It is late summer and the air feels thick, heavy, ripe enough to burst. Before long, perhaps tomorrow or the following day, there will be a dramatic thunderstorm and then the relentless heat will abate.
Today though, here in the Dunavska Gradina (Danube Garden), barely a breeze moves the leaves, so that the smell of meat from a nearby grill bar, and the sweet aroma from the stalls selling hot sweetcorn and butter, hang potent along the treeshaded avenue. On this Saturday, young families are out for lazy strolls in this riverside park. Children race radio-controlled cars while by the Danube older residents of Silistra (Силистра) relax on the wooden benches that line the river bank. They sit alone, or in pairs, and all direct their gazes to the water. Only here does the air seem to move — it is dragged behind the currents of the Danube, as the river cuts its path across south-east Europe, some 2,850 km from the eastern slopes of Germany’s Black Forest, past Bulgaria, and out towards the Black Sea.
The Danube meets this country in its far north-west corner, where Bulgaria shares a land border with Serbia to the west, and both face Romania on the far bank of the Danube. Here the Roman fortress of Dorticum once watched over the currents, though over the centuries flood waters have eroded siege-proof stone walls to leave only a roadside outline of the castle’s former foundations. From here, the river traces the northern border of Bulgaria for approximately four-fifths of the country’s length, until Silistra, the point where the river and border part. As the Danube veers northeast in its final stretch to the sea, Romania steps south of the water, and the river eventually disgorges into a messy delta, spreadeagled across the Romanian-Ukrainian border further north (with Moldova gently nudging in at one point).
Bulgaria’s relationship with the Danube has played a defining role in the nation’s history. In the seventh century, when the early Bulgars — a Turkic tribe from the Eurasian Steppe — started settling in Europe, it was via the Danube that they arrived. As the story goes, their leader, Khan Asparuh, son of Khan Kubrat, planted his sword into a hilltop at Pliska and proclaimed: “Here will be Bulgaria, under this sky, on this land.” Since then, Bulgarian national identity has always been keenly interwoven with a sense of place and landscape. Pliska (Плиска), a small town about 80 km south of Silistra, retains a key spot in the Bulgarian national story.