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)



The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took a decided turn towards the east once it crossed into Romania. This was where western Christianity gave way to eastern Orthodoxy. It was a land with deep historical connection to the west going all the way back to when the Romans conquered and colonized what then known as Dacia in the early 2nd century AD. By the latter part of the 19th century Romania was viewed as a dark and mysterious hinterland of Europe. Some called it part of the Balkans, others said it was just an appendage. The people spoke a Romance language akin to Italian and French, but they were ruled by a German who had been forced on them by the Great Powers. Romania was an odd country, surrounded by Bulgars, Slavs and Magyars, it did not fit in with any of its neighbors any more than the Magyars did with theirs. It did have the saving grace of a language which looked and sounded intelligible. As the furthest eastern outpost of Latin Europe, Romania was strangely familiar and totally foreign all at once.

At the Iron Gate

At the Iron Gate (Credit: Lazlo Mednyanszky)

Passing Through – Porta Orientalis
The Express would cross the border just beyond Orsova, a town whose history over the prior three centuries had been a proving ground for various empires. It had been the plaything of Ottomans, Habsburgs and Hungarians, with a fate formulated in treaties decided far from it in places with such scintillating names as Passarowitz and Sistova. A border town that was always on the wrong side of something, Orsova in 1883 was squeezed between Austria-Hungary and Romania. Considering the numerous times that it had been passed back and forth by interlopers, the town’s current geopolitical situation likely meant little to its inhabitants who somehow managed to outlast invaders. The newest one was not Turkish or Tatar, but technological. The Orient Express had much in common with all its former conquerors, in that it was also just passing through.

The final stopping point to be crossed on the Austro-Hungarian frontier was appropriately named Porta Orientalis. The passengers on board the Express had little idea what lay beyond. The moment of crossing into Romania must have been as fascinating as it was historic. The Express had brought them to this stretch of frontier by way of a valley with low, thickly forested mountains on either side. It was a strangely beautiful preparation to enter the great beyond. It was here that the Orient Express had finally arrived in the Orient. No one onboard knew what was in store for them. Twilight would soon descend upon the Express, as it in turn descended upon the Iron Gates. The passengers were allowed a fleeting glimpse of this natural wonder just before sunset.

Peles Castle in autumn

Peles Castle in autumn (Credit: TiberiuSahlean)

Through The Iron Gates – Above & Beyond Bucharest
The Iron Gates, an evocative and forbidding term of description, was where the Danube took revenge upon those foolish enough to test its tempestuous waters and surrounding boulder strewn landscape. Skirting this chasm of wildness was an undertaking that frayed even the steeliest of nerves. Making this transit was best done after dark. That way the passengers would not see the frightening aspect of a terrifying fate flashing before their eyes. It was here that nature raged at its wildest. Eddies, whirlpools and boulders threatened to swallow or impede the unwary. Fortunately, the Express’ locomotive driver proceeded with caution, slowing the pace of travel to a crawl. In this fairy tale dreamscape, full of menacing beauty, one side was bordered by the southern edge of the Carpathians, the other by the beginning of the Balkan Mountains.

The Express, like the river, slithered through the Iron Gates. A couple of hours before dawn, the Orient Express entered Bucharest where it was met by representatives of the Romanian State Railways. No state officials or royalty was there to meet its arrival. This unceremonious welcome obscured what was to come. The passengers were slated to meet King Carol and Queen Elisabeth (who preferred to be called her literary name of Carmen Sylva), but not in Bucharest. Instead the meeting was to take place 120 kilometers to the north amid the magnificent Bucegi Mountains, at the newly constructed Peles Castle.

The Orient Express was shunted onto a sidetrack, then began to steam northward. It traveled through an incredibly diverse array of landscapes in a comparatively short amount of time. After leaving the cityscape of Bucharest it entered rolling farmland. This was followed by the growing city of Ploesti, its surroundings pockmarked with wooden derricks from one of the world’s largest oil fields. Then there was a climb into ever deepening forest along the Prahova River valley, before the Express pulled into the small station at Sinaia. The King and Queen were not at the station or anywhere in the town at that time. They were sequestered high above in their palace. No one knew what the plan was for meeting them. In the meantime, the passengers enjoyed a large lunch on the veranda of the just completed Grand Hotel Noles. Finally, an officer of the palace guard showed up to tell everyone that the royal couple would receive the passengers at the palace.

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Talentless Amateurs – Meeting The Royals
There were no carriages for transport to the palace, thus the passengers were forced to make their way up a muddy road. They were soon inundated by a torrential downpour. One journalist who made the trek stated that the road to the palace was better for mountain goats than people. By the time they arrived, the passengers were muddy and drenched. The palace was an architectural atrocity of grotesque faux grandeur. It had taken separate efforts by an Austrian, a German and finally a Czech architect to achieve such a state of dissymmetry. While its considerable cost had exacerbated the already dire state of Romania’s finances. In the Hall of Honor, the royal couple (both minor German nobles imposed upon Romania) who could barely stand to be around one another, greeted the passengers. The King and Queen were dressed in ridiculous outfits. The former in a general’s dress uniform, while the latter was in a flowing Romanian costume which served to accentuate her expanding waistline.

Personality wise they were no better than their dress. The King was his usual aloof self, only interested in forestry and botany. He was bored by the entire ceremony. Meanwhile, the queen who styled herself a literary genius, recited reams of inane verse to the French journalist Edmond About, who she desperately wanted to impress. The passengers were shunted through several despicably ornate rooms. At one point they were confronted by King Carol’s art collection which was nothing more than a series of works by the Old Masters reproduced by the hands of talentless amateurs. When this depressing visit had run its course, the passengers were escorted out the wrong way, mistaken for laborers and treated with rudeness. It would not be until ten in the evening before the train arrived back in Bucharest. Thus, went the horrifically memorable visit of the Express’ first passengers to an Oriental leader. It had been a day of decadence and decided lack of taste.

Click here for: The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism (Part One)

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)