Tag Archives: Danube

Ada Kaleh: the lost island of the Danube

Ada Kaleh island postcard

Towards the end of Between the Woods and the Water, Paddy is exploring the Danube which he described as wild, with ‘many scourges to contend with’ including the Kossovar winds which in the spring could ‘reach a speed of fifty or sixty miles an hour and turn the river into a convulsed inferno.’ A long, long, way from the tamed beast that the once great river is now.

In the midst of this occasional inferno lay an island with a Turkish name, Ada Kaleh, which means ‘island fortress’. Paddy tell us that he had read all that he could find about the island, and was very keen to explore this lagoon of Turkish descendants which was quite probably abandoned by the retreating Ottomans as their empire shrank. Although placed under control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Berlin Conference in 1878, very little changed and it was ceded to Romania at Versailles. The Romanians too had better things to do with their time and left the inhabitants undisturbed.

It was into this cultural, religious, and demographic time capsule that Paddy stepped in August 1934 and immediately joined a group of men at a rustic coffee-shop, who were armed with ‘sickles and adzes and pruning knives’. Paddy describes the moment as if he had suddenly been ‘seated on a magic carpet.’

Ada Kaleh – “as if seated on a magic carpet”

Paddy spent a night on the island, and slept out by the Danube, under the stars, watching meteors, and listening to the sounds of owls and barking dogs, interrupted by the occasional sound of a cart wheel or the splash of a fish in the now calm and lazy river. He dreamt of crusaders under King Sigismund of Hungary attempting to turn back the Turkish tide in 1396. They crossed the river almost at this point, and what excited Paddy most was the thought that ‘the last pikeman or sutler had probably reached the southern bank this very evening, five hundred and thirty-eight years ago.’ Sigismund’s allied army of Hungarians, Wallachians, French, Germans and Burgundians, with a few Englishman, was shattered by Sultan Bayazid at the battle of Nicopolis further down the Danube, with the captured dying in ‘a shambles of beheading lasting from dawn to Vespers’.

Like the storks he saw the next day, who were preparing to fly off to “Afrik! Afrik!”, as an old Turkish man gestured, Paddy departed after breakfast to Orsova. Ever one for losing things he discovered that he had left behind an antler which he had been carrying as a trophy. Paddy writes that ‘perhaps some future palaeontologist might think that the island had once teemed with deer’.  This cannot be as the river was dammed and Ada Kaleh submerged by the rising Danube. Its population was evacuated and its mosque removed to a new, safe location. Such mitigation measures did not satisfy Paddy as he states in the Appendix to BTWW. The second of the two attached presentations is also a heartfelt, but belated cry of protest in Romanian.

Please take a look at these presentations. If you have PowerPoint you will find there is appropriate musical accompaniment (slide show one has a song called Ada Kaleh). The images show the place and its people almost exactly as Paddy would have seen it, something that we can truly say will be seen no more. The pdf copy is for those who do not have access to PowerPoint. I do hope that you enjoy them.


PowerPoint 1

PDF of PowerPoint 1

PowerPoint 2

PDF of PowerPoint 2

There are lots more great pictures to be found on Google images.

£1 a week – (not so) Sunny Beach

Last Saturday I was listening to From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4. One of the packages was from Croatia and concerned the tug of war between environmentalists and business people about controlling and ‘improving’ yet another stretch of the Danube. It reminded me so much of the Persenbeug Prediction in A Time of Gifts. The forecast of the taming of the Danube which now appears to be entering its final round on the Croat-Serbian border.

In his latest dispatch from his epic walk to Istanbul entitled Summer Metropolis, Nick Hunt encounters more uncontrolled development and taming of nature along the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria and reflects on how many of us perhaps fail to find the happiness and fun that we seek in our modern world ….

