Djerdap Gorge (or the Iron Gate) is the place in Serbia I have visited by bus with the group of tourists, by boat cruising along the Danube River, and by car while driving there myself few times. And I did it again, about 10 days ago!
To be honest, I couldn’t wait to see the Golubac fortress again where the actual Djerdap National Park begins, then to visit the archaeological site of Lepenski vir (I heard it looks different nowadays), and I took the opportunity to finally peek into the Trajan’s plaque and Diana fort next to the town of Kladovo. The latter got me pleasantly surprised… But, here I am, chasing images in my memory again and rushing the story. Let’s cover all the places, one by one.
FROM BELGRADE: About 130 km (take the highway to Pozarevac – 80 km)
FROM NIS: About 240 km (take the highway to Pozarevac – 195 km)
TOLL FEE: Belgrade-Pozarevac 200 RSD (about 1.50 Euros), Nis-Pozarevac 610 RSD (5 Euros)
If you are driving, the easiest way to get to Djerdap is by the highway to Pozarevac town and then to continue for another 50 km or so to Golubac. It will take about two hours.
I have to mention that I took the road from Belgrade to Donji Milanovac recently (another town on the route, 60 km from Golubac), but I didn’t go along the Danube River from Golubac, but via Majdanpek town. Although it turned out to be quite a long trip, it was more than fun to go among those charming hills again, next to the fertile meadows that are cut by the occasional railroad. (Every time I slowed down in front of another railway track that was just marked by the road signs with no ramp and looked left and right to those tracks covered in grass, I thought: “No, there’s no way it still works.” Well, I thought so up until the point I goggled my eyes in amazement: “Oh, the train!” There really was the train, even though the small one, honestly!)
There will be more about Majdanpek in Weekend In Serbia series in the future. Let me just mention for now that the road from Majdanpek through the Djerdap National Park was such fun. There is one longer road of about 50 km, descent with the speed limit accordingly, but there is also a shorter version – 28 km, which curves up and down through the park’s forest so that you have to slow down occasionally to 30 an hour. You guessed it, the latter is the one I took! (There was a short video of the road available on social media.)
But what a breathtaking view of the river Danube you get when you finally come out of the woods! It’s worth every curve you take!
GOLUBAC FORTRESS There are no data on who actually built it but its construction resembles the Serbian fortification style from the 13th and the 14th century and so, it is believed to be a monument from the time of the king Dragutin. The constant battles took place among Serbs, Hungarians and Turks throughout history and thus the fortress often changed its rulers. Today it is part of the Djerdap National Park and the natural reserve of Golubac town which is rich in rare flora and fauna species. Danube is here at its widest – 6.2 km.
One of the numerous legends regarding the Golubac fortress says that there was once a Turkish general who wanted to marry Serbian princess which she declined. To punish her, he imprisoned her in the so-called Hat Tower of the fort. Pigeons were the only company the princess had and so she shared her food rations with them. When Turkish general later moved her to the small deserted rock of Baba-kaj across the river (Baba-kaj means “repent!” in Turkish), the same pigeons came to her rescue and brought her food. Hence the name. (“Golub” in Serbian is the word for pigeon.)
I was pleasantly surprised when I got to the fortress. The last time I drove here the road was still going straight through the fort and now there is the separated tunnel next to the site. There was no parking lot nor the place for coffee and refreshments. The whole area looks better now, although the fortress itself is still being reconstructed and thus not available for tourists yet.
Anyway, I strolled by the Danube River, took so many photos of those heavy walls, glanced to the left towards the Hat Tower few times… And you know what? Although the princess story is more a romantic anecdote than a history detail, when you approach the tower (where pigeons seem to fly into the walls and out endlessly), you still catch yourself thinking: “Oh yes, this has to be the place where it all happened!”
(By the way, Golubac is the spot to start paying attention to your phone, since this is where the roaming from Romania starts to kick in.)
I took a short break here, had coffee and ice-cream overlooking the romantic fortress and the peaceful Danube waters, and was already impatient to get to Donji Milanovac in an hour or so, to see – Lepenski vir.
LEPENSKI VIR The archaeological site was discovered in 1965 and its about 15 km away from Donji Milanovac town. It brings the story about the intensive populated spot to life where people lived more than 8,000 years ago. The site had to be moved up when the dam was constructed. Numerous finds were discovered here such as fireplaces, necropolis, fish-like sculptures and tools. Some of the tools, jewelry and figurines are on the display at the museum, along with the original movie filmed in 1960’s during the excavation.
