Eastern Europe's Eden
"We have a saying in Romania," my wilderness guide, Catalin Stoinescu, tells me as he rows us along the grassy shoreline of Somova Lake, near the Danube Delta. "In this country anything is possible, yet at the same time everything is impossible." I ponder his words along with my surroundings: to my left, a green hill covered with rows of short, twisted grapevines, and to my right, a vast lake, its smooth surface broken only by golden reed beds and submerged willow trees. There are no sounds except for the dipping of the oars in the water, the sudden splash and flight of a surprised duck and the calls of a cuckoo bird.
So far, on my first full day at the new Delta Nature Resort, everything does seem possible, even after a four-hour, occasionally bumpy drive from Bucharest. Now I'm floating on the edge of the Danube Delta, an almost 2,000-square-mile labyrinth of water, reed beds, sand dunes, trees and hills. I'm here in this remote corner of Romania because the former Communist country is one of Europe's last wild frontiers, an eco-destination of great promise. The delta, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, is one of the world's most spectacular wetlands. In the Carpathian Mountains of the Transylvania region—another of Romania's unspoiled places—thousands of bears and wolves still roam free. Transylvania, which has one of Europe's largest natural ecosystems as well as an impressive number of medieval fortified villages and churches, is where the fight to protect Romania's wild spaces began four years ago: In a battle over one of those villages, Sighisoara, local and international environmental groups, including one led by Prince Charles, squelched a government-sponsored plan for a Dracula theme park.
Inspired by that success, young British heir Ben Goldsmith—brother of socialite Jemima Khan and son of the late billionaire Sir James Goldsmith—and his partner Michael Radomir, of the Marks & Spencer family, have invested in several sustainability projects in Romania. Next year, in an effort to revitalize the rural community, they're launching a dairy called the Transylvania Nature Product Company, which will make organic mozzarella, yogurt and ice cream with milk from indigenous buffalo; last summer they opened the Delta Nature Resort, my base on the Danube Delta.
Goldsmith and Radomir are hoping tourists who come to the delta and see its astounding beauty will help drum up support for preserving its ecosystem. The delta is home to a remarkable number of plant and animal species—more than 300 bird varieties, 125 species of freshwater fish and 1,600 plant and tree types. From May to October, the area is a breeding ground for migratory birds, from cormorants and storks to the rare Dalmatian pelican. In the fall, endangered red-breasted geese arrive from Siberia. "We're talking about something as powerful as the Florida Everglades, but it's still undeveloped," Radomir tells me.
As Stoinescu slowly rows back to the resort—a 32-acre property with 30 sage-colored bungalows of wood and stone, built on a waterside slope—he fills me in on why the delta needs the attention. The Bystroye Canal, along the delta's border with neighboring Ukraine, has recently been the focus of much environmental concern. In 2004 Ukraine started dredging the canal in order to allow traffic from the Danube River to the Black Sea. International protests have stopped the dredging for now, but if Ukraine resumes its plans, the damage to the entire delta could be massive and irreversible.
We reach the shore and I head to my bungalow to relax and spend some time just staring at the scenery. The bungalow is decorated like a luxury fishing cabin, with wooden floors, chunky polished-wood furniture, hand-woven rugs and framed duck prints; in the living room there's a fireplace and a flat-screen TV. My favorite detail is on the outside: Each cabin has a birdhouse hanging from the roof, and all day birds flit back and forth, oblivious to their human neighbors. Almost everything, from the birdhouse to the furniture and rugs, is custom-made for the resort. I ignore the television and sit on the wide veranda, to gaze at the water and listen to the chorus of frogs.
Eventually, I make my way to Feathers, the resort's restaurant, which has an intimate dining room painted with pictures of birds. It's a holiday weekend so the tables are full of families from Bucharest who are here to check out Romania's first high-end hotel. (The resort's gracious service—and perks like chocolate truffles on the pillow and wireless Internet in the bungalows—are still a rarity outside the capital.) Sandeep Chadha, an India-born chef who came to the Delta Nature Resort from the Hyatt Regency in New Delhi, offers two menus: one that he labels International, which has Italian dishes and Indian classics that reflect his culinary training and background, and one that focuses on Romanian cuisine.
