The Danube

Not surprisingly, Duck Holiday loves a river and the Danube is truly magnificent. It is the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga) and flows through ten countries (for those wishing to name all of them and not wanting a ‘spoiler’, these are listed below this article).

The Danube begins its winding way across Central and Eastern Europe in the Black Forest, at Donauschigen (Donau is the German name for the river). The trek takes it all the way to the Black Sea, its terminus being the town of Sulina in Romania. During its journey, it passes through four capital cities, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade.

Vienna is, of course, synonymous with the Danube because of the Blue Danube Waltz (1876) of Johann Strauss. Do not, however, be fooled into thinking that the river that runs around the edge of the city centre is the Danube itself. This is, in fact, the Danube Canal (Donaukanal), one of many tentacles of the main river, which runs to the eastern side of the city, but is reached easily by tram or U-bahn.

The canal, not the river

The canal, not the river

From Vienna, it is a short hop to Bratislava. Indeed, the two cities are the closest neighbouring capitals in Europe. The Danube divides the city, with the historic Old Town on the northern side and the newer housing districts to the south.

Heavy traffic at Bratislava

Heavy traffic at Bratislava

Six bridges cross the river, with the most prominent being the ‘UFO Bridge’, with its alien spaceship appearance and café perched at the top. The much older railway bridge once carried trams that chugged all the way to Vienna.

UFO sighting

UFO sighting

There are plenty of boat trips to be had and you can even stay – as did Duck Holiday – in a ‘botel’. Small bars dot the riverbank and many of these little pubs sell very cheap beer, not the worst way to spend a warm summer evening.

River, sunshine, bar - what's not to like?

River, sunshine, bar – what’s not to like?

The river wends its way down to Hungary and forms the divide between the Buda and Pest parts of the capital. On the Buda side, the Royal Palace overlooks the river and the gloriously Gothic Parliament building can be seen far below on the opposite bank.

The view of Parliament

The view of Parliament

To the north of Budapest is the famous Danube Bend, where Rome built garrisons and where the historic towns of Esztergom and Visegrád were constructed in later years. The former was the home of Christianity in Hungary and is still the seat of the country’s archbishop. Visegrád, on the narrowest part of the Danube, was the home of Hungarian royalty and the largely-reconstructed Royal Palace sits on a hill above the river.

Duck Holiday and friends take a break

Duck Holiday and friends take a break

Onwards to Serbia, where the Danube meets another imposing river, the Sava, in Belgrade. Fortresses and rivers form a natural partnership, and here the imposing Kalemegdan Fortress stands above the point where the two great rivers collide and the Danube presses on eastwards.

Duck Holiday scales the fortress

Duck Holiday scales the fortress

Danube at Belgrade

Danube at Belgrade

The Danube reaches a suitably spectacular conclusion in the shape of the Danube Delta. Most of this area is located in Romania, with its more northerly parts in Ukraine. The area is a designated World Heritage Site and it is not difficult to see why. More than 300 species of birds have been identified, making it one of the most important wildlife habitats in Europe.

For human travellers, there are plenty of boat excursions and scenic walks to be had all along the river’s trail. For the more energetic, there is the Danube Bike Trail, taking in a mind-boggling 2,875 kilometres. This is recommended only to the fittest of the fit, those with steel hawsers for legs. The rest of us can find plenty of enjoyment from boat trips, gentle strolls and refreshments at the plethora of restaurants and bars that line the river.

* Countries through which the Danube flows: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

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Author, Author!

I trust that the readers of this outpost will forgive a little moment of self-publicity. The book pictured below has just been published (New Generation Publishing, £6.99) and while it has absolutely nothing to do with Eastern Europe, it could be categorised as ‘travel’.

The book details this writer’s two-year stint as a volunteer for Voluntary Service Overseas. I was posted in Assab, on Eritrea’s Red Sea coast, working as an IT expert at a petroleum refinery. The area is one of the hottest places on the planet, so the challenges were manifold. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was hellish. It was, though, inevitably different and the tale is told here.

