Along with mountain ranges and oceans, rivers are the signature features of our mental maps of the world. Many of us can visualize the Amazon, Mississippi, or Nile, though we may not have seen them, and reading Nick Thorpe’s travel memoir The Danube will add Europe’s greatest river to that mental list. Thorpe, a longtime BBC correspondent, crafts precise, evocative prose and has a reporter’s gift for what makes a story. He makes the uncommon choice to trek upstream, against the flow of both the Danube and most other accounts of it, letting readers share the sense of drama Thorpe himself clearly feels:
. . . many travel-book writers emerge from coffee shops in Furtwangen and Donaueschingen, gorged on Black Forest gateaux, to follow the route downstream, with growing apprehension as they reach less familiar lands. But what do East Europeans think, in their palaces and hovels by the river, in towns whose names few geography teachers . . . ever utter? What of the migrants and traders, soldiers and adventurers who traveled up the Danube?
Contrast Thorpe’s quest with ad copy for one of the increasingly popular Danube cruises:
. . . encounter grand cities and quaint villages along the celebrated Danube River . . . Experience Vienna’s imperial architecture and gracious culture, and tour riverside towns in Austria’s Wachau Valley. Savor authentic dishes, learn about local legends, and understand why Strauss immortalized the “Blue Danube” in his famous melody.
Thorpe begins his book far from “quaint,” “celebrated,” and “gracious,” in the Black Sea hinterlands of the Danube Delta. If you have never heard of Dobrogea, Romania, the book may inspire you to investigate flights. From there, over the course of a year, by boat, automobile and bicycle, Thorpe crosses Bulgaria, then the Balkan nations so often rearranged by war that “balkanized” means violent sundering, lingers in his adopted home of Hungary, transits Austria, and finishes in Germany. Between the Romanian wilderness and German affluence, a tale of progress emerges, with all the contradictions that word implies, but also a simultaneous and compelling march back into history, as we go from wind farms on the Black Sea to thousand-year-old castles in Austria.
“You will be like the sturgeon!” a Romanian man declares about Thorpe’s upstream intentions. A book about the Danube must be a fish story, specifically this fish: source of caviar, unchanged for eons, up to twenty feet long, and sorely impacted by recent human intervention. The sturgeons’ plight emphasizes that in the twenty-first century, a book about a river must also be an environmental narrative. In The Danube, we read of massive damming and diversion, but also meet those dedicated to restoration. Like Grigore Baboianu of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, who helps the delta recover after the excoriating Ceausescu years. Or, upriver, Stela Bozhinova, head of the Persina Nature Park in Bulgaria. And later we learn that thermal waters are Hungary’s tenuous treasure and meet Istvan Sarvari, a scientist committed to saving them.
Thorpe is well aware that people, as much as places, are what elevates travel writing, and he acquaints us with a fascinating cast of environmentalists, ferrymen, fisherman, fieldworkers, beekeepers, ex-soldiers, waitresses, hoteliers, police, and immigrants—legal or not. Their linguistically and culturally distinct voices animate Thorpe’s narrative. Boatman Adrian Oprisan guides us out of Sulina, Romania; upriver a Gypsy girl says, “if we stayed in school, the boys would steal us;” and circus owner Momi Kolev declares “In Bulgaria . . . we enjoy life!” Fisherman Mitya Alexi says, “In my household, money is like the Danube. It flows through our fingers,” and Austrian ferryman Hermann Spannraft calls his work “the best job in the world.” In a powerful chapter about Ada Kaleh, an island destroyed in the name of hydroelectric power, former residents wistfully recall their drowned homes, and in Serbia and Croatia, the brutal war of the 1990s both dominates memory and inspires resilience in those who endured it.
All travel authors, acting as both tour guide and narrator, must choose how much of themselves to insert into the narrative. Thorpe writes: “The traveler puts her or his best foot forward, and comes not to speak, but to listen.” He follows this dictum and turns personal encounter, encyclopedic research, and decades of journalistic experience into prose that lets the Danube, its history, and its people speak for themselves. The approach leads us to a new point of view on the river and the continent it both bisects and connects. In Thorpe’s words:
Eastern Europe is a kind of mirror image of the Wild West . . . the Wild East, where priests crucify nuns to exorcise them, where factories smoke like chimneys, and from whence swarthy Gypsies emerge to slaughter swans in the parks of London or Vienna. That is the tabloid version, but there is also a more intellectual variety, of various peoples caught up in a kind of eternal hostility. But the Danube washes all of them, reminding them of other lands, from which visitors arrive—to trade, rest or settle. The Danube offers solace, and preaches tolerance. And in countries far from the seacoast the river reminds people of the power of nature.
The Danube will also wash readers interested in travel, Eastern Europe, current events, past history, and the pleasure of a tale well told. We can become better versed in the larger world through meticulous observation of one part of it, and with his book, Nick Thorpe artfully does just that.
About the Reviewer
Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline, MA, and has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. His fiction and essays have appeared in Salamander, the Boston Globe, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Common, and elsewhere.