Chadha has spent the past year tracking down local fishermen and farmers who can supply him with first-rate ingredients, and researching Romanian cuisine by learning traditional recipes from his staff and their families. I try the saramura de peste, pickled pike perch that's lightly brined, a popular way to conserve local fresh fish; sarmalute de vita cu praz si hrean, minced meat wrapped in leek leaves, a dish that displays Romania's Greek influences; and mici, skinless sausages of minced beef and pork—sort of a Romanian bar snack. They're followed by a rich Moldavian pork stew, made with sautéed pork flavored with onions and garlic and served over polenta. The cuisine is hearty and satisfying, and Chadha's preparations do it justice. "It's Mama's food," he says.
The next day, at lunch with the resort's primary owner, Diwaker Singh, I sample a fancier local dish: beluga caviar. It's superb—large-grained, the color of dark slate, with a creamy, firm texture and explosive flavor. Eating caviar here presents a dilemma: On the one hand, the sturgeon population in the delta, as elsewhere in the world, is on the decline, so a huge demand for caviar around here would endanger the species further. On the other hand, caviar production is still legal in the region, and the resort's policy is to serve indigenous cuisine and ingredients to support small local suppliers.
As he spoons a little caviar from a bowl, Singh describes to me how he came to Romania from India as a businessman eight years ago. An avid amateur birder, he returned to the delta for a family vacation in 1999, and was surprised to find only sterile Communist-style accommodations.
When he finally came back a few years later, he worked closely with Virgil Munteanu—at the time the governor of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve and now the resort's chief operating ocer—to build a resort that would be a leading example of ecotourism in the region. That meant investing in a biodegradable waste system, using only local building materials, hiring almost entirely local staff, and planning delta excursions for guests—from a trip to a vineyard to bird-watching safaris—that would showcase the local ecology as well as Romanian traditions. For example, the resort's daylong bird adventures are broken up with an authentic Romanian fisherman's meal. After taking guests on a bird-spotting expedition on the delta in his boat, the resort's skipper, Ivanov "Sasha" Alexandru, a lifelong fisherman, puts a pot over a fire and makes a delicious Romanian fish soup from the fattiest catch of the day—usually catfish, carp or pike perch—flavored with onions, potatoes, bell peppers and tomatoes from nearby farms.
Singh is planning to create three more resorts in Romania, all with the mission of preserving local culture and ecology, and he's currently restoring the historic Borsec spa in Transylvania. The Romanian government has been so pleased with his help in bringing investments into the country, it recently knighted him.
My final morning I set off again with Stoinescu to explore the surrounding lakes and to have lunch at a nearby convent, another popular excursion. The nunneries and monasteries of Romania have retained many of the country's traditional recipes, which almost disappeared during the Communist regime. After taking us along the delta for an hour or so of bird-watching, our boat pulls up outside the 19th-century Saon convent. On the nunnery's grounds are gardens full of apple and cherry trees, and an Orthodox church with shiny metallic spires. An elderly, black-robed nun slowly herds her sheep.
Walking around the manicured landscape, I feel as if I've somehow wandered onto the pages of a medieval illuminated manuscript. Sitting in a small dining area, surrounded by white walls painted with portraits of religious saints, we drink simple wine made by the nuns and eat a three-course meal of local specialties: an assortment of fresh handcrafted cheeses and chiftele, a Turkish-inspired dish of meatballs made with fish (a legacy of the Turkish population in the delta region); a turkey soup garnished with lovage, an herb that smells and tastes like a combination of celery and fennel; and roast lamb with boiled potatoes. Gabriella, a young, dark-haired nun with a shy smile, serves us and explains that all the ingredients used in the kitchen are raised organically on the grounds of the convent.
We return to the resort by jeep. Stoinescu drives me past rolling meadows and through villages where the primary mode of transportation is horse-and-carriage. We get stuck behind one for a few minutes. While waiting to pass, I take a picture of the wagon from our car window. Without proof, I doubt that anyone back home will believe my Romanian fairy tale of a day: lunch with nuns, followed by a horse-and-carriage jam.
Gisela Williams, F&W's European correspondent, is based in Düsseldorf, Germany.