Danube Cycleway - Cycling Through History

Choose to enjoy the Danube Cycleway and not only will you experience some incredible scenery and fairly easy cycling on this 2987km route but you will journey through some momentous historical landmarks. Mike Wells explains more...

As the major river of central and south-eastern Europe, the Danube has played a significant role in the history of the continent, first as a border, then as an invasion route and later as an important transport and trade artery.

A Roman frontier

The first civilisation to recognise the importance of the river was the Romans. After pushing north over the Alps, they arrived on the banks of the Danube around 15bc. Seeing the value of a natural and defendable northern border to protect their empire from barbarian tribes, the Romans established fortified settlements along the river from Germany all the way to the Black Sea; the largest of these on the section covered by this guide being Castra Regina (Regensburg), Vindobona (Vienna), Carnuntum (near Hainburg), Brigetio (Komárom) and Aquincum (near Budapest). The border area was known to the Romans as the Limes and settlements were connected by a series of roads. In Germany, the Romans advanced across the Danube as far as the River Main in ad75, but withdrew again in ad263. By the end of the fourth century the Romans were coming under sustained pressure from barbarian tribes from the north and east. Consequently their legions were withdrawn from the Danube frontier around the turn of the fifth century ending over 400 years of Roman rule.

The gates that once marked the Iron Curtain are now permanently open
The gates that once marked the Iron Curtain are now permanently open

The Holy Roman Empire

After a period of tribal infighting, by ad650 the region had settled into three kingdoms: the Franks controlling the upper Danube (modern-day German territory), Slavic tribes in control of the middle river (modern-day Austria) and Avars (nomadic tribes from central Asia) controlling the Carpathian basin (modern-day Hungary). During the reign of Charlemagne (ad768 to ad814) the Frankish territories were greatly expanded in all directions, including east into the Slavic lands, which were renamed the Öster Reich (eastern empire) and repopulated with emigrants from Bavaria. In recognition of his power over much of Europe, Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in ad800.
After Charlemagne’s death, his territories became divided with the eastern part becoming the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), with Otto I (ad972) the first in a line of emperors that was to last until 1806. Although the territories of the HRE extended right across central Europe and down into Italy, the HRE was never a politically unified state. Rather it was a loose confederation of hundreds of principalities, duchies, free imperial cities, bishoprics and other demesnes, the leaders of which (collectively known as ‘electors’) came together occasionally to elect one of their number as emperor – an early, although very limited, form of democracy. Over time the larger stronger states came to dominate this arrangement and after 1438 the Austrian Habsburg rulers more or less assumed the title of Holy Roman Emperor.
One of the major threats to the unity of the HRE was religious division, the growth of Protestant dissent resulting eventually in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which pitched Catholic states within the HRE against Protestant ones. Neighbouring countries were drawn in; indeed in Württemberg most of the damage was wrought by Swedish troops. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the war, an estimated eight million people had died as a result of fighting, famine, disease and population upheaval. In some towns 75 per cent of the population died and it took almost 100 years for populations to return to pre-war levels. A result was further decline in the central unifying influence and power of the HRE. The French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) described the Holy Roman Empire as ‘neither Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire’.

The Danube Cycleway by Mike Wells

The Magyars are celebrated in Budapest Heroes Square

Hungary and the Magyars

Between ad895 and ad907, the Avars in Hungary were succeeded by another wave of nomadic tribes from central Asia. The Magyars, led by Árpád, settled the country between various tribal groups. In 1000 the conversion to Catholic Christianity of King Istvan I (Stephen I), who was canonised as Szent Istvan, and adoption of western European script and methods of government, established Hungary as a European nation. Over the next 500 years a succession of kings steadily expanded the Hungarian Kingdom and by the beginning of the 16th century it included all of modern-day Slovakia, much of Croatia and parts of Austria, Poland, Serbia, Romania and Ukraine. However, a peasants’ revolt in 1514 and disputes between the king and his nobles left the country in a weak position between two other powerful empires, the Ottoman Turks and Austrian Habsburgs.

Ottoman Turks

Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) was captured by the Islamic Ottoman Turks in 1453 and over the following decades they continued to move north into the Balkans. In 1525 the Ottomans, who had long held ambitions to extend their territories across the Balkans into central Europe, formed an alliance with France aimed at confronting the power of the Habsburg-dominated Holy Roman Empire. Having taken Belgrade (1521), then a Hungarian city, Turkish forces were well placed to march upon the Habsburg capital Vienna. To do so they had first to conquer Hungary. In 1526 the advancing Turks routed a Hungarian army, commanded by King Ladislaus II, at the Battle of Mohács, and although the king managed to escape he drowned crossing the river. Many Serbs and Hungarians fled before the arrival of the Ottomans who captured Budapest unopposed and went on to lay siege to Vienna in 1529, but they failed to capture it. The death of Ladislaus, who had no heir, marked the end of the independent Hungarian Kingdom, the crown passing by marriage to the Austrian Habsburgs, who ruled what was left of the country from Pressburg (modern-day Bratislava).
For nearly 160 years the Ottoman Turks controlled the Hungarian Danube basin, ruling over a mainly empty land, the Christian population having either fled or been slaughtered. A number of attempts to push further into western Europe were unsuccessful, culminating in defeat at the second siege of Vienna (1683) a battle that was hailed by the Catholic church as the final victory of Christianity over Islam in Europe. The Ottoman Turks were gradually pushed back through Hungary by Habsburg forces, before being expelled altogether after the Battle of Belgrade (1688).

