Out of the blue, I was thinking about a topic long forgotten. It could have been the fact that I was looking for some material for Transylvania, or... I don't know what, however I remember a little trip I took in 1969 with my father and his filming crew to a place on the Danube that does not exist any longer.
It was called Ada Kaleh, a small island in the middle of the river.
Danube starts as a small spring in the Black Forrest mountains in Germany heading East towards the Black Sea, turning from an innocent stream of water that one can block with his hands into the second European river in length and quantity of water it carries towards the sea. It goes through a few countries, collecting on its way a lot of little streams and crossing several mountain ranges carving at times indescribable gorges which should only be seen with your own eyes, any description in words rendering them injustice.
If in Germany it crossed the mountains, as it does in most of the Austria, at Vienna the Danube turns lazy, so lazy that inspired a lot of Viennese unforgettable music. Unfortunately we only know about Strauss, but there were plenty of other less famous composers who dedicated their talents to the Danube, the river which gave Vienna part of its fame.
Going through Hungary, the Danube is still a slow-moving river crossing a totally flat plain. Being bored of so much flat land, it decided to make a drastic swing turning to the South before finding its way East again. On the way it unites the two cities Buda and Pest creating the jewel called Budapest..
Than getting out of Hungary it separates, Romania from former Yugoslavia, today Serbia, than Romania from Bulgaria for a few hundred miles turning again North and finally East again going towards the sea joining it through a nice delta formed among three branches of the river.
However, the segment that I want to talk about is between Romania and Serbia where the Danube narrows down cutting through some old chains of mountains forming a set of rapids and breath-taking views. At that particular point, where the narrowing starts there was a little natural island which since the Roman times change owners several times.
Today the island is only a memory and for most of the readers of this pages even if they were in Romania the island is just a little point on the map they learned in the Geography and History classes. In 1970 the island, after some of the most important historical vestiges were moved to a different place, was blown up to clear the area for a huge artificial lake made up by a hydroelectric dam built on the Danube between Romania and Yugoslavia...
I guess that after all the economic gains from that power dam overshadowed the benefit of that little piece of living history with its subculture and a few hundred inhabitants who traced their origins before the 1600... The dam also covered the rapids by raising the water level, making that part of the Danube navigable for big ships improving the commercial traffic.
The reason for which I wanted to talk about that place is that my father and his crew was probably the last team to shoot a documentary on the island before the Military used it as a practice range, until everything standing was blown up and leveled off.
I was lucky enough to be part of the team, and although I was mainly an observer. I was about seventeen, deeply in love with a girl who had the common sense not to be in love with me.The trip created a distraction in my sorrow.
I don't really know whatever happened with that movie. It was shot for the television company, my father worked for them at the time, but even if it were still around, I am sorry to say that it was shot in black and white and a lot of the natural beauty was lost.
Cameramen don't really get the credit deserved. People see the actors, they see the commentators but no one thinks about the contribution of the person holding the camera and pressing the button when the events are happening.
The was Ada Kaleh. The name itself was of Turkish origins. Although the first people to take control of it were the Romans, when the Ottoman Empire reached the Danube they took over, and even if the ownership shifted from one neighboring nation to the other, the Turkish population which was brought there stayed until the time of the evacuation a few centuries later. The interesting part is that actually no matter in what language the name was pronounced, it kept its Turkish phonetics.
In its later history the place was more of a touristic place than a real political or strategic location. The island itself was about a mile long and anywhere from a quarter to half a mile wide. The Romans built a network of tunnels, or catacombs, the Ottomans built a fort and the inhabitants built houses, which for us Romanians were totally strange-looking, having the layout of Muslim architecture. Everyone was speaking Romanian which was the official language, the island being under Romanian jurisdiction, but everyone also spoke Turkish, most of the inhabitants having dual citizenship.
The shores to the North of the Danube on the Romanian side for about half a mile inland had a very mild climate for Romania resembling a harsh Mediterranean one. The island itself during the Summers resembled more Mediterranean rather than the Continental as the rest of Romania.
It was the place where I saw for the first time in my life live Mediterranean pines living in dirt not in pots, and fresh fig trees. Actually it was the first time when I realized that figs are not those little doughnut shaped fruits, smoked. They looked more like little pears, they were very moist and very sweet. Everyone had a few trees in their yards.
