From Black to Black
Every day, at three in the afternoon, I make a trip down the Danube. To travel from Germany's Black Forest to Romania's Black Sea takes a matter of minutes, so I try to enjoy myself as much as possible. I sink into a cushy armchair, rev up the stereo and embark on an epic voyage. "Information on the water levels of the Danube River, in centimeters," the familiar voice on Horizont, the Bulgarian National Radio, announces with the deepest solemnity before reading out the relevant hydrographical values, first in Bulgarian and then in Russian and French. Vienna: 310 (+3); Mohács: 415 (+7); Novi Sad: 162 (-13); Vidin: 380 (+40); Giurgiu: 220 (0).
The captains of river vessels can easily map a course on the Internet, but the daily radio bulletin has remained a fixture in my life. For many years, listening to the fluctuations in the water levels of the Danube was the closest I could get to traveling abroad. Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Vienna: these names mesmerized me. Even places like Bratislava and Budapest, comrades in arms against the decadent West, had the ring of myth to a boy growing up in Bulgaria. Remembering his childhood in the Bulgarian river port of Ruschuk (now Ruse), Elias Canetti wrote, "There, the rest of the world was known as 'Europe,' and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna, people said he was going to Europe." If people in Canetti's immediate circle, at the beginning of the twentieth century, still had the occasional opportunity to waltz up to the palaces of the Habsburgs and back, however, the "Europe" I imagined in the 1980s existed only in a galaxy far, far away. To travel up the river as a tourist during the cold war required visas, special permissions, bureaucratic ballast. To swim across it, a negligible distance of a few hundred meters, was to risk both drowning and the bullets of border guards. For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava.
The Danube—or Ister, as the ancient Greeks called it—is a natural highway of nearly 3,000 kilometers. "The greatest of all the rivers which we know," declared Herodotus. "A path for the spirit to follow," wrote Hölderlin, following the footfalls of the Greeks in his hymn "The Ister." Human tribes traveled west against the current, colonizing the core of the continent, gradually shaping it. Before the Americas, there was Europe. The Romans made a few feeble attempts to bring traffic under control by turning the river into the fortified frontier, or limes, of their empire, but without much success. South of the Danube civilization cowered; in the north, the barbarians bided their time.
There is probably no other geographical element of Europe that has absorbed more political weather than the Danube. Unlike the Russian Volga and the Franco-German Rhine, it has served many masters, as a shield or a spear. In 1683, by the walls of Vienna, John III Sobieski and Charles of Lorraine routed the armies of Kara Mustafa, marking the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. Not long thereafter, in 1704, the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy vanquished the Franco-Bavarian alliance at the Battle of Blenheim, an important event in the War of the Spanish Succession. Near the river town of Ulm, Napoleon forced the Austrians to surrender with barely a fight. And Hitler's Drang nach Osten—yearning for the East—had a strong Danubian stink. "Do not forget," the elderly Heinrich Heine wrote to the young Karl Marx, "the difference between water and a river is that the latter has a memory, a past, a history."
It has taken twenty years of European integration for the memories of the cold war to seep away. Quietly meandering across ten countries—Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine—and running softly past more than fifty-five towns and cities, including four capitals, the Danube is once again a major route for trade and tourism, diluting national and political borders and linking numerous shoreline communities into a single organism. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, completed in 1992, allows ships to navigate passage from the North Sea to the Black, chugging through the heart of the continent. The river's delta, with its sprawling network of lagoons and marshes, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and an important bird sanctuary—with its own environmental problems, of course. Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is. And, luckily for me perhaps, the daily radio bulletins on Horizont are no longer my only means of travel.
Traveling the Danube became a fad in 1829. That was the year two Englishmen, John Andrews and Joseph Pritchard, founded the First Danube Steamship Company, which lured scores of elated pleasure seekers. "A motley crowd on board, such perhaps as never met together on the deck of a steam-boat before," wrote the Irish journalist and literary editor Michael Quin about one of those early voyages. Standing among Austrians, Moldavians, Jews, Hungarian nobles and Tyrolean emigrants, he traveled in style down the river from Pest (Budapest) to the Ottoman town of Ruschuk. It was a thrilling but perilous undertaking. Unlike the well-trodden path of the Grand Tour, with its picturesque Parisian streetscapes and Florentine galleries, the Danube offered a wilder ride for people with money and a taste for adventure. Although its waters flowed across half the continent, knowledge of the river was scarce and scattered, especially when it came to portions under Ottoman control. Europe was split in two long before the cold war, and the Danube was the main gateway into its eastern, darker territories. The course of "civilization" had gradually reversed directions.
William Beattie, another of those early steamboat passengers, portrayed that division with typical Victorian bigotry. East of Budapest, he wrote in his 1844 travelogue The Danube, the tourist "feels as if he were taking farewell of civilization, and entering upon a vast primeval desert, where man is still a semi-barbarian; and where the arts by which he converts to his use the natural products of the earth are still in their infancy, or wholly unknown." As far as Beattie was concerned, Eastern Europe might as well have been an island in the middle of the Pacific. Quin was similarly dismayed by the seemingly crude ways of life he encountered but a little bit more optimistic in his vision of the future. He praised "the miracles of the age of steam" and then blithely prophesied, "Those countries, which have hitherto seemed scarcely to belong to Europe, will be rapidly brought within the pale of civilization...and new combinations...will be created, which may give birth to important changes in the distribution of political power on the continent." He was right, of course: steam did alter the political landscape of Eastern Europe. (Could it be that James Watt was personally responsible for the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the whole contemporary history of the continent?) However, Quin's journey down the Danube was also a reassertion of his cultural identity and his sunny view about technological progress. As the historian Larry Wolff pointed out in his seminal work Inventing Eastern Europe, "It was Western Europe that invented Eastern Europe as its complementary other half." And the Danube was the road most inventors took.
So many writers have traveled the Danube that their tributary ink, if channeled into a single stream, would turn the water black. From the Italian naturalist and geographer Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, who professed to have mastered "the anatomy of the river" and then published in 1726 his magisterial six-volume Opus Danubiale, to the contemporary Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy, with his playful travelogue The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube), published in 1991, the outflow of words has been endless. To look for the authentic Danube would be futile, for nobody can describe the same river twice. "It is I who will say what the Danube is," Esterházy's protagonist, the Traveler, insists, as so many others before him have: Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, as well as the odd Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian. For some reason, however, it was the British and a few American explorers, outsiders with ever-roving empirical eyes and an insatiable appetite for the foreign, who frequently attempted to distill the Danube's essence. Some, like Quin and Beattie, were deeply prejudiced against the world they were about to encounter. Others, like the American painter Francis Davis Millet, who paddled downriver in a canoe in 1891, wrote about the local people and their environs with sympathy and understanding. Then there were those who transcended the ranks of mere travelers to join the great writers.
Patrick Leigh Fermor is the best of the lot. In the winter of 1933, at 18, he set out on foot from Rotterdam toward Istanbul—or Constantinople, as his romantic imagination insisted. With just a rucksack on his back and two books in hand—The Oxford Book of English Verse and the poems of Horace—he traversed the better part of the pre-war continent "like a tramp or a pilgrim or a wandering scholar." His trek along the Danube made up only one leg of his amazing odyssey, but it was the most remarkable one. Poring over his maps and trying to decide whether to head for sunny Venice or press farther east, he writes, "Just in time, the windings of the Middle and the Lower Danube began to reassert their claims and the Carpathians and the Great Hungarian Plain and the Balkan ranges and all these mysterious regions which lay between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea brought their rival magnetisms into play. Was I really about to trudge through this almost mythical territory?"