Danube Delta Letter: Romania echoes Ireland of 1950s
Sitting in a guest house in the heart of the Danube Delta, eating a delicious fish stew made with pike while a group of ethnic Russians performed a folk song-and-dance routine, was a memorable experience which illustrated the diverse charms of Romania.
A flock of pelicans landing in the lagoon outside the window completed the picture and showed why the Danube Delta is regarded as one of the wonders of the natural world.
The Russians who cooked the meal and served the tables as well as performing are members of just one of the 17 ethnic groups who live in the Delta. Known as Lipovans they fled persecution in Russia more than 300 years ago when they refused to accept changes in the Orthodox Church.
These “Old Believers” found sanctuary in the Delta, then part of the Ottoman Empire, where they lived in harmony with their Turkish Muslim and Romanian Orthodox neighbours ever since.
The trip to the Delta was the highlight of a visit to Romania by a group of journalists invited for a briefing on that country’s presidency of the EU next year.
Far from the political hurly burly of Bucharest, where there is an ongoing standoff between President Klaus Iohannis and the Social Democrat government, we were joined for lunch in the Delta by minister for tourism Bogdan Gheorghe Trif.
He comes from the Sibiu, the same beautiful Transylvanian town as the president, but didn’t want to be drawn into a discussion about politics preferring to focus on the importance of tourism for the country’s development.
Given the range of attractions from the Delta, Transylvania, Bucharest, Maramures and other less developed regions, the potential for tourism is enormous. Official figures show there were three million tourists last year. To put that in context, nine million tourists visited the Republic in 2017 and we are just one third the size of Romania.
One of the big stumbling blocks to tourism development is the poor infrastructure. The roads are like those in Ireland before EU money helped to fund our motorway system.
Driving those roads from Bucharest to the Delta or through Transylvania is as frustrating as it was here not so long ago but it does give the visitor a glimpse of the contrast between the old and new Romania. In the countryside there are reminders of Ireland in the 1950s with farmers using horses and carts, men and women hoeing fields of vegetables and hay being made with pitchforks.
Yet evidence of rapid economic advance is all around. Bucharest is a thriving, bustling city and even in the small towns there are modern car showrooms as well as dealers selling the latest farm machinery.
Writing about this country in the 1960s the great German writer Heinrich Boll remarked: “Ireland has leaped over a century and a half and caught up with another five.” Romania is now doing the same and in another parallel with Ireland, EU funding is prominently acknowledged in a way not common in most member states.
The challenge facing the country is how to retain the best of the past while embracing the modern world. Romania needs to attract many more tourists to boost the economy but unrestricted tourism could pose a threat to the environment, particularly fragile wonders like the Delta or the wild forests of the Carpathians.
The minister for tourism is aware of this conundrum. In an exchange with a journalist who questioned Romania’s commitment to protecting its bears, he pointed out politely that western Europe had wiped out its own bear populations centuries ago but was inclined to lecture Romania, which had not done the same, about how it should protect its bears and wolves.
Back in Bucharest , minister for European affairs Victor Negrescu spoke about the challenges of the country’s EU presidency with negotiations on the EU’s budget for the next seven years and Brexit among the big issues.
Negrescu was unequivocal in his backing for Michel Barnier’s approach to the Brexit negotiations. He expressed the hope that the EU would take a greater interest in the border with Moldova, which is naturally closer to Romanian concerns than the Irish one, but there is no sign of wavering on the basic EU position.
The solidarity with Ireland shown by countries like Romania is a remarkable sign of EU cohesion. When the Brexit process has resolved itself, the onus will be on us to show similar solidarity by agreeing to an EU budget that provides the resources Romania needs to undergo a transformation similar to our own.