Donau to Dunaj

Guten Aubend from Vienna. We have reached