Sailing the Danube

I am drifting along somewhere between Budapest and Vienna. Although only mid-morning, the water lapping against the boat is lulling me to sleep. We float on birdsong, and in the distance I can hear a dog barking.

The Danube is indeed a mighty river. At the moment it is more a muddy brown than blue; although I have had nothing but sunshine, it has been raining in Germany and the waters are sweeping down towards the Black Sea. Last night the river rose some 2 metres. Flood plains stretch to either side, and already the river nears the tree-line; it would not take much more for the river to sweep over the banks and flood the plains.

After passing Bratislava in Slovakia, the forests return. For a while there are fields of canola, golden yellow against the green. Wind turbines fill another stretch, turning lazily in the breeze, birds darting through the blades. Hawks and buzzards hover over freshly ploughed fields.

Now the boat has reached Austria, and a large stretch of forest runs along either bank. For a while there is nothing but trees; then I spy small bird and deer watching houses dotted every few hundred metres or so. Soon they are replaced by tiny wooden shacks complete with a wind turbine, all set for a weekend away. They are raised on stilts to guard against flooding. Most have nets hanging out the front, ready for a lazy afternoon of fishing.

Every now and then the river branches to one side. Ducks and waterfowl are everywhere, along with white swan (for me, a novelty; I am so used to black ones). The longer we cruise the more I come to understand the importance of this river. For so long it proved a natural barrier, with Romans on one side, Huns on the other. At Budapest the Danube was almost impossible to cross unless the waters froze. The river rushed by, carelessly carrying fallen logs and trees in its path. It was a natural highway, but to sail against the tide must have been incredibly hard, if not nigh impossible. I'm guessing horses were used to pull barges against the current.

Now the Danube is (almost) controlled with numerous locks. These are incredible pieces of engineering; sheer walls of concrete, with gates strong enough to hold back the water. The world grows dark as the boat sits inside, a few mere centimetres separated wall and vessel. Stillness and darkness, and then we start to rise (for we are going upstream). The far gate then opens, and the boat sails on. For a while we sail above the plains, the levy banks keeping the waters at bay.

Soon there will be castles, and more castles, abbeys, cathedrals, and medieval towns galore. The crew call that stretch castle ping-pong. For the moment, however, I'm more than content to sit on the balcony and watch the forests and wetlands drift by.


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