The houses enclosed by fences covered the view for the outsiders. Once the gate was opened, the yard itself was part of the main house building to the extend that the main path to the entrance of the house was covered with carpets. One would take off the shoes at the gate, as if one entered a mosque. Every yard had a little fountain for the visitor or the dweller to clean his hands, face or feet if needed. Actually the locals were using it as a ritual wash, as they would when entering the mosque.
The buildings were very close to each other due to the scarcity of space, however every single house was totally independent, and although one could hear the conversation in the neighbor space, no one was bothered or eavesdropped.
Our presence on the island was a special occasion and everyone was offering help, maybe because we had cameras and sound equipment growing on us...
The traffic of visitors was high, every one wanted to come before the end and have a last look. The commerce was thriving.
The place with the most important visibility was the Post Office. The Post Master a woman, who did not really inspired a Post Master look was in very high demand. She showed us an impressive number of envelopes. Most of the people coming on the island were buying an envelope addressing it with the sender being the Post Office, a regular first class stamp, to be dated on the last day before the Post Office would be closed.
For stamp collectors, that was gong to be worth a lot of money. Well sort of. I collect stamps, however I collect only new mint condition oes ones in mint condition. For me a stamp from an envelope unless it is really, really rare does not present high interest. Besides the number of envelopes she had there, they were a few big boxes the size of a big garbage can, and we were almost half a year away from the event, was an sign that the value will increase long after my time... Usually the value of a stamp is given by its age, condition and the availability on the market. The printing on the stamp was not special, they did not print stamps with the island... She, the Post Master was totally convinced that I was strange for not getting a couple for her to mail to me the last day. Actually she was cheating a little bit. She new the official day of the closing and she set the date stamp with the last day, stamping them right the way. Her reasoning was valid, if she waited to do it on the last day, she probably would have needed a few months to go through all of them. However they were going to be mailed with the last mail transport of the island.
They were still selling cigarettes. The manufacturer was shut down, however there were left over. It was not shut down because of the environment or heath concerns but the owners had left. Whatever they were producing mostly for tourist consumption was hand-made. They had rolling machines, but they were small capacity and manual.
The electricity was generated locally was not brought in from the shore. It was difficult to bring it over the water, so most of the industry was manual. The generator worked only after dark. It may sound corny these days, but they did not really have TVs. The TV was analogue and the natural conditions were not proper to build towers to relay the signal. They could get radio stations mostly on short weaves, them guys don't care too much about mountains, water or valley, but then again it was not such a priority.
It was a Paradise for Turkish Delight lovers. If any of the readers wants to find out what it is, you may goggle it. You may even go to a supermarket in the ethnic area and they might have it. Or if you really, really want to find it, you may go the Parthenon Food Store on-line, it is in Milwaukee and you will see pictures of it. They will even be happy to send you an order. It is very well priced too.
Now, no matter how you get it though, what you get is nothing compared to the one at Ada Kaleh. The Turkish delight is basically some kind of a preserve specially prepared. When it cools down it looks like jello more than preserve, but it has the consistency of preserve. Some of it has nothing in it, the best one has any variety of nuts, and the super has pistachio...
The one on Ada Kaleh though was rolled and they sold it to you by length. If you wanted it flat they will sell it to you in a box. Now, if you were really smart and a free loader, you could have asked to have some on the spot directly from the pot while it was cooling off. They would not charge you for that. Of course they would not advertize the trick either but if you knew it, you could have as much as you wanted. The truth was that you could not have too much, it was too sweet...
But the experience was great.
They were also selling saragli rolls. The Greeks call them Baklava. Actually the Greek version is not rolled but flat. A good saragli has a lot of walnuts in it and is drown into honey. If it is fresh, the way that I always had it at home, it was very moist. If you order it may be a little dry and the honey looks like a thick glue before you taste it, but it is good.
Of course those were the times when I could eat sugar. Maybe I had too many of those and now I pay the price in diabetes. But you know what, the Turkish Delight, the saragli the fresh figs, in hind side are worth the price...
Nothing was complete at Ada Kaleh though without a Turkish coffee. Please, please everyone, if you go to a Greek store, don't ever ask for a Turkish coffee just ask for a Greek coffee. You may find yourself in the middle of a territorial war and it may turn very ugly... Greeks are proud people and they think that they hold the name of that method of brewing the coffee but they are not...
