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When we, Hungarians, smack in the middle of Central Europe, think of a metropolis, what comes to mind immediately is a city with a wide, pulsating artery—a river that slices the city in half, preferably vertically. Based on that, my beloved Paris and London and New York City disqualify at once, yet my emotional attachment to them remains too strong. Lyon, which sits at the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers and has always mesmerized me, is also firmly lodged in my heart.
How could I then put into words my feelings about my favorite one of them all, the Danube? Any tourist who consults a travel book about the Danube will initially learn that it is a river that winds its way through Europe. But when I think of the Danube, my mind conjures up an image of a wide blue ribbon that not only snakes across the map of Europe, it also holds a crucial role, which includes transporting a multitude of things, among them freight and passenger vessels. The section spanning Hungary is 417 kms long. Out of its 300 tributaries 30 can be accessed by larger ships. Coming in second after the Volga, it is Europe’s longest and most abundant river with 2,860 kms to its name. It rises humbly in the Black Forest from a small spring and gains strength along the way until it gushes into the Black Sea, morphing itself into a mighty triple-claw rake that by then had plowed its way through an assortment of countries, all of whom rely on its vast and swollen water. Its daring multicultural journey takes it through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Moldova.
But no travel book can convey the depth of what the Danube truly means to the inhabitants who are fortunate enough to reside along its banks.
I am not a reporter who’s done extensive research on rivers, but having lived in Budapest all my life, I do know a thing or two about its intimate relationship with the Danube. My admiration for rivers has always been stronger than my love for stagnant waters, both in theory and in practice. I have tremendous respect for seas too, but in my travels none of them ever brought out in me the kind of transcendent feelings that rivers, particularly the Danube or the Tisza—Hungary’s second most important river—bring out. The Danube had always played a vital part in my life for as long as I can remember.
Back in my childhood, I had the recurring good fortune of visiting smaller towns along the Danube and, thanks to the generosity of family friends, those trips often included fishing, which brought an immense amount of excitement to my fledgling self, despite the long monotonous hours spent among silent and often empty-handed fishermen. I tried not to carp, if I could help it. As a teenager, I was on a rowing team and occasionally kayaked for fun. Things were going swimmingly, I thought. My adventures in water sports, however, did eventually come to an end.
Many years later, an unexpected twist of fate brought me to a beautiful Bauhaus building next to St. Stephen’s Park, located on the embankment of the Danube. I fell head over heels with its majestic facade and size and, before long, became one of its residents. Over time, the perpetual waves that had brought me so much joy already, took me further down the Danube, to my new home a few districts away on the Buda side, to the Roman Embankment, where a sliver of earthly paradise remains to this day. All in all, it felt as if my young adulthood had been resurrected—here, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, once again, I was able to row or kayak or just relax on a pier and admire the landscape.
Two millennia earlier it was the Romans who populated the same fertile area—called Aquincum back then—organizing their tents strategically along the river, taking advantage of its ideal location for transportation and maritime trade. I’d be hard-pressed to spout criticism about their complex and impressive system, the foundation of modern-day freightage. In addition to utilizing the Danube, the Romans also built a network of roads that are still largely in place and commonly used today. Their carriages had, however, been replaced by an abundance of vehicles.
Over the years, my observations indicated that people who enjoy water activities on the Danube prefer to be in their own stratum and within that, in their respective groups. The first group navigates around by the use of oars—this is my group: a cohesive bunch of people who prefer quietude and calmness. The second group consists of speedy motorboats that blatantly ignore the basic nautical rules and zoom by others, recklessly flipping over some of the less experienced kayakers every now and then.
The luxury of simply sitting on the riverbank, watching the Danube flow by, is an activity that within the perimeters of Budapest is almost exclusive to Margaret Island and a few other remaining spots, including the Roman Embankment. Signs of pollution and overpopulation that had ravaged the natural world elsewhere are present in our capital, too. Nowadays, due to the growing population and the structure of the city, residents of Budapest do not have the luxury that, for example, residents of Ljubljana have, as they dine and stroll along the Ljubljanica River with preprandial drinks in hand.
