The Danube River

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Podcast Transcript

Located in Central and Eastern Europe is one of the continent’s longest and most important rivers: the Danube.

For thousands of years, the Danube has been a vital river for commerce and agriculture, and it has served as a natural boundary for empires and kingdoms. 

Today, it is still vitally important to the ten countries it flows through and has become one of the top tourist attractions in Europe.

Learn more about the Danube River and the important role it has played in history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve done several episodes on the great rivers of the world. Each river is very different based on its geography. 

The Nile cuts through a desert and allowed an entire civilization to develop along its banks. 

The Mississippi and Yangtze are economic powerhouses.

The Congo and Amazon are enormous rivers that have proven impossible to tame. 

The Danube is altogether different than the other rivers that I’ve covered. 

The Danube is the second largest river in Europe by length and discharge, behind the Volga. Whereas the Volga is entirely in Russia, the Danube flows through 10 different countries.

The Danube is 2,860 kilometers or 1,777 miles. As far as the world’s great rivers go, it only ranks 44th. Of that, only 2,415 km or 1,501 miles are navigable. 

The Danube starts in Germany near the town of Donaueschingen in the Black Fore, at an elevation of 1,078 meters or 3,537 feet above sea level. 

From that point, it flows through Bavaria into Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria, forming a tiny bit of the border with Moldova and a little bit of Ukraine. If you include the entire Danube basin, and all of the tributaries that flow into it, it encompasses 19 countries. 

It flows into the western part of the Black Sea in the Danube Delta. 

It is unique in that it flows roughly from west to east, and the direction of its flow allows the river to serve as a valuable transportation route for inland countries to reach the sea. 

Some of the oldest evidence of humans in Europe comes from the Danube River basin. Collectively, the various cultures from the region are known as Danubian culture. 

The Linear Pottery culture can be found here, which is a catch-all term to describe peoples who had similar pottery styles and lived from 5500 to 4500 BC.

The Vin?a culture in Serbia existed from the 6th to 3rd millennium BC, and the Vu?edol culture in Croatia existed around the 3rd millennium BC as well. 

Most famously, the Danube served as a border for the Roman Empire. The Danube, along with the Rhine River, were natural borders that separated the Romans from the Barbarians beyond. 

Eventually, under Emperor Trajan, Rome did cross the Danube to conquer Dacia, which is mostly modern-day Romania, but the River and its defenses still served as the border further to the west. 

After the empire fell in the west, much of the area was still under the control of the Byzantine Empire in the east.

The name Danube comes from the Latin word for the river, Danubius. All of the countries along the river today use some form of the Latin word as the name of the river. In German, it is known as the Donau, in Czech and Slovak it is known as the Dunaj, in Hungarian, it is Duna, and in Serbian, Croatian, and Bulgarian it is known as the Dunav. 

Around the 6th century, the Slavic migration brought Slavic people south to the Danube basin, and those people were the ancestors of the modern southern Slavic people, such as the Serbs and Bulgarians. 

The medieval period saw the rise of powerful states along the Danube. These included the Kingdom of Hungary and the Bulgarian Empire, as well as the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

The river facilitated trade, cultural exchange, and military campaigns, influencing the development of medieval European civilization.

During the early modern period, starting in the 14th and 15th centuries and lasting through the 19th century, the Danube was a hotly contested region. Primarily, it was the Ottomans against various groups at one time or another: the Kingdom of Serbia, the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Habsburg Monarchy.

One of the main routes for the Ottoman expansion into Europe was along the Danube River. It made the transportation of men and equipment easy, and many of the important capital cities and castles were along the river. 

The borders of Europe were drawn in the 19th and 20th centuries to create the countries that we know today. Of the ten countries that border or have the river running through them, four have their capital cities on the banks of the Danube. 

Budapest, Hungary. Bratislava, Slovakia. Vienna, Austria, and Belgrade, Serbia.

With that, I’d like to briefly travel down the river, starting in Germany, and describe the different sections of the river and some of its highlights. 

The river experiences over 1,000 meters of vertical drop, most of which occurs in Germany and Austria. This makes the upper sections of the river ideal for hydroelectric dams. 

Germany and Austria have 59 dams in the first 1000 kilometers of the river, with an average of one dam every 17 kilometers. The dams on just the Danube provide Austria with 20% of its electricity. 

Three of the most important cities in Germany that are on the Danube include Ulm, Ingolstadt, and Regensburg.

In Austria, the first major city is Linz. 

