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?"

Like his predecessors' Eastern Europe, Leigh Fermor's was wild and enchanting, a place of literary fantasy. But he also made sure his version surpassed everyone else's in adventure and creativity. He camped with Gypsies, rode a horse across Hungary, played bike-polo, rolled in the hay with ruddy peasant girls and replenished his dwindling supplies by freelancing as a portraitist. Even though he started out a simple backpacker, he soon befriended Danubian aristocrats, who assisted his travels by providing him with letters of introduction to their peers down the road. By Leigh Fermor's own admission, he ended up "strolling from castle to castle, sipping Tokay out of cut-glass goblets and smoking pipes a yard long with archdukes instead of halving gaspers with tramps." Except for a few clouds gathering on the political horizon—the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss and the purge of Hitler's SA rivals during the Night of the Long Knives in the summer of 1934—his journey offered little premonition of the tragedy that was about to unfold. The Danube Valley was still a center of literature and science, a home to hospitable farmers and a vibrant Jewish culture, a place where ethnic and linguistic boundaries easily overlapped. A vast aristocratic network connected each country to its neighbors, and the architectural monuments of Europe—which Leigh Fermor describes in great technical detail, as if to save them from the incendiary bombs of the Luftwaffe and the RAF—were still intact.

What makes Leigh Fermor's descriptions of life along the Danube in the early 1930s so fascinating is not documentary accuracy—George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is a much stronger sociopolitical book from that same period—but his idiosyncratic, highly stylized approach. In two brilliant volumes published about fifty years after the fateful journey, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the much older and more erudite Leigh Fermor exercises with ease his linguistic legerdemain and eidetic memory. (The third volume, which records the last leg of the journey, is eagerly awaited by readers, including the writer of these lines.) Looking back at the lost world of pre-war Europe through an elaborately constructed stereoscope of language, he narrates a gilded, rococo fairy tale. He summons landscapes locked behind the frosted windowpanes of nostalgia: "Imaginary interiors," he calls them. If travel writing is a form of biography, then Leigh Fermor, along with his late disciple Bruce Chatwin, is one of its best contemporary practitioners. In that sense, the Danube is not Europe's but Leigh Fermor's carotid artery.

No account of the river could be complete, however, without at least a cursory glance at what may be the definitive encyclopedia on the subject: Danube (1986), by the Italian journalist and scholar Claudio Magris. While not strictly a travelogue, it offers the finest and most exhaustive journey across the history and culture of the region, from early Roman to late Soviet times. Woven out of a series of meditative vignettes and marvelously written, it is a stream fed by numerous sources that freshen the principal narrative along the way. Magris's Danube is not coiling waters and muddy banks so much as a current of ideas incessantly shaping the intellectual landscape of the continent: geography is intimately connected to history, and the movement through space is also a movement through time. Divisions are less important than continuities, with the river providing the spiritual link between Europe's diverse communities. Unlike most travelers, Magris does not think in binary categories such as East/West but explores the shared cultural affinities created by art, philosophy and politics. And rather than the exotic blandishments of the foreign, his Danube offers the banal flow of the familiar, all too familiar world of Kafka's clerks, where nations resemble one another in their passive, theoretical approach to life, saddled by too much history and learning. "The European spirit feeds on books…gnaws at the volumes of history in the libraries or, like moths, eats into ladies' hats, shawls, and other dainty items of the wardrobe." A direct heir to the old Habsburg Empire, an empire that preferred to "survive" rather than "live," the Danubian Europe Magris traversed in the early 1980s was similarly a place of stasis and decay, without a future, existing in "a state of permanent stalemate": a Europe without qualities.

The strength of Magris's book is also its weakness. When sounding the metaphysical depths of the Danube, describing the grand narratives of history or introducing the ideas of novelists and philosophers, he often forgets that the river is also the home of actual people. With the exception of a few vivid episodes (hunting hares "with a taste for pansies" at Vienna's Central Cemetery; sailing through the scenic delta), his journey remains more cerebral than visceral. And even though the book was initially subtitled A Sentimental Journey From the Source to the Black Sea, there is little of Laurence Sterne's interest in human relations and sympathy for fellow travelers. Magris's Danube remains an abstraction in a dry riverbed. A drink from the fountain of knowledge is a good thing, but it rarely satisfies the reader's thirst.

"Google Earth's detail continued as far as Vienna and then, where the river changed from Upper Danube to Lower, it went impressionistic, turning to Van Goghian swirls and Klee-like spangles of colour," notes the British journalist and travel writer Andrew Eames in Blue River, Black Sea. "Instead of mucky green it became a deep, idealized blue, as if someone in Google's Politburo had given the command that, in the absence of other info, it should be coloured to match the waltz." Tracing the pixilated route of the Danube in preparation for his trip, Eames, without even realizing it, stumbles upon an astonishing discovery: for all its innovative hype, Google has replicated the conventional, nineteenth-century view of European geography. The updated version of Metternich's famous "East of Vienna, the Orient begins" could very well be "East of Vienna, Google Earth ends."

