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.

Literature

There is nothing that Duck Holiday likes better than a classic novel (with the possible exception of a glass or two of very good quality beer). Eastern and Central Europe have produced their fair share of great writers and the time has come for a brief foray into the literary world.

These things are, of course, largely subjective. One person’s great novel is another’s unreadable bilge, but everyone has their own favourites and the following selection of works represent a mere handful of the preferences within the duck house.

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad was born in 1857, in a Russian-occupied part of Poland. His Polish nationalist parents were persecuted by the Russians and died while their son was still a child. He left his native land when he was 17 and lived in France before joining the British merchant navy four years later. He was to spend some 20 years as a sailor.

Conrad, then, was a man who understood fully the concepts of colonialism and alienation. Not surprisingly, these facets loomed large in many of his novels and short stories (a wonderful example is to be found in his story Amy Foster, a deeply moving tale of the isolation of an Eastern European sailor stranded in England).

Nowhere better are the themes explored than in Heart of Darkness, published in 1899. Some modern critics have suggested that the novel is racist, but surely its message is the precise opposite. Conrad experienced first-hand the grasping brutality of colonialism – Belgian, in this case – during his own visit to the Congo in 1890. He was no imperialist; his own early experiences were to shape his outlook.

Conrad is a sardonic observer, all too aware that the so-called civilizing Europeans in Africa were little more than rapacious profiteers. Modern-day readers should bear in mind when the novel was written and place it in its proper historical context. Yes, there are words used that are completely unacceptable nowadays, but one should remember that they were current usage at the time. It is a grave mistake to apply 21st-century thinking to 19th-century literature (or, indeed, any other form of art).

With that in mind, Conrad’s work should be seen as radical, a work that challenges imperialism rather than reinforcing it. Nor should it be overlooked that Conrad was writing in a language that was not his first (nor second or third, for that matter). Heart of Darkness deserves its place among the classic works of 19th-century literature.

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Franz Kafka – The Castle

It is only a select few writers whose names leave an adjective behind – Kafkaesque in the case of Franz Kafka – and this fact alone tends to demonstrate the uniqueness and importance of such writers.

Kafka’s characters, like Josef K in The Trial, find themselves in situations they cannot comprehend and which are beyond their control. Likewise, in The Castle, the character known only as K (that letter again!) is left bewildered, caught in a labyrinth from which he cannot escape. He cannot gain admittance of the mysterious castle at which he is supposed to be employed, nor can he go home. His world is populated by bureaucrats and administrators whose sole purpose appears to be to make his life difficult. When we finally see inside the castle, we witness people moving documents from one place to another, only to move them back to their original position. Those of us who have passed some of our years as civil servants can only smile wryly.

Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and died from tuberculosis in 1924. We are fortunate that his works still exist. Shortly before his death, he asked his friend, Max Brod, to ensure that all his writings be destroyed. Fortunately, Brod felt unable to carry out this request and The Castle, along with The Trial and several other works, was published posthumously.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Possessed

In 2001, The Guardian published a list of the 100 Greatest Works of Fiction of all time. A number of writers, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, were represented twice. William Shakespeare had three entries. The only four-timer, however, was Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Though born in Moscow, Dostoevsky spent much of his life in St Petersburg and his writing is irrevocably linked with that city. He also spent ten years in prison, a fate suffered by not a few Russian writers. He was, in fact, sentenced to death by firing squad, but this was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia. It is extraordinary to think that had the original punishment been carried out, there would have been no Crime and Punishment, no The Idiot, no The Possessed and no The Brothers Karamazov.

The first of these is undoubtedly the best-known work, but The Possessed is a dark and powerful novel, one based on the true story of a young revolutionary murdered by his comrades. Dostoevsky was in a good position to understand the circumstances; it was because of his youthful revolutionary ideals that he was imprisoned in the first place.

Though Dostoevsky writes from the more conservative standpoint he adopted later in life, The Possessed should not be viewed as reactionary. It provides a chilling preview of 20th-century totalitarianism and anyone who has ever belonged to a small political party will recognise the factionalism and in-fighting that seems almost inevitable in such a grouping.

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Nikolay Gogol – Dead Souls

A rather gentler dispute between Russian and Ukraine than the current conflict concerns the writer Nikolay Gogol. Gogol was born in Poltava Province, now part of Ukraine, but in Russia when Gogol was born in 1809. Being of Ukrainian and Polish ancestry, Gogol could not be described as a truly ‘Russian’ writer and indeed spent much of his short life in Western Europe.

