Mysteries, monuments and medics on the Danube

Mike Wells is currently writing a series of cycling guides to the great rivers of Europe for Cicerone. His latest guide, the first part of a two-volume series describing the Danube Cycleway is published this month. This covers the first part of the Danube Cycleway from its source in Germany’s Black Forest to the great imperial city of Budapest passing through Germany, Austria and Hungary. Here he shares some of the stranger things he discovered along the way.

Some vital (and varying) statistics

How long is the Danube? An easy question you may think, but not so. A plaque at the Bregtal source (where my route starts) claims the river to be 2888km from source to sea; Wikipedia variously quotes the length at 2860km and 2872km; Encyclopaedia Britannica says 2850km. My own calculation using Google Earth and measuring the current main navigable channel is considerably shorter at 2709km. Over time the length has changed. Hydrological works to ease navigation, prevent flooding and construct hydro-electricity generating dams have all shortened the navigable length.

From a cyclist’s point of view what matters however is not how long the river is, rather it is how far is it to cycle the whole route? The answer is 2987km, 1270km of which lies between the source and Budapest.

Not only the length of the river, but the location of the source also has been challenged over the years. From Roman times the town of Donaueschingen claimed to be the source. The myth may date back to a Roman commander tasked with conquering all the territory south of the Danube who rather presumptuously sent a message to Rome declaring that he had reached the source when he reached Donaueschingen. Obstructed by the impenetrable Black Forest and confronted by hostile Germanic tribes, he then failed to get any further. Unwilling to admit he had misled the emperor he declared Donaueschingen to be the source and it has remained regarded as such for many centuries. During the 18th century a small spring beside the river was dedicated as the source bringing tourists into the town.

In fact, two tributaries, the Breg and Brigach join in Donaueschingen and below the confluence the river assumes the name Danube, but the true source is the Bregquelle spring that feeds the longer of these, the Breg, 40km away in the Black Forest. In 1965 the council in Furtwangen, nearest town to the true source, applied to have Bregquelle officially designated as the source. Objections by residents of Donaueschingen led to legal action and a compromise was reached whereby Bregquelle assumed the title ‘Danube headwater’ with the spring in Donaueschingen retaining the title ‘official source’. (To avoid any doubt, the route in my book visits both!)

Another strange phenomenon can be found 25km downstream from Donaueschingen between Immendingen and Möhringen – the Donauversickerung, a limestone area of sink holes and underground river systems where during periods of dry weather the Danube disappears underground leaving a dry riverbed which can be walked on or cycled across. The water flows south for 14km before reappearing at Aachquelle and flowing as the Aach into Bodensee (Lake Constance). Over time an underground network of streams has developed connecting the Danube and Rhine basins through the porous limestone. It is expected that at some time in the future all water in this stretch of the Danube will flow south into Bodensee and the Rhine and to prevent the Danube becoming permanently dry a watercourse has been constructed that captures some water above Immendingen and returns it to the river below the sinkholes.

Cycling across a dried riverbed
The cathedral at Ulm

Monuments and monarchs

The first city passed by the Danube, 242km below the source, is Ulm which grew up at a crossing point of north-south and east-west trading routes and today sits on the border between the German lander of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. Medieval Ulm had a flourishing early textile industry and city governance was controlled by local traders and guilds rather than titled rulers or church authorities. Wishing to promote their city they ordered the building of a huge cathedral, Ulm münster. Construction began in 1377, financed by these traders and guilds rather than catholic authorities. Fuelled by a booming local economy, building work continued through the 15th and early 16th centuries. However the joint effects of plague, protestant reformation and the fallout from the Thirty Years War caused construction to cease for over 200 years, only resuming in 1817. The münster was completed in 1890, financed by proceeds of the industrial revolution, and for a while boasted the tallest church spire in the world. Its 768 steps can be climbed, but the top section can seem quite airy in windy conditions.

In the wide Danube valley below Ulm sits the village of Blindheim, known in English as Blenheim, the site of a decisive battle during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). This was fought on 13 August 1704 between 48,000 French and Bavarian troops commanded by the Duke of Tallard who were marching east to attack Vienna; and 51,000 Alliance troops (English, Dutch, Prussian and Savoyard) commanded by the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugen of Savoy. The two armies met on the open plain north west of Blindheim. The result was a conclusive victory for the Alliance. After the end of fighting there were over 20,000 bodies on the battlefield and 300 years later farmers still unearth remains. In England, a grateful monarch rewarded Marlborough with a stately home, Blenheim Palace. In Germany a small plaque outside the church, another overgrown plaque by the main road and a lookout tower with a view of the battlefield are all that can be seen of this epic battlefield. The local population know little about the battle and although the site is near the cycle route it is difficult to find.

On the stretches of the Danube either side of Regensburg, Bavarian King Ludwig I has left his mark with two huge 19th-century monuments built to celebrate the German nation. Near Kelheim, the Befreiungshalle (Hall of Liberation) sits on a bluff high above the river. Commissioned by Ludwig to celebrate German liberation from Napoleon, and built by Leo von Klenze, it takes the form of a cylindrical drum with buttresses dividing it into 18 panels. Inside it contains 34 enormous winged angels with hands joined, an allegory about the individual German states coming together to defeat Napoleon at the battle of Leipzig on 18 October 1813. It opened 50 years after the battle in 1863.

