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Ada Kaleh: the lost island of the Danube

September 22, 2012

Ada Kaleh island postcard

Towards the end of Between the Woods and the Water, Paddy is exploring the Danube which he described as wild, with ‘many scourges to contend with’ including the Kossovar winds which in the spring could ‘reach a speed of fifty or sixty miles an hour and turn the river into a convulsed inferno.’ A long, long, way from the tamed beast that the once great river is now.

In the midst of this occasional inferno lay an island with a Turkish name, Ada Kaleh, which means ‘island fortress’. Paddy tell us that he had read all that he could find about the island, and was very keen to explore this lagoon of Turkish descendants which was quite probably abandoned by the retreating Ottomans as their empire shrank. Although placed under control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Berlin Conference in 1878, very little changed and it was ceded to Romania at Versailles. The Romanians too had better things to do with their time and left the inhabitants undisturbed.

It was into this cultural, religious, and demographic time capsule that Paddy stepped in August 1934 and immediately joined a group of men at a rustic coffee-shop, who were armed with ‘sickles and adzes and pruning knives’. Paddy describes the moment as if he had suddenly been ‘seated on a magic carpet.’

Ada Kaleh – “as if seated on a magic carpet”

Paddy spent a night on the island, and slept out by the Danube, under the stars, watching meteors, and listening to the sounds of owls and barking dogs, interrupted by the occasional sound of a cart wheel or the splash of a fish in the now calm and lazy river. He dreamt of crusaders under King Sigismund of Hungary attempting to turn back the Turkish tide in 1396. They crossed the river almost at this point, and what excited Paddy most was the thought that ‘the last pikeman or sutler had probably reached the southern bank this very evening, five hundred and thirty-eight years ago.’ Sigismund’s allied army of Hungarians, Wallachians, French, Germans and Burgundians, with a few Englishman, was shattered by Sultan Bayazid at the battle of Nicopolis further down the Danube, with the captured dying in ‘a shambles of beheading lasting from dawn to Vespers’.

Like the storks he saw the next day, who were preparing to fly off to “Afrik! Afrik!”, as an old Turkish man gestured, Paddy departed after breakfast to Orsova. Ever one for losing things he discovered that he had left behind an antler which he had been carrying as a trophy. Paddy writes that ‘perhaps some future palaeontologist might think that the island had once teemed with deer’.  This cannot be as the river was dammed and Ada Kaleh submerged by the rising Danube. Its population was evacuated and its mosque removed to a new, safe location. Such mitigation measures did not satisfy Paddy as he states in the Appendix to BTWW. The second of the two attached presentations is also a heartfelt, but belated cry of protest in Romanian.

Please take a look at these presentations. If you have PowerPoint you will find there is appropriate musical accompaniment (slide show one has a song called Ada Kaleh). The images show the place and its people almost exactly as Paddy would have seen it, something that we can truly say will be seen no more. The pdf copy is for those who do not have access to PowerPoint. I do hope that you enjoy them.


PowerPoint 1

PDF of PowerPoint 1

PowerPoint 2

PDF of PowerPoint 2

There are lots more great pictures to be found on Google images.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. JulianA permalink
    September 22, 2012 9:17 am

    Fascinating and evocative! Thank you.

  2. September 22, 2012 9:21 am

    Ada Kaleh is still today a heart ache in many people’s chest! The convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage was in 1972, the island submerged in 1971 – one year gap! And here an article in German about the island.

  3. Roger de Brantes permalink
    September 22, 2012 9:25 am

    Absolutely fascinating! Where on earth did you find these pictures?

    • September 22, 2012 9:27 am

      yes, Tom, where? ;-)

      • proverbs6to10 permalink*
        September 22, 2012 11:18 am

        Not sure if you wanted a mention. Do you? Happy to do so.

  4. thekardomahkid permalink
    September 22, 2012 10:29 am


    There is very good book all about Ada Kaleh (crammed with photos in a coffee-book style) on sale in bucharest (priced about £15). Unfortunately for many readers it is written in Romanian – at least it was when I bought my copy – tho’ it is possible there is an english tranlsation on sale now as the publisher usually does a follow up!

    If any readers are interested in a copy I may be able to send you some when I’m next in bucharest.


    PS there are some good photos on the wiki site and google photos.

    PPS I recently spoke to an engineer who worked on the project and he spoke about the sadness people felt but could be said to Tito/Ceaucescu

    • proverbs6to10 permalink*
      September 22, 2012 11:22 am

      I think I will add a link to the Google images Chris. Good idea. I would love a copy of the book but my coffee table is groaning! I am sure some others may take you up on this. Contact Chris at chezsmeeton[at]

    • September 22, 2012 11:32 am

      Ceausescu wanted, later, also to dry out the Danube Delta and transform it into agricultural land, but being under World Heritage this could be avoided.

  5. September 22, 2012 2:57 pm

    I remember now… the island was literally dynamited to submerge – totally barbarian!

  6. Juliet Sherwood permalink
    September 22, 2012 4:09 pm

    Fascinating photos and account of the demise of that lovely island and its culture! Thanks very much! I’m currently reading Frederic Morton’s “A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-1889,” and recently read his “Thunder at Sunset: Vienna, 1914-1915,” both of which I recommend. Also just read Dilys Powell’s “Villa of Ariadne” written in 1955 or so in which Paddy figures — she knew him. You probably know that book already, but I, having spent a few week on Crete this past summer, am discovering. Juliet

    Date: Sat, 22 Sep 2012 06:52:56 +0000 To:

  7. September 22, 2012 5:50 pm

    Tom – this was really great – thanks! I became a bit obsessed with Ada Kaleh after reading Paddy’s descriptions of it, and it still leaps to mind every time someone begins speaking about irretrievably lost things. Do you – or any of your commenters – know who the singer is in the song accompanying the first slide show?

  8. r w seibert permalink
    September 22, 2012 11:38 pm

    Fasinating bit of work-does anyone know where the mosque was moved?

    • September 23, 2012 1:06 am

      on Simian island just downstream of the city of Turnu Severin, but probably never accomplished

  9. Graham Page permalink
    September 24, 2012 4:35 pm

    Just completed a river cruise from the Danube delta to Budapest which included a day travelling through the Iron Gates. I was very mindful of Paddy’s account of Ada Kaleh and am glad to say that the cruise director told us when we reached the location so that we could pay our respects to the island now 30m below the surface. Thanks for this account and the pictures.

  10. ant permalink
    September 26, 2012 6:25 pm

    Wonderful posting!… perhaps you might also like this old film… “The last spring in Ada Kaleh” ….it’s a shame it is only in Romanian, they offer such a great history of the place

    • September 26, 2012 9:56 pm

      it’s a communistic propaganda docu which I saw on TV then – the speaker’s voice is the same for years and years during that awfull time!

    • September 26, 2012 10:06 pm

      and it was made as a “brain washing” for the rest of Romania to feel enthusiastic about this terrible crime!!!

  11. Tim Hall permalink
    September 30, 2012 7:13 pm

    Thanks for posting those marvellously evocative pictures of Ada-Kaleh. A real find!


  1. Ada Kelah and the mosque controversy | Patrick Leigh Fermor

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