A troubled man who suffered both mental and physical problems, Gogol died at the age of 42, but left behind one of the great 19th-century works in the shape of Dead Souls. The souls in question are those of dead serfs, still current on census rolls, whose names are steadily bought up by the mysterious Chichikov. The idea is that the owners of the serfs will not have to pay tax on them and that Chichikov can present a long list of ‘his’ serfs to the authorities so that he can re-invent himself as a gentleman landowner.

If the plot sounds absurd, that is because it is. The cast of characters is no less absurd, full of chancers, conmen, windbags, fantasists and liars. The novel mixes down to earth reality alongside utter surrealism. Imagine Sterne’s Tristram Shandy being relocated to Russia and given a few further odd twists.

Gogol does not have the status of Dostoevsky, nor does he leave such a substantial body of work, but one can see the influence of Gogol on his younger contemporary in his scathing satire as well of his use of location.

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Robert Musil – The Man Without Qualities

Try to imagine Ulysses being transferred to Vienna, but spread over several months rather than a single day, take away a few of the bars, shift the characters up a few social notches and you might begin to form a picture of Robert Musil’s gargantuan work.

Born in Klagenfurt in 1880, Musil studied science and philosophy before embarking on a short-lived military career and pursuing a life in writing after the publication of his first novel in 1906. It is, then, no coincidence that the central character of The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich, is (you’ve guessed it) a former soldier, scientist and philosopher.

After serving in the First World War, Musil devoted much of his life to his masterwork and indeed the book remained unfinished. Quite how far he would have taken it is difficult to imagine. The action – though there is not a great deal of ‘action’ – is set in 1913, with the great, good and not so good of Viennese high society trying to devise ways of celebrating the 70th jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef.

In the midst of it all, but somehow aloof, stands the hero/antihero Ulrich. The novel veers between satire, social observation, stream of consciousness and philosophical debate as ‘the man without qualities’ watches the intrigues, plots and one-upmanship revolving around him.

The book, not surprisingly, was banned by the Nazis and Musil managed to escape to Switzerland in 1938, living there until his death four years later.

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Milan Kundera – Ignorance

While this is not Kundera’s best-known work – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being would vie for the title – it is a book that has special significance for this writer. The novel was a central part of a dissertation in which the student was required to choose one work of fiction and one non-fictional work to compare and contrast literary styles. Kundera’s beautiful prose made the assignment much easier for this particular student.

Remarkable, then, that the original was written in French, Kundera’s second language. He was born in Brno, then in Czechoslovakia and now in the Czech Republic, but has spent much of his adult life in France. Thus there is something of an autobiographical feel to Ignorance, whereby Irena, a Czech émigré resident in France, returns to her homeland after the end of the Communist era. The result is a moving novel full of nostalgia, memories – both real and imagined – and, indeed, a certain amount of laughter and forgetting.

Like Joseph Conrad, Kundera knows only too well the pain of exile and like Conrad, is able to express all its attendant emotions in a language not his own.

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Vienna – Art and Coffee

It was five degrees below zero and there was snow lying around. No matter; trains, trams and buses were running perfectly normally. These little things matter. In the UK, it sometimes seems that the merest drop in temperature or a little snow causes the entire transport network to cave in completely, though obviously cold or wet weather is so unusual in Britain that the chaos is entirely understandable. In mainland Europe, though, life continues.

National Library at the Hofburg Palace

National Library at the Hofburg Palace

If you’re on a three-night trip and planning to use public transport and visit museums, it’s worth buying either a Vienna card (for about €20) or a 72-hour public transport pass for €14.50. You don’t get a big discount for museums (most are 10%), but there isn’t much of a difference. If you’re visiting in freezing temperatures, there is more of a temptation to dash down into the warmth of the U-Bahn for a short while.

There is no shortage when it comes to museums. The Neue Burg at the Hofburg Palace has three museums, the Ephesus Museum, the Museum of Musical Instruments and the Kunsthistorisches (or Museum of Fine Arts, if you don’t want to spend half an hour unravelling your tongue). The Musical Instruments Museum contains some delightful oddities, several of which appear to have been designed for an octopus with three mouths.

A personal choice would be to visit the museums in the order listed above. The Kunsthistorisches is likely to take quite a while, as the collection is vast. It is simply too big to do justice to in this brief article and will be considered as part of a little series on museums and galleries.