Further downstream, on a hilltop beside the Danube near Donaustauf, is an imposing classical temple called Walhalla, a reproduction of the Athenian Parthenon. This was commissioned by Ludwig as a pantheon for Germanic heroes, also built by von Klenze and opened in 1842. Made of marble, with 348 marble steps leading to the entrance, it contains 130 marble busts and 65 plaques commemorating the great and the good of Germanic speaking peoples. Ludwig had a rather eclectic view of who was Germanic. While many are obviously German (including Beethoven, Bismarck, Goethe, Gutenberg, Handel, Luther, Schiller, Wagner and of course King Ludwig I himself) others have tenuous German connections. These include three English Kings (two Saxons, Alfred the Great and his grandfather Egbert, and William III of Orange), the Venerable Bede and a number of Flemish painters including van Dyck, and Rubens.

Two of Ludwig’s predecessors as rulers of Bavaria, 15th-century Duke Ernest and his son Albert (who later became Duke Albert III) left their mark in a very different way. At Vohburg there is a small statue commemorating Agnes Bernauer (1410–1435), a commoner who met Albert at the age of 18 and soon became his mistress. The duke objected, regarding the liaison as a threat to the succession and wanting his son to make a political marriage with a daughter of another ruling house. This led to the couple getting married in secret and living together for three years in Vohburg castle. When the Duke discovered the marriage he had Agnes arrested and taken to Straubing where she was declared to be a witch and drowned in the Danube. Soon afterwards, Albert married the daughter of the ruler of Brunswick. Agnes was buried in a chapel in St Peter’s church cemetery in Straubing, where the tombstone is still visible. An annual mass is celebrated in the chapel, paid for by the Bavarian state government. The Agnes Bernauer story has been retold many times, most notably in a play by Friedrich Hebbel and an opera by Carl Orff.

When you pass the impressive walls of Hainburg later in the journey, remember that they were paid for by English taxpayers!

On the subject of kings and dukes, at Dürnstein in the Austrian Wachau there is a statue of the English King Richard I (Richard Lionheart) and his personal troubadour Blondel. From 1190–1192 Richard together with King Phillip II of France and Duke Leopold V of Austria led a joint army on the Third Crusade to liberate Palestine from muslim control. During the expedition Richard offended Duke Leopold by refusing to let the duke’s banner fly over the captured city of Acre alongside English and French flags. As a result Leopold withdrew from the crusade and returned to Europe. This was to have consequences in 1192 when while travelling back to France via the Danube, Richard was captured by Leopold’s men. Imprisoned for three months in Kuenringer castle above Dürnstein, the duke demanded a huge ransom for his release, money which when paid went towards setting up the new Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt and strengthening the walls of Hainburg. The ransom bankrupted the English treasury and had to be paid by raising taxes.

Medical centres

Three of the towns passed through have interesting connections with medicine. Tuttlingen in Baden-Württemberg is the world’s leading centre for the production of surgical instruments and medical appliances. This started in 1867 when Gottfried Jetter began production of medical equipment. Nowadays a cluster of over 300 companies produce 50 per cent of worldwide output. The medical connection at Ingolstadt in Bavaria is more gruesome. The old school of anatomy within the university was chosen by Mary Shelley as one of the settings for her best-selling novel Frankenstein. Here the anatomical theatre with its dissecting table and specimens needed for teaching purposes were used by Victor Frankenstein to create his monster. Nowadays the building hosts the German museum for the history of medicine.

In Mosonmagyaróvár (Hungary) the focus is on oral health. The reopening of trading links since the fall of communism, has led to a boom in dentistry. With 350 practitioners, the town has the highest number of dentists per head in the world. Clients are attracted not only from nearby Austria, where dental treatment is considerably more expensive than in Hungary, but also worldwide flying in via Vienna and Bratislava airports.

Horses in a traditional Hungarian stable

The home of horsemanship

Hungary is well-known for horses and horsemen. The national sport is carriage driving and puszta displays (horsemanship shows) can be found throughout the country. Perhaps the greatest centre for horse breeding is at Bábolna, which owes its early existence to being a stop-over point on the drove road by which cattle and horses from the Hungarian plains were herded to market in Austria. This early connection with animal livestock led the way in 1789 to the foundation of a horse breeding and stud farm to provide horses and cattle for the Hungarian army.

In 1836 an Arabian stallion named Shagya was imported from Syria and this horse became the progenitor of a breed of thoroughbreds now recognised all over Europe. In addition to the stud, a military riding academy was established and Bábolna became a centre of equine activity. The complex of buildings, which today thrives as the Hungarian National Stud, can be visited. Guests can stay at the old Imperial Guest House, located in the historical stud yard and wander freely around the stables unescorted. Can you imagine that being allowed at Newmarket?

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