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Aliaga steppe

Sarmatian kurgan

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Belgorod Fort

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Delta and Black Sea

Tern colony

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Danube riverine forest near Izmail

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Lake Yalpug bank

Cliffs at Lake Kagul

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Salix cottage at Reni

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Lake Lung nature reserve

World Heritage Meridian monument

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Spotted suslik

Suvorovo church

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Tuzli liman

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Old Vilkovo cottage

Fishing camp, Vilkovo

St Nicholas Church

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CONTENTS

 

Bessarabia: a brief history

Bessarabia is a region on the Black Sea coast lying between the Prut and Dneister rivers. It comprises most of current-day Moldova and southwestern Odessa oblast in Ukraine (see our Maps page).

The name Bessarabia is probably derived from the family of Basarab, once rulers over Wallachia (now the province of Romania around Bucharest) from 1510 - 1532, but it seems to have been only relatively recently used as a geographical term (mainly after the territory was ceded to Russia in 1812). The region's main cities are Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and Izmail and Belgorod in Ukraine.

Greek settlers established colonies in the region during the 7th Century BC, but in the 6th century BC, a northern Asian tribe seems to have invaded the steppe region along the northern coast of the Black Sea, then inhabited by tribes apparently of Iranian origin. The invaders established rule from the Carpathians to the River Don, including Bessarabia. They were known to the Greeks and Romans as Scythians (later Sarmatians) and their culture persisted locally into the 2nd Century AD.

Bessarabia was part of the Dacian kingdoms ruled by Burebista in the 1st Century BC and by Decebalus in the 1st Century AD. Although the Romans conquered a part of Dacia (in search of Carpathian silver and gold deposits), some Dacians resisted the Roman conquerors from Bessarabia. The region was later frequently invaded by Goths, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Cumans and Mongols. Through the Middle Ages, Bessarabia was a part of the principality of Moldova, although its south-eastern part fell under the rule of the Ottomon Empire.

In 1812, the Treaty of Bucharest gave the region to Russia. In 1856, after the Crimean War, the southern part was also handed over to Moldova, but this reverted to Russian rule in 1878. After the Russian Revolution, the area declared itself an independent republic and then decided upon union with Romania; the union was confirmed by Romania's Western allies in 1920 but was not recognised by the Soviet Union.

In June 1940, Romania had to cede the region to the Soviet Union, which divided it between the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian SSR. When the Moldavian SSR became the independent Republic of Moldova in August 1991, its boundaries remained unchanged. Today the Moldovan and Ukrainian areas of Bessarabia maintain strong links between themselves, as well as with the neighbouring provinces of Romania, most notably through the Lower Danube Euroregion.

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Aliaga Steppe, Kurgans and Traian's Wall

Aliaga steppe reserve lies at the head of Lake Kitai ("China" Lake): it is notable as the last remaining example of a natural steppe valley drainage system in the Lower Danube Region.

Its open pastoral landscape also conveys the sense of what the area looked like before the ploughing and planting of wind breaks that took place from the 1950s to the 1970s.

This sense is deepened by the presence of important archaeological sites dating back thousands of years, for this region marked the transition zone from the Asiatic nomadic hordes led by the Scythians to the settled European tribes of western and central Europe.

In the 2nd Century, for example, the Roman Emperor Traian conquered much of present-day Romania and established the border of the Roman Empire along the line of Traian's Wall, which in Ukraine stretches over 100 km from Belgorod fort (City of Aspron) to Bolgrad. The wall was an earthen embankment some 3 to 4 metres high and 15 to 20 m wide: the straight stretch of road between Aliaga and Spasky follows the route and exhibits the physical features well.

In the steppe plains and on the ridges there are a number of "kurgans" - burial mounds of the tribal chiefs and princesses who were often buried with their horses and a great treasure of gold obtained from trading cereals and horses with the Greeks and then the Romans.

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Belgorod and Akkerman Fort

In the 6th century BC, Greeks from Miletus established the colony of Tyras on the the western shore of the Dneister liman, near the Black Sea shore. It was known to Strabo, Ptolemy and Pliny.

The settlement later came under the Scythians, and was known as Asperon by Roman historians - which meant "white" in the local Pecheneg language, after the appearance of the shoreline with its high content of shells. The word "white" has persisted ever since in various Slavic, Turkish and Romanian town names.

In 9 A.D. the settlement became a city of the Tivertsian and Ulychian tribes named Bilhorod. In the 2nd Century AD, the Roman emporer Traian captured the town, and built an earthen wall from there to the Siret river in Romania as a defence from invading barbarians.