The entrance fee is 450 RSD (less than 4 Euros), there is a small restaurant next to the parking lot and it takes a 10-minute walk to reach the complex itself.
I was told that “the new museum looks nice”, that it’s certainly worth a visit. That was enough, I was already on my way. The huge white construction of the museum looks impressive, especially since there is one great view of Danube through its large windows. Still, it’s not that pleasant when it’s hot outside. (Feels like somebody is keeping you inside the greenhouse.)
The old documentary showing the beginning of the excavation surprised me a bit, since it seems like the image is going to disappear as soon as the film tape runs out. Joking aside, it certainly adds to the real authenticity of the place and I loved it in the end. (Also, make sure to have some cash with you if you are going to stop for a coffee at that place outside. Bank cards are yet to come here.)
DONJI MILANOVAC This is the town that lies on the Danube bank with the population of less than 3,000. It got its name after the Serbian king Milan who helped people when they had to move the settlement. However, after a century or so, the town had to be moved again. This time due to the dam construction in the mid-20th century. So now, the old town is covered by Danube waters while the new Donji Milanovac is attracting more and more visitors each day.
The locals often joke that they are ready for the new move because “almost a century has passed since the previous one”.
This time I just passed through the town, while I spent the night here few years ago. It’s easy to find accommodation, you should just contact the town’s tourist info center in advance. When in town, take a walk through its streets towards the church or stroll along the river. To be honest, every little town along the Danube River looks surreal in the sunset when the sky gets a beautiful shade of purple.
From the town’s port you can take a cruise through parts of the Iron Gates – Small and Great Basin, or continue to drive. If you are wondering about the name of the gorge, the translation of the name in various languages literally means the gates made of steal. The London Times referred to it in the mid-19th century as to “the Iron Gate or the Gate of Trajan”. The name for the basins in Serbian is kazan which can literally be translated as “the pot”. The thing is – when Danube sharply narrows down from 6.2 km in Golubac to only 150 meters, it’s clear what power this water holds and how restless it gets. It’s full of whirlpools giving the impression of a boiling pot. Hence the name – Small and Great Kazan (Basin) of the Djerdap Gorge.
As I said, I went few times through this part of Serbia, by boat and by car, and my recommendation is to take – both! If you are driving, you will have numerous viewpoints along the road with great views of the gorge and beautiful cliffs. But, if you don’t take the cruise from Donji Milanovac to Tekija town where the National Park officially ends, you won’t be able to see the famous Tabula Traiana.
TABULA TRAIANA This inscription plaque was put by the Roman Emperor Trajan 1,900 years ago to mark the end of the famous Roman road construction along the Danube River. The monument refers to the period of Trajan’s conquers of Dacian lands from 100 to 103 AD. This was one of his numerous building achievements. Tabula dimensions are 3.20 x 1.80 m, it holds the inscription in the middle and it’s decorated by two dolphins, roses and an eagle.
When the dam was built, the plaque was moved 20 meters up the cliff in order to prevent it from being flooded. It can only be seen from the river.
Oh yes, visiting the Trajan’s plaque was a promise to myself when I drove around the Iron Gates few years back. I didn’t take the cruise back then and it was impossible to rent a boat for some reason, so I had to put it on hold. Until now at least.
The cruise was pleasant. It often goes from Donji Milanovac to Tekija and you will be explained how the mighty emperor has built the Roman road right here, the one that was flooded when the dam was built in the 1970’s. It will all become clear when you reach sharp cliffs tumbling down to the river and beneath one of those you see the very plaque, all white, with the inscription Tabula Traiana on it. Just imagine how much water has flown through here ever since…
DECEBALUS HEAD Decebalus was the last Dacian king who long resisted Roman attacks but was eventually defeated by Trajan. When the king was surrounded by Roman troops in 106 AD, he committed suicide. This was the end of the great Trajan’s onrush to Dacija whereas he has built great infrastructure on the Serbian side of the river for this purpose (road, bridge, fortifications).
This is the biggest carved sculpture in Europe. It’s 40 meters high and it stands on the Romanian side of the gorge. The king’s eye is 4.3 meters long, while the nose has about 7 m in length. It took 10 years for 12 carving alpinists-craftsmen to finish the sculpture in 2004.
