Searchlight Tutrakan! Bulgarian Danube alight

If you don’t know where the historic fishing town of Tutrakan is, you are far from alone. Visits were discouraged during communism, for fear of someone escaping up or downstream, and it gets scant mention even today in conventional guide books, in literature or on maps.  At times I have blessed the anonymity, but can no longer contain it—Tutrakan is an eco paradise on earth, and the sooner it is discovered by those with environmental and cultural awareness rather then those out for Sozopolitis, the better to preserve it.

I bought an old wine merchant’s house looking down to the centuries-old fishing quarter a few months before developers found it, and for five years have watched it change, sometimes alarmingly. Though it is touted as an “open air museum”, most of the rare houses are destined  to be knocked as luxury holiday property goes up. Now, with the first son et lumière Flaming Danube Festival on August 4, Tutrakan will finally be making the EU map, and thus visiting us should not be delayed.

The Romans called it “Transmarisca”  – Place Beyond the Swamps — and the name is apt, because most of the Bulgarian Danube coast is what in today’s  eco-conscious lingo are called “wetlands” but were then malarial marshes. Retired legionnaires were pensioned off here with gifts of land and their wrinkled, vine-growing, fishing- mad ghosts would no doubt fit in fine with the cosmopolitan community today, where it is not uncommon to hear Romanian still spoken, and even the graves show Muslims and Christian names – a real rarity in Bulgaria.

The views of the river from the terraced hills astonish from first sight, over the boggy coast of Romania as well as dark islands and where poplars grow right from the sand and are habitable only by birds, wild boar, the occasional Gay and Lesbian Naked Party or other merry-makers, hopefully well-armed with mosquito repellent. Our first entry to the town, from the Silistra highway, sold us forever, wondering how such a dramatic environment could remain so hidden. But today property prices have zoomed, and the film-set architecture of the old fishing quarter began to give way to new houses, some in good taste and some decidedly not.

Oh Dustless Highway

Balkan riddles call the Danube “the road with no dust”, the long winding rope, or the snake with its head in the mountains and its tail in the sea. In folk stories it flows from a golden apple surrounded by shotguns, or is a tall, crazy woman named Yana. Like Moon River, in most places it is certainly “wider than a mile”, and marks the end of the Balkans. The Bulgarian Danube was the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire and, since history loves divisions, helped separate Roman from “barbarian”, Rome from Byzantium, Byzantium from Slavs, the Latin world and from the Greek, and later Christian from Muslim — all of which means one bloody highway and the dreadful cliché of binary opposites.

Is the Danube, as some claim, a natural divider between East and West? That depends, of course, whether you think those distinctions serve any purpose in the world today, and if so, what they would imply, and am pleased that conventional dichotomies are impossible to apply in Bulgaria anyway. The Danube is very strong and has done a pretty good job of cleansing itself from past carnage and more recent spewing factories on its banks. Metaphorically and physically it seems constantly renewed and fresh, and as disobliging to borders, rules and politics as the fish are.

Besides fishing, the primary crop today is apricots, most of which, alas, are converted straight to rakiya as there is no drying or canning operation in the town as yet. There is a palpable tension at harvest time, since the weather can change suddenly and coruscating Danube storms bring down much of the fruit overnight, as well as the prices. These storms often attack in a spiral fashion and move shore to shore, from Bulgaria to Romania, and though thrilling to me, with lightning hurled sideways and deathly skies, weather has always dictated the fortunes of this region, a potential nightmare to fisherfolk and farmers today as millennia ago.

For me it remains a pagan place, with St Nicola taking over fromNeptunekeeping watch over seas, rivers, lakes and floods. He guarded fishermen and their catch, kept lockdown on mermaids and water demons, rose or calmed the winds as he chose and even walked on the sea.  As to bad spirits, however, I have my own pantheon. St Nicholas of the Trident gets my special prayers to raise a devil, high wind or tsunami to get rid of the speedboat races increasingly popular on the harbour, which disturb my polytheistic reams.

Grab that rod!

Commercial fishing will end in Tutrakan in years to come, but catch it while you can as a sports fishing aficionado, preferably by bringing your own boat, getting some locals to take you out, or just “market fishing” from one of the town’s riverfront live fish shops. You can catch carp, catfish, whitefish, and more – just lay off the sturgeon, it is illegal!

In the 1890s, Tutrakan was the biggest fishing centre on the lower Danube, made fat through trading fish, fish oil and caviar as well as wine and grain as far afield as Vienna and the Black Sea and affording substantial, Central-European type lifestyles to a comfortable merchant class. Books with photos of these times as well as commerce and census records have been published by Tutrakan’s historic museum,  showing parasol-wielding ladies in white dresses as well as ankle deep mud in the roads. The town was also a major producer of boats, many of the paddle-wheel kind reminiscent of the Mississippi glory days, and by the beginning of the 20th century it was serious commercial concern boasting a fine theatre and hotel on the river, directly opposite the docks. The ghost of it is still there, now with developer’s “for sale” sign on it, and in photos you can see the Russian and Austrian passenger ships that moored here, and well-heeled townspeople strolling the promenade. There are still luxury Danube cruises from Germany, but today those lively double deckers pass right by Tutrakan, too far from shore to even wave.

