Simanaitis Says

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THE BEST travel books offer historical nuggets and personal insights as well as trip details. Nick Thorpe’s The Danube is a fine example.


The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest, by Nick Thorpe, Yale University Press, 2013.

Why upriver? Thorpe says he’s following a “steady procession of migrants and traders, soldiers and adventurers who travelled in my direction, up the Danube, in search of a better life.”


The Danube starts in western Germany and empties into the Black Sea. These and other images from The Danube.

In this regard, Thorpe offers a historical nugget new to me. I think of the Celts as 1st millennium A.D. inhabitants of what became Britain and Ireland. However, long before this, c. 800 B.C., late-Bronze-age Celts enjoyed the thermal waters of central Hungary and other sites in eastern Europe. Expansion of the Roman Empire peaked around 100 A.D., by which time the Celts had moved up the Danube, eventually into western Europe.

Thorpe, a Brit living in Hungary for years, also has appreciation for environmental aspects of the Danube. Both for good and bad, dams and power stations punctuate the Danube’s length, variously described as 2840, 2845 or 2779 km. Geography of the Danube Delta into the Black Sea gives these varied figures, each more than 1700 miles.


A lighthouse in Sulina on the Black Sea marks the Danube’s kilometer zero. A statue celebrates its source near the Black Forest in western Germany.

Another tidbit came in the term “meander,” not just the verb describing a wandering and possibly aimless movement, but also the noun: A meander is a purposely diverted channel of water around a dam or other impediment; its purpose, to give fish and waterfowl means of migration and propagation.

Gravel is crucial in meander construction and river restoration. Fish eggs survive a lot better in gravel than in sterile concrete. Says Thorpe, a “contrast of the dead mud of a storage lake and the living gravel of the shallow, unharnessed, or restored shores of the river resonates through my journey.”

Beavers also play an important role in the formation of Danube ecological balance. Their own dam-building and foraging transform the meanders into habitats for other animals. Some years ago, beavers were reintroduced along the Donau, as the Danube is known in German. “Now,” Thorpe notes, “there are so many of them they are exported all over Europe, to forests where they are needed.”

Some of the Danube’s history is ancient indeed. For example, the Vinča culture of the late Neolithic, around 6000 B.C., appeared suddenly, “as if they stepped off a plane,” Thorpe is told. Whatever their origins, the Vinča brought the magic of working copper. Nearly two thousand years later, they disappeared as abruptly.

A more familiar tale concerns Richard the Lionhearted of England, imprisoned in the castle of Dürnstein in 1192 as a result of Third Crusade squabbles with Leopold V, Duke of Austria. In legend, the bard Blondel searched for Richard by roaming along the Danube while singing Richard’s favorite ballad. Richard heard Blondel from his Dürnstein dungeon and responded with the ballad’s next lyric.

A charming tale, but, in fact, Richard’s location was well known. A ransom of silver (around 77,000 lb. of it!) was paid for his release.

Conflicts among differing cultures have continued to this day. For example, Thorpe hears mixed memories of communism, its social safety net as well as its oppression. The Bosnian War, 1992 – 1995, exemplifies conflicts among Muslims and Christians, the latter further split into Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

Many Europeans have a love affair with the American Wild West, but I never understood why until Thorpe’s mention of Karl May. Though he never visited the Wild West, May invented Apache Chief Winnetou and his German blood-brother Old Shatterhand, this heroic duo appearing in 24 novels first published in Germany between 1880 and 1910.


Karl Friedrich May, 1842 – 1912, German writer of American Wild West adventures.

Thorpe observes, “In central and eastern Europe, children in playgrounds to this day choose to be Indians, largely thanks to Karl May, while their peers in western Europe mostly want to be cowboys.”

A Danube/Donau recollection of mine comes from the river’s passing through the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, home of automaker Audi. In 1979, I visited this Bavarian locale as part of the Audi 4000 press introduction.


The christening of an Audi 4000 in sainted waters of the Donau. Image from R&T, July 1979.

During the ride-and-drive, a colleague and I christened the car with a dip into the Donau. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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