When you notice that the small church is appearing before you like emerging from the river, pay attention to the cliff on the Romanian side of the gorge. Because, there it is, the famous Dacian king’s head you are admiring while you are crossing the same territory 2,000 years later, the territory that was once proudly ruled by him. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of the fact that the sculpture is so “young” compering to the king who happens to be so “old”.
Anyway, this was one great way to see the gorge and we are now moving on to Kladovo town, even though the Djerdap National Park officially stretches up until Tekija. At least that’s what I did. It takes less than 30 minutes to reach Kladovo from Tekija by car. Once again, I tried to “correct” my former itinerary because I didn’t stop by Diana fortification back then, nor did I enter the town itself.
DIANA This is the ancient fortified town on the Danube bank, erected for securing the river traffic and to serve Dacian war purposes of the Roman army. It is built at the end of the 1st century during the Emperor Trajan rule. The fort was later destroyed, conquered and rebuilt numerous times by various invaders such as Goths, Huns, the Byzantine Empire, until the end of the 6th century when it was finally crushed by the onrush of new invaders.
Pay attention when you pass by the actual dam, some 7 km before Kladovo. There is a modest sign on the left and the (modest) surroundings when you stop next to the main road. The fort with its oval walls seems impressive from afar, but when you come closer it seems like being covered in grass. I was jumping from one stone to the next (the building has no fence, gates nor guards), trying to link all the Djerdap dots that were emerging in my mind.
Think about it – you are going the same way the Roman road went through once, the one that the Emperor Trajan planned and built in the 1st and the 2nd century AD. One dot after another – fortresses, Decebal’s head, the plaque, and there was even one huge bridge in Kladovo area…
KLADOVO Population of the town is about 10,000. This is the last Serbian point towards Bulgaria and Romania. Distance from Belgrade is 260 km, from Nis 200. There are two small lakes in the center, the town has a small marina, pleasant riverfront and a nice beach.
Clean, nicely organized small town on the river. That was my first impression when I parked next to one of the small lakes. The plan was to go for a walk first and then to sit somewhere for a coffee.
There is a short pedestrian street full of cafes and restaurants in the center, going out to the small square dominated by the church. It was hot and I just couldn’t skip the ice-cream display in nearby stores. Such tasty refreshment, as it turned out! I walked around and it seemed like the town has everything one could need. But when I turned left towards the river, I was sure I am going to spend one lovely evening here. There was a charming hotel café next to the beach, the Aquastar Danube Hotel. The sun was setting leaving the lovely rose color over the gorge in the distance…
TRAJAN’S BRIDGE The bridge remains – one of its pillars to be exact – is to be found in the village of Kostol next to Kladovo town. The bridge was built by Trajan in 105 AD and was the great project of the famous architect of the time, Apollodorus of Damascus. It was almost 1,100 meters long and it was considered to be one of the longest bridges ever built in the world for the next 1,000 years. It was erected in a record period of time (103-105 AD). Its arches were high above the water surface. The bridge was 45 meters high and had 20 pillars with portals on each end. It was depicted by the relief on the Trojan’s column that can be seen in Rome. Even though the bridge was destroyed soon after it was constructed, they say that the remains of the 20 pillars were still to be noticed in 1856 when the river was extremely low.
When I got here few years ago, I was a bit disappointed. I mean, you read so much about the achievements of Trajan the Emperor and it’s only natural that you expect some imposing bridge to prance before you in all its dignity and magnificence… Well, I obviously got too romantic again.
Anyway, when I went to see the column there was a pillar made out of bricks that was emerging from Danube shallow waters. It’s immediately clear that this is an important history monument, even though there’s just one column left. Still, in order to reach it, I almost parked in some cornfield. There were people around working in the field and I was stepping through the high grass carrying camera, walking towards the river.
But even now, when I remember that beautiful down at the hotel terrace in Kladovo while the sun was waving from the other side of the river, I am still trying to connect those Roman dots. It must have been impressive to see Romans while crossing over (Danube was 800 meters wide here). The water was supposed to protect the Dacians on the other side. But no, Trajan found the way, he built the bridge and just walked over to the other bank.
Well, my whole trip through the gorge might actually be organized as a special tour, something like “Following in Trajan’s footsteps to Dacia”. I certainly had a great time in chasing this Roman Emperor through this part of Serbia, even though 2,000 years later!
Next destination – Velika Plana town
The full Weekend In Serbia section
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