Later that day, Singh took me by boat to visit a cormorant colony in an arboretum of willows and wild poplars abutting a lake. The delta is a breeding ground for millions of birds migrating from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In the spring, pelicans touch down in 1,000-strong flights. A flash of yellow and turquoise might herald a bee-eater; a lightning streak of blue might be an acrobatic roller. Virtually every tree branch was packed wing-to-wing with heraldic-looking birds in a Hitchcockian scene of cheeping, clucking, and cawing. We watched as cormorant chicks learned to fly, tumbling from their nest into the water, then flapping around until they became airborne. As we nosed deeper into the colony, dead fish began to rain down on us, a classic cormorant alarm signal. "A cormorant under attack empties his larder, as if to say, ’Here, take whatever you want and go away!’" Singh explained.
The delta’s big four—white pelican, white-tailed fishing eagle, and red-breasted goose, in addition to the pygmy cormorant—are joined by some 300 other species, including herons, spoonbills, kingfishers, and cuckoos. At least 80 species of fish, including pike, sander, and catfish (the prized catches of the region), lurk in these waters. Of course, when I went on a fishing expedition with Stafania and Sacha, two Lipovan resort rangers, we spent a half-day probing the backwaters of the delta and yielded just a single three-inch tiddler.
After a couple of days on the water, I was ready for more terrestrial pursuits. Singh and I drove two hours to explore the region’s historic monasteries and ancient wineries. I was surprised to discover that the former are thriving commercial entrepôts whose substantial landholdings produce abundant food, wine, and livestock. They also do a brisk trade in religious icons to visiting busloads of local schoolchildren, for whom a visit to a monastery is a field trip. Strolling around the immaculate grounds of the Saon Monastery—built in a timeless, functional style in 1846 and covered with whitewash—was like stepping into an illuminated medieval manuscript. Lunch in the refectory surpassed Romanian hospitality with the piling on of quail eggs, lamb, chicken-noodle soup, and roast duck, washed down by palinca and monastic wine. Over dessert, I learned that like Singh, the abbess had a previous career: as a gold medal-winning rower at the Montreal Olympics. Clearly, the delta was where people went to start all over again.
The 400-year-old Sarica Niculitzel winery just down the road required a greater leap of imagination to realize its charm. Although this region was once famous for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (the Romans exported them to the West), three generations of Communist neglect have left this vineyard a tangle of cobwebs and crumbling stairways. With great warmth, pride, and pantomime gestures of imbibing, the manager and his daughter invited me for a tasting. We descended perilous steps to the cellar, where he produced a selection of ancient vintages, and, carefully wiping off the flocculent dust, pulled corks and poured. Unlike in other ex-Communist states, the wine-making tradition here hadn’t fermented into a sickly-sweet mess: the whites (Riesling and Aligote) were crisp and dry; the reds (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) full-bodied and muscular. I was as excited to receive a few bottles to take home as the manager was to give them.
The delta’s other famous contribution to world gastronomy is caviar. Virgil Munteanu, a former governor of the delta, joined Singh and me in a visit to a sturgeon farm on Rosetti Island in the delta’s northeast corner, where a paddling pool of murky water stood in the garden of a small, isolated fisherman’s hotel. A Moldovan sturgeon expert, Arkadie Redrasco, came along, plunged both arms in and hauled out a yard-long blue and white sevruga sturgeon, which flexed angrily. "It is very difficult to catch sturgeon," said Munteanu. "They can grow up to 10 feet and weigh 660 pounds. Traditionally, fishermen had to kill them for their roe. Nowadays, they can harvest the roe, stitch up the fish, and return it to the water." I asked if the flesh was good to eat. Munteanu’s eyes lit up. "Of course, but it is best smoked." For lunch, though, we had grilled sturgeon: well flavored, oily, and firm, but not particularly exciting.
The caviar, however, tasted like the food of the gods, though it was served without pomp or ceremony, in generous dessert-spoon dollops. Indeed, as Singh and I sped by boat the 75 miles back to the resort, he told me with a sigh, "In Romanian supermarkets, top-grade caviar costs a quarter of what it would in the United States." He continued with a smile. "This may be Europe’s last frontier, but if you enjoy some of the good things in life—like wine, caviar, and natural beauty—it is also one of the most civilized." For the seasoned traveler, though, the delta’s charm may lie in its simplicity. No distractions, no frippery. Just a vast expanse of nature, all to yourself—and millions of birds.
Rory Ross is a London-based writer and a frequent contributor to the Daily Telegraph.