A City on the Lower Danube: Drobeta-Turnu Severin

Conducting field research can make you end up in places where you may have never gone otherwise. That was the case for me when I – Merve Neziroğlu, researcher at the GWZO in Leipzig – went to Romania in July 2022. Even though my study had not specifically to do with the city itself, I had to reside in Drobeta-Turnu Severin. There, not only I had access to the Regional Branch of the National Archives, but I could also visit the places crucial for my research and gather all the information I needed. In today’s blog post, I want to share this “by-product” of my field trip and put Drobeta in the spotlight.


Drobeta-Turnu Severin, or Drobeta in short[1], is a town with roughly 100.000 inhabitants. It is located at the Danube, right after the Iron Gates Gorge ends. Looking at a map, one can see that the town is a planned city, which makes it look like it was built only in the last two centuries. But the town actually has a settlement history that goes back to Roman times. But indeed, the place was rebuilt in the 19th century, thus creating the parallel streets. During my stay, I learned why that was the case, and why the city name has an affix to it.

Quite disappointing to everyone who heard that I would travel “to a place right at the Danube”, I did not arrive in Drobeta using the waterway. Instead, I took the train from Craiova, which is a bigger city two hours away. Soon after arriving, I took a walk around the city center. It was my first time there, and I was curious about the riverside, too. As I passed by a bench in a park, I heard people speak in German. I turned my head around and saw an elderly couple sitting there, searching for shelter from the mercilessly burning sun, their hats giving away that they might not be locals. Curious about why they were in this town, which did not strike me as a place for international tourists, I approached them. It turned out that they were indeed tourists from Germany who passed by Drobeta on the Danube cruise route. 

City Center of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

Excited about the prospect of seeing the Iron Gates Gorge – which is only a couple of kilometers upstream from Drobeta –, I asked them about their personal experience. The man stated that he didn’t like it at all, because, in his opinion, the gorge did not look as spectacular as it did in the images from the 19th century. He concluded that the Iron Gates Gorge was underwhelming.

I thanked both for the chat and continued my way around the city. In Drobeta, I went to all the places I had to go on foot, despite the hot weather. While doing so, I enjoyed the architecture. Drobeta has plenty of buildings in the city center that have a beautiful façade but require restoration.

One of those buildings I could not stop looking at – from the other side of the street, though, because the sign says “Caution! Falling plaster and tiles. Keep your distance from the building”. Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

Even though I saw the Danube from inside the train, I didn’t want the day to end without getting a nice shot of the river. On the site of the Muzeul Regiunii Porților de Fier (Museum of the Iron Gates Region), I had a beautiful view of the Danube. Just like Drobeta, the Iron Gates Region has a long history of settlement. The remains of the Traian’s Bridge built between 103 and 105 A.D. (and destroyed less than 200 years later), are a witness to this. Like the remains which you see on the Romanian side of the river bench, you also have remains on the Serbian side. The distance between the two banks is less than a kilometer.

The remains of Traian’s Bridge (Podul lui Traian), Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

Drobeta-Turnu Severin is proud of its long settlement history – in 1972 the town, which was then called Turnu Severin, was given the addition „Drobeta“ to commemorate that history: In the 1960s, many archaeological finds were made, which are now exhibited in the Museum of the Iron Gates Region. Based on these finds, the decision was made to give the city the name affix. Thus, a direct link was drawn between the Drobeta of that time and the city of today.

But if the city is so old, why does the street layout look so modern? The reason is that the city was rebuilt in the 19th century, after the technical improvements of the Danube increased its importance as a waterway, and thus, increased the importance of the city of (Drobeta-)Turnu Severin as a hub. The regulations of the river included the removal of rocks that were dangerous for navigation. That is why the German tourist I have talked to was so disappointed with the Iron Gates Gorge because cataracts, which were present until the 19th century, were dangerous but also seemingly breathtaking.[2] 

In the city, there was more to discover. The Water Castle (Romanian: Castelul de Apă) or Water Tower is one of the city’s landmarks. Inside, almost every floor had an exhibition, but not all levels were open for visitors by the time I was there. One of the exhibitions was about the sunken island of Ada Kaleh, which is my research object. I was pleased with the intriguing exhibition in the tower. 

Castelul de Apă (The Water Castle). Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

From above, I had a lovely overview of the town: On one side, one can see the glittering blueish water of the Danube, and on the other side, the city of Drobeta. It was refreshing to be on the rooftop because it was so windy up there. During my stay in the region, the temperatures were more than 30 degrees Celsius and sometimes almost 40 degrees, which was sometimes challenging.

A bird’s perspective on the city, taken from the rooftop of the Water Castle. Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

On one of my last days there, I strolled around the city again. Another of Drobeta’s landmarks is the Cetatea Medievală a Severinului (Medieval Fortress of Severin). Right next to it was a pedestrian walkway with an image gallery. Those images were drawings or photographs in a rather large version, depicting the history of Drobeta-Turnu Severin from its founding until today. There were around 20 images in a roughly estimated scale of 2 meters in length and 1.5 meters in height. This link between the ancient and the new Drobeta I have already mentioned was evident in this image gallery. One of those images was a drawing that referred to the year 105 A.D.: “The Romans build Traian’s Bridge”:

A drawing of Romans building Traian’s Bridge in Drobeta, part of a street gallery next to the fortress, July 2022. Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

Back to the fortress: In the afternoon I was the only visitor. Seeing the Danube in front of me, I enjoyed the view so much, but also being able to look at the other side of the river, to Serbia. I wondered what the panorama must be like from there. Unfortunately, due to logistics, I could not go to the other side of the river.

In the city, the closest I could ever get to the Danube was by walking to the harbor. Being a harbor, it was not really the right place to dip my foot into the water. But finally, I felt that I was in a city which is connected to water. During my time in Drobeta, I was always under the impression that the river was so close, yet so far away. My feeling was not unjustified: The railway line separates the river and the city, and there is no waterfront where one could sit and enjoy a beverage (except at one of the few restaurants that are there).

View from the fortress: a street, a railway, and finally, the Danube. Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

At the harbor, there was only one way to walk, which was to the left. Later I realized that if I had continued to walk this path, I would have ended up at the spot with the remains of Traian’s Bridge. But I never even got this close. Days before, I had asked a local if there was a way to get close to the remains. He told me that while there was one way, it was too dangerous, without specifying what he meant. I asked if the route was unsafe because of people or animals, but he once again claimed it was too dangerous. Since I was not keen to put myself into a potentially life-threatening situation, I listened to him, although I wondered if he would have had the same response if I were a male.

The harbor of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. Photo by Merve Neziroğlu.

My stay in Drobeta ended after a bit more than a week. Back home, as I was looking through my material, I chose to dedicate a blog post to my stay in Drobeta-Turnu Severin, a city I would have probably not ended up otherwise, yet made me experience a lot.


Without a doubt, my time there was very educational, and I am grateful that I was able to conduct my field research in the context of the “Contested Waterway”-project.

[1] When I was talking to them, many locals referred to their city as “Drobeta”, but another short version for the city’s name is “Severin”. For the sake of this blog post, I will stick to the first one.

[2] For more on the history of river regulations at the Lower Danube, see: Luminiţa Gătejel, Engineering the Lower Danube. Technology and International Cooperation in an Imperial Borderland, Budapest: CEU Press, 2022.