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."