The book is available from Amazon, as well as many other good book shops. And some bad ones, as well.

LITS

Christina Robertson – Fife’s Unknown Artist

The Hermitage in St Petersburg stands apart, in so many ways, from even the finest art galleries in Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world. There is, however, one aspect that marks it as similar; there are few works of art by women. Female artists are, happily, much more commonplace these days, but it was not always so.

It comes as a surprise, then, to encounter works by women artists among the great collections. It comes as an even bigger surprise to note that one of the few women to be represented at The Hermitage – and who, indeed, became a favourite of the Russian royal court – was a native of Fife.

Christina Sanders was born in Kinghorn in 1796. Little seems to be known about her early life or her first forays into painting. There appears to have been some art connection, however, as she married the artist James Robertson in 1822. The couple settled in London and the marriage produced eight children, though four died in childhood.

What seems certain is that Christina must already have been quite a serious artist at the time of her marriage. In 1823, she was exhibiting works at the Royal Academy and by 1829, she had been elected as an honorary member of the Scottish Academy, a first for a woman.

Christina Robertson (self portrait)

Christina Robertson (self portrait)

By the 1830s, she was making her name as a portrait painter, her work featuring in several magazines and journals. Through these, she caught the attention of the Russian aristocracy in St Petersburg. In Paris in1837, she painted portraits of a number of Russian nobles and notables. Doubtless, her talents were reported back to the Imperial Court by one or more of her sitters.

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna

It was a good time to be a British artist around the Russian court. Russian high society had developed a love of all things British and by 1839, Robertson had exhibited several works at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. The following year brought a major breakthrough when she was commissioned to paint full-length portraits of the Emperor Nicholas I and the Empress Alexandra. She received numerous other commissions and was soon elected an honorary member of the St Petersburg Academy before returning to Britain in 1841.

Empress Maria Aleksandrovna

Duchess Maria Aleksandrovna

Robertson was to visit St Petersburg again in 1847 and was to remain there until her death in 1854. Although relations between Britain and Russia were less than cordial – the Crimean War was looming – she remained a popular guest and continued to receive commissions from the Russian royal family. In particular, she painted several portraits of the Emperor’s daughter-in-law, the Grand Duchess Maria Aleksandrovna. She established her own studio in St Petersburg in 1849.

Duchesses Olga Nikolaevna and Alexandra Nikolaevna

Duchesses Olga Nikolaevna and Alexandra Nikolaevna

Sadly, Robertson’s health was failing by the early 1850s and with suggestions that a number of her clients were refusing to pay her, she may well have been struggling financially as well. She died in St. Petersburg, in 1854 and was buried in the city’s Volkovo Cemetery, the final resting place for many writers, scientists and other esteemed figures. The Crimean War had commenced in 1853, so while Britain and Russia may have been at war, there appears to have been no personal animosity towards Christina Robertson.

Even today, it could be argued that women are not fully recognised in the world of art. This was certainly true in the 19th century. A number of women were successful as novelists – though even a brilliant writer like George Eliot felt obliged to write under a male pseudonym – but very few even dared to embark on a career as a painter. Robertson was a rarity and there were few other women in her position. The Hungarian-born Serbian painter, Katarina Ivanovic, a younger contemporary, was one of the few, though she did not achieve the recognition of her Scottish counterpart, at least during her own lifetime.

Christina Robertson, though, remains prominent in Russia today, though understandably her popularity waned following the Revolution of 1917, when all things relating to the aristocracy suddenly suffered a diminution of interest. Some fifteen of her works can be seen in The Hermitage and several more are on permanent display in the other great art gallery of St Petersburg, the Russian Museum. That, alone, is a testimony to her skill as an artist. The fact that she achieved what she did in such a male-dominated world is astonishing – and particularly remarkable for a woman from a small coastal town in Fife.