Eames, the author of an acclaimed travelogue, The 8:55 to Baghdad, admits that before embarking on his new adventure he had only the vaguest of notions of the "European Amazon." "For many years," he remarks, "Thailand was far more interesting than Transylvania, and destinations right under our noses, part of our own continent, remained far more foreign to us than many places halfway round the globe." All that changed with the territorial expansion of the European Union. With the flood of Eastern Europeans into Britain "to do our plumbing and loft conversions," there was no longer any way to avoid looking at the other Europe. Eames comes to his material with typical Anglo-centric prejudice—us versus them—but he seems to be doing so with an awareness of his limited point of view. Thus, the trip down the Danube becomes an ablution from ignorance. Or is his innocent curiosity for the native lands of the Immigrants, like that of Michael Quin and William Beattie, another means to reassert his cultural authority by inventing "the New Europe"? When the Berlin Wall came down, he recalls, "the West started to wrap its warm hands around the chilly East." It is an unfortunate metaphor, for it dimly suggests strangulation.

Eames begins his journey on a secondhand bicycle. It appears to be the right choice, at least on the well-paved roads of Germany and Austria. Following the famous Danube Bike Path, the first leg of his tour proves pretty uneventful, with "highly regimented fields of wheat" rolling away from the roadside and the occasional high-speed train zooming past. It is the humdrum German countryside of postcards, but Eames manages to spice things up with humorous, bantering prose. In Ingolstadt, the home of Audi's headquarters, everything seems so neat and tidy that "you could have turned the city upside down and shaken it and nothing would have fallen out."

Nothing is what it seems, however. Europe has changed dramatically, including the river itself. Heavily canalized, with only 30 percent of it free-flowing, it has lost 80 percent of its original flood plain. "From having been a reedy, marshy, wandering, wonderful, amorphous living thing, it has been rendered into straight lines, made far less interesting, and more dangerous, by the hand of man." Scarred by hydroelectric dams, irrigation canals and industrial pollution, the Danube has become more a creature of engineering than a wonder of nature. Eames's interest in the environmental plight of the river is fleeting: he could have expounded on the topic a bit more, but he chooses instead to look at more traditional travel subjects.

Heiligenkreuz Abbey, the renowned twelfth-century Cistercian monastery by the Austrian riverbanks, has cheerfully adopted the ways of the world. Its monks surf the web, watch TV and read novels, while their abbot, Gregor Ulrich von Henckel Donnersmarck (uncle of the Oscar-winning director of the movie The Lives of Others), holds an MBA and regularly makes pronouncements such as "It is important to sell expensive land for development and buy other cheaper land for agriculture." A few spiritual traditions, nonetheless, have been preserved, and Eames's lyrical descriptions are worthy of the occasion: "It was hypnotic to sit in the congregation—there were rarely more than a handful of us—and witness the white-robed community file into the tall, carved-walnut choir stalls, like the ivories taking up their positions on a giant piano keyboard."

The square Danubian aristocracy has its hipper sides as well. A great admirer of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Eames, in emulation, decides to pay a few visits to the castles down the road and check out how the blue bloods are faring. In the German town of Sigmaringen he secures an audience with Prince Karl-Friedrich von Hohenzollern (the House of Hohenzollern is one of Europe's oldest and most respected). Running a steel factory, a ski resort and an investment company for business start-ups, Karl-Friedrich is the good old bourgeois capitalist, far more interested in prices than princesses or cut-glass goblets. As Eames observes, "I had the distinct feeling that he would be happier discussing the state of the Dow Jones index than the life and times of the German aristocracy." The surprises don't end there. On his way out, Eames receives a parting gift: a CD of the jazz band Charly and the Jivemates. On the cover, center stage, wearing snakeskin shoes and a leopardskin jacket, is Charly, aka Prince Karl-Friedrich von Hohenzollern.

Eames dedicates a great part of his book to the lot of the present-day Danubian nobility—there are whole chapters recounting dinners with archdukes and interviews with royal pretenders—but his gawking fascination with the upper classes soon starts to wear on the reader's patience. Tracing Leigh Fermor's footsteps might have seemed like a good idea for a while, but every tribute holds a trap. To put it bluntly, in the twenty-first century nobody gives a brass farthing for the aristocracy. Its members may still parade across the front pages of tabloids, but their lives are happily irrelevant today, despite all the hereditary wealth and eroticized glamour. If one is to discover "the heart of New Europe," one has to look elsewhere. And even though Eames crosses paths with a lumpen crowd during his stay in Vienna (the graffiti artists in the underpasses; the Turkish break dancers by St. Stephen's Cathedral; the "fractured families Skypeing each other in a babel of voices and languages" in seedy Internet cafes), he is too preoccupied with his literary pilgrimage and far too removed from youth and immigrant cultures to make sense of the new world he is inhabiting. The main strength of Leigh Fermor's work is its freewheeling, uncharted nature, taking life as it comes; Eames, for all his desire to imitate his predecessor, just won't let himself go.

