THE GREBEN CATARACT
The cruise on the Danube in the Lower Gorge of the Danube passes on the territory of Mehedinţi County.
On the left bank of the Berzasca–Greben narrowing (18 km), from km 1010 on the river, the Treşcovăţ Stone rises proudly, a bare limestone massif with straight ribs cut deeply by water, similar to the Detunata region. From Treşcovăţ Mountain, which dominates the landscape with its 800 m of height, three rock backs branch out: The Long stone, The White stone and The Black stone. Locals call them the “Buffaloes“, because they resemble the buffaloes resting in water. The three rocks can only be seen when the Danube waters are low.
On the opposite bank the elegant silhouette of a viaduct can be seen. The bridge is crossed by a road cut in rock from Serbia, being in certain symmetry with the road from Romania. Near the Danube, still in Serbia, at km 1005, there is a well-known museum of archaeology where, amongst others, there are 8,000-year old statues. In this place called “Lepenski Vir” (Lepel’s Whirlwind), two plates are chiselled in the rock, Tabula of Tiberius (33-34 AD), who built the Roman road from Belgrade to the Porec River, and Tabula of Domitianus ( 75-80 AD), during whom the Roman road was reinforced.
Continuing the boat trip, at km 1001 on the river, on the right bank, you can see rising up in front the “Greben Cataract“, almost standing in the way of the Danube and narrows the riverbed to 400-500 m. Here, the depth of the water is over 50 m. The Greben Rock impresses by the Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks panorama, having a multicolour stratification: red, gray, black, and yellow, pink and bluish. On the impressive rock spur you can notice the wreaths that gave birth to the Carpathian Mountains from the kneading of the mountain barks. Also here you can see the Fossil Reservation near Sviniţa for the Romanian Jurassic. Prior to the construction of the Iron Gates dam, the Greben cataract was the most dangerous place to navigate across the strait. Due to the presence of the rock thresholds, in 1890 the regularization of flow began. Upstream, a 3.5-kilometre dam was built and downstream it was necessary to build a channel dug in the cliffs and a 6.2-kilometre-long dam in the middle of the riverbed, running parallel to the right bank of the Danube. On the canal, ships were pulled from the shore with traction animals and later with steamed vessels through the so-called “haulage” operation that is no longer practiced today. The inauguration of the Šip channel was held with great fanfare in 1896.
In the valley of Greben, when the water escapes from the rocks, the riverbed suddenly widens to almost 2.5 km, looking like a peaceful lake.
On the Romanian bank there lies the village of Sviniţa, after which you can see the ruins of the old Tricule fortress (Tri-kule = Three towers), and on the Serbian bank there are the ruins of Porec and the city of Milanovac. In the Almăj Mountains, the Banat Black Pine appears among the cliffs, the symbols of the Banat forests, present especially in the Domogled and Cerna Valley, near Herculane Baths. Downstream of Milanovăć, you can see the houses of Golubinje, a beautiful settlement at the foot of the Miroc Mountains.
When the boat arrives at Iuti, the Danube makes a great turn to the east and thus forms the tip of a huge letter “V”, drawn between the Cozla Cataract and the Cauldrons. At Iuti (km 989 fluvial) is the southernmost point of Banat, where the cataract ends and the Cauldrons begin, the narrowest and most spectacular section of the Danube.
On its way to the Cauldrons, the Danube passes through the Greben-Plvisevita depression, where it is majestic and quiet. The impression of the tricky cataracts disappears, bringing peace to the victorious river in the fight with the mountain’s rock.
Near the Tisovita brook, at km 980 on the river, we pass by the last Czech village on the Danube Cave, Eibenthal. From Coronini to Berzasca you can see the localities Saint Helena, Gârnic, Ravensca and Bigar, where, between 1823 and 1829, the Czechs were brought from Bohemia by the Baron Iosif Magyary, a forest entrepreneur in those times. The colonization of the Czechs in Banat took place at Shumita, in the Land of Almaj, and in Ogradena, this last Danube locality being merged with Eşelniţa, following its displacement through the construction of the Iron Gates Storage Lake.
At the Big Cauldrons (3.8 km), between km 973.8 and km 970, the Danube passes greatly and majestically through the narrow riverbed bounded by steep walls at 90⁰ and deep up to 80 m.
Until recently, at the gate of the Big Cauldrons, in the middle of the water, you could see Calinic Rock, similar to the Babacaia Rock, which made navigation quite difficult, especially during winter. The storage lake flooded the rock, some caves from the Great Ciucaru Mountains (318 m) and the Roman road from the Veliki Strbak Mountains (768 m) from the Serbian bank.
Without being frightened in front of the rocks from the depths of the river, look joyfully at the surrounding mountains around the water and you will feel how nature conquers the traveller with an irresistible power. Seek in the rock of the Great Ciucaru the water entry into the Ponicova Cave, famous for the crowd of bats that are housed in it, hence the name of the Bats Cave. The cave can be reached either by land through the mountain or by boat on water. From the water, the entrance appears as a black oblique cleft, inclined to the right.
