Book Review: Upriver With Nick Thorpe

A veteran BBC journalist paints a portrait of centuries of culture and change in Central and Eastern Europe

Based in Budapest, Nick Thrope has spent two decades reporting from the many lands along the Danube Illustration: Katharina Klein

Based in Budapest, Nick Thrope has spent two decades reporting from the many lands along the Danube – Illustration: Katharina Klein

“These are the stories of the people of the Danube, and their dark dreamy river,” announces Nick  Thorpe at the beginning of a work that oozes with love for one of the world’s great arteries and is brought to life by the eccentricities and warmth of the diverse people who live by its banks.

Thorpe, a veteran BBC journalist, lives but a stone’s throw from the Danube in Budapest, and has spent two decades reporting on the Danube nations such as Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and indeed Austria.

He weaves that extensive back catalogue of knowledge into The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest, but the backbone of the story is a meandering journey from March 2011 to March 2012 upriver, from “Mile Zero” at Sulina on Romania’s Black Sea coast to Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, the confluence recognised as the Danube’s source.

But why does he travel against the flow and the prevailing winds?

Well, apart from the prosaic reasoning that, unusually, the Danube’s length is measured from the mouth, and the need to tell a different story – from previous Danube travellers from 19th century traveller F.D. Millet, to Patrick Leigh Fermour to Claudio Magris – there is also Thorpe’s significant conviction that the flow of history was westward not eastward:

“Europe was populated and ‘civilised’ from the east,” he reminds us, and sets out to present a western English-speaking audience with his more eastern perspective, gained from his decades of scouring the Danube’s banks for stories:

“It seems high time,” he writes, “to cast new light on a continent as people coming from the east see it, rising early in the morning, casting their own shadow.”

Besides, as an elderly Romanian fishermen reminds him, that’s the direction that the sturgeon swim as they head upriver to spawn.

Centuries of Ottoman domination

Thorpe’s is an erudite book told with the fluency, simplicity and vivid colour of a trained radio journalist.

It’s a book that flows with the epic history that has shaped our continent.

We learn of the early Anatolian settlers, the Copper Age innovators, the advanced culture of the ancient Dacians, the Romans, and of Sari Saltuq, a dragon-slaying great Muslim leader who, legend has it, arrived in Romania “with forty warriors by flying carpet from Anatolia.”

Such legendary figures set the stage for centuries of Ottoman domination of south-east Europe.

“The Danube carried the Islamic faith upriver into Europe,” writes Thorpe, who tells of the drunken, looting Christian crusading knights who lost their lives at Nikopol in Bulgaria in 1386.

He also relates the more recent slaughter and rebuilding at Vukovar in Croatia, where, after the killing of the 1990s wars, pigeons have now occupied a water tower once mercilessly shelled by the Serbs: “The doves of peace have taken over Vukovar’s war monument.”

But it is not the broad sweep of time that makes this book so seductive, it is rather the timelessness of some of the scenes along the Danube, particularly in the early chapters. 

The starring role in this book goes not to the military leaders, but rather the simple characters that link the Danube’s present to its past.

Reedcutters such as Adrian Oprisan, who gives  Thorpe a ride past the floating islands of the Danube Delta: “ The islands rise and fall with the tide or the flood waters. When you cut reed all day, the tree which seemed so tall in the early morning has shrunk to a bush by lunch time.”

The author meets goatherds and fishermen and watches a Roma family moulding copper pots over a hearth.

Along with the history and politics, this year-long journey is a lot of fun. 

Thorpe seems to eat such an extraordinary amount of fish washed down with so many local wines that I begin to worry about his liver. “I wanted to be able to see and smell the Danube on every page,” says Thorpe.

Dying ways of river life

There is also sadness in the book – a sense of loss.  The Danube chronicles the remnants of dying ways of life. 

The sturgeon, the river’s iconic giant fish, were so plentiful in Roman times that caviar was considered food to feed the poor, but they have been decimated by overfishing.

Stocks have been also hit hard by a hydroelectric project at the Iron Gates built by Romania and Yugoslavia that has cut them off from their spawning grounds.

Nowadays fishermen can go a lifetime without ever seeing one in the Danube: “ These fish have swum beneath the waters of the earth ten times longer than man has run along the surface,” writes Thorpe.

It’s the old men with stories of Hemingway-esque struggles with the great sturgeon; their children and grandchildren realise there is little future left in fi shing. 

Thorpe meets the exiles of Ada Kaleh, an island community consisting mostly of ethnic Turks where even in the 1960s the men wore fezzes.

The community had survived the meanderings of hundreds of years of turbulent history, swapped between powers but maintaining their unique identity, until the island was destroyed by the same hydroelectric project in 1968. 

The old mosque and the ancient fortress are gone and the exiles are left to reminisce about the crooked streets in which they bought Turkish Delight and fig jam.

And despite the plant, the locals still suff er from regular power cuts.

The magnifi cent but fragile ecology of the Danube is evoked throughout the book with great tenderness. 

Thorpe describes the abundant wildlife of the Kopacki Rit wetland forest that is now threatened by a river-regulation project.

One of the most endangered species is the white eagle: “Its wing span is so great, its head and even its white tail seem miniscule in flight, like afterthoughts to a design focused only on perfecting the wings.”

We are taken on a watery journey where “golden orioles call sweetly from the undergrowth.”

Reading The Danube in Austria, I felt an inevitable drop in interest when the narrative reached home territory.

It’s not really  orpe’s fault that the exoticism of travel fades as the scenes become more familiar: along the Austrian banks of the Danube you are more likely to meet long-distance cyclists than grizzled goatherds with a tale to tell. 

There is an interesting encounter with a Turkish law student in the under-visited Military History Museum (Herresgeschichtliches Museum) in Vienna and a desolate trip to Mauthausen concentration camp.

In Germany, where the great river becomes ever narrower, there’s a heartening look at recent ecological projects to restore the great river’s biodiversity, but the heart of this absorbing journey, is in the world Nick Thorpe seems to love most – the rugged nature and vivid personalities further east.

It’s a pleasure to travel with Nick  Thorpe.

He is endlessly curious and enthusiastic. He’s bookish, but not overly so – equally impressed by stoneage artefacts as a good plum brandy.

But most of all he is open-minded and unwilling to lecture: “The traveller puts her, or his best foot forward,” he writes “and comes not to speak but to listen.” 

The River Danube, he claims, “offers solace, and preaches tolerance.” So does this book.


The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest
by Nick  Thorpe

Yale University Press (Jan. 2014), pp. 328

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