In the 13th century it was part of the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia. In the 14th century it was ruled by the Genoese, renamed Montcastro; for a time in the 15th century it was part of the Moldavian principality.

The well-preserved fortress was built in 1438-1454 by Master Fedorko, with 26 turrets, four gates, and a citadel whose walls are almost 2 kilometers long. In 1484 the city was captured by the Turks and in 1503 renamed Akkerman (White Rock).

During the 17th and 18th centuries it became the seat of the Bilhorod Horde. The city came under Russian rule in 1812. From 1918-1940 it belonged to Romania and was called Cetatea Alba. It became part of the USSR in 1940, and in 1944 it was renamed Belgorod-Dnestrovsky.Today, the town has a population of some 65,000 people.

The ancient site encompasses the preserved remains of houses, paved streets, gutters, headquarters of a Roman garrison, and fortifications built of massive limestone plates unknown anywhere else in the classical world. It is the only remaining medieval fortress in southwestern Ukraine.

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Danube Biosphere Reserve

Over millennia, ever since the Black Sea was formed some 5,000 years ago (perhaps the basis of the Biblical Noah's flood), the River Danube has built one of the biggest and the most beautiful wetlands in Europe.

The delta today covers a total area of 4,178 km˛, shared by Romania (82% on the Saint George and Sulina branches of the Danube) and Ukraine (18%, on the Kilia branch). The delta continues to grow in to the Black Sea at a rate of about 75-80 metres per year due to the large volume of sediments that are deposited: the average load of suspended solids in the River Danube at Reni alone is about 1 ton per second.

Very closely linked with the delta proper are several large lakes and shallow coastal marine waters (limans or former marine gulfs) which together with the delta form a vast complex of wetlands occupying more than 6,700 km˛.

Because of the very active delta-forming processes and the nutrients brought by the river, the delta supports a flora and fauna of worldwide importance. For example, it is home to over 950 plant species and over 240 bird species, many of which are listed in national and international Red Data books.

In 1967, a 1 km-wide coastal strip of the Kilia delta in Ukraine was declared a reserve. Between 1973 and 1978, the reserve area was increased to 14,851 hectares as part of the Black Sea State Reserve. In 1981, the protected area of the delta became a reserve in its own right, known as "Dunaiski Plavni". By a Decree of the President of Ukraine in 1998, Dunaiski Plavni became a biosphere reserve. In February 1999 UNESCO included the Danube Biosphere Reserve in the global network of biosphere reserves, when it also formed a component part of the Danube Delta Cross Border Biosphere Reserve between Romania and Ukraine.

Any visitor to the delta in spring or summer will quickly appreciate the natural wealth of the Danube Biosphere Reserve: vast reedbeds stretching to the horizon, lily-coated lakes, and islands of willows and poplars. There are flocks of pelicans, cormorants, ducks, geese and herons while an occasional sea-eagle soars overhead. In the water there is a myriad of aquatic plants, with millions of frogs and toads jumping and splashing. And along the secluded beaches, a lucky walker may see dolphins catching fish.

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Izmail Fort and Riverine Forest

In the mid-14th Century, the area around Izmail formed part of the Moldavian Principality, which in turn was a Turkish protectorate in 1486. The Turks finally took the site in 1538 and built Ishmasl (or Hadjidar) Fortress.

By the mid-16th Century, the fortified settlement had become the centre of the rural district of Kilia, that traded actively with Moldovans and Wallachians (Romanians).

From the late 18th to mid-19th Centuries, Izmail was a focus of see-saw warfare between the Russian and Turkish Emperors. The Russian Empire aspired to capture the Bosphorus and Dardanelles and establish itself in the Balkans while Turkey strived to conquer the lands adjacent to the Black Sea and expand their influence to Central and Western Europe.

Meanwhile, European Powers such as Austria, Prussia, France and Britain also had great interests in this region. By the time of outbreak of the First Russian-Turkish War in 1768-1774, Izmail was a minor, poorly fortified outpost. In July 1770, a Russian army of 17,000 men commanded by P.A. Rumyantzev utterly defeated the 150,000-strong Turkish army and on August 16 gained control of Ishmasl Fortress. However, at the end of the war, Izmail returned to Turkish administration according to the terms of the Kuchuk-Kainargie Peace Pact.