The Ponicova cave is the largest from the entire Danube, the total length of the galleries being over 1.6 km. Between the two entrances, from the DN 57 national road or from the water, the brook dug in the limestone the “Ponicova Gallery”. From here, through the “Scale Gallery” you can reach the “Great Hall”, and through the “Gallery of Concretions” you arrive in the “Hall of Columns”. At the entrance from the mountain to the Ponicova Cave, the creek, bearing the same name, created some short and wild keys and a 25 m deep natural bridge, of nearly 8 m high. In this subterranean labyrinth you will see some unique stalactites and stalagmites, gleaming domes, straight columns like a candle or twisted in a spiral, the snow white calcite floor, the guano mounds provided by the colony of ants, the Neolithic ceramic fragments, and the bones of the cavern bear and hyena. The cave can be visited only with a speleologist guide.
At a distance of 500 m below, there lies the Veterani Cave, which is also called the Macovăţ Cave or, with its ancient name, the Piscabara Cave.
The Veterani Cave is the first mapped cave in the world (1692), and today it remains a source of legends, stories of the place and human experiences. The entrance to the cave is only from water on a wooden pontoon. As you climb and enter the cave you will be attracted by two appearances. Right at the mouth of the cave, you will see the “Cauldron’s Tulip”, this wonderful flower of the Danube Cauldrons Nature Reserve, which dresses the whole mountain with its pure and tender yellow colour every spring. On the right side of the entrance there are “traces of” the treasure seekers, as is the name of “Karol -1992,” a Romanian settled in Australia, who lost his life in 1994, after returning to the cave and plunging with his car in the Danube.
The cave hall, with a height of 40 m and with a base of 34 m long and 30 m wide, was used by the primitive man as a shelter 12,000 years ago. Then the Dacians came to the cave to Zamolxe’s sanctuary to show their offering to their god, sacrificing birds on the rectangular stone altar in the centre of the cave. The testimony is the natural “window” overlooking to the Danube, 11 meters from the floor, where, every morning, for almost half an hour, the altar from the centre of the cave is lit by the rays of the sun that penetrate and fall perpendicularly. Almost 2000 years ago, the grotto was deepened by the Trajan’s soldiers, immediately after the conquest of Dacia. The Romans had a different faith from that of the Dacians. They did not live in the cave. That’s why they built a small fortress in front of the cave, to observe the traffic on the Danube. Later, in the middle Ages, the Pec Fortress was built near the caves, having the role of defending the country.
There are two events connected to the Veteran Cave in the history of Banat County. The name of the cave reminds of the Austrian general Friedrico Veterani, the commander of the Austrian army who, on the ruins of the Roman fortress, turned the cave in a fortification on three levels. In front of the cave, at 70 m, a defence wall was built, of 4 m high and 2 m thick. The entrance to the grotto was then reinforced with thick stone walls. A third level was the arrangement of the interior of the cave after a first mapping plan, a room, a stone gutter, a fountain, and a point of observation and defence. The cave could shelter 700 soldiers. It’s probably the oldest cave plan in the world.
The two fierce battles between the Turks and the Austrians from the Veterani Cave took place in 1692 and then in 1788. In 1692, an officer in the Veterani troops, Captain d’Arau, with several hundred soldiers, held back several thousands of Turks. Then, in August 1788, the guards from Svinita, led by Captain Adam Maovat, with 250 soldiers and 11 cannons, fought against the Turkish troops under the command of Mahmed Memis in order to thwart the Turkish navigation on the Danube. After resisting 20 days of assault both on the river and on land, the border guards had to capitulate. The soldiers who had been killed were not thrown at the base of the mountain nor in the waters of the river.
Today, the Veterani Cave is visited by many tourists, because several Romanian films’ scenes have been filmed here (How I Spent the End of the World?).
After the Dubova Bay (1.4 km), you enter the Small Cauldrons (3.6 km). The image of the Danube in the Small Cauldrons is among the most impressive in the strait. In front of the ship you can see the 315 m high Small Ciucaru peak on the left bank and the Mali Strbać Peak (626 m) on the right bank. It bends suddenly down to the Danube and straightens the riverbed up to 150 m, in the narrowest place of the Cauldrons. This is how the legend was born that the famous outlaw Harambaşa, in order to escape from the pursuit of the police, was leaning on his club, jumping from one bank to another. Here, the water is the deepest and has more than 100 m. From the boat you can see the Mraconia Monastery in the bay bearing the same name, as well as the “Decebalus’s Statue” – the largest statue carved in rock from Europe (40 m). At 964, 5 km, above the water lies Tabula Traiana (103 AD), a stone witness to the construction of the Roman road on the right bank of the Danube. After a while, the Danube course comes out of the mountains, and before us appears the town of Orsova. In the vicinity of Orșova there was the Ada-Kaleh Island. A journey is going to end, meaning to connect the traveller spiritually to the Danube, as to a close human being. The Mountainous Banat is a touristic destination that recalls you over and over again.