Geography is a strange thing. It reveals itself in layers, never all at once. National and political borders can be completely different from population boundaries or religious areas. Some regions are fluidly peopled but rigidly contained. Driving from place to place, topography becomes more interesting than it might be when looking at a map. Forested land, open expanses, the edge of a sea, the point where snow falls, the altitude where houses change from stone to wood, the dryer parts, the rainy seasons, the light and dark of latitudes - it's never a simple chart on a piece of paper. That's why some landmarks stick out and come to feel like constants. The Danube river - called the Duna, here in Hungary - is a long, solid, comforting stretch of water that is both physically geographic and part of the space of our memory.
We met up with the Danube again in Baja, after wandering away from its waters to the north and east. The river originates from two smaller tributaries in the German highland, and marches eastward through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine and Romania before emptying into the black sea, some 1,800 miles later. In Hungary, not so far along this journey, it is making a quick southern jag, heading down from the Tatra borders to the north, and is already impressively broad. We swam in this side eddy between Petőfi island and the mainland, where the water is shallow and slow. On that stretch, kayakers and sunbathers cluster in the lee of the swift, plains wind.
There are four capital cities along the river's banks - Vienna, Belgrade, Bratislava and Budapest - which is more than any other river can boast. In Vienna and the Wachau, we had heat and blue skies along the river banks. In Budapest, our experience was of wind and rain. The river flowed through the heart of the city in a businesslike way, without swimmers and grayer than we remembered. The embankments along the edges were high and protective, the bridges grand, the water swifter than downstream in the flatland.
The Duna reminds us of other places, of course, but it's also its own entity - an international waterway, but also a ribbon of seafaring culture in landlocked parts of the continent where ships are as incongruous with the land as horsemen are with the sea. There are sailors who spend their whole life on the water, but make their way only through the heart of a huge landmass. The waves are small and their territory confined to a wandering line, but there is a separate rhythm to their movement: against or with the current, swift water because of rain, lower shallows because of drought. Cruise ships are ever present - long, squat and narrow, they are able to fit under bridges and maneuver through shallows and curves. They dock in droves on Budapest's piers, and let out hordes of sightseers into the city streets.A monument to the jews who were shot along the riverbank during the Nazi occupation, these iron shoes line one stretch near the cathedral in Budapest. This length of pier remains emptier than others, perhaps because there are no docking spaces, perhaps because it is difficult to reach by land.
It is interesting to come across the river again and again, and to know that it will snake its way into our life in other places. It carries along something of our old experiences as it flows, reminding us of Germany and Austria and of Slovakia, though we didn't see it there, and of Moldova and Ukraine, though those are both downstream and in our past. In Budapest, it has made itself into a solid and borderless thing, belonging to nobody, setting off from the mountains into the heart of the plains, crossing from "western" to "eastern" Europe.