By Nick Thorpe, a BBC East and Central European correspondent who has lived in Budapest for more than 25 years. Subtitle of this book is “a journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest”—in Bavaria, home of Danube’s the headwaters, a spring in the town of Donaueschingen. The Danube, queen of rivers, runs through and along the borders of ten countries of Western and Central Europe—Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany—the middle six of which I’ve visited. In one brief stretch, it passes through four nations’ capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. And through great swaths of sparsely populated countryside, known mainly to birds and watermen.
Thorpe’s travelogue-cum-history lesson-cum natural history exploration ranges widely and freely over this vast geographic and intellectual territory. In part his story is told through the wars and occupations, the conquests and lost empires that have shaped the region over thousands of years, and in part through his warm-hearted stories of individual men and women who still depend on the river as neighbor and provider today. Ways of life that withstood centuries of disruption have been torn apart by modern improvements—hydroelectric dams, locks, canals, diversions, “straightening.”
Though Thorpe understands the motives behind these changes, his heart is on the side of the scattered environmentalists who are trying to restore the natural flow of the river and, here and there, to nudge it back into its old, meandering course. Efforts to do so have led to a resurgence of wildlife and an elevation of spirit among those who perceive a river as a living thing, moving and changing, mile by mile, as Thorpe’s book so eloquently shows.