The Habsburgs

The House of Habsburg, which originated in 11th-century Switzerland, came to prominence when Rudolf von Habsburg became king of Germany (1273) and Duke of Austria (1282). After becoming the dominant force in the HRE, a series of dynastic marriages expanded Habsburg power over Spain and its American colonies, Burgundy, the Netherlands, Bohemia and much of Italy. Along the Danube they controlled Austria itself, the Austrian Vorland (modern Württemberg) and Slovakia after 1526. When Prince Eugene of Savoy, commanding Habsburg forces, drove Turkish forces out of Hungary in 1688, Hungary and its territories in Croatia, Serbia and Transylvania all came under Habsburg rule. The Danube was the major transport corridor linking this empire together and there are many towns along the river that can claim ‘the emperor stayed here’. After the death of Archduke Charles VI (1740), his daughter Maria Theresa became Archduchess and her husband, Francis Stephan, Holy Roman Emperor. Many of the great imperial buildings of the region date from this period including Schönbrunn palace in Vienna.

The Danube Cycleway by Mike Wells

Befreiungshalle above Kelheim was built to commemorate German liberation from Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte

Despite ruling France for only 16 years, Napoleon (1769–1821) had a greater influence on the political and legal structures of Europe than any other person. Rising to power after the disruptions of the French Revolution, a series of military campaigns saw Napoleon gain control of much of western and central Europe. After defeating Austrian and Russian forces at Austerlitz (1805) he forced Austria to surrender and took control of the Habsburg territories. Napoleon is often credited with redrawing the map of Europe. By sweeping away the multiplicity of small states that formed the HRE, he effectively ended the Empire. Germany was reorganised into 40 states making up the Confederation of the Rhine, while the territories of the Austrian Vorland were amalgamated with neighbouring states into the Duchy of Baden. Only Bavaria, an ally of France, maintained its independence. Perhaps the longest lasting of Napoleonic reforms was the Code Napoleon, a civil legal code that was adopted throughout the conquered territories and remains today at the heart of the European legal system. When he was defeated in 1814 and 1815 by the combined forces of the UK, Russia, Austria and Prussia, the latter was one of two German states that emerged in a strong position (the other was Bavaria). These two states stepped into the void created by the end of the HRE, with the Bavarians extending their territory across much of southern Germany.

Two Great Empires

Following the fall of Napoleon, the Habsburgs strengthened their control over Austria and Hungary. In 1848 a violent uprising seeking Hungarian independence was put down by Austria and Russia. However, Hungary did gain a measure of self-government under the overall rule of the emperor, with the Habsburg possessions being restructured in 1867 as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Germany, Prussia (which had never been part of the HRE) emerged as the dominant force under ‘Iron Chancellor’ Bismarck and, after merging with Bavaria following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), it became the Deutsches Reich (German Empire).
These two empires both had strong militaristic tendencies and, following unrest in the Balkans, they allied themselves against the UK, France and Russia. The First World War (1914–1918), fought between these two alliances, resulted in little or no action in the upper Danube basin, most of the military conflict being in France, Russia, Italy and Turkey.

The Treaty of Versailles and its consequences

The Treaty of Versailles (with Germany), Treaty of St Germain (with Austria) and the Trianon Treaty (with Hungary), which ended the war, had an enormous effect on both Austria-Hungary and Germany. The Habsburgs lost their throne after over 600 years of rule and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled, with Romania and the new countries of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia taking much of its territory. In Germany the effect was mostly economic, large reparation payments leading to national bankruptcy and political unrest. The Nazi party, founded in Bavaria and led by Adolf Hitler, took advantage of this upheaval, taking power in Germany in 1933 with a policy that included overturning Versailles and expanding German territory. A referendum in Austria (1938) led to the anschluss (political union) between Germany and Austria under Nazi control. German invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland led to the Second World War (1939–1945), with Hungary, seeking to regain territory lost in Trianon, joining the German-Austrian Axis. During the war, Nazi anti-semitic actions led to the enslavement or slaughter of six million Jews in concentration camps including that at Mauthausen.

The Iron Curtain and communism

Defeat in the war led to the Danube basin coming under the control of the victorious Allied powers, with Baden-Württemberg occupied by France, Bavaria and Oberösterreich by the US and Niederösterreich, Czechoslovakia and Hungary by soviet Russia. While the West German and Austrian states soon regained independent nationhood, Czechoslovakia and Hungary remained under soviet control. Communist governments were imposed with private property expropriated by the state and farming collectivised. The border between soviet-controlled eastern Europe and western Europe was heavily fortified by Russia with a line of defences described by Winston Churchill as an ‘iron curtain’ (crossed on Stage 23). Despite uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), neither country obtained independence until 1989.

European Union

Germany was one of the original signatories to the Treaty of Rome (1957), which established the European Economic Community (EEC) and led to the European Union (EU). Austria acceded to the treaty in 1995 with both Slovakia (which had seceded from Czechoslovakia in 1993) and Hungary joining in 2004. All four countries have also signed the Schengen agreement allowing barrier-free trade and travel within the Schengen zone. As a result there are now no border controls anywhere along the route. Both Austria and Germany were founder members of the Eurozone currency union, with the economic success of Slovakia since independence allowing it to join in 2009. Although Austria, Germany and Slovakia appear wedded to the European project, in Hungary there is a strong nationalistic movement that dreams unrealistically of returning the country to the pre-Trianon borders of Greater Hungary.

As history has shown, this is not the first time that the whole of the upper and middle Danube has been politically unified. The Romans, Habsburgs and Nazis all forced unity upon the region; this time unity has been achieved by democratic means!

The Danube Cycleway Volume 1 - Front Cover

The Danube Cycleway Volume 1

From the source in the Black Forest to Budapest


The first in a two-volume set, this guidebook describes cycling the first 1269km of the Danube river from its source in the Black Forest to Budapest, passing through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. Suitable for all levels of cyclist, the route visits the great cities of Vienna and Bratislava before arriving in the Hungarian capital.

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