Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

“An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island was the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” – Between The Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

A strange thing happened while Ada Kale enjoyed its insular obscurity, World War I. While the island was a bastion of tradition, many other time honored traditions across Europe were being destroyed. As war raged in the nations that surrounded the island, Ada Kale’s sublime existence continued much as before. The island was much too far from the battlefields on which the Ottomans fought for that fading empire to show interest in their subjects. Nine hundred kilometers separated the empire and the island. They empire continue to send gendarmes to the island, but other than that, Ada Kaleh was an afterthought.

Since the Ottoman Empire fought along with the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, Ada Kaleh made it through the war unscathed. In contrast, two of the nations which were just a short ferry ride from the island, Serbia and Romania, suffered grievously during the war. In 1915, Serbia suffered an invasion from the Central Powers which led to occupation during the war. The same happened to Romania after they entered the war in 1916. Meanwhile, the Danube stayed secured through the efforts of Austria-Hungary’s naval flotilla. By the end of the war, the situation reversed. Serbia and Romania were triumphant. Both expanded their territory, gaining much of it at the expense of Austria-Hungary which dissolved. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ada Kaleh was now alone.

The old guard – Men having coffee on Ada Kaleh

Tourism & Tobacco – An Exotic Outpost
With neither Austria-Hungary nor the Ottoman Empire in existence after the war, Ada Kaleh found itself stranded in a geo-political netherworld. Every side that had fought in the war wanted to either acquire or hold on to territory. The problem for Ada Kaleh is that its former masters had vanished. Whereas Austria-Hungary had willfully ignored it and the Ottomans treated the island as a loose appendage, other rising nation states might see things differently. It was not until five years after the war had ended that Ada Kaleh learned of its new overseer. The successor state to the Ottomans came about through Turkish victories on the battlefield. When the newly formed Republic of Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, it ceded any authority over the island. The residents of Ada Kaleh then decided to join Romania. Unfortunately, this also meant that the residents would be relinquishing their privileges. The latter had played a role in stimulating the economy.

Ada Kaleh was now part of the mainland, at least in an administrative sense. This would cause a high degree of economic hardship. The island would become impoverished, Sadly, this was at least one thing it had in common with post-World War I Romania. Restoration of privileges was foremost on islander’s minds. They were lucky enough to get a visit from King Carol II in 1931. Touched by the suffering that he witnessed, the king decided to restore Ada Kaleh’s privileges. This allowed the island to regain its economic footing. Tourism and tobacco were once again mainstays of the economy. Smuggling also became a lucrative enterprise. The island soon settled into a new existence which was much like its old one. Obscure and overlooked, Ada Kaleh was a backwater on Romania’s western frontier. An exotic outpost on the fringes of a struggling nation. It reminded visitors of what life must have been like when the Ottomans ruled over the Balkans. Coffee houses proliferated, the bazaar sold textiles and jewelry along with other consumer accoutrements, smoking was not so much a habit as a way of life.

Historic rendering – Ada Kaleh drawing from the 19th century

The Literary Vagabond – In The Form Of Fermor
After the restoration of Ada Kale’s privileges, it was not long before the economy picked back up. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors came to the island to shop at the bazaar or along the Eruzia, the main shopping street where a range of goods were on offer. It is the type of tourism seen today in the Turkish quarter of Sarajevo or Old Bar in Montenegro. Unlike those places, Ada Kule was not marketing the past. It was a dynamic, vibrant community. A mystic form of the Ottomans to outsiders, but this was a reality for the approximately six hundred inhabitants on the island. The scent of tobacco mixed with coffee was pervasive, the fetid environment lush with exoticism, a slice of the Orient along the Danube, Ada Kale’s aesthetic resonated with those who visited.

One of its visitors during the 1930’s was none other than Patrick Leigh Fermor, the literary vagabond who was in the second year of his epic journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). He took a keen interest in Ada Kaleh. Fermor read anything he could find about the island prior to his visit. In his book, he relates a bit of legendary background by reciting the story of the Argonauts passing through the island before making a historic portage to the Adriatic. The legend is quite enchanting and patently false which Fermor surely knew. He then provides a rundown of the island’s more recent history, giving the classic description of Austria-Hungary holding “a vague suzerainty” over the island during the pre-World War I era.

Shadows from the past – Ada Kaleh street scene

Atmospheric Rendering – Down By The Danube
After landing, Fermor finds the usual Ottoman aesthetics when invited to partake of coffee with a group of grizzled men. He is a keen observer of these descendants of the Turks. They were unlike any other people he had met thus far on his journey. Fermor’s descriptions are colorful in the extreme with boleros, sashes and fezzes all making appearances in the most eyepopping colors imaginable. Fermor describes the island’s otherworldliness, as though he had set foot on an entirely different planet. The residue of Ottomania wafts through his narrative. In true Fermor fashion, he spends the night sleeping out in the open down by the Danube as fish splash in the river and meteors streak across the sky. That night he has a dream where half a millennium before, King Sigismund’s crusading force cross the Danube at this very same spot while going to battle the Ottoman Turks. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent and atmospheric rendering of an island that would cease to exist a mere three and a half decades after the intrepid wanderer’s visit.

Click here for: The Idea of Progress – Ada Kaleh: Drowned by The Danube (Part Four)



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