I wandered inadvertently into an all-inclusive resort. Everyone apart from me was wearing coloured plastic wristbands to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular package deal, like some form of indentured servitude. The broiled bodies on the beach didn’t look particularly happy – in fact most of them had the frowns and down-turned mouths of deep dissatisfaction, as if they didn’t quite know why they’d come here or what they were meant to be doing.

His latest article is very good (Nick’s writing seems to be improving with every piece) and shows just how much things have changed since Paddy walked along that same Bulgarian coastline, encountering Greek fishermen in 1934.

Read Summer Metropolis here.

Literary and Historical References – A Time of Gifts

The second in the series which presents the work of members of the Royal Geographical Society which analyses chapter by chapter, literary and historical references from some of Paddy’s key works.

This was presented at the RGS in the afternoon talk on 12 December 2012,”Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Appreciation by Alexander Maitland, FRGS”.

My thanks to the Royal Geographic Society for permission to present this.

Download a pdf of this document here.

Related article:

Literary and Historical References – The Traveller’s Tree

Final volume from Patrick Leigh Fermor

The latest snippet about Vol 3 from The Bookseller.

John Murray is to publish a posthumous book by travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in June [Edit – the article says July – good research!!].

by Benedicte Page

First published in The Bookseller, 16 December 2011

The book will complete the story of the journey Leigh Fermor made on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople at the age of 18, as told in his previous works A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The currently untitled volume will be published in September 2013.

Artemis Cooper, whose biography of Leigh Fermor will be published in September 2012, said: “By the end of the second volume, he was about to cross the Danube from Romania and plunge into Bulgaria; and his devoted readership have been stuck midstream, as it were, for over 20 years. A painstaking perfectionist, Leigh Fermor never did finish the final volume though he was working on it up to his death in June 2011.”

Based on the original diary he kept at the time and an early draft of the book written in the 1960s, this book takes up the story, and carries the reader to Constantinople and beyond.

John Murray m.d. Roland Philipps said: “I was told of the existence of a manuscript on the day that Sir Patrick died in June of this year, and read it shortly afterwards. It is a treat to be back, immersed once again in this great pre-War walk across Europe and wonderful for his many admirers that this book will be published.”

The publisher describes Leigh Fermor as “one of the outstanding prose stylists of modern time”.

Blue River, Black Sea: A Journey Along the Danube Into the Heart of the New Europe

The following is a piece by Dimiter Kenarov from The Nation which contrasts the journey of Paddy along the banks of the Danube with the more recent account of Andrew Eames, recounted in Blue River, Black Sea. It is clear that if we were to try to follow the foosteps of Paddy that much has changed – I guess that much we knew – but that also the pace of change means that if we are to encounter the last feeble remnants of that post-Austro-Hungarian world, we had better move very fast. This is worth the read.

From Black to Black, a review of Blue River, Black Sea: A Journey Along the Danube Into the Heart of the New Europe
By Andrew Eames.

Every day, at three in the afternoon, I make a trip down the Danube. To travel from Germany’s Black Forest to Romania’s Black Sea takes a matter of minutes, so I try to enjoy myself as much as possible. I sink into a cushy armchair, rev up the stereo and embark on an epic voyage. “Information on the water levels of the Danube River, in centimeters,” the familiar voice on Horizont, the Bulgarian National Radio, announces with the deepest solemnity before reading out the relevant hydrographical values, first in Bulgarian and then in Russian and French. Vienna: 310 (+3); Mohács: 415 (+7); Novi Sad: 162 (-13); Vidin: 380 (+40); Giurgiu: 220 (0).

The captains of river vessels can easily map a course on the Internet, but the daily radio bulletin has remained a fixture in my life. For many years, listening to the fluctuations in the water levels of the Danube was the closest I could get to traveling abroad. Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Vienna: these names mesmerized me. Even places like Bratislava and Budapest, comrades in arms against the decadent West, had the ring of myth to a boy growing up in Bulgaria. Remembering his childhood in the Bulgarian river port of Ruschuk (now Ruse), Elias Canetti wrote, “There, the rest of the world was known as ‘Europe,’ and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna, people said he was going to Europe.” If people in Canetti’s immediate circle, at the beginning of the twentieth century, still had the occasional opportunity to waltz up to the palaces of the Habsburgs and back, however, the “Europe” I imagined in the 1980s existed only in a galaxy far, far away. To travel up the river as a tourist during the cold war required visas, special permissions, bureaucratic ballast. To swim across it, a negligible distance of a few hundred meters, was to risk both drowning and the bullets of border guards. For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava.

