Iron Gates

NATURAL PARK
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Driving or walking through this magical natural heaven, travelers are always accompanied by the emerald ribbon of the Danube, caught between the picturesque ridges that host an abundance of animal and plant species. The rich variety of birds and wildflowers that can be discovered 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!

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 appeased following the creation of the Iron Gates hydrological complex. The Iron Gates Natural Park covers the area mostly known as the Danube Defile in southwestern Romania, along the border with Serbia. A destination 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 covers 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 natural park was created to protect and conserve the splendid landscapes, the unique biodiversity and the cultural heritage of this fascinating area of Romania.

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 up to the first Iron Gates dam and hydroelectric power plant, a few kilometers west of the city of Drobeta Turnu Severin. The natural park covers 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, with various local roads and paths following the smaller valleys north into the low mountains. There is an overwhelming number and variety of tourist attractions inside the Iron Gates Natural Park, concentrated mostly along the defile of the Danube. The true highlight is the sector known as the Cauldrons of the Danube, where the steep mountain walls get closer together, creating a magnificent and unique 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 main sights of this destination also include the town of Orșova, 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 as many tourist hiking paths. On the Serbian side of the river, the Djerdap National Park protects equally fascinating landscapes and attractions.

The Iron Gates Natural Park features a rich and unique biodiversity, with a variety of amazing species. About 80% of the park is covered by forests and there are still many exceptionally wild areas. It is extremely rich in endemic and 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. The park also houses a great diversity of animal species, including a large number of birds, as well as many insects and reptiles. To protect the astonishing biodiversity of the natural park, it includes almost 20 areas of integral protection, where any activities apart from hiking are forbidden. Inside the park, there are a series of excellent 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 reveal marvelous highlights of the park. The trails are perfectly marked and travelers should always follow the signs along the way. The Danube Defile can also be explored aboard boat tours that offer shorter or longer trips through the most fascinating parts of this destination. 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. 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.

IRON GATES

The start of most journeys through the natural park usually begins a few kilometers west of the city of Drobeta Turnu Severin, where two millennia ago the Romans built the first bridge over the Danube. Travelers will first encounter the impressive Iron Gates Hydroelectric Power Plant and its massive dam, the biggest on the Danube and one of the largest in Europe. This engineering marvel was created in partnership by Romania and Serbia between 1964 and 1972, raising the level of the river by more than 35 meters. This completely covered the island of Ada Kaleh and several settlements on the banks were relocated on higher grounds. The dam itself is truly impressive, spanning for almost 1,3 km and featuring sluices on both sides to let boats get through. Its majesty can be best admired from downstream, but travelers can also get inside and admire the enormous turbines. The installed power of the plant was about 2050 MW with twelve turbines equally divided between the two countries, being 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 with a length of about 150 km, up to the entrance of the Danube in Romania at Baziaș.

Vodița Monastery

Entering the Danube Defile towards the northwest, the road begins to cling on the ridges and hang over the river, passing over viaducts and bridges. About 8 km from the Iron Gates Dam, a little road forks along a small valley to the north, reaching a small meadow where the beautiful monastery of Vodița can be found. Considered the oldest monastery in Romania founded by a ruler and the oldest autonomous Orthodox monastery in the country, it is a superb attraction that is worth a short visit. Vodița Monastery was built in the second half of the 14th century by Saint Nicodemus of Tismana 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. During the following centuries, the monastery experienced  flourishing times, when it became an important monastic center, but also difficult periods when it was completely destroyed by the Ottomans. From the old monastery, only a few ruins remain and can be seen on the way to the new location. The new monastery was built in 1991, with a new wooden church that resembles the churches of Maramureș.

Orșova Town

About ten kilometers further along the defile, travelers will get the first glimpse of Orșova, one of the most picturesque towns in Romania. Tucked away on the gentle slopes and overlooking a small bay, the new town was created during the development of the Iron Gates hydroelectric complex in the 1970’s, when the Danube level rose over 30 meters and the old town was covered by the river. During ancient times, Orșova was known as the Roman settlement Dierna, being disputed through 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 a hill south of the city center and built between the two wars. It offers a breathtaking view of the bay and an extremely peaceful atmosphere. In the center of Orșova, 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 1970’s, featuring a spectacular and unusual architectural style, with its tent shape and cross-shaped roof, as well as the separated belltower. Travelers can also wander along the Danube promenade, charter tour boats and admire the athletes of the national rowing complex.

Cauldrons of the Danube

From Orșova, the road turns towards the southwest and after a few kilometers reaches the entrance of the famous cauldrons, two narrow gorge sectors that are also known as Danube’s Boilers. The Big Cauldrons and the Small Cauldrons are just a few kilometers apart, divided by the enchanting Gulf of Dubova. Before the construction of Iron Gates Dam, these areas were notoriously wild, with dangerous rocks breaching the water or hidden beneath the waves, as well as raging cataracts that gave them their particular 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 Decebalus, while the monastery of Mraconia is located a short distance further along the gorge. Following the road through 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 and unique caves, Veterani and Ponicova.

Decebalus Rock Sculpture

Upon entering the small bay of Mraconia, travelers are greeted by the majestic statue of Decebalus, king of the Dacians. It was carved in the rockface and he is 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 finally being defeated by emperor Trajan. The largest stone sculpture in Europe, it was created between 1994 and 2004 and has an impressive 55 meter height and 25 meters length. It was commissioned by the Romanian businessman Iosif Drăgan and twelve sculptors worked on the project throughout the ten years. The large statue 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.

Mraconia Monastery

 Just a few hundred meters from the monumental sculpture of Decebalus, a small white church is precariously perched on the side of the road and 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 dated around the middle of the 15th century, on the spot of an old observation point on the Danube that was 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 constructed 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 one of the most picturesque monasteries in southwestern Romania.

Veterani and Ponicova Caves

The mountain ridge known as Ciucaru Mare is located south of the Bay of Dubova and features two amazing caves that are worth exploring or admiring. Although quite small and only accessible by water, Veterani Cave is one of the most unique and impressive in Romania. There are local boats in the area that can take visitors to the entrance of this grotto located in the Big Cauldrons. The true highlight of this cave is the small opening in the ceiling that lets sun rays through at a certain time each day, creating a magnificent and 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 inside. There are many legends connected to this small cave, including some claiming that it hides various treasures, but travelers are usually stunned by the spectacle of light. 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 is easy enough for regular visits. Nevertheless, it is advisable to use the minimum equipment of lanterns and rubber boots, as well as use precaution as the cave can become flooded during rainy times. The cave has several galleries disposed on two levels, the lower one being subfossil and having a length of about 400 meters. There are a few galleries that are worth exploring, with various heights of up to 30 meters and plenty of speleological formations.

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 time, 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 to 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.

Ladislau & Golubac Fortresses

Further along towards the end of the journey, a magnificent sight appears on the Serbian bank of the river. The 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 throughout 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 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 the Danube Defile, with beautiful views of the valley. From the village of Coronini, the road along the river continues for about 35 km up to the village of Baziaș, where the Danube enters Romania and the Iron Gates Natural Park ends.

BEST LODGING

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