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  • Writer's pictureMatthias

An Iron Gate made of stone

Wether you call it Donau, Dunav, Danube or Dunărea, the "only“ second largest and longest river in Europe certainly is the most important one. After all it flows through and touches altogether ten nations – more than any other stream on Earth. Keeping this considerable competition in mind it's almost a small wonder that it's actually the country of Serbia where the Danube is at the same time the widest, the narrowest and the deepest. And in my humble opinion also the most beautiful, not least thanks to the truly impressive Đerdap gorge (Đerdapska klisura) – the famous Iron Gate. Curious already?


A friendly advice to begin with: The Serbian side of the Danube – which forms a natural frontier to the neighbouring Romania in the north – is quite well developed. That basically just means there is a continuous paved road snaking along between the cliff and the water. But if you are in good shape you should definitely consider tracking through Europe's longest cliff of 130 km on bike. That gives you the most freedom and flexibility and also puts you among the best of company, since the official EuroVelo bicycle route no. 6 is going this way. Apparently there is even people who paddle this section in a canoe...


Photo by Sanja Kostić

The name Đerdap (pronounced Djairdub) is actually derived from the Turkish word Girdap which means 'whirlpool' while the term Iron Gate was mainly coined by Romans and Slavs. The entrance to the gorge already is spectacular, guarded in style by the fortress of Golubac.


Passing it the next special feature you will encounter is Serbia's biggest national park, fittingly carrying the gorge's name (Nacionalni Park Đerdap). Officially established in 1974 it covers a total of almost 638 km² and stretches from Golubac up to the Đerdap 1 Hydroelectric Power Station in Kladovo. As one would expect the park is filled with extraordinary flora and fauna of literally all kind, most of them protected.


It's due to the strict conditions of that protection that hikes are only allowed to be taken with an official guide and must be announced at least three days in advance by mail (office@npdjerdap.rs) or phone (+381 30 215 00 70). But it's definitely worth the hassle cause the rangers here are just as helpful and friendly as they are committed (my advice: ask for Aleksander). And the views provided by the viewpoints Veliki Štrbac (with 768 m the highest point), Kovilovo (358 m) and Ploce (355 m) are easily the most beautiful of the whole Danube. There I said it. Again.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Architectural icon Le Corbusier's statement that "Belgrade is the ugliest city in the world located in the most beautiful place in the world" might actually better fit for Donji Milanovac. Situated right in the center of the national park it consists almost exclusively of prefabricated buildings that have seen their best days a long time ago. However, in the town of 2,400‘s defense I have to admit that it has been through a lot.


Photo by Sanja Kostić

In 1830 the town of Poreč on the Danube island of the same name was relocated to the right bank of the Danube due to frequent floods, making it the first Serbian settlement to be realized with urban planning. It was renamed after Prince Milan, Miloš Obrenović's eldest son, while the preposed Donji (Lower) followed in 1856 with the founding of Gornji (Upper) Milanovac in central Serbia. The third and as of yet last allocation 6 km downstream happened in 1970, when the hydroelectric powerplant in Kladovo was constructed and the Danube was significantly raised. As with countless other small Serbian places the decline is hitting hard these days and years. Young people in particular are vanishing from here since there is neither work nor perspective and Donji Milanovac is becoming quieter, emptier and older. One can only hope for a change in the opposite direction, especially since it literally lies in the middle of the national park and is therefore the ideal base for all trips. Even a shiny new tourist info center just opened here in 2019.


Donji Milanovac is also the starting point of what clearly is the most beautiful section of the Iron Gates. In case you drive yourself don't let the views of the gorgeous gorge (wait, is that where that word comes from!?) distract you too much – make stops! For example across the giant impressive face of Dacian King Decebalus sculptured into the rocks on the Romanian side. Conveniently as can be it's much better visible from the Serbian side though! Even more conveniently this is also where the deepest point of the Danube, Mali Kazan can be found: approx. 95 m to the bed – one of the greatest river depths in the world and the greatest one in Europe.


For centuries the entire gorge was one of the most difficult and dangerous sailing areas by far, thanks to its countless cliffs, curves and corridors. Shipping traffic was regulated by a total of six signal balloon stations that served as traffic lights. With that in mind it's no surprise that in 1898 traveling writer S.J. Stojković wrote: "An outcry of joy, filled with gratitude to the Gods, resounds from the sailors' chests, once the last dangers of Đerdap have been passed safely..." And even today, after a comfortable car or bus ride (or a slightly less comfortable bike ride) you arrive in Kladovo feeling as if you were back in the real world, having left the outlandish Danube cliffs behind you.


In the early 20th century Kladovo was known for grapes, melons and... caviar! In the times before the hydropower plant beluga and sturgeon from the Black Sea spawned in Kazan and the "Black Kladovo Caviar" was world-famous. Now Đerdap 1, built 1964-1972, is the largest water engineering structure on the entire Danube. The 1,278 m of dam are symmetrically distributed between Serbia and Romania, with each half having its own power plant and ship terminal and the national border accordingly being right in the middle. Despite all this division the huge turbines are connected in such way that both countries can help each other out if necessary.


Photo by Sanja Kostić

But don't end your journey down Danube and Đerdap just now. There is a way better finish line, trust me on this. About 5 km east outside of Kladovo stands a remnant of extraordinary Roman architecture: a pier of Trajan's Bridge (Trajanov most), the first permanent bridge over the Danube in human history. 10,000 soldiers realized celebrity architect Apollodorus of Damascus‘ 1,097 m long design in the years 103-105. Even if the massive structure was destroyed "only" about 165 years later during the Dacian Wars it retained the title of the world's largest bridge for almost 1,000 years. Sadly only eight of the original 20 bridge piles in the water have survived the current and despite multiple studies the bridge could never be fully reconstructed.


By the by, another legacy of Roman emperor Trajan is the Tabula Traiana (Trajanova tabla), a memorial plaque in the rocks of Đerdap near Ogradina, testimony to the road that Trajan had built along the Danube to move his troops towards Decebalus. 4 m wide and 1.75 m high it was also moved in the course of the Danube damming and is now located roughly halfway between Donji Milanovac and Kladovo and can only be viewed from the water. Maybe the canoe isn’t such a bad idea after all...


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