Anticipating further conflict, the Turks paid significant attention to Izmail Fortress. Under the supervision of French fortifier de Lait-Clovet and German engineer Richter the fortress was expanded and upgraded. Izmail became a mainstay of Turkish military presence on the Danube. In 1787, Turkey (supported by Britain and France) commenced a new war against Russia.

In November 1790, the Russian army under the command of General Goudovysh laid siege to Izmail from the land, while a naval squad under the command of Admiral Deribas entered the Danube. Nevertheless, the Russian commanders did not dare to storm the fortress for a long time, limiting their activities with episodic bombarding of the walls. The situation lasted until the beginning of December when General Alexander Suvorov arrived and took command of the troops which besieged Izmail.

On 22 December 1790, at about 3 a.m., the troops attacked the fortress. First the gates were captured and then the flotilla delivered a crushing strike to the Citadel of the fortress. At about 11 p.m. the fortress ceased resistance. "Such a storm could be attempted only once in a life", wrote Suvorov afterwards. Yet again, the provisions of the Yassy Peace Treaty in 1791 ensured that Izmail remained a part of Turkish territory.

Only 16 years later, in August 1808, did the Russian army once again took the fort. This time, under the terms of the Treaty of Bucharest 1812, Izmail passed into Russian territory. The fort was then comprehensively destroyed to ensure it could never again fall into foreign hands and dominate the region.

Since this time, the area has undergone substantial urban, industrial and agricultural development. Izmail is now the largest town in the Lower Danube region with about 100,000 inhabitants, and an important cargo port. However, some of the most pristine riverine forest in the whole Danube basin can still be seen at the "Isles of Izmail" Regional Landscape Park, where the WWF Partners for Wetlands programme has a wetland restoration project in progress.

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Lower Danube Lakes

The Lower Danube Lakes area (comprising the drainage basin of the floodplain lakes between Reni and Kilia) covers about 6,400 km2. Nearly half of this area lies in Moldova, principally comprising the catchments of the Kagul and Yalpug rivers.

Although commonly termed lakes, the series of five large waterbodies along the northern bank of the Danube River are actually limans (flooded river valleys) with one or more rivers flowing into them. Consequently, they have a characteristically conical or palm-like shape and are relatively shallow.

The lakes are called (from west to east) Kagul, Kugurlui, Yalpug, Katlabugh and Kitai. Lake Yalpug is the largest natural freshwater body in Ukraine: it is 37 km long, about 4 km wide, covers 15,000 hectares and has a volume of 600 million cubic metres. Lakes Kugurlui and the adjacent Kartal are listed under the Ramsar Convention as wetlands of international importance for their breeding and wintering bird populations.

The Lower Danube region is home to a large number of ethnic-national groups, of which five predominate: Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Moldovans and Gagausians (a mixed Moldovan-Bulgarian group of Turkish descent) that form 98% of the total population. The varied ethnic composition of the population is a result of historical geographical developments among these groups as well as state-promoted land reclamation programmes between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Ukrainians and Russian are the leading ethnic groups in Kilia, Izmail and Artsiz. The highest concentration of Bulgarians (60% of the population) is found, not surprisingly, in Bolgrad, but there are also many Bulgarians in Artsiz and Tarutino. Moldovans are the dominant group in Reni (about half the population). The highest concentration of Gagausians (17% of the population) is found in Bolgrad.

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Reni Port

Reni is a small town of about 26,000 people situated between Lake Kagul and the Danube, close to the confluence with the River Prut and the border with Moldova. Salix owns a cottage in the town.

Despite its small size, Reni is one of the oldest settlements in Ukraine, known since the days of Kyiv Rus' and has a charming character.

Its main economic activities comprise international trade (there is a river port and a special economic zone), fish-farming, agriculture, and wine-making. The origin of the name probably comes from the old Slavonic "Reni" meaning "a river quay".

From 1621 to1821, the settlement belonged to Turkey, and then later to Moldova and Russia. Between 1918 and 1940 it was under Romanian jurisdiction. Since 1940, Reni has been part of Ukraine.

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Stara Nekrasovka Village, Lake Lung and the Meridian Monument

This village is named after a chief ("ataman") of the Don Cossacks: Nekrasov ("the ugly one"), when a group of Don Cossacks (known as Nekrasov Cossacks by the Turks) settled in the area. The Korchma hotel and restaurant, with its flamboyant "Bessarabian" cuisine, is situated in the village.

It is situated in the Danube floodplain beside the beautiful Lake Lung nature reserve (a part of the larger Lake Katlabugh) which holds important populations of waterfowl. The village is close to the Isles of Izmail Regional Landscape Park.

