While the eastern regions of Ukraine are ravaged by fighting and the remaining parts of the country torn by political debate, the only thing you can hear in one of the southernmost corners of the biggest country in Europe is the hum of motor boats. The town of Vylkove is situated on 75 islands of the Danube Delta in Odessa Oblast. Although even in Ukraine not everybody knows about this place, it has been long known as the Ukrainian Venice.
After crossing ten countries, the Danube empties into the Black Sea, creating an enormous delta sprawling across the territories of two countries. The center of the river, which extends along the town of Vylkove, is the neutral zone, and Romanian soil is on the other side.
Little Venice can be reached from the regional administrative center, Odessa, by two roads. The more spectacular route along the sea coast and vast wheat and sunflower fields takes almost ten hours. The roads built during Soviet times have never been reconstructed, so vehicles have to take it slow and the passengers get an opportunity to admire the sweeping horizons of the country. When we reach the sign of Vylkove, the town is already covered in darkness.
A refuge for Cossacks and Old Believers
In the 17th century, the Danube Delta offered refuge to the Kuban Cossacks and Old Believers, the Lipovans, fleeing from the reforms passed by the Russian Patriarch Nikon. Their settlement came to be known as the village of Lipovans and has changed little since it was granted town privileges in 1762.
The views from a boat cutting through the waters of the canals among the numerous islands recall ancient times: wooden boats, footbridges, willow-reinforced island shores, and locals emerging from straw-and-clay houses. Several hundred Lipovans still live on several islands further from the center of the town.
One of them is Nikolay, wearing a captain’s hat and a sailor t-shirt. The former engineer now lives in the lower part of the town and makes a living by carrying tourists around his native place.
The local Old Believers still live without electricity. Their way of life has changed little during the centuries. “You can see exactly what they saw three hundred years ago,” says Nikolay, navigating among the small islands overgrown with bulrush. “I was born to a family of Old Believers, and I graduated from school without electricity. We only used kerosene lamps.”
Living on an islands
Early in the morning Vylkove is bustling with life – fishing boats are already humming back with the catch, and children trot to school across narrow boardwalks between the canals.
Larisa, one of the residents of Vylkove, has taken a position at the bus stop on the main street of the town. She carefully scans the coming vehicles and passengers getting out of the bus to look for tourists. She has accommodation and boat trips on her offer list. “People are afraid to come to Ukraine this year,” she says.
Captain Nikolay starts the engine of his long blue boat. Our trip begins from the left bank of the Belgorod Canal, which also happens to be the main street of Vylkove. The name of the town comes from the Slavic word vilka, a fork. Before discharging into the Black Sea, the Danube splits into three main channels shaped like a fork. Those are connected by myriads of smaller canals giving direct access to virtually every house in the town.
Clay and bulrush
Nikolay reminds us to take a passport and not to take pictures at the border area. You can see both the Romanian and the Ukrainian border posts while travelling along the widest stretch of the Danube.
There are two key tools in the boat – a clay shovel and a bulrush sickle. Island houses have long been built from clay and straw. Such method of construction has been used both due to the materials at hand as well as because of the breathability of such houses – they help to keep the humidity out.
The tour guide admits that collecting dried bulrush is one of the ways to make a living for the locals. The plant is cut, bound, dried, and sold to the European market for eco-friendly buildings. When asked how he manages to find his way around the network of canals, Nikolay replies: “If I stay late celebrating with a friend, or if the fog sets in, I usually stick a hand into the water to feel the current. If I take any canal against the flow, I will reach the center of the town, and if I go with the current, I will get to the Danube or the Black Sea.”
The source of life
According to Nikolay, the residents of Vylkove subsist on water and dew – the life of the 9,000 local residents is dictated by the river. Fishing and farming are the main sources of income in the region. The floodplains of the Danube are damp and fertile. Vylkove is known for its strawberries, fruit, and Navak grapes, the latter of which only grow on the islands inhabited by the Old Believers. However, the prime product of the region is the Danube herring.
“Each spring, when the temperature of the water reaches 7 degrees, the fish come here to spawn,” says the 60-year-old Nikolay, his grin displaying a few golden teeth. “The water boils with herring, and fishermen surge to the shores. Doctors, lawyers and teachers alike – everyone takes a vacation and becomes a fisherman at that time. Some even quit their jobs – the income from the three months of spawning can set you up for a year.”
103 species of fish found in the lower reaches of the Danube make Vylkove and the surrounding area a haven for fishermen. Most of the houses around the town proudly display pictures of humongous catfish alongside their catchers.
No political zeal
“We have little interest in politics. Governments and state boundaries have shifted multiple times, but we, the residents of Vylkove, mostly care about the Danube, which has been flowing silently for thousands of years,” says 84-year-old Olga. She invites me to sit in her garden, which is full of flowers. Olga has a hard time walking and constantly reaches for her back with a groan, but I can see that she has strong hands merely by looking at the orderly and thriving garden.
Olga can speak Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, and Moldavian. She describes the residents of Vylkove as hardworking but indifferent to politics. She believes that this detachment is probably caused by a weak sense of identity. “My parents and grandparents were never sure what country they belonged to. Laws passed somewhere far away have constantly shifted the border, and the town would end up in Romania or Moldova. Although we have been living in Ukraine for quite some time now, I simply consider myself a resident of Vylkove,” Olga says.
The exclusive geographic position has often helped young men to avoid conscription. “There is a saying: ‘To row away from the army’,” she says. “Young men would simply cross the Danube and wait for the officers to leave.”
More than a means of transportation
“Bridges in Vylkove are neutral territory,” Nikolay says. “If a boy crosses into another island to see a girl, the neighbors can drive him off. But if the lovers make it to the bridge, they can kiss all they want until the sun comes up. These places, like boats, are neutral.” However, Nikolay does not believe that Vylkove is a romantic town.
Cutting through the intricate network of canals, we pass many other boats and barges ferrying nets, household appliances, or food. Each house has a garage – most often, just a drawbridge or a hoist fence.
During Soviet times, tradition required each young man to build his own boat – usually from timber brought from Russia. And only then he could officially ask for his beloved girl’s hand in marriage. “The boat in Vylkove is not just a means of transportation,” says Nikolay, holding the rudder. “It’s a second home. It is the place where you date, fall in love, kiss, get married – and separate. People are carried to the afterlife in a boat, too.”
When asked whether her first kiss happened in a boat, too, the widowed Olga replies without hesitation, “We are tired of all these boats. My first kiss with my husband happened in an ordinary place, a film theater, but I must tell you it was no ordinary kiss.”
A fence by one of the canals displays the sign “Vino” indicating that homemade Navak wine is available for purchase here. But Nikolay deciphers the writing in a different way – “Vot I Nasha Ostanovka. (Here is our stop.)”