Like a sturgeon, British writer NICK THORPE takes an upstream journey to tell the tale of life along the Danube River.Thanks to Johann Strauss II and his famous waltz, the Danube River is considered the world over to be blue. Period. But British writer Nick Thorpe paints a far more nuanced portrait of Europe’s mighty river and the people who live along it in his engaging new book, The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Yale University Press, $35).
As a veteran East and Central Europe correspondent for the BBC and a longtime resident of Budapest, Hungary, Thorpe feels at home in those lands along the lower Danube that languished for decades behind the Iron Curtain and are still viewed warily by the West. “Western Europeans are reluctant to see Eastern Europeans on an equal footing,” Thorpe tells American Way. “In the book, I was trying to strike a new balance.”
Thorpe spent a year traveling the entire 1,777-mile length of the river from east to west by boat and car and on foot and on bike. Like Will Rogers, Thorpe never meets a man he doesn’t like during his 10-country journey upriver. He talks sturgeon with Romanian fishermen, visits a Roma fortuneteller, ponders the ancient Vinča culture with a Serbian archeologist and learns from Hungarian field hands how to pick the perfect paprika pepper.
“I’ve always been struck by the remarkable stories that people have to tell in Eastern Europe,” Thorpe says. “These are countries that have been overrun many times by different armies and occupied much more often than the more fortunate countries in western or northern Europe. The color, the emotion and the powerful history of these countries is what drew me here in the first place — and what has kept me here.”
Thorpe lets the landscape help tell the larger tales: the dams that changed the local ecosystem, the war memorials that mark spots where battle scars run centuries deep. After every shore excursion, though, Thorpe returns to the river’s edge to capture the Danube’s ever-changing moods: silver-green like velvet; dark green like jade; and once, just once, a rare Strauss blue.