Some months ago I traveled to the Danube Delta, in Romania. I spent a week in Sfantu Gheorghe, a small and beautiful fisherman village at the very point where the Danube arm with the same name goes into the Black Sea. I went there to learn about the community and to write about them and about the Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania conservation initiative that is being implemented there. My article on this subject has been published in Guernica Magazine.
But I feel I haven’t told the whole story yet. And there is something magical about Sfantu Gheorghe that I feel people should go see and experience and enjoy. Something that is beautiful in itself, but incomplete without knowing just a bit more about the life, the past and traditions of this place.
Besides its amazing nature and wildlife – of which I wrote in my Guernica article – the village has a slow paced life and a certain simplicity that you can never find as you travel West. One of the things that surprised me the first night was how incredibly dark it gets, the sky filled with stars, far away from the light pollution of the cities. I literally couldn’t see anything. Sounds perhaps strange, but I have never seen a night so dark and so quiet.
Life in Sfantu Gheorghe is actually tough. The summers are burning hot, so much that it is common to begin working in the middle of the night, before the sunrise. The winters are harsh and dry. And living from the land and from seasonal tourism means that in winter, people live out of what they managed to gather during the summer.
The flow of life is very much determined by the ship that connects the village to the closest city, Tulcea. Daily needs are supplied from the city, a four hour boat ride away, or shorter, if one is lucky to have a small engine boat to bring them there. I was lucky to get such a boat ride myself when I came to the village. I swear, that was a ride of freedom! The wind in my hair, amazing phragmites and birds, going full speed on the water like nothing could stop us, and then smelling the sea out of a sudden! But when this trip is a necessity, I imagine it is far less romantic.
I spoke to a woman in the village about this, and she joked saying that ”The Americans reached the moon in three days, it takes us three days to get to Tulcea”. It is an exaggeration but in fact, the village’s connection to the mainland is a determining factor for the local economy. The supplies come with the boat, the mail as well and if a visit to the hospital is necessary, the villages have to take the boat to the city. When I asked the same woman what she finds wonderful about living in Sfantu Gheorghe, she didn’t hesitate: ‘Life itself’, she said, ‘summers are crazy and busy with tourists, and in winter everything is slow, we gather at each other’s places, talk, play games. I was born here and life is beautiful here, I never feel bored.’
Many people recall the past of the village with nostalgia. Mrs Anastasia, one of the women I interviewed and the master chef of the village, remembers the long nights when women gathered at the lamplight to knit, sing and make jokes. And singing is one tradition that never ended. People here have a rich repertoire of songs, all about life, love and fishing. And all of them in Ukrainian language.
The spoken language has been Ukrainian ever since the 18th century, when about 8000 Ukrainians coming from the Vylkove region took refuge there from the reprisals of Empress Catherine the Great. They were all fisherman and the community flourished because of fishing which was their main source of making a living.
In the 60’s, when the communist regime was in power in Romania, the people made a petition for the children to have classes in Romanian so they could learn the language well and have a future. They wanted Ukrainian classes as well, but the petition resulted into school in Romanian and Russian classes on the side. ‘But we were speaking Ukrainian’ Mr Ilie told me, ‘and we knew the street language. I remember we would begin a sentence in Russian and end it in Ukrainian. We always had low grades’.
Nowadays, Russian is no longer studied in school. And with the high rate of unemployment and less children being born, the Romanian language does offer a future, but most often outside the community.
There’s one more thing to tell before I finish. When I was there, the locals were celebrating Saint George, the patron of their church and their community. It was a great chance for me to listen to their songs and taste their old traditional fish dishes. The food, the songs, the incredible nature and the warm simplicity of the people, they all make it worth traveling there.
See my photos from the celebration below. And also read my article in Guernica Magazine.
These two fisherman asked me if I can take a photo of them. They called me ‘devushka’ meaning ‘girl’ in Russian. When I thanked them and said goodbye, they asked when will the photo be ready. Only later I understood what they meant.
For the celebration of Saint George there is always a huge lunch being prepared. The event welcomes everyone in the village but also travelers and people familiar with Sfantu Gheorghe, who come here simply to enjoy this special day and the special dishes.
Vania Ivanov is one of the oldest people in the village. He is still part of the church council and he said he is so happy to see young people interested in their community.
Local celebrations are occasions for different generations to gather together. In May, on the celebration of Saint Gheorghe, the patron saint of the community, people gather together and organize a huge lunch in the garden of the church. The locals participate but also travelers and outside guests.
The local recipes are almost all based on fish. This is fish soup, made in a huge pot, enough for everyone taking part in the Saint George celebration.
The women in the village gather together in the back of the local church to cook lunch for the Saint George celebration. They are experts in cooking these dishes. The celebration attracts people familiar with the village, who travel here simply to enjoy this amazing food. Expert cooks and big pots is the secret.
The Saint George celebration welcomes not only the locals but also tourists and people who simply know about this tradition. This lunch is well known for being a chance to taste some of the best local dishes.
At this point, there are few opportunities for young people in the village. The birth rate is also decreasing. Hopefully the future will look better.
During the Saint George celebration, the community listened to old Ukrainian songs, which are part of their past and their traditions. This lady sang along the entire time. Few young people know these songs, or love them as much. And there’s a good chance in time they will be lost.
Water and boats – this is a typical image of the village. And walking around feels incredibly peaceful. There is simply no rush in this village, only the rhythm determined by nature.