This is an excerpt from a Feb, 2011 letter about the Iron Gates.
I’ve wanted to get to the Iron Gates of the Danube since I first started coming to Serbia. The Iron Gates are where the Danube narrows and flows between steep cliffs, marking the border between Serbia and Romania. This gateway has been fortified by and fought over by the Celts, Romans, Dacians, Byzantines, Turks, Habsburgs, Serbs, and Romanians for thousands of years. The Golubac Fortress marks the upriver entry to the gates. The fort has changed hands several times. When it was not used as fortress, protecting the gates, it served as a giant toll booth with a metal chain across the narrow portion of river, lowered once tribute is paid.
Throughout most of its history the river was fast moving through the gates. The Romans built a road that was both a military road and a tow path where slaves and horses pulled boats against the current. Later steam locomotives pulled barges through the gates. I had always thought my first glimpse of the gates would be from the deck of a boat. Suzi and I had plans for a cruise last summer but the tour company got a better offer for a charter canceled the cruise. I certainly did not think that my first intimate experience with the Iron Gates would be from inside the turbine room of Iron Gates Dam.
Last weekend Suzi and I traveled to Kladovo to look at one of the hotels we are considering for our summer school but because of fog down to the deck we saw nothing of the Iron Gates. The hotel manager, “Pepe” (his real name is Ivanica, more on that later), outlined excursions we could take from the hotel, a boat through the Gates, visits to old Roman, Byzantine or Turkish forts, Serbian Monasteries, and wine tasting. Then there is a hotel beach with its view of the beautiful Danube, which, when the fog lifted, turned out to be an industrial wasteland of old derricks and smokestacks emerging from the swirling mist, a post-modern Dracula’s castle. Pepe told us that the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu (the young Dracula, he called him) loved to line any visible border with signs of Romania’s industrial progress.
We mentioned to Pepe that we didn’t see the Iron Gates because of the fog. Pepe got on a mobile phone and told us that we’d be leaving for the Gates immediately. This puzzled us because it was both foggy and getting dark. Pepe had contacted the manager of the Iron Gate Hyrdo project. As we drove to the dam he pointed into the fog, “that’s the old Turkish fort” and “that’s the old Roman fort, it held 30,000 legionaries.” If you say so.
At the dam you could hear the electricity buzz, “it’s louder because of the fog.” The entrance to the administrative building displayed a plaque laid by Josef Broz Tito and Nicolae Ceauşescu. “China has its ‘Three Gorges Dam,’ we have our ‘Two Dictators Dam.’” Pepe went into his tour guide rap. Scattered around the entrance to the administration building were bits of the Roman Empire saved from the rising water behind the dam. The inscriptions and building friezes were all more than half a millennium older than the oldest exhibits in the Islamic Museum we saw in Doha the week before.
Inside the dam there’s a copper plate depicting the history of the river from Neolithic times, through the Celts, Romans, and Turks up to the Communists who finally “tamed” the river. We looked at the ship locks, which are under maintenance just now, but there are identical locks on the Romanian side, along with an identical powerhouse — mirror image industry — with a spillway in the middle. We walked down a long hallway lined with photographs of what the river looked like, behind the dam, before the water rose 90 feet. When we entered the long hallway we heard, and felt, a rumble coming from the other end. As we walked past the photo exhibits the rumble became a roar until we go to the powerhouse itself, you can feel the power through the soles of you feet, with six huge turbines geared at 72 revolutions a minute and a massive piece of (very attractive) Socialist Realist art anchoring the far wall.
The Pictures of the Kladovo Rivera are from the summer, we did choose Kladovo for the summer school.