The Danube—or Ister, as the ancient Greeks called it—is a natural highway of nearly 3,000 kilometers. “The greatest of all the rivers which we know,” declared Herodotus. “A path for the spirit to follow,” wrote Hölderlin, following the footfalls of the Greeks in his hymn “The Ister.” Human tribes traveled west against the current, colonizing the core of the continent, gradually shaping it. Before the Americas, there was Europe. The Romans made a few feeble attempts to bring traffic under control by turning the river into the fortified frontier, or limes, of their empire, but without much success. South of the Danube civilization cowered; in the north, the barbarians bided their time.

There is probably no other geographical element of Europe that has absorbed more political weather than the Danube. Unlike the Russian Volga and the Franco-German Rhine, it has served many masters, as a shield or a spear. In 1683, by the walls of Vienna, John III Sobieski and Charles of Lorraine routed the armies of Kara Mustafa, marking the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. Not long thereafter, in 1704, the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy vanquished the Franco-Bavarian alliance at the Battle of Blenheim, an important event in the War of the Spanish Succession. Near the river town of Ulm, Napoleon forced the Austrians to surrender with barely a fight. And Hitler’s Drang nach Osten—yearning for the East—had a strong Danubian stink. “Do not forget,” the elderly Heinrich Heine wrote to the young Karl Marx, “the difference between water and a river is that the latter has a memory, a past, a history.”

It has taken twenty years of European integration for the memories of the cold war to seep away. Quietly meandering across ten countries—Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine—and running softly past more than fifty-five towns and cities, including four capitals, the Danube is once again a major route for trade and tourism, diluting national and political borders and linking numerous shoreline communities into a single organism. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, completed in 1992, allows ships to navigate passage from the North Sea to the Black, chugging through the heart of the continent. The river’s delta, with its sprawling network of lagoons and marshes, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and an important bird sanctuary—with its own environmental problems, of course. Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is. And, luckily for me perhaps, the daily radio bulletins on Horizont are no longer my only means of travel.

Traveling the Danube became a fad in 1829. That was the year two Englishmen, John Andrews and Joseph Pritchard, founded the First Danube Steamship Company, which lured scores of elated pleasure seekers. “A motley crowd on board, such perhaps as never met together on the deck of a steam-boat before,” wrote the Irish journalist and literary editor Michael Quin about one of those early voyages. Standing among Austrians, Moldavians, Jews, Hungarian nobles and Tyrolean emigrants, he traveled in style down the river from Pest (Budapest) to the Ottoman town of Ruschuk. It was a thrilling but perilous undertaking. Unlike the well-trodden path of the Grand Tour, with its picturesque Parisian streetscapes and Florentine galleries, the Danube offered a wilder ride for people with money and a taste for adventure. Although its waters flowed across half the continent, knowledge of the river was scarce and scattered, especially when it came to portions under Ottoman control. Europe was split in two long before the cold war, and the Danube was the main gateway into its eastern, darker territories. The course of “civilization” had gradually reversed directions.