At Ada Kaleh they did it the right way. First of all it has to be brewed in individuals “ibrik”, (coffee pot you may goggle to see one) and the best way to brew it is on a fire filtered by sand. Usually they use a tray filled up with fine sand and place it on a fire. The fire under it heats up the sand which in turn distributes the heat evenly around the ibrik. In order to prepare the coffee one needs one spoon full of coffee in the ibrik filled up with water. First the water than the coffee. It is placed in the hot sand and in a few minute it will boil. When is getting to the boiling point, the water level grows and if the ibrik is not removed at that point, it will boil over wasting the coffee. What a skilful preparer would do, would remove the ibrik, stir the water a couple of times, and the coffee would mix into a nice foam people call cream. At that point the water retracts, and the ibrik should be put in the sand again until the next boil point a few seconds later. This time that ibrik is removed from the sand, the content poured in the coup. No more stirring. The coffee has to settle for a few minutes and than one can drink from it. It is extremely hot. The excessive heat comes from the coffee grains which are floating in the water.
If one wants to spoil the real taste, would add a little cream, which will give it a special, divine flavor, but takes away the authenticity of a Turkish coffee.
Never stir the coffee again, and never drink it bottoms up as we drink our filtered or instant coffee. The grounds are left to the bottom of the coup in a muddy look and they are mud actually. Now if you grow up with it or you develop a taste for it is delicious. Some may turn the cup upside down, the mud will fall on the wall of the cup, leaving intricate designs which will be interpreted by the “specialists” into events from your personal future a process similar to reading tea leaves...
What I forgot to mention is that if one likes sugar, the sugar should be put in with the water to boil. Boiling facilitates the dissolving in the water, and avoids the disturbing of the mud once it settled down...
I described the process on two pages, however it does not take more than three or four minutes to prepare one cup.
We did the filming for three days, going into houses, into the catacombs, talking to people. At night we would return on the main land and be back in the morning. The last day we climbed in the minaret of the mosque and we took some shots of the whole island. The view was breath-taking. The minaret was not too high, everything was kind of small size on that island, but I have fear of heights. I could not resist getting up there. I would have not had any problem, however they were taking the building to pieces to move it to the new location and they removed the interior stairs. Everything left were scaffolds, and boy were they challenging for me when shaking. Actually Sabin, the camera man bribed me. He said that if I get up he would let me take the shots, and he would make my father use it in the movie. I was scared out of my brains, but having the Arriflex to myself, setting the angle and following the directions of the director, my father, was worth wetting the pants. The camera was set on a tripod, and I was not supposed to do too much, but it was an Arriflex, one does not turn down such a possibility... Arriflex what a dream at that time. I would still want to have one just to touch it, smell it and look at it. I would not shoot anything with it, who is using film today? Besides the regular magazine holds only two minutes of film. If it has an extended case you can load up to ten minutes. But you need a crane to move it...
The big majority of the inhabitants left. Some were offered a place on an island a few miles down the road which was supposed to be a copy of what was going to be removed. That one was smaller in size, and was not in a micro climate as this one was, but in time it could have been arranged like the real thing.... Some of the people moved to Turkey, some moved on the new island some moved close to the Black Sea in the region of Romania known as Dubruja, also known as Dobruca in Turkish, where there is a sizable Turkish population with their roots from many centuries ago.
The day we left, late during the day, the sun was setting and the shadows of the Mediterranean pines and the minaret of the mosque were projecting on the calm water disturbed only by the wakes of the ferry. It was a calm view, with a lot of nostalgia and a lot of sadness.
I know that progress demands a price to be paid, by why is it necessary to be so high at times? A few miles down the river from the dam, one can see today some ruins left over from the Romans. Those are the bridge heads from the man made bridge over the Danube built to cross the river and to establish their Empire North of the Danube. When it was built, it was a real technological miracle. One can see even today some parts of the original pillars showing their heads above the river. The secret of building the bridge over the Danube is still a mystery. It is difficult to cross rivers with today technology and we are doing it commonly, yet we only make suppositions on how the Romans did it two millennia ago without the technology we have today.
Well two thousand years after the Romans built a bridge over the Danube we look at the ruins and we marvel how did they do it. Two thousand years from now, our descendants will look at the pictures of Ada Kaleh and will wonder why did we do it... I guess that there will not be any answers for any of the questions.