Mentioning the Danube to the Ljubljanica river in the same breath might seem a bit unfair, but it is the atmosphere of the blissfully picturesque city center of the Slovenian capital that’s the missing puzzle piece in Budapest. At one time, the Hungarian capital had a much more intimate relationship with the Danube. A century or two ago horses quenched their thirst by drinking its unpolluted water, women washed basketfuls of laundry near the famous Gellért Hotel and Spa, where, rumor has it that the temperature of the water is warmer. The spa’s thermal baths had been filled with ancient springs and volcanic waters for centuries. Furthermore, back in the 19th century, there also used to be beaches on the Danube. I know of at least three wooden swimming pools that were built back then, all of them filled to the rim with clean water from the Danube. No more pools, no more frolicking in the waves.
The roughly 12-kilometer long embankment that stretches along the center of Budapest was initially built to protect the city from floods. The muddy strip slowly morphed into a vivacious dining and entertainment scene. Customers gazed at the famed blue Danube from their tables. To all intents and purposes, life was good—but (there always has to be a but) all good things must come to an end. Or at least they did here, in my Budapest. As the city tried to accommodate its ever-increasing traffic, it was decided that, similarly to Paris, the most logical and merciless solution was to build a narrow two-lane road along the embankment to ease the unending traffic jams. Architects also suggested the construction of a shorter section that accommodated a tram line. As these changes took place over the years, the city, in more ways than one, isolated itself from the Danube.
No one seems to know quite what to do to bring back that old-time magic Budapest once had. Strings of ideas, which are likely moldering in some back office desk drawer buried under mountains of paperwork, included building oversized rooftops above certain areas of this main road, if shutting them down is completely out of the question. These areas then could be a host to a myriad of ideas: restaurant rooftops, bars, entertainment areas, terraces, and so on.
Locals and foreigners alike could avail themselves of the beauty of the Danube from both sides. News of similar ideas can be heard every so often from sources whose aim it is to utilize what the Danube has to offer but, as of today, none of them have come to fruition. The seemingly unending legal and political wrangles overshadow the public’s yearning for vigorous regrowth of accessible green spaces along the river.
A river is a blessing—a blessing we must not take for granted. However, it can also be a curse, as it was in the fall of 1944, when the Arrow Cross party members murdered the city’s Jews on the embankments of the Danube and conveniently threw their bodies into the waves. In my latest novel, Dunapest, I tried to depict that most of us amble around the city as carefree citizens on a leisurely stroll, unaware of the startling presence of the dark past. Yet, it was less than a century ago that the color of the Danube was blood-red, its constituent molecules in danger of carrying cholera or pestilence. We had involuntarily become a conduit between the footsteps of the present and the past—our past, our Pest—which had, on more than one occasion, been undoubtedly a fundamentally hostile place. Yet we must continue striving for a harmonious existence not only with our past, but also with the environment.
Rivers are a form of life and they need constant care to remain strong and aseptic. In the first line of our national anthem, Hungarians plead with God to bless us with good cheer and propriety. I’d like it if that nostalgic blessing included our vulnerable rivers, too—above all, the majestic and wide Danube, which, during my lifetime—sigh!—had only been blue in Strauss’ Waltz.
Miklós Vámos is a Hungarian writer who has published over 40 books, many of them in multiple languages. He is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2016 Prima Primissima Literary Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Hungary. His most successful book is The Book of Fathers, which has been translated into nearly 30 languages. His ancestors on his father’s side were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Fortunately, his father—a member of a penitentiary march battalion—survived. Out of the 5,000 Hungarian Jews sent off to their deaths late in World War II, only seven came back. His father was one of them. Vámos was raised in Socialist Hungary unaware he was a Jew. In an effort to save himself from his chaotic heritage, he turned to writing novels.