Kunsthistorisches

Kunsthistorisches

Museums of Natural History are not generally, I concede, my favourites. All too often, there is a rather moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals and that is as far as it goes. The Vienna version, however, has a lot going for it. Yes, the taxidermists have been kept in employment, but there is a wealth of fossils and minerals here, enough to keep an army of David Attenboroughs happy for several days.

The city has more than a hundred museums and some of them are decidedly different. Those with a sense of the morbid might enjoy a trip to the Undertakers’ Museum, perhaps after seeing how victims may have been despatched by a look round the Kriminalmuseum. There are also museums dedicated to those favourite Viennese drinks, schnapps and coffee.

Music, of course, is another Viennese speciality. The Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) is both an opera house (in Neo-Renaissance style)and opera company and is possibly the busiest in the world. There is something happening throughout the year and it’s perfectly easy to turn up on the night and buy a cheap ticket if you don’t mind standing. Going to an opera or a classical performance is not the preserve of the elite in Vienna.

Not too far from the opera house is the Secession Building, an extraordinary Art Nouveau concoction that acts as an exhibition hall. The features the Beethoven Frieze, a work by Gustav Klimt that was originally intended only as a one-off for an exhibition, but has stuck around for more than a hundred years. Adding to the general lunacy, there is a statue of Mark Antony being hauled around in a chariot by a team of lions.

Secession Building

Secession Building

Visiting a coffee house feels obligatory. How could one go to Vienna and not visit a coffee house? Naturally, they get rather busy when it’s cold, but there are plenty of them and you should be able to squeeze in somewhere. If all else fails, then you can book a table for another time. Only in Vienna could you imagine booking a table for a cup of coffee.

There are quite a few cafés near the park. A couple of good ones are Café Diglas and Café Pruckel, but there is not exactly a dearth. The ideal is a sense that you have been transported back in time and if you can immerse yourself in a deep philosophical debate while enjoying your coffee, even better.

Stadtpark (with ducks on holiday)

Stadtpark (with ducks on holiday)

The ‘park’, of course, means the Stadtpark, the huge municipal park in the city centre. It’s filled with monuments and sculptures, including the famous gilded bronze affair that portrays Johann Strauss. Franz Schubert is also well-represented, with a fine monument. The music of Strauss and Schubert can still be heard in the park, at the Kursalon, a beautiful pavilion in Italian renaissance style.

Strauss statue

Strauss statue

Vienna has a particularly impressive public transport system. The U-Bahn has six lines and the trains are amazingly frequent. To miss a train by seconds early on a Sunday morning may sound like a serious annoyance, but the indicator boards reassure you that you’ll only have to wait a few minutes for the next one.

Also impressive is the CAT (City Airport Train), especially for those of us used to the legalised extortion racket that is the Heathrow Excess Express. The CAT is not exactly dirt cheap, but ten euros for a single (using a Vienna card) isn’t too bad. The trip takes fifteen minutes or so and you get a nice big double-decker train to sit on.

Vienna is no different to any other capital city in that there are expensive places to eat and drink, and there are not-so-expensive places. Food leans towards the meaty, but just about everywhere has a vegetarian option and one particularly pleasant evening was spent in the Palatschinkenpfandl, a pancake house where spinach and sheep’s cheese pancakes were washed down with several glasses of Salzburg’s Stiegl beer. There are many, many worse ways of spending about 20 euros.

One pleasing thing about Vienna (not that it’s too hard to find pleasing things) is that there are some delightfully old-fashioned bars. Bane’s Bar represents a throwback to days when pubs were for drinking beer in, rather than posing ostentatiously and pretending that you really want to eat roasted polenta with crispy ostrich droppings in a rich salmon and chocolate sauce. Bane’s offers beer, atmosphere and the feel of a good local, all served with a pleasing background of jazz and blues music.

Austria, naturally, is rather overshadowed by its German neighbour when it comes to beer, but has a good range of both breweries and beer. Another brewery from the west of the country, Hofbräu Kaltenhausen, dates to the 15th century and is notable for its wheat beer (under the Edelweiss name). It also produces some intriguing dark beers, including a black lager and a creamy chocolate stout.

Ah, Vienna

Ah, Vienna

There really isn’t a bad time to visit Vienna. There is always something pleasing about sitting outside a café or bar on a warm summer’s day, but a trip in the cold of winter is just fine. A little walking around can be interspersed with strategic disappearances into cafés, museums, restaurants, bars and any of the myriad delights on offer. Besides, a little chill in the air does no harm if you really want to revisit the eighties and do that coat-collar-up thing from the Ultravox video.