Located between the towns of Melk and Krems, just upriver from Vienna, is the Wachau Valley. It is a lovely wine-growing region and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was one of my last trips before the pandemic in December 2019. 

The highlight of the valley has to be the Melk Abbey in the town of Melk. The Abbey of Melk was an important center of learning since its founding in the 11th century. 

The next major stop is Vienna, or as it is known in German, Wien. It is located on the site of a former Roman military camp known as Vindobona.

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is just 51 kilometers downstream from Vienna. The city grew around Bratislava Castle, which sits on a strategic plateau overlooking the river. 

A little over 200 kilometers downstream is Budapest. As with Vienna, Budapest is the location of a former Roman military settlement known as Aquincum.

I’m not going to get into too much detail about these three major cities as they each are worthy of their own episodes, but suffice it to say that there are no three national capitals in the world as close to each other as these three, and it is all due to the river. 

The river then flows south, cutting across Hungry where it then forms the border between Croatia and Serbia for a few hundred kilometers. 

It then cuts east into Serbia with the major cities of Novi Sad and Belgrade on its banks. 

After flowing across Serbia, it then forms the border between Serbia and Romania. This section of the river actually carves gorges through mountains.

The river in this section is home to two of the larger hydroelectric plants in all of Europe. The Iron Gate I and Iron Gate II facilities. They are joint projects between Serbia and Romania. The Romanian side of the plant produces 5.24 TWh annually, while the Serbian side of the power station produces 5.65 TWh annually.

Serbia is considering another smaller dam called Iron Gate III.

The border between Serbia and Romania very quickly became the border between Romania and Bulgaria. 

After several hundred kilometers of running between the two countries, it turns north into Romania, where it will reach the Black Sea.

It empties into the Black Sea just south of the Ukrainian border with Romania, where the river creates the Danube delta. 

The Danube is still a major source of transportation for all of the countries that lie along it. However, it is more important for the landlocked countries along the river than it is for Romania and Bulgaria, which have their own ports on the Black Sea. 

Transportation along the river is highly susceptible to water levels, which can change in depth dramatically over the course of a year. When there is a lot of rain, it is difficult to navigate the river because it is hard to fit under the bridges. 

Likewise, when the river is low, it can be hard to travel because some spots are so shallow that nothing can pass. 2022 saw one of the biggest heat waves on Record in Europe. 

It caused water levels on the river to drop so far that sunken ships began appearing that no one knew were there. This included many German ships from its Black Sea fleet in World War II. 

One of the biggest changes in the river in recent years has been the rise in riverboat tourism. Riverboats are much smaller than ocean-going cruise vessels, often only holding about 100 passengers. These ships can arrive right in the middle of the city and provide immediate access to most tourist sights. 

One of the things that brought about this boom in riverboat tourism was a project that had been dreamed of for centuries but was finally completed in 1992: the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal. 

The other great river in Western Europe is the Rhine River. The idea of connecting the Rhine and the Danube goes back to the Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century.  

Connecting major waterways with an inland canal had been done for centuries. The Grand Canal in China connected the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The Erie Canal connected the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, and the Chicago Canal connected the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes. 

The Rhine–Main–Danube Canal connected the Main River, a major tributary of the Rhine, to the Danube. The canal is 171 kilometers or 106 miles long and has to rise 406 meters or 1,332 feet above sea level. That is the highest point on earth, where you can navigate a vessel that can be sailed from the sea.

The canal has a total of 16 locks to raise and lower ships.

The canal starts in the city of Bamberg on the river Main, goes through Nuremberg, and finally reaches Kelheim on the Danube. 

The canal means that you can travel by ship from the city of Rotterdam all the way to the Black Sea by water. 

Determining the economic value of the Danube River is difficult, but if you consider the fact that the tens of millions of people rely on the river for drinking water, plus all of the economic activity along the river, all of the transportation, tourism, and hydroelectric production, the total economic value of the river would easily be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. 

In addition to all of the economic activity, there are twenty-one national parks located along the river, multiple world heritage sites, and other protected historical and natural areas. 

The river has also served as a source of inspiration for artists throughout the years. The Danube School was a 16th century school of German landscape painting. Johann Strauss, composed The Blue Danube Waltz which was inspired by the river, and the Great Danube Adventure was one of the earliest travelogues published in 1838. 

What makes the Danube such an important river isn’t its size or the amount of water that flows through it, although it is much bigger than most rivers. What makes it special is the history and culture surrounding the river and the many countries along its banks that call it home.