There isn't much snow on the ground and there is no ice in the river yet. Nevertheless, the nights are frosty in Periprava, a remote and seemingly forgotten Romanian village in the Danube Delta.
Periprava lies in a forgotten corner of the country, right up against the old border with the Soviet Union. Every other day, a ferry crosses the river from the Ukrainian side, passing the rusty skeletons of ships, the onion-shaped domes of Orthodox churches and abandoned observation posts. Periprava, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the spot where the northern branch of the Danube empties into the Black Sea, is the last stop on the ferry route.
The village consists of a few dozen squat-looking houses made of dried mud with reed roofs. The children playing in the streets are Lipovans, the blonde, blue-eyed descendants of so-called Old Believers, dissenters from the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church who fled persecution in Czarist Russia over 200 years ago. Three kilometers from the village outskirts, between the crumbling walls of old barracks, lies the winterized "Last Border" Hotel.
The building looks nondescript from the outside, but inside it has been renovated to the standards of a four-star hotel. It represents a new beginning in this remote corner of Romania. Beginning this spring, the management intends to attract sport fishermen, ornithologists and adventurous tourists from far and wide in the hope of revitalizing the region, which lies in the midst of a unique natural environment. However, the guests will have to get used to the idea of staying in rooms that, until 1977, housed the office of the commandant of the Periprava Labor and Prison Camp.
"0830 Periprava" was a feared address among political prisoners in the Stalinist Romania of Dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Exposed to scorching heat and swarms of mosquitoes in the summer and icy winds in the winter, they vegetated here in brick-walled, 24-square-meter (260-square-foot) pens that held up to 160 men each. They spent their days cutting reeds and building dams, ate porridge and drank water from the Danube.
The weak died of dysentery, and prisoners who were unable to fulfill the daily quota of eight thick bundles of reeds were beat unconscious by guards wielding rubber clubs. More than 100 bodies of the nameless dead are buried in the village cemetery. Forty-two prisoners died during the winter of 1959/1960 alone, exactly half a century ago.
The path from the former gulag leads along the Danube and across a dike. Sylvain Remetter, a native of the French region of Alsace, lives in the last house on the edge of the village. Stranded here seven years ago, he decided to awaken Periprava from its post-communist slumber with a plan to develop a back-to-nature resort with the barracks of the former gulag as a backdrop.
Remetter is a lean man, close to 50, a youngish-looking jetsetter with a penchant for expensive casual wear. In Periprava, a fishing village, he sticks out like a flamingo among gray herons.