Perhaps the most unexpected feature of the village is its Meridian Monument for the Struve Geodetic Arc. This simple post commemorates the end-point of a chain of triangulation points stretching more or less down the 26° E line of longitude from near Hammerfest in northern Norway over 2,820 km south to here at the Danube. This survey was carried out between 1816 and 1855 under the guidance of Friedrich George Wilhelm Struve, a German-born astronomer, who wanted to determine the exact shape and size of the Earth. The scheme included 258 main triangles and over 60 subsidiary station points. The measurements proved highly accurate and the results were used for many scientific purposes. In Finland, the Struve Geodetic Arc connected the triangulations of the northern and southern parts of the country up until the 1960s. When it was originally measured, the chain went through the territory of only two countries, Russia and Sweden. In today's geography, the Arc passes through ten countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. These countries have co-operated since 1994 for the recovery, verification and monumentation of the Arc. In July 2005, UNESCO approved inclusion of the Struve Geodetic Arc in the World Heritage List.

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Suvorovo Village and Spotted Suslik Colony

Suvorovo village is named after Alexander Suvorov, the Russian General who captured the Turkish fort in Izmail in 1790. It situated at the top of Lake Katlabugh, and has a largely Bulgarian ethnic population.

It is a typical agricultural community of the post-Soviet period. Formerly the centre of a collective farm, or "kholkhos", that basically provided the entire needs of the village, the community is now undergoing a stringent economic period as land and social reforms take place. Their problems are exacerbated by the ecologically harmful management of the lake which has resulted in the water becoming unsuitable for irrigation, let alone human consumption.

In spite of these difficulties, the townspeople are refurbishing their church, which has a fine tower, and the local school has set up an ecological centre for schoolchildren and visitors. The main attractions here are the traditional Bulgarian cuisine using fresh produy seen in spring, before the grass is too high, when they emerge from their burrows and call to each other with high-pitched whistles.ce from the cottage gardens, and a large colony of spotted susliks situated along the edge of the road to village.

Spotted susliks are a type of steppe rodent that lives in burrows, feeds on seeds and other plant matter, and hibernates in winter. They are most easil

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Tuzli Limans

The chain of saline lagoons and extensive salt marshes (Shagany, Alibey and Burnas) lying between Tatarbunary and Belgorod are known as the Tuzli Limans ("Tuz" means salt in Turkish).

The limans lie in the valleys of small rivers and are separated from the Black Sea by a narrow, curving sand bar.

In summer, they host colonies of gulls, terns and avocets; in winter they hold some 50,000 white-fronted geese and 20,000 ferruginous ducks; during spring and autumn migration, large numbers of waterbirds use the lagoons for feeding and resting - amply justifying their designation as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

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Vilkovo town

Founded about 250 years ago, Vilkovo was once situated on the Danube delta coast. Since then, the delta has moved out another 40 km or so, leaving the town behind on the bank of its northernmost branch, called Kilia.

The original settlers were "Lipovans", or "Old Believers" that appeared about 300 years ago, after a split of Russian Orthodox Church. When Patriarch Nikon made changes to the Orthodox worship in the 17th century, some believers continued to worship in the "old way": speaking old Russian, crossing themselves with two fingers instead of three, and keeping their beards. They broke away under the leadership of Avvakum Petrovich, an archpriest who was later executed. The government and the Orthodox church persecuted these people, and as a result many of them committed suicide by burning themselves.

Eventually, the Old Believers divided into sects, and some sought refuge in the delta marshes, where they constructed their own church of St Nicholas (patron saint of fishermen). To build homes, they created islands of dry land by digging mud from trenches and canals, forming a characteristic grid of square plots and channels.

The house walls were built from reed and mud wattle, while the roofs were thatched. The base of the walls were surrounded by shells to help drain away rainwater. Each year, the homeowners built up their plots but gradually, the houses sank into the mud and had to be rebuilt every few decades.

Transport until recently was solely by boat or by foot along boardwalks laid out along the channels. The main economy of the town is fishing, with winemaking and vegetable gardening also important. The local wine has a unique flavour as it cannot be stored in vaults and has to be drunk young. Fresh Vilkovo strawberries are simply delicious!

Download Guide to Vilkovo (810 kb)

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Salix Ltd, registered in Kilia, Odessa, no. 328588, is a Ukrainian subsidiary of FIELDFARE International Ecological Development plc.
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