The Danube: A Cultural History

The Danube: A Cultural History

The Danube: A Cultural History

The Danube: A Cultural History

Synopsis

The Danube is the longest river in western and central Europe. Rising amidst the beautiful wooded hills of Germany's Black Forest, it touches or winds its way through ten countries and four capital cities before emptying into the Black Sea through a vast delta whose silt-filled channels spread across eastern Romania. From earliest times, the river has provided a route from Europe to Asia that was followed by armies and traders, while empires, from the Macedonian to the Habsburg, rose and fell along its length. Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, the Danube took on the role of a watery thread that unified a continent divided by the Iron Curtain. In the late 1980s the Iron Curtain lifted but the Danube valley soon became an arena for conflict during the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Now, passing as it does through some of the world's youngest nations, including Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the river is a tangible symbol of a new, peaceful, and united Europe as well as a vital artery for commercial and leisure shipping. Andrew Beattie explores the turbulent past and vibrant present of the landscape through which the Danube flows, where the enduring legacies of historical regimes from the Romans to the Nazis have all left their mark.

Excerpt

The sentiment is right, of course; but cartographers and geographers would seek to disagree with these words written by Napoleon. The Danube may be the prince of European rivers, but, unfortunately for poets, writers and romantics, it is not the king. That title belongs to the Volga, the great river of western Russia that drains into the Caspian Sea and is a full 500 miles longer than the Danube, Europe’s second longest river (and the 25th longest in the world). Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the most famous writers associated with the Danube, remarked that the Volga is “almost too far away to count” when faced with this unarguable but uncomfortable fact of geography. For, in popular imagination at least, the Danube is Europe’s longest river. And even if the Danube’s length does not make it top class, its historical, artistic and literary associations more than compensate: for no other river in the world can match the Danube for the sheer historical richness of the cities and landscapes through which it passes.

Over a course of 1,777 miles, from its source in Germany’s Black Forest to its delta on the Romanian and Ukrainian shores of the Black Sea, the river forms a backdrop to momentous historical events that stretch from the foundation of the earliest Mesolithic settlements in Europe to the Nato bombing of the former Yugoslavia. Empires have risen and fallen along its length, as the Macedonians, the Romans, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans and the Nazis have all fought for control of land through which the river passes. Myth and reality have blended along the river to form a cocktail of legend: Jason and the Argonauts were supposed to have sailed along its reaches, as were the characters in the epic medieval poem The Song of the Nibelungs.

Forming a background to these legends and stories is some of the most spectacular river scenery anywhere in the world: from cavernous gorges to vast plains, from snow-bound forested valleys to marshes that teem with an extraordinary variety of birdlife. The variety of the landscapes through which the Danube flows matches that of its historical and cultural legacy; not surprisingly, the river has been a source of inspiration for cultural . . .

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