William Beattie, another of those early steamboat passengers, portrayed that division with typical Victorian bigotry. East of Budapest, he wrote in his 1844 travelogue The Danube, the tourist “feels as if he were taking farewell of civilization, and entering upon a vast primeval desert, where man is still a semi-barbarian; and where the arts by which he converts to his use the natural products of the earth are still in their infancy, or wholly unknown.” As far as Beattie was concerned, Eastern Europe might as well have been an island in the middle of the Pacific. Quin was similarly dismayed by the seemingly crude ways of life he encountered but a little bit more optimistic in his vision of the future. He praised “the miracles of the age of steam” and then blithely prophesied, “Those countries, which have hitherto seemed scarcely to belong to Europe, will be rapidly brought within the pale of civilization…and new combinations…will be created, which may give birth to important changes in the distribution of political power on the continent.” He was right, of course: steam did alter the political landscape of Eastern Europe. (Could it be that James Watt was personally responsible for the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the whole contemporary history of the continent?) However, Quin’s journey down the Danube was also a reassertion of his cultural identity and his sunny view about technological progress. As the historian Larry Wolff pointed out in his seminal work Inventing Eastern Europe, “It was Western Europe that invented Eastern Europe as its complementary other half.” And the Danube was the road most inventors took.

So many writers have traveled the Danube that their tributary ink, if channeled into a single stream, would turn the water black. From the Italian naturalist and geographer Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, who professed to have mastered “the anatomy of the river” and then published in 1726 his magisterial six-volume Opus Danubiale, to the contemporary Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy, with his playful travelogue The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube), published in 1991, the outflow of words has been endless. To look for the authentic Danube would be futile, for nobody can describe the same river twice. “It is I who will say what the Danube is,” Esterházy’s protagonist, the Traveler, insists, as so many others before him have: Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, as well as the odd Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian. For some reason, however, it was the British and a few American explorers, outsiders with ever-roving empirical eyes and an insatiable appetite for the foreign, who frequently attempted to distill the Danube’s essence. Some, like Quin and Beattie, were deeply prejudiced against the world they were about to encounter. Others, like the American painter Francis Davis Millet, who paddled downriver in a canoe in 1891, wrote about the local people and their environs with sympathy and understanding. Then there were those who transcended the ranks of mere travelers to join the great writers.

Patrick Leigh Fermor is the best of the lot. In the winter of 1933, at 18, he set out on foot from Rotterdam toward Istanbul—or Constantinople, as his romantic imagination insisted. With just a rucksack on his back and two books in hand—The Oxford Book of English Verse and the poems of Horace—he traversed the better part of the pre-war continent “like a tramp or a pilgrim or a wandering scholar.” His trek along the Danube made up only one leg of his amazing odyssey, but it was the most remarkable one. Poring over his maps and trying to decide whether to head for sunny Venice or press farther east, he writes, “Just in time, the windings of the Middle and the Lower Danube began to reassert their claims and the Carpathians and the Great Hungarian Plain and the Balkan ranges and all these mysterious regions which lay between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea brought their rival magnetisms into play. Was I really about to trudge through this almost mythical territory?” Continue reading

Easter 1934 – Paddy reaches the Hungarian border at Esztergom

After what must have seemed an amazing four months to a young man of eighteen, Paddy arrives at the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border at Esztergom, which as he says (p 276 A Time of Gifts) contained ‘the Metropolitan Cathedral of all Hungary’. It is these last closing pages of his first volume that he describes the colourful preparations for an Easter service as he watches from no-man’s land in the middle of the bridge spanning the Danube. It is from this point that he picks up the story in volume two ‘Between the Woods an the Water’.

Wikipedia tells us: Esztergom (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈɛstɛrɡom], also known by alternative names), is a city in northern Hungary, about 50 km north-west of the capital Budapest. It lies in Komárom-Esztergom county, on the right bank of the river Danube, which forms the border with Slovakia there.

Esztergom was the capital of Hungary from the 10th till the mid-13th century when King Béla IV of Hungary moved the royal seat to Buda.

Esztergom is the seat of the prímás (see Primate) of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary. It’s also the official seat of the Constitutional Court of Hungary. The city has the Keresztény Múzeum, the largest ecclesiastical collection in Hungary. Its cathedral, Esztergom Basilica is the largest church in Hungary.

Imagine Paddy standing in the middle of this bridge looking at the cathedral