The lack of a dock, we hear, will be rectified in years to come, providing opportunities for fishing trips, ferries to various Danube villages, and hopefully a reconstruction of historic paddle boats, many of which ground grain for sale along the river. Someone may even buy the old theatre near the promenade, and hopefully restore it something cultural rather than a casino or chalga bar. But where the town goes will, in the end, depend on a wake-up call by locals and developers alike to see the benefits of preservation on the waterfront, and put an end to the destruction of the old fishing houses and Romanian architecture, leaving the “open air museum” that some want, and some definitely do not. Indeed it will be a crossroads for Tutrakan this summer when the river is lit from here to Romania with boats and fireworks, courtesy of a joint project between the Tutrakan municipality and the German-Bulgarian Technology Centre,Sofia, which hopes to spotlight the town for foreign investors in biomass engineering and other biotechnology.

Their first stop, in my opinion, could be tapping the run-off from the fishing quarter’s lively rakyia distillery and ending the pickled fish factor. But I still swim there, fighting the currents.


The Flaming Danube Festival Огненият Дунав (Ogneniyat Dunav) and International Danube Week starts on July 28 with an open air performance of the Rousse Opera’s “Czardas Queen”. August 3 an International Conference on “Future joint work of Danube Cities” will be led by Peter Langer – President of the Committee of Danube cities and regions, and a presentation by the Austrian Trade Commission on “The Future of Tutrakan for Business”. August 4, however, will be the highlight with the son et lumière spectacle “Flaming Danube”, a light, fire and sound show stretching from Tutrakan to Oltenitsa, which will reflect the ancient history of the river and its inhabitants, starring the God of the river Danubius.  Website Facebook

Things to See:


Tutrakan’s History Museum is in the town’s most beautiful former residence of yore, built in the Viennese style at the end of the 19th century. Each floor is dedicated to a different historic period, starting with antiquity and continuing to the Liberation from Romanian occupation in 1940. There are icons from the Triavna pictorial school and church, one of which a ‘psychic’ says emanates heat, so see if you notice. My favourite room, however, is a mock-up of a bourgeois Tutrakan salon from the days when the town blossomed as an administrative, economic and cultural centre and Russian and Austrian passenger ships docked in its port.

The Museum of Danube Fishery and Boat-building is a one of a kind, in what was originally a hamam or bath house from the early 20th century. Here you can find giant hooks and other fishing gear from the distant past, when carp grew as big as Alaskan halibut, 50 kilos or more, and catfish could weigh in at 120. The museum faithfully captures the lifestyle and culture of fishing settlements on the Bulgarian Danube, with reconstructions of fisherman quarter interiors, and is also devoted also to boat building since Roman times to the late 19th century, when they were exported as far afield as Romania, Serbia, and Austria.
Ribarska Mahala, the old fisherman’s quarter, was once home to thousands, though only a scant kilometre of it exists today. Still considered an open air museum in itself, there are a dozen or so of the old houses still standing, many of them empty or for sale as knock-downs. There has been talk of casinos, but, thank the ‘seven moving stars’ of the ancient Thracian calendar, not one has yet appeared.

Real life

Tutrakan’s lively rakiya distillery is at the very end of the fishing quarter, just above a shop that sells live fish. Funky on the exterior, inside it is a jolly sight, with great flaming ovens reflected in tall copper vats, and men and women alike stripped down to basics tasting the first run. This is a do-it-yourself affair, and especially during August and September there is likely to be a queue of vehicles bringing fruit mash, from donkey carts and Trabants to Toyotas, Audis and beetle-black jeeps with darkened windows.  Old motorcycles with sidecars may have the rakiya barrel riding shotgun instead of baba on the way to market, but my all time favourite is the wondrous ‘Tutrakan Chopper’, with Frankenbits of old vehicles, agricultural and otherwise. A Lada engine here, a tractor seat there, with perhaps a teensy red motorcycle gas tank perched beside it. These colourful creatures of red, turquoise, sea blue and rust can carry about half a cord of wood, a medium pig or three plastic booze barrels, but not very far or fast, and preferably downhill, which is why the Chopper works so well in Tutrakan.


The History Museum has a basic but charming hotel in the Ribarska Mahala, where I have often joyfully stayed. No frills but en suite, most rooms have three beds and there is a common area for eating, tv watching and low-key partying.

Upmarket, the Lodka hotel has six rooms, aircon, one suite with a fab view, and is very often booked in high summer, but if you want to watch the light show on the river on August 4, there is probably no better vantage point.

There are other hotels at the top of the town, with no bloody view and too far to walk, but during the Flaming Danube Festival the History Museum will have a full list.


The Lodka hotel has a lively restaurant at the bottom of the fishing quarter, though the view from the gardens is sadly obstructed by a parking lot. It’s a great place, however, to meet German cyclists and townspeople who consider themselves important.


Far and away the best view is from the Rotary Club restaurant Приятели (Pryateli-Friends) where few foreigners venture, as they are less likely to notice it. It is reached up a very steep and winding staircase (currently without rails) from just in front of the historic Wedding House (info). There is often live music—of a sort—on weekends.


Property in Tutrakan

If you are looking for an E-Bay cheapie, forget it; since developers moved in a fishing quarter property or decrepit merchant’s mansion on the hills can run you 40 000 euro, though there are still some tear-down lots that might be had for as little as 10 000. Cheapies, however, may still be acquired in outlying villages within the 10 km range, such as Staro Selo, Shumentsi and Varnentsi, or along the coast from Pozharovo to Dolno Ryakovo (where I have a cheapie on huge land to sell, by the way!)

For sale by UK owner, restoration plans included...


(Main photo:  Ogneniyat Dunav. All other photos: Molly Burke Kirova)






Molly Burke Kirova

Molly Burke Kirova, formerly Molly McAnailly Burke, is an adjunct writing instructor at the American University in Bulgaria and is working on a book about the Tutrakan region. Follow her on twitter @Danubegal