Through an office window at a modern art museum near Bratislava, Nina Zackova watches elegant water birds soar above the Danube and contemplates her remarkably romantic work environment.
”Water, birds, sky,” she says with a sigh. ”This is the most beautiful place to work.”
Like 80-million other Europeans who inhabit this grand river valley, and millions in millennia past, Zackova is Danube-dreaming.
Her eyes and thoughts are irresistibly drawn to a river that generously waters the continent with a natural aura — an inspiration for songs, artists, lovers and some of the world’s most scenic cities.
Those lucky enough to live or work near the Danube are constantly reminded of its influence.
Fishermen in Belgrade, ferrymen in Passau, joggers in Vienna, ship builders in Komarno and even winos on Budapest park benches experience the river with all their senses as it rolls mightily from south-west Germany to the Black Sea.
At the far eastern end, ethnic Russians scrape out a living in a Danube swamp village built on stilts.
Founded in the 18th century by religious people fleeing persecution, Vilkovo is poor but surviving, thanks to the abundant wildlife roaming the vast Delta and an occasional dollar from tourist groups on passing river cruisers.
Serhy Kononov (43) says his family has lived along the lower Danube for generations. A decade ago, he was gainfully employed as a stevedore in the port, Izmail, but since the business collapsed he’s had to rely on the river to feed his family.
”People here hunt and fish because they need to eat,” said Kononov, adding that poaching and smuggling are also common in Vilkovo. ”All the laws in the world aren’t going to stop them from using their part of the Danube to feed their families.”
Farther west in Belgrade, fishermen called alasi follow a routine that’s changed little over hundreds of years.
It starts with the purchase of bait such as maggots or crickets at a night market under the city’s Pancevo bridge, and includes a choppy ride on an old boat to a favourite fishing nook.
Alasi like to recount a famous Serb tale of a giant catfish named ”Baba” that supposedly lurks in the 60m water in the Djerdap gorge.
The fish and its ancestors — Askurdjel, Sukurdjel and Sukurdov, to name a few — are said to drown men by pulling them off their boats.
Sophisticated Budapest is in tune with the river as a recreation attraction.
Cruise boats ferry tourists to the many small islands around the Hungarian capital, while the city’s leafy north side brims with boat yards and a thriving community of bars and restaurants to feed hungry hordes on sunny afternoons.
Urban ”beaches” appear in summertime, bringing the incongruous sight of sunbathers basking as cars zip past on an embankment a metre from their heads. The beaches support vendors selling drinks to the hot crowds who dare not venture into the dirty and often dangerous river.
In western Slovakia’s river valley, Igor Janits runs a camping ground for sport fishermen hoping to snag the granddaddy of Danube delights — a giant carp.
Scientists say the river was the original home of the European carp now grown across the continent in fish-farm ponds.
”I would recommend my lifestyle to anyone from the city,” says Janits (41). ”Here is the quiet, beautiful nature where you can leave the noise and stress behind.”
Of course, even busy city dwellers in Bratislava, Vienna, Linz and Regensburg can see the river’s legendary blue tint from the comfort of their cars and watch the fog lift on a spring morning outside apartment windows.
The 130Ã‚Â 000 people crammed into Bratislava’s stark, communist-era Petrzalka housing estate enjoy a great view of the Danube and live just a short walk from the Stary Haj nature area, which teems with beavers and rare birds.
Zackova’s enviable perspective from the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum combines comfort and a view.
The museum was built in 1999 on a peninsula that juts into the water like a Roman galley ship — a reminder that the Danube was a northern border of the ancient Roman empire and that its valley has been inhabited for a very long time.
On the Danube ”the elements and art come together”, Zackova says, gazing out the window. ”There is a connection between arts and sunshine, air and water.” — Sapa-DPA