / Yellow Triangle
- Small Cauldrons Ecotourist Trail (Ciucaru Mic) / 2 km / Red Triangle
- Alion Ecotourist Trail / 4.5 km / Yellow Triangle
- Țarovăț Ecotourist Trail / 9 km / Blue Triangle
- Radovat – Boldovin Ecotourist Trail / 11 km / Red Circle
- Vodița Valley – Duhovnei Hill Ecotourist Trail / 14,5 km / Yellow Circle
- Big Boilers 2 Ecotourist Trail / 1.6 km / Blue Triangle
- Dubova – Small Boilers Ecotourist Trail / 9 km / Yellow Triangle
- “St. Peter’s Cross” Tourist Trail / 6.6 km / Blue Band
- Balta Nera – Ostrov Moldova Veche Educational Trail / 34 km / Blue Triangle
- Water Mills Valley Educational Trail / 22 km / Blue Triangle
The Danube Defile can also be explored aboard boat tours that offer shorter or longer trips along the most fascinating parts of this area. Many of the villages along the Danube offer the possibility to rent a boat ride, but the best options are from Orșova, Mraconia and Dubova for the Danube’s Cauldrons area, while other destinations might have less dependable offers. It is an entirely different experience to admire the beauty of the natural park from the river, discovering new wonders that are sometimes hidden from the road.
REcommended Accommodation in the Iron Gates Natural Park
9.6 Rating from 293 Reviews!
Featuring a superb heated infinity pool overlooking the Danube, it is located in the village of Berzasca, right on the bank of the river, offering fully-equipped rooms and the option to arrange boat tours!
9.6 Rating from 140 Reviews!
Located in a tranquil area of Orșova Town, right on the bank of the Danube, this amazing guesthouse features superb family rooms with river views, a shared kitchen, an outdoor hot tub and wireless internet!
9.6 Rating from 197 Reviews!
Located in the village of Eșelnița on the beachfront of the Danube, this excellent guesthouse offers beautiful rooms, an outdoor terrace and swimming pool, dining area and the option for activities!
9.6 Rating from 135 Reviews!
This spectacular lodge is located in the village of Sviniț, close to the fortress of Tricule with a superb view of the Danube. It features beautifully designed rooms, a kitchenette, outdoor pool and hot tub and playground!
9.3 Rating from 97 Reviews!
This excellent villa is located in the village of Dubova, close to the Cauldrons of the Danube. It offers excellent rooms with all amenities, a sun terrace with a swimming pool, a garden, a shared kitchen and the option for boat tours!
9.6 Rating from 159 Reviews!
This amazing guesthouse is located in Orșova, on the bank of the Danube and close to the monastery. It features comfortable rooms with all amenities, a small swimming pool and sun terrace, barbeque, dining area and activities!