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Danube River
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The Danube River

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By Cliff Tarpy Photographs by Ed Kashi

On its waltz past the storied castles of Germany through central Europe to the Black Sea, the hardworking river finds itself still hobbled by the bombs that pounded the Balkans in 1999.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Leaving Germany, the Danube flows eastward into Austria, whose Wachau Valley is fertile ground for both piety and wine. Terraces of vineyards climb slopes as if to seek benediction from the great medieval monasteries that command the hilltops at Melk and Krems. The river passes castle ruins and apricot orchards that spangle the banks with snowy blossoms.

Wachau’s scenery is captivating, but no place is as identified with the Danube’s charm as nearby Vienna. At the Café Landtmann, where Sigmund Freud took his morning coffee, I savored a strong brew while sifting through racks of out-of-town newspapers. And in the shabbily genteel Liechtenstein Palace I took in a performance of the “Blue Danube” waltz, the melody that evokes Vienna the world over.


The contrast between Blue Danube nostalgia and reality couldn’t be sharper than in Yugoslavia, which was bombed by NATO to halt President Slobodan Milosevic’s attacks on ethnic Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo. Sitting on the Danube 47 miles upstream from Belgrade, Novi Sad suffered mightily, with an oil refinery and three bridges destroyed. There, in a neighborhood of modest houses, a tearful woman named Jasminka Bajic smoked and drank tiny cups of strong Turkish coffee, recounting how she lost her husband, Milan.

“It was 12:20 a.m. on June 8, 1999,” she recalled. “No one expected the bombs to hit that close to the houses.” Milan was in the doorway of their home when a bomb landed across the road. “I had to sell all my cattle to buy the gravestone,” she said. Jasminka now works as a janitor for a local labor union. As compensation for her husband’s death, his employer built a new house for her and her two daughters.

Later that day at a small marina I met a fisherman named Velimir Teodorovic, who also has vivid memories of the NATO bombing. In his boat we sped toward two enormous concrete slabs sticking out of the water.

The slabs, remnants of the Freedom Bridge, formed a V with its point below the surface. Teodorovic nosed the boat onto one of the slabs, walked up its surface, and pointed downriver.

“I was right there, fishing for sturgeon and catfish, when the first rocket hit,” he said. “People got out of their cars and started running back up the bridge, but I yelled at them to get into my boat because more rockets might hit.” Sure enough, two more struck just after seven people scrambled aboard.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Photographer Ed Kashi
VIDEO Listen to photographer Ed Kashi describe the twists and turns of working on the Danube River. Click here.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Hear the sounds from along the river, from the Blue Danube waltz to a Ukrainian wedding.

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of the Danube River is this month’s Final Edit.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The “Blue Danube” waltz wasn’t always as popular as it is today, especially in Vienna. Johann Strauss originally wrote the waltz for Vienna’s top male chorus, which first performed it in 1867 with lyrics written by the chorus’s house poet, Joseph Weyl. Austrians were not at all taken with the waltz’s trite lyrics:

Viennese, be gay
Oho, why, why?
A glimmer of light
We see only night.

Only after the “Blue Danube” became popular in Paris later that year as an instrumental did it return to overwhelming popularity in Vienna. Although it now has new (and more well-liked) lyrics, written in 1890 by Franz Gernerth, it is most often heard and recognized as an instrumental waltz.

Here are the first four lines of the newer lyrics:

Danube so blue,
You flow straight through
The meadows and dales
Vienna now hails

—Alice J. Dunn

Danube Commission Clearance Project Unit
This site gives an overview and the status of the project to clear the Danube River of debris left from the 1999 NATO bombing in Yugoslavia.

Green Balkans Federation of Conservation NGOs
Learn more information on the goals, activities, and organizations involved with Green Balkans.

Duna-Drava National Park
Find out about the history and diversity of this park.

WWF Green Danube Programme
Check out the environmental initiatives in place along the Danube.

PAN (Protected Area Network) Parks Duna-Drava Project
Plans to join Duna-Drava and Kopacki Rit parks are explained. Additional information about Duna-Drava National Park and other potential European PAN parks is on this site as well.

Go to this site for more on the home of the traditional source of the Danube.

Danube Research
Learn more about shipping opportunities and regulations along the Danube.


Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. Viking, 2000.

Magris, Claudio. Danube: A Journey Through the Landscape, History, and Culture of Central Europe, trans. Patrick Creagh. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989.

“The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment and Human Settlements,” United Nations Environment Programme and the United National Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). 1999.

Wechsberg, Joseph. The Danube: 2000 Years of History, Myth, and Legend. Newsweek Books, 1979.


Bryson, Bill. “Main-Danube Canal--Linking Europe’s Waterways,” National Geographic (August 1992), 2-31.

Thompson, Jon. “East Europe’s Dark Dawn: The Iron Curtain Rises to Reveal a Land Tarnished by Pollution,” National Geographic (June 1991), 36-69.

Great Rivers of the World. National Geographic Books, 1984.

Edwards, Mike W. “The Danube: River of Many Nations, Many Names,” National Geographic (October 1977), 454-485.

Backer, William Slade. “Down the Danube by Canoe,” National Geographic (July 1965), 34-79.

Hosmer, Dorothy. “Caviar Fishermen of Romania: From Vālcov, ‘Little Venice’ of the Danube Delta, Bearded Russian Exiles Go Down to the Sea,” National Geographic (March 1940), 407-434.

Minshall, Merlin. “By Sail Across Europe,” National Geographic (May 1937), 533-567.

Hildebrand, Jesse Richardson. “Budapest, Twin City of the Danube,” National Geographic (June 1932), 729-742.

Chater, Melville. “The Danube, Highway of Races: From the Black Forest to the Black Sea, Europe’s Most Important River Has Borne the Traffic of Centuries,” National Geographic (December 1929), 643-697.


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