Where the Danube bends at Tulcea, near the Black Sea in eastern Romania, the river divides. The main body continues along the north of the Delta towards the Black Sea, entering it near Chilia. Several miles southeast of Tulcea, the narrower section, now calling itself the Old Danube, again divides, this time into the Sulina and St Gheorghe branches, which flow between drowsy oxbows, reed beds and lakelets that multiply into infinity as water leaches away through man-made channels into the swelling wetlands.
Sulina is the Delta’s largest town, and the only means of getting to it is still by water. From the river, the Lipovani villages become visible: clusters of floating docks, motorised canoes and blue-and-white-cottages under sharp-hewn thatch, with here and there a tourist hotel for fishermen, built Vegas-style. Descendants of Old Believers who escaped Russia in the 18th century to seek religious freedom among the herons, the few thousand Lipovani are the marshes’ only year-round residents, living from fishing, a little farming and the annual reed harvest. They qualify as one of Europe’s most isolated communities.