The Danube River: History, Culture and Wine
Nothing introduces you better to the delights of Austria than a trip down the Danube, where its banks are rich in history, cultural treasures and sunlit vineyards.
Winding its way through Austria along 350 kilometres (217 miles), the Danube has created one of Europe’s most beautiful cultural landscapes. Between Passau and Bratislava, the river flows through Upper- and Lower Austria as well as Vienna. Along the way, it seems to not only connect regions and provinces but different time periods as well as any perceived cultural differences.
So, just a few more steps, then you can see it. Past the trees over there, to the viewing platform, then take a deep breath. Take the camera out of the backpack. What a view! As if a painter had combined all the world’s most beautiful sights into one magnificent image - that’s how the Danube presents itself below. It appears in the distance, flows towards us, then turns around a perfectly symmetrical bend only to disappear again in the background of this stunning nature panorama. If a movie director were to present such a scene, you’d doubt its authenticity and think it was digitally enhanced - that a real landscape can never look this perfect. Yes, it can.
The “Schlögener Schlinge'' is the most famous bend of the Danube and one of nature’s true masterpieces. A result of wind and water working together over the span of a few millennia. And the Danube itself is - many things in one. At 2.888 km (1,794 miles), it is Europe’s second-longest river. It is also very international: From its source in the Schwarzwald (Black Forrest) to its delta in the Black Sea, the Danube flows through ten different countries.
It is also the only river whose length is counted from source to delta and the only one in Europe which flows from West to East. For Austria, the Danube is first and foremost a life source. Even though only 350 km (217 mi) run through the “Land by the River.”
Most people associate Austria with mountains, even though the Danube has had a much bigger impact on the development of the country. Romans used the river as a waterway, and goods, as well as different ideas and world views, entered the region via the Danube. A mild microclimate and fertile soils created by the river attracted early settlers.
They built fortifications and founded villages. Constructed palaces and planned cities. Created a cultural landscape that is unique in its form. When you drive through the Innviertel, the Wachau or the Kremstal today, you can’t help but think that everything was arranged by an invisible hand to form a great big Gesamtkunstwerk: hills, villages, apricot orchards and vineyards, woods and fields, and the Danube at the heart of it all. Religious and god-fearing people, too, felt the harmony that the river exudes. They came early and built many monasteries – Engelszell, Wilhering, Klosterneuburg. Perhaps the banks of the Danube made them feel a little bit closer to heaven.
Is anyone surprised that artists feel inspired by the Danube? The river is the subject of countless paintings and poems, and there are probably more folk tales about the Danube than the river has bends. In the early 19th century, painters packed their easels and moved to the meadows of the Wachau, like Emil Jakob Schindler or Robert Russ. Egon Schiele grew up in Tulln, Oskar Kokoschka in Pöchlarn on the southern banks of the Danube.
Joseph Haydn and Ignaz Joseph Pleyel were under the river’s spell. Johann Strauss composed an anthem in three-quarter time, which is perhaps the most famous Waltz of all: “An der schönen blauen Donau“ (The Blue Danube): Austria’s secret national anthem and the melody that starts the New Year for the entire country. Known worldwide and recognized by most after just a few bars The Blue Danube waltz has even made it into space - as the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s „2001 – A Space Odyssey."
Past and present merge in subtle ways - another charming aspect of the Austrian Danube region. It never takes more than a few minutes to time-travel from the here and now to a long bygone era. Romans left traces at the Favianis settlement in Mautern or the Roman city Carnuntum. The once-mighty Dürnstein Castle is now a still impressive ruin, and it does not take much imagination to picture Richard the Lionheart as a prisoner behind its walls.
The Benedictine Abbey Stift Melk instantly fascinates: perhaps the most beautiful Baroque building in the entire country has long been a UNESCO-World Cultural Heritage Site. Sooner or later, one also comes across the story of Sissi, as Empress Elisabeth is still lovingly called, and how she travelled to Linz on a steamboat to greet her Franz Joseph before the wedding. That was the most glorious time in the Danube’s history: it connected the two Habsburg metropolises, Vienna and Budapest. And it gave the Danube Monarchy its name.
The Danube region and its various landscapes are still the heart and soul of Austria. In total, the region only covers about 15 per cent of the country, but it houses more than half of its eight million people. The Danube region with the capital city Vienna is also the economic motor of the country.
All this does not seem to concern the river much. Eras passed, change accelerated, but the Danube has remained the same. The same way the river blurs the boundaries between centuries, it also connects other things without effort: Haydn’s string quartets with the pulsating rhythms of the Ars-Electronica-Festival in Linz, the opulence of Baroque monasteries with the reduced architecture of the Paneum in Asten, an exquisite dinner at a Gault-Millau restaurant with a simple yet delicious cold meal at a Gasthof, trails for e-mountain bikes with a romantic river cruise under the command of a “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän“.
„Do you recall that night in June upon the Danube River?“ the British poet Charles A. Aïdé wrote in his poem „Danube River“, „We listened to the ländler-tune. We watched the moonbeams quiver.“
The Danube has always been a place of longing, it is part of its nature. Seldom wild and never unpredictable, it flows along quietly and sometimes even reverently, as if it wanted to soothe anyone who took the trouble to seek out her banks. This is part of the reason why people have always been drawn to the river. In the mid-19th century, the Viennese liked to rent the boats of Danube fishermen to explore its side-arms. Soon the Danube became a popular summer destination and that hasn’t changed. Visitors e-bike on the Danube bike trail, hike the Donausteig hiking trail or travel the Route of Emperors & Kings. Or just relax at a beach right by the river.
Then you find yourself looking over the water, a glass of wine from the Wachau and a fresh slice of farmers bread with cheese in hand, watching time go by. Whenever a ship glides past, waves ripple the water and gently break on the shore. The first one a bit louder, the second and third a bit less so. If you listen closely, you might be excused for thinking they do so in three-quarter time.