Even before the expansion of the Roman Empire, the river was an important way to move cargo, like salt, furs and other goods, and passengers though the region. Centuries of use as a trade route prepared the way for today’s Danube River cruise. Today, in addition to navigation and transport, the Danube provides drinking water for about 10 million people. Danube cruise travelers will see not only a beautiful river but a working one as well.
The River’s Many Names
Oddly enough, the waterway is not called “Danube” in any of the countries through which it runs. In German, it is the Donau; in Czech, the Dunaj; in Hungarian, the Duna and so forth. Worshipping a god of the same name, the ancient Romans called the waterway Danubius. All these names derive from the Celtic word danu, which means “to flow” or “to run.”
Along the Water
One-third of the Danube’s total length is in Hungary; Hungary’s capital, Budapest, is often called “the Queen of the Danube.” From the water on a cruise, the city is particularly spectacular at night, with lights illuminating Budapest’s Chain Bridge, Parliament Building and other famous structures. The waterway is also a major artery in Austria, with ports at Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Melk and Vienna. The river is quite scenic, featuring the Iron Gate, where it flows through a gorge that forms part of the boundary between Serbia and Romania, and the picturesque Wachau wine valley near Melk, Austria. The Wachau Valley is renowned not only for its natural beauty but also for its widely praised Riesling and Veltiner wines. Though ruggedly beautiful, the Iron Gate is naturally a very dangerous section of the Danube River to navigate. Its powerful rapids prevented Greek sailors in the seventh century B.C. from progressing further when sailing up from the Black Sea. The Iron Gate was made safe for a Danube River cruise with technologies such as a lock and dam system and barrage walls, but it is still gloriously scenic.
Art and Music
The waterway has inspired countless musicians and artists through the years. It was immortalized in the famous waltz, The Blue Danube, composed by Austrian Johann Strauss on a cruise down the river. This piece is enormously popular throughout the world and is particularly cherished in Austria. Another famous waltz is The Waves of the Danube by Romanian composer Ion Ivanovici—a sensation at the 1889 Paris Exposition. The late jazz musician Joe Zawinul wrote a symphony called Stories of the Danube, first performed at Linz in 1993. There is a 500-year-old German landscape painting tradition called “the Danube school.” The beautiful landscapes and expressive figures of this circle of painters in the early sixteenth century capture some of the enchantment that can be experienced on a Danube River cruise.
The Main–Danube Canal
Throughout history, mankind has tried to alter the course of Europe’s major rivers. Twelve hundred years ago, Charlemagne dreamed of connecting the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers into one watercourse between the North Sea and the Black Sea. Though a connecting trench was created, the challenges of construction at this early point in history as well as the upheaval of wars and other events delayed the achievement of Charlemagne’s goal. In 1992, this dream was realized with the opening of the Main-Danube Canal. This 106-mile-long canal created a 2,200-mile-long waterway which passes through 15 countries and unites hundreds of inland ports. While the Canal is an artificial waterway, it by no means detracts from the natural beauty around it. In fact, very few passing through it on a cruise can detect that it is not an organic element of the landscape. Natural splendor and engineering marvels combine to create the Danube’s unique majesty.