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A quiet time exploring Germany’s heartlands

There were no passenger ferries on the Main–Danube Canal, and time was running out. Reluctantly, we decided to go on to Regensburg by train in order to continue our journey on the Danube river itself by passenger ferry.

We could be accused of taking the soft option. Regensburg is the only major medieval city in Germany to survive the wars of the 20th century intact, and it shows. The buildings, passages and squares are a delight to stroll around. It sits comfortably on the banks of the Danube, with fine bridges offering classic views. And of course there are no shortages of coffee houses, bars and restaurants. It was a treat to stay there.

Magris notes that it is a city of eulogy and nostalgia:

The churches, the towers, the noble houses,
the carved figures, all speak to us of the majesty
of the past, of a glory that can only be remembered and never possessed, which has always been and never will be.

We strolled across the Stone Bridge. The Danube looked high, wide and dark. And mostly benign, I noted, – placid with a steady current, amenable to leisure boating. A vintage paddle steamer housed a fascinating museum of river life and times, highlighting the Danube’s long history of navigation and commerce. The volunteer curator told us of unwritten wartime stories involving clandestine Allied efforts (masterminded by Ian Fleming, no less) to blow up the Iron Gates in order to disrupt shipping. The files were in London, he claimed, but never re-opened …

We took a passenger boat trip to Walhalla, the improbably grand Doric temple built by Ludwig of Bavaria in 1842, high on the wooded banks of the Danube, to house sculptures portraying Germany’s finest. It looks like a supreme neo-Grecian folly, a Parthenon sitting alone in a natural parkland – an isolated hall of fame. We were not inclined to go ashore and ascend the lengthy steps to visit it. Yet Walhalla’s history is more interesting than its pompous visage suggests. It was created to redeem Germany’s national pride, crushed by Napoleon in 1806, by honouring the people who contributed to its culture and identity, recognising that they were linked by language rather than an ever-changing geographical boundary. There were obvious choices – from Frederick the Great to Haydn, Kant and Goethe – but the selection process was bound to generate deeply contentious arguments. Nevertheless, Walhalla succeeded in creating, in Neil MacGregor’s words, ‘a National Portrait Gallery as a step to national liberation’. And the inclusion of Alfred the Great, hero of ancient Wessex, is a salutary reminder of the wide spread of Germanic roots.

Walhalla is the kind of building that you might expect in a great city such as Berlin, Munich or Cologne. Yet perched high on the banks of the Danube it perhaps sends a signal that we are moving to more peripheral parts of the historical nation, away from the heartlands of the Rhine – this is after all where the old forest tribes of the Huns and other tribes kept the Romans at bay along the Danube. It certainly reinforced the feeling that we were travelling into a very different part of Europe.

Regensburg was a star turn. But we still had a problem. Wurm and Koch ran a passenger service out of Regensburg only a few times a year – and nothing for weeks.We would have to journey to Passau to catch their weekly trip to Linz.

When the 14.00 train to Passau was cancelled, we were beginning to think that our choice of transport mode was looking a bit frayed at the edges. We had already skipped the Main–Danube Canal, and now we were leap-frogging another 160km or so down the river Danube itself …

The navigable Danube

Eventually, at 16.40 we arrived at Passau. Once again we found ourselves in a beautiful waterside town, with no less than three rivers converging on its peninsular site. As in Bamberg and Regensburg, the Dom and Altstadt were strikingly impressive. Cobbled streets and waterside footpaths provided endless invitations to explore. Our Danube pilgrimage was being cushioned by the most delightful riverside oases.

In the past the river had been used here for transporting salt and other local products. Passau had been a significant commercial port. Now it was mainly a river station for pleasure cruisers.

So next morning we were outside Wurm and Koch’s offices at 08.00, ready to purchase our tickets for the trip downriver to Linz. It was cool, windy and grey, but a steadily growing crowd of passengers was filling up the quayside. Once again, the boat would not be empty.

At last we cast off. We were on the Danube proper, heading steadily downstream on the big river, flanked by thickly forested, steep-sided banks. Although there were swift currents near the locks and weirs, the navigable channel looked reasonably placid, flanked by small villages and boat havens – a cruising paradise. It felt like paradise on board too, with swelling groups of trippers enjoying the views and a warming sun, which was clearing the grey clouds and delivering the appropriate holiday atmosphere on deck. Some of the groups seemed quite large, and almost ‘professional’ in their participation and enjoyment of the voyage. They were old hands.

On deck a young American from South Carolina named Travis joins us for drinks on deck and tells us of his search for relatives in middle Europe. He is spending some time travelling around Europe and is good company, pleased to share his story with us.

‘This is like a dream,’ he says. ‘I’ve been planning this for years. I’m just fascinated to know where my folks came from.’

‘How long have you got,’ I ask.

‘Oh I’m going to spend several months wandering around the middle of Europe,’ comes his casual reply. He is not wealthy and I admire his curiosity and determination to explore his roots. I wish him luck.

The boat cruises on, passengers crowding at the front of the deck to watch progress along the river. There is much less commercial traffic than on the Rhine, and the sense of leisured time passing is even more palpable.

It was time for a cool Riesling or two on deck, and some light lunch. Soon we would leave the wooded banks of the river and head into the broad approaches and bridges of Linz. Docking at the wide quays of the Donaupark, this was where our journey ended for this year. Peter headed off for the station and I booked into a hotel for a last evening.

Book coverFlanked by modern steel and chrome buildings, Linz offers cutting-edge technology and culture that do well to offset its darker past. This was where Hitler celebrated his return to Austria – the Anschluss – and where he fantasised a re-planning of the city, even in the final days of the Berlin bunker. A much worse fantasy was played out for real at the nearby concentration camp of Mauthausen, a vast granite quarry where over 100,000 perished in appalling conditions. I did not have the heart or the stomach to visit this monument to unspeakable cruelty.

Today, Linz is a fine city with excellent trams which take you round the main square and surrounding older districts. I walked along the main streets of the city, later dining on pike-perch and potatoes at one of its oldest pubs near my traditional hotel on the Hautplatz. Next day I would be heading back to London by train.

We had now of course reached Austria. We had made a good if not wholly joined-up start on the Danube. From Linz passenger boats journey downstream to Vienna, and on to Bratislava in Slovakia and Budapest in Hungary. The Balkans and the Black Sea would then beckon. But all that would have to wait till next year.

Extracted from Slow Boats to Europe by Trevo Cherrett. Order your copy here.

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