Upon entering what were once the westernmost feeding grounds of the Soviet leviathan, Slovakia and Hungary, Eames loses the last of his cultural moorings. With no knowledge of the local languages and with only the flimsiest grasp of the region's history and customs (he is certainly no Claudio Magris), he appears pretty lost. From all the varieties of worldly experience Budapest offers, he chooses some flashy downtown cafes and the company of English-speaking aristocrats, who fill him in on the horrors of communism. Based on such brief encounters and perhaps a few historical overviews, Eames attempts to reconstruct a picture of what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain but then fails to move beyond the clichés that demonize the former regimes as supreme evil. For all its blood-spattered sins, communism in Eastern Europe was hardly Miltonic: it was a drab, mediocre, secondhand dictatorship.

After a rather tedious horseback ride across the Great Hungarian Plain—again in emulation of Leigh Fermor, but now under the guidance of a tourist agency—the journey finally takes a more intimate turn. In Serbian "cowboy country," Eames travels on a barge carrying a cargo of china clay down the Danube. The Argo, with its charismatic and colorful three-person crew of former Yugoslavs, is a smaller version of Melville's Pequod. It also offers an optimistic view of a place ravaged by so many wars in the 1990s. "You write this in your book, Mr. Andrew," the captain instructs the author, "Me, Captain Attila, a Hungarian Serb, first mate Vlado, a Serb Serb, and engineer Ivica, a Croatian. Hungarian, Serb, Croatian work together no problem. One happy family, see?" Sailing with a local crew, just another deckhand among them, Eames gets to know their quirks, their opinions, their lives. As it happens, upon a closer examination, political allegiances are still unwavering, and memories still raw. Passing by Vukovar, the first city racked by the Yugoslav conflicts, Eames makes the following observation: "All three crew of the Argo—the Serb, the Croat and the Hungarian—were in the bridge as we came abreast of the ruin [of the church], and they deliberately avoided looking at it or commenting on it, gazing downriver instead." It is an important moment because, despite all the official pan-European optimism, it shows that the ghosts of the continent are still stirring, and one needs only to take a trip down the Danube to hear them howl.

Toward the end of his journey, Eames takes a short detour from the river to walk the fields and woods of Romania's Transylvania (in the footsteps of Leigh Fermor again), but this time his decision proves fortunate. There are moments of real beauty here: a rural family working the fields, "the father scything a poor crop, the children tumbling over one another in his wake, and the mother raking and stacking"; a village full of old men in black felt hats, "chain-smoking, waiting for nothing"; and, most bizarre, out in the Transylvanian countryside, on a hill famous for its aphrodisiac powers, there stands "a heart-shaped fountain decorated with a massive wooden penis."

But this landscape of primal, bucolic charm is being altered by forces more modern and less benign. A Canadian mining company is hoping to use dangerous cyanide technologies to extract gold. A nearby river has become "a conveyor-belt of used packaging" tossed aside by reckless picnickers. Everywhere, underneath the delightful surface of things, lurks environmental devastation. Once the most backward and inaccessible of all the Eastern European states, along with Bulgaria, Romania has climbed out into the open; and while the political system may have democratized, helter-skelter market liberalization and a culture of unbridled consumption have also destroyed the sense of shared (natural) space and community upon which every democratic system depends. "The net result was a local ecological disaster," Eames writes. "The litter-lined river became an emblem of Romania's new freedom and its new purchasing power: 'I am free, therefore I choose to throw my empty can of Carlsberg into the Somesul Rece.' And who was I to criticize? The likes of my country, after all, were the ones who persuaded them to buy the cans of Carlsberg in the first place." These are some of the strongest pages in the book because they resist easy slogans and show the other, dirtier heart of the continent, often ignored by official histories. The great changes of 1989 might have brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, Eames suggests, but it has been the freedom that comes from the sudden bursting of a dam wall, the waters inundating everything on their way downstream. There is a reason people still follow radio bulletins on the water levels of the Danube.

At the very end of his travels, gazing upon the Danube's delta from the Romanian town of Sulina, Eames muses, "When does a journey like this finally end?" Then, with a bit of melancholy, he provides the answer to his question: "I'd come to a stop at sullen Sulina simply because there was nowhere further to go." In 2010 the countries from the Black Forest to the Black Sea have been reunited under the banner of capitalism, but it seems that even this New Europe has limits. Despite its numerous flaws, Blue River, Black Sea finally does what every decent travelogue must do: it tells a true story that nobody believes is true.