The Ukrainian Venice – Vylkove: An Exile’s Home On The Danube

For tourists, the Danube River is nothing more than a ribbon of liquid fire along which riverboat cruises glide past four European capitals and ten different countries. The river’s name conjures up the splendor of Vienna, the rustic charm of Bratislava’s old town, the grandeur of Budapest and the sound of Johann Strauss’s elegant waltzes. This is the Danube as it is popularly known and experienced, but this enduring image also misses out on a much wilder, less tamed part of the river, the Danube Delta. This is the final stretch, where the river spreads forth in countless rivulets and soaks the soil for thousands of square kilometers as it reaches out for the Black Sea. Those who have visited this area often talk of its peaceful and serene natural environment, rich with birds and aquatic wildlife. The majority of visitors access the Danube Delta by way of Romania, but a whole other world, almost entirely overlooked lies on the northern side of the delta in Ukraine. This watery world is not only rich with natural charm, but also humanity. Here exists a way of life that survives in harmony with nature. It is also a place of exile, past exiles from religious and political persecution and a present exile from modernity. It is a place where people and nature have assimilated into one, a place known as Vylkove, Ukraine’s own little slice of Venice. It has much in common with that shimmering, watery city and nothing at all.

Vylkove - The Ukrainian Venice in 1962

Vylkove – The Ukrainian Venice in 1962

The Farthest Reaches Of Europe – Ukraine’s Danube Delta
Floating on the northern edge of the Danube Delta’s marshlands is the town of Vylkove. It is the final settlement on the Danube before Europe’s most famous river flows into the Black Sea. With a population of just 9,300, Vylkove would be scarcely noticeable, if not for its unique setting amid the marshlands of the Danube Delta. The town and its inhabitants have integrated their lifestyle with the waters, mainly because they have no other choice. Almost half of Vylkove is crisscrossed by channels. These were dug by the original settlers, with the excavated material used as platforms on which houses, built of reeds and topped with thatched roofs, were then built. These homes slowly sink over a number of years, cultivating a need to rebuild again and again. The modern age has had little effect on Vyltove. By one estimate, boats outnumber cars by five to one still today. Boats have always been the main mode of transport, with the waterways acting as avenues, hence Vylkove’s nickname, the “Ukrainian Venice.” While this moniker is deceptive, both places do have a few similarities, with even more dissimilarities.

The most obvious difference between the two is that Venice was one of the most powerful maritime republics in history, with an almost unimaginable degree of wealth that can still be seen in the mansions, palaces and churches which line its historic canals. Vylkove was never rich, except in water, lots of water, inundating everything.  While the founding of Venice goes back to the late 6th century, Vylkove was not founded until the mid-18th  century, one of the youngest towns to be found anywhere along the Danube. The town’s siting, in a less than hospitable environment for human habitation, turned out to be the major reason behind its settlement. Like Venice, Vylkove was settled by refugees, in the case of the former, by those fleeing the crumbling cities that were the last vestiges of the Roman Empire in Italy. In the case of Vylkove, the settlers were a diverse array of people, exiled for military and religious reasons

Vylkove - historic photo

Vylkove, Ukraine – historic photo with St. Nicholas Church in the distance

Island Of Exile – The People of Vylkove
While Vylkove may be part of the Ukrainian nation and called the “Ukrainian Venice”, the majority of those who call the town their home are not ethnic Ukrainians. The most prominent of these are the Lipovans, of the “Old Believer” faith. They are followers of the “old” rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church prior to the reforms of the mid-17th century. Lipovans have always made the sign of the cross with two fingers rather than three and the men refuse to shave their beards. Reform has never been in their nature, thus they sought a place where time stood still, or at least flowed languidly. Their rigid adherence to belief was reflected in the Danube Delta’s placid waters.  Vylkove made a fine home for the Lipovans, being nearly impossible to reach on foot, a literal and figurative backwater. Surrounded by reeds, mud and water, the Lipovans discovered a place of isolation and contemplation.

Seven out of every ten inhabitants of Vylkove today are Lipovans (ethnically Russian) who continue their Old Believer traditions and faith. Of the three churches in the town, two are those of the Old Believers, including the famous St. Nicholas, shaped like a boat. A fascinating example of how the town’s spiritual architecture mirrors the environment.  Another diverse group, known as the Gagauz people also found these marshlands a haven from persecution. They are symbolic of the 18th and 19th century geo-political upheavals in the lower reaches of the Danube. Originally from Bulgaria, ethnically Turkish yet Russian Orthodox in religion, they speak a dialect of Turkish heavily influenced by the Russian language. The Gagauz managed to gain a watery foothold in the farthest reaches of Europe, as have Vyltove’s ethnic Ukrainian population, descended from Cossacks. This is a place where a few resourceful breeds of exiles could finally create a home.

City traffic in Vylkove - the Ukranian Venice

City traffic in Vylkove – the Ukrainian Venice

The Vylkove Paradox – Life Sustaining & Ever Changing
Today Vylkove is still an island of exile, among a sea of mud and reeds, a paradoxical place where nature is transitory and the way of life unchanging.  It acts as a waterborne refuge for those clinging to the very fringes of Europe. The people that call this place home live at the mercy of nature. Building and rebuilding, sinking and rising with the river waters that sustain life and constantly threaten to carry it away.

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