24 May 2012

Hello Dunav, Our Old Friend!

Hello again to the Danube, that murkiest and longest line in our travels.  The last we saw these waters was almost a year ago, in Budapest, where the shores were thick with cruiseships and overhung by cathedrals. We caught sight of the river again in Belgrade, where the banks are lined with floating dance clubs that glow and bob in the evening light.  It’s exciting to come back to it, like meeting up with a familiar coast or turning onto a much-driven road.  In Serbia, the great river is called the Dunav, and we’ve been tracing a rough route along it for weeks.
In Belgrade, we ate a big dinner with a group of Americans in the old water quarter of Zemun.  Once a separate town, Zemun is now one of the oldest parts of the capital, and perfectly sunset-picturesque on a summer night.  Old houses – older than most in bomb-flattened Belgrade – house a yellow-lit universe of fish taverns and cafes.  The clientele is well heeled, the area has a reputation for Mafioso money and flashy cars, the view up the water towards the city proper is enchanting.  We feasted on pike perch, catfish and carp from the Dunav as the light faded, then walked along the waterside promenade in the dark.  The blue-black water sounded like a thick emptiness beside us, the far side was lost in the night.
In Smederova, sticks were driven down into the mud and fishing boats were moored among them, tangling lines and looking cheerful in the morning sun.  We were told that it was possible to swim, and I don’t doubt that people do, but at this point in its journey the water is a little suspect.  At its genesis, the Danube is a well protected water source, but as it leaves Austria, regulations dwindle.  Although some of the worst dumping is prohibited in Serbia now, the Dunav is still sometimes treated like a moving landfill.   Still, the locals love to fish, and their roaring outboards cut white wakes in the surface when they go out.  We’d see them nestled together far out on the surface, two or three in a cluster, lines dropped in opposite directions, cigarettes burning.  Some fished from shore, but their luck was worse.
Smederova is Serbia’s steel town, and it’s where we noticed the barges the most.  As far as we can tell, barges come in two types: those churning upriver and those gliding down.  Their engines are unnoticeable except in the calmest and stillest moments when a slow growl can be heard, almost like a tremor in the earth.  Shipping is the lifeblood of the region, the reason why the Dunav remains so important here.  Dock cranes and derricks sprout up along the banks like huge willow groves, railroad depots sit rusting, trucks belch exhaust and wait for the goods that have come up or down.
Riblja Čorba is Serbia’s version of halászlé, a soup we ate a lot of in Hungary.  It’s loaded with paprika, which turns the fishy broth a bright red.  In Sremski Karlovski, we ate a big pot of it sitting by the water, dipping coarse bread into our bowls.  At “Dunav” (the actual, obvious name) restaurant, the carp in the soup was as fatty as pork belly, and floated around as soft clumps of flesh, barely held together by a few bones and skin.  It was delicious, a mix of decadent flavors; the fish was mellow and oily, the paprika was smoky and earthy.  The whole dish reminded us of river silt in an appetizing way – a stew of reeds and heady scents, the kind of dark place where enormous fish lurk for years, growing rotund and slow.
Sremski Karlovski is a quiet town of wine growers and rickety tractors in the north of Serbia.  There are beautiful old houses, out of place with the agricultural aura, that date to the Hapsburg period, when Karlovski was the political center of Serbs in the monarchy.  It’s pretty, with cheerfully painted houses and a few ornate churches, but it seems to have turned away from the Dunav.  The riverside here is forested and featureless – only a line of water running through the great plain.
Novi Sad, a few miles upstream, was much more connected to the water, with bridges thrown across to the far shore and a higher vantage – to look out over the Dunav (or the Danube, the Duna, the Donau, the Dunărea…) is to look at a constant of many millennia.  The first seed of the name came from the pre-language of Europe – dānu, a word so ancient that it has become a part of almost every continental language, means “river.”  In Europe, the Danube is the river.
In Serbia, the floating restaurants and clubs that are popular on the Dunav are called splavs, and they're a way of life in Belgrade.  We wanted to eat at this one in Novi Sad, but found it abandoned.  The footbridge from the bank had collapsed, the interior looked gutted - there were still a few cases of empty beer bottles on the deck, but that was it.  We ate in town, on dry land.

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