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The history of the Danube

The Danube is one of the world’s most famous rivers, standing alongside the likes of the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Mississippi as places of great natural beauty and theatres of human history and culture.

From its source in Germany, the River Danube flows through, or along the borders of, ten different countries before it reaches the Black Sea, passing through some of Europe’s most exciting cities as well as beautiful and dramatic landscapes on its 1,790-mile-long course.

Interestingly, it’s not called the Danube in any of the countries it passes through; in Germany it’s called the Donau, the Dunaj in the Czech Republic, and the Duna in Hungary. The Romans called it Danubius, based on an older Celtic name from which all the modern names derive.

A Divider of Nations

It’s been the site of human habitation for millennia, dictating the course of many historical events and defining historical borders. It was once the northern border of the Roman Empire, almost for the whole of its length, providing a defensive line as well as way to transport troops and materials to Roman settlements downstream.

In later centuries this border continued to exist for the Ottoman Empire (what was once the Eastern Roman Empire) leading to disputes with the neighbouring Kingdom of Hungary and other nations further upriver. This separation between East and West would come to define the story of the river for centuries to come, particularly through World Wars and the Cold War.

During the medieval period, the river was most important as a source of food. It’s one of the most highly biodiverse habitats in Europe, home to hundreds of varieties of fish, including salmon, trout, sturgeon, and carp, many species of which are not found elsewhere.

A Passage for Trade

As the Danube became more and more important as a waterway for shipping and trade in the 19th century, the fishing industry rapidly declined. Shipping faced new challenges, as the river can be an unpredictable and dangerous place to navigate, with ice flows, fast-flowing narrow passages, and endless number of submerged rocks and small islands. This led to the creation of several locks to calm certain stretches and make it more accommodating for large ships.

This allowed it to become a lifeline that has fuelled the prosperity of many cities and counties along its route for years, especially Hungary, which covers a third of its total length. Budapest, its capital, is often called the ‘Queen of the Danube’, with its famous chain bridge, castle, and gothic parliament building. The river also flows through Vienna, where Johann Strauss’s famous and popular ‘Blue Danube’ was first performed in 1867.

The Modern Danube

Today, the Danube is still a busy waterway both for shipping and pleasure craft, with ships able to navigate all the way from the Black Sea to Rotterdam via the canal connecting the Danube to the Rhine. The diversity of landscapes, countries, and cities along its route still makes it irresistible for European river cruise holidays, offering a fascinating journey through the heart of the continent.

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