Breakfast with the Archduke was a perfunctory affair. It was, however, taken in the breakfast kitchen, which took some finding in the labyrinthine Schloss (castle) at Persenbeug, Austria. I already knew the location of the dinner kitchen – we’d had dinner adjacent to it, out on the balcony above the Danube, the previous evening – but the breakfast kitchen was somewhere in the west wing and, to find it, I found myself ‘hullooing’ down corridors, feeling like Winnie the Pooh lost in the Hundred Acre Wood.
In fact, woods were on Alex von Habsburg-Lothringen’s mind, too, and a lot more than 100 acres of them. The Habsburg estate includes 54 sq miles of forest, and the Archduke apologised over a hasty coffee for having to leave pronto to attend a forestry meeting. Meanwhile, his wife, Marie-Gabrielle, Countess of Waldstein, was in her tracksuit, ready for the gym. They wished me luck with the rest of my travels – but would I mind letting myself out? And so, 20 minutes later, we’d all dispersed: he to his paper trees, she to her exercise machines, and me to my bicycle.
I’d long wanted to do a journey down the Danube, inspired by travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who followed its entire course back in 1933. The river is, after all, Europe’s Amazon. It rises in Germany’s Black Forest and is the only watercourse to head from west to east, travelling 1,765 miles and passing through nine countries – more than any other river in the world – before finally making its exit into the Black Sea. And yet most people have only the vaguest of ideas what it passes, who lives beside it, and where it goes. My intention was to set the record straight.
I travelled the first 620 miles on a bicycle, which I bought at a lost-property auction in the small town of Donaueschingen, in Germany’s Black Forest. This is where the Danube begins, at a spring that bubbles out of the ground between the town’s palace and its brewery. These days, the spring has been railed in to make a little pool surrounded with balustrades, which tourists treat as a wishing well, throwing coins into the water. I did the same, thinking, as my euro sank out of sight, that too many coins could clog up the spring and leave me high and dry without a river to follow. The idea made me smile, but I shouldn’t have been so frivolous, because 12 miles east of Donaueschingen, it vanishes completely into an underground system of watercourses, leaving behind a weedy, puddled riverbed that only really fills up during seasons of heavy rain. Nobody had warned me that the Danube disappears.
Fortunately, this weedy bed is slowly replenished by tributaries, and then, for the next 18 miles, the reborn river wanders through a lovely pastoral landscape, burrowing through a limestone gorge just west of the town of Sigmaringen. Here, I met my first Danube aristocrat, Prince Karl Friedrich von Hohenzollern, a rather proper, formal businessman in a suit from Savile Row, in his castle on top of a rock. Danube aristocracy (which includes the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, whose British branch changed its name to Windsor) are big hitters in European history, and the riverbank is rich in imposing residences, many of them still lived in by the likes of the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs – the same families who built them.
In the account of his journey along the river some 75 years earlier, Leigh Fermor wrote that castles were seldom out of sight in the Upper Danube. Many of his days would end with the spying of a ‘small and nearly amphibian schloss mouldering in the failing light’, which would turn out to be lived in by the ‘widowed descendant of the lady-in-waiting of Charlemagne’.
Full of admiration for Leigh Fermor’s journey and eager to follow in his footsteps, I made it my business to try to meet as many Danube aristocrats as possible, which is how I ended up a guest of the Habsburgs, why I arranged to meet the Hohenzollerns, and how I found myself in the company of Wenckheims, Hunyadys, Karolyis and Kalnokys as my river journey progressed. The latter had parents or grandparents who had fled the spread of communism, and who were only now trickling back to reclaim their crumbling manor houses.
As the river progresses, so its towns grow. First comes Ulm, with its giant cathedral tower, followed by Ingolstadt, headquarters of Audi, and then Regensburg, the Pope’s home town, with a waterside like a medieval engraving, not to mention monasteries, cathedrals and the world’s oldest sausage restaurant.
It begins to get busy with shipping, too. Barges push through from northern Europe, thanks to the Main-Danube Canal, but even more plod upstream from downriver countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Ukraine. These are the workhorses of what the EU calls the Danube Corridor, which has by now become a giant surging watercourse the colour of cowpats.
Passau – a favourite of the river-cruise business – was where I crossed my first border. Wedged on a narrowing V of land between the Danube and the river Inn, the city looks like something of a cruise liner itself, with steeples and bell towers masquerading as masts and funnels. Just downriver, Austria begins and here the river is at its most bucolic, particularly in the Wachau, where the banks steepen and are strung with ancient, hand-tended vineyards and orchards. The cycle path is lined with Heurigen, informal wine bars, where you can sample the local Grüner Veltliner. This is a place for going slow.
Be awed by the Danube's dangerous side on the next page.