The Danube River is the 2nd largest river in Europe, surpassed only by the Volga River, making it the largest river in the European Union. It is the longest—flowing over 2880 kilometers from its source at the convergence of the Breg and Brigach streams at Donaueschingen in Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea—and also one of the most important physical geographic features in Central Europe. As a national border, trade corridor, cultural boundary, drinking water source, technological advancement, and a wonder of natural beauty, the Danube was, is, and always will be a point of pride for many of the populations who reside on its shores.
The only river in Europe to flow from West to East, the Danube originates in Donaueschingen in Germany’s Black Forest region where two smaller streams converge. The river then begins to flow along its first course through the Black Forest into Austria, where it then forms the border between Austria and Slovakia, and between Slovakia and Hungary, continuing through Hungary until it reaches the Hungarian Gates. There, the river narrows and begins its second course, through Hungary, into Croatia, into Serbia, where it then forms the border between Serbia and Romania, and between Romania and Bulgaria, until it reaches the Iron Gate in the Southern Romanian Carpathian Mountains. It is here that the Danube narrows again before emptying into the Romanian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian estuary that allows the river to empty into the Black Sea.
Over 300 tributaries feed into the main river, including the Sava in Hungary, the Drava in Croatia, and the Tisza in Slovakia. The Danube River Basin drains 315,000 square miles of Europe and consists of 19 countries, making it the most international river basin in the world. 2/3 of the water flowing down the Danube originated from melting alpine snow in Germany’s Black Forest Mountains. This alpine source gives the Danube its sparkling blue/green color (depending on who you ask), forever preserved in Johann Strauss’s 1867 waltz.
Throughout history, the Danube has been used as a trade corridor, a transportation route—often the mode of transportation sought by emperors and empresses, and a natural boundary between the rival Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. For this reason, the banks of the Danube are home to 4 European capitals—Vienna, Austria; Bratislava, Slovakia; Budapest, Hungary; and Belgrade, Serbia. Downstream from Belgrade, the flooding of the Danube was too dangerously unpredictable and uncontrollable to establish capital cities.
The Danube’s role in the creation of the Europe we know today is indisputable. The Danube served as the Northernmost border of the Roman Empire through 454AD, protecting the Romans on its southern banks from the Barbarians on its northern banks. During the time of the Hapsburgs, it was due to the Danube that the Austrian and Hungarian Empires were united; and it was along the Danube that wars between that great empire and their Ottoman rivals were waged. In the 20th century, the Danube saw the horrors of both world wars firsthand; suffered the trade implications of communist rule; experienced additional bloodshed during the Yugoslav wars of Independence; and finally celebrated the end of (most) hostility by the turn of the millennium.
Since 2000, the Danube has been returned to its former glory and import in the world. It has been designated “Corridor VII” of the European Union, and the series of 16 locks and various canals along the river created after WWII have prevented flooding and managed river traffic to ensure the sustainability of the river. Currently, the Danube acts as a source of hydroelectric power, a haven for the fishing industry, a facilitator trade, and a thoroughfare of cultural education. A number of UNESCO sites are located on its banks, and the tourism industry flourishes thanks to Danube river cruises which offer to take you through the “cultural heart of Europe.”
The Danube is merely one case study in how physical geographic features can take on new meaning—how spaces can become places. Living in Vienna this semester, I have come to find that this most elementary geographical thought is truly embraced by the Viennese people and their love of their most prized geography, “Die Schöne Blaue Donau.”