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The Danube

The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest

Nick Thorpe
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Danube
    Book Description:

    The magnificent Danube both cuts across and connects central Europe, flowing through and alongside ten countries: Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany. Travelling its full length from east to west, against the river's flow, Nick Thorpe embarks on an inspiring year-long journey that leads to a new perspective on Europe today. Thorpe's account is personal, conversational, funny, immediate, and uniquely observant-everything a reader expects in the best travel writing.

    Immersing himself in the Danube's waters during daily morning swims, Thorpe likewise becomes immersed in the histories of the lands linked by the river. He observes the river's ecological conditions, some discouraging and others hopeful, and encounters archaeological remains that whisper of human communities sustained by the river over eight millennia. Most fascinating of all are the ordinary and extraordinary people along the way-the ferrymen and fishermen, workers in the fields, shopkeepers, beekeepers, waitresses, smugglers and border policemen, legal and illegal immigrants, and many more. For readers who anticipate their own journeys on the Danube, as well as those who only dream of seeing the great river, this book will be a unique and treasured guide.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18224-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. Plates
    (pp. None)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. x-xii)
  6. INTRODUCTION. The Lips of the Danube
    (pp. xiii-xxi)

    Histria. A thin column of smoke leans inland from its roots among the reeds. The sharp north-easterly breeze brings tears to my eyes. There’s a flicker of flame; I can just see the heads of two men above the reeds, beside their fire. Two small fishing boats pass northwards up the coast, like racehorses, side by side. Their bows cut the rough grey surf. There are twin figures in the stern, one in the bow. Are the men by the fire fishermen, come ashore to cook, or reed cutters, who have reached the end of the world? Has the mariner...

  7. [Map]
    (pp. xxii-xxii)
  8. CHAPTER 1 The Beginning of the World
    (pp. 1-14)

    The Sturgeon, Radu Suciu tells me, is an armoured fish. Images of long-nosed whiskery crusaders, underwater knights in full armour battling up the bed of the muddy Danube, wild-eyed through their visors, propelled by iron flippers, crowd my mind. What he means is that it doesn’t have skin and a long, thin backbone, like most other fish; this is a fish which is all cartilage, a bundle of muscles, a masterpiece of design.

    We are sitting in Radu’s office at the Danube Delta Research Centre in Tulcea, the main delta town in Romania, surrounded by jars of pickled fish, mountains...

  9. CHAPTER 2 The Kneeling Oak
    (pp. 15-36)

    The Boat from Tulcea down the Sulina arm of the Danube delta is packed with people and goods. Sacks of oats for the horses of Sulina, nappies for its babies, Greek oranges, Spanish tomatoes, Bolivian bananas, but above all people. Ladies with flowered headscarves, anchored to the deck with shopping bags, two narrow-hipped teenage girls on their way to visit their grandmother, middle-aged lovers making a new start, gazing into the wake of the boat, but most of all an army of chiselled-faced men, brooding over the stern in their Baltic-blue workers’ jackets, smoking in silent clusters on the deck....

  10. CHAPTER 3 Mountains of the Fathers
    (pp. 37-59)

    South of Tulcea on the road to Constanţa is the town of Babadag. There are woods, unusual for the bare, rolling landscape of Dobrogea, fresh water springs, a hotel and restaurant with a rather Turkish feel, and the oldest mosque in Romania. The Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk got here before I did, and wrote a book calledThe Road to Babadag,² but his book is about his journey there, not his arrival.

    In my suitcase I carry an old, red hardback copy ofThe Travels of Ibn Battuta, an Islamic traveller of the fourteenth century. He reached Babadag in 1332...

  11. CHAPTER 4 The Colour of the River
    (pp. 60-75)

    In the delta the Danube was green, unwinding like a whole family of snakes from the grey-brown of the winter foliage on its banks. Then upriver it was grey, absorbing and reflecting the March sky and the cities of Galaţi and Brăila on its banks. In Cernavodă it is black – the name means ‘black water’.

    Two black figures sit on the grass in front of Reactor Hall Zero at the Cernavodă nuclear power station. The woman’s right knee is raised, while her left foot is doubled back, under her bottom. Her hands rest delicately on her raised knee, and her...

  12. CHAPTER 5 The Dogs of Giurgiu
    (pp. 76-91)

    On a wide meadow, a headland overlooking a sweeping bend in the Danube, just before the Romanian–Bulgarian border at Silistra, I catch sight of a man striding purposefully beside a line of blue and yellow beehives, evenly spaced like floats on a net across the river. From a distance he looks like a giant. As I walk towards him, he seems to shrink to only a little more than my own height. Standing in front of him, shaking his hand, I notice that he has two or three bee-stings on his face.

    ‘Our first child was born about the...

  13. [Map]
    (pp. 92-92)
  14. CHAPTER 6 Gypsy River
    (pp. 93-113)

    Thirty kilometres west of Ruse, the first poppies of spring grow beside the architect Kolyo Ficheto’s bridge across the Yantra river, which flows down to the Danube from the Stara Planina mountains. To the north, the Danube is fed by the Olt and the Jiu rivers flowing down from the Carpathians. Barn swallows dart beneath the ten handsome stone arches of Ficheto’s bridge, and the wavy, broken line built into the stone beneath the parapet gives a sense of movement, a nod towards the majesty of the river flowing beneath it. This was Kolyo Ficheto’s trademark, imprinted on almost all...

  15. CHAPTER 7 River of Dreams
    (pp. 114-135)

    Ahmed Engur was born on the island of Ada Kaleh, in the middle of the snakelike zig-zag the river performs after breaking through the confines of the Iron Gates. He fell in love and was married there in 1967 to an island girl, the year before the island was destroyed. His father came from Bosnia.

    ‘Ada Kaleh was a beautiful place. I remember the fruits best of all . . . and the floods; the streets were often under water in spring . . . Even now I dream I go to the island by boat, set foot on it,...

  16. CHAPTER 8 River of Fire
    (pp. 136-155)

    The Muscular fortress of Golubac squats on the Danube shore, the pride of kings and sultans, its ten towers crumbling into oblivion. The castles at Golubac, Ram and Smederevo are like studs on the soldier’s belt of the Danube below Belgrade. In wealthier, better organised countries, these would be jewels to which domestic and foreign tourists would flock for a taste of worlds gone by. Instead, the Danube shore in Serbia is neglected, the glory of ageing anglers, kids swimming in their underpants, and locals who either cannot afford to follow the caravan to the Adriatic coast each summer – or...

  17. [Map]
    (pp. 156-156)
  18. CHAPTER 9 The Black Army
    (pp. 157-172)

    The Clock tower in the castle at Petrovaradin, the fortress on the right bank of the Danube in Novi Sad, has four wide faces, so that those on ships passing on the river below can always tell the time. The Danube cuts a long, pensive meander through the city, as though uncertain whether to stop for the night or move on. The little tower reminds me of the lighthouse in Sulina at the start of my journey. The big hand has three white grapes, the little hand two, against the black of the clock. There’s a golden globe on the...

  19. CHAPTER 10 Smoke, Ash and a Tale or Two
    (pp. 173-194)

    The 07:56 intercity train from Budapest reaches Pécs in the south of the country, close to the Croatian border, at 10.32. Then there are two short hops, first to Villány, famous for its red wines, then to Mohács, arriving at 12.15. It’s September, and my journey up the Danube has arrived at an interesting stage. I’ve reached the country which has been my home for half my lifetime: Hungary. I’ve decided to travel this leg of the journey by bicycle, to get a new perspective on a country whose language I speak and which I think I know well.


  20. CHAPTER 11 The Wind in the Willows
    (pp. 195-219)

    My back takes a long time to heal. My daydream of finishing the journey by bicycle all the way to Donaueschingen has to be abandoned. All the men in my hospital ward have back injuries, and are in a much worse condition than I am. Three were in bike accidents, one fell off a ladder. Each day we hear the helicopter, bringing spinal injury cases from all over the country. Every evening the nurses bring our painkillers. It’s a Darwinist democracy – the most able man in each ward gets to hobble out, and plead with the nurses on behalf of...

  21. [Map]
    (pp. 220-220)
  22. CHAPTER 12 Danube Fairytales
    (pp. 221-244)

    The Nasch market in Vienna is a double line of stalls, like the floats of a fisherman’s net, but the net itself is lost in the depths of the River Wien which gave the city its name, then disappeared beneath its streets. There’s the Theater an der Wien on the corner, to remind market-goers that they are walking on water. The market, like most of Vienna, is far from the Danube, which bypasses the city like a cruise ship in the night. It was named after the ash wood containers in which the milk once sold here was stored. It...

  23. CHAPTER 13 Oh Germany, Pale Mother
    (pp. 245-262)

    I have to reach the concentration camp before it closes at five, and as I drive up the road from the Danube past the granite quarries, I realise I’m not going to make it. The irony is not easily dismissed; I’m rushing to get to a place which 200,000 people would have given anything to get out of. I want to see Mauthausen in Austria before I reach Germany.

    Digging through the past or present of any people is like sifting through the garden of a house in a small provincial town. One finds jagged edges of glass and concrete,...

  24. CHAPTER 14 The Tailor of Ulm
    (pp. 263-270)

    Ulm is the last city before the source of the Danube. I arrive in the evening with nowhere to stay, and wander enchanted through this old town of fishermen and boat-builders. Down by the water’s edge is a labyrinth of houses leaning into the River Blau. I ask for a room in the most ancient, most beamed, most leaning house I can find, which looks like the stern of a battleship from the Spanish Armada. No space. I would probably need to book it years in advance. But Ulm is so beautiful, I wouldn’t mind if I have to sleep...

  25. AFTERWORD. A Kind of Solution
    (pp. 271-272)

    The next morning I wake early in the Hotel zur Linde, walk out into the sunshine, and buy a local newspaper to devour with my toast, in the black and white breakfast room. A headline in theStuttgarter Zeitungannounces the centenary of Karl May’s death, at the age of seventy, on 30 March 1912.² May was the German poet of the American Wild West, without ever going there in person. He taught himself to write during spells in prison for petty theft, and created two of the most endearing characters in German fiction: Old Shatterhand, the German emigrant to...

  26. Notes
    (pp. 273-283)
  27. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 284-287)
  28. Index
    (pp. 288-302)