The river system of Roumania—The 'beautiful blue Danube'—Appearance of the Lower Danube comparable to the Humber or Mississippi—Floating mills—The Danube in the Kazan Pass—Grand scenery—The 'Iron Gates,' misconceptions concerning them—Their true character—Archæological remains—Trajan's road—His tablet—His bridge at Turnu-Severin—Its construction and history—The tributaries of the Danube and towns upon them—The fishes of the Roumanian rivers—Lakes—Mineral waters of Balta Alba—Roman roads—Bridge of Constantine—Roman streets, houses, temples—Statue of Commodus—Gothic and prehistoric remains—Climate—Great extremes of heat and cold—Beautiful autumn—Rainfall-Comparison with other countries—Russian winds—Sudden daily alternations—Comparison of the country generally with other European states—Résumé of its productions, resources, and attractions for visitors.
The river system of Roumania constitutes one of the most remarkable features in its geography, has played an important part in its past history, and promises to exercise a powerful influence on its industrial and political future. This system comprises the great main artery, the Danube, with numerous confluents which take their rise in the Carpathians, and, rushing at first in torrents, then How as sluggish, often as half-dry streams, across the country before they empty themselves into the parent river.
The 'beautiful blue Danube' has been so bepraised that to a traveller who visits it for its scenic attractions it is likely to prove a bitter disappointment. It is not blue, although during certain seasons it is said to have a blue tinge, but a great part of the way from Vienna to the defile of Kazan, and the whole distance from Orsova to the Black Sea, it resembles in colour and appearance our river Humber, and we have heard American travellers compare it to the Mississippi. For hours and hours at a time it flows between perfectly flat banks, on which nothing is visible but reeds and willow bushes. The surface of the river is enlivened by innumerable floating water-mills, which lie at anchor either in midstream or close to the banks, and obtain their motive power from the rapidly flowing current. These are used for grinding the maize and other cereals of the country. Here and there a small town or fortification presents itself on either bank. On the Bulgarian side are the towns of Vidin, Nicopolis, Sistova, and Rustchuk, with their domes and minarets, and idle laughing crowds of gazers, either men picturesquely clad, or women sitting perched, on the rocks, and looking like so many sacks of floor all in a row. These certainly break the monotony of the great stream, but the general appearance of the river from Verciorova, where it begins to bathe the Roumanian shore, to its mouth at Sulina is one long flat reach, higher, as we have already said, on the Bulgarian than on the Roumanian side.
But although that is the stretch of the river which comes strictly within the scope of our survey, there is another portion, lying immediately above it, that well merits a passing notice, more especially as we know that it played an important part in the Roman conquest and the subsequent colonisation of ancient Roumania. There is perhaps no river scenery in Europe to equal, and certainly none which excels, that part of the Danube stretching for about seventy-five miles from Bazias—the terminus of a branch of the railway from Vienna to Verciorova—to the so-called 'Iron Gates.' It is here that the river cuts its way through the Carpathians, and whilst along its general course it varies in width from half a mile to three miles or more, in the Kazan Pass, a defile having on either side perpendicular rocks of 1,000 to 2,000 feet in height, it narrows in some parts to about 116 yards, and possesses a depth of thirty fathoms. The banks closely resemble those of a fine Norwegian fiord, rising more or less precipitously, and being covered with pines and other alpine trees, and occasionally, as in Norway or even in Scotland, the steamer appears to be crossing a long mountain-locked lake. At the lower end of this reach of the Danube are what the metaphor-loving Ottomans first called the 'Iron Gates,' and they no doubt found them an insurmountable barrier to their western progress up the river. Considerable misapprehension, however—which is certainly not removed by the accounts of modern writers, who have apparently copied from one another without visiting them—exists concerning these same 'Iron Gates.' Some of the writers referred to speak of 'rocks which form cascades 140 mètres' (or about 460 feet) high, 'and which present serious obstacles to navigation.' Where these cascades are we were not able to discover. The fact is that the whole descent of the river throughout this portion does not exceed twenty feet, and where it issues from the outliers of the Carpathians the banks slope more gently than higher up, and the summits are simply high hills. The 'Iron Gates' themselves consist of innumerable rocks in the bed of the river. Here and there they appear above the surface, but generally they are a little below it, and they break up the whole surface for a considerable distance into waves and eddies, through which only narrow passages admit of navigation, insomuch that in certain states of the river the passengers and cargoes of the large steamers have to be transferred to smaller boats above, and retransferred to the larger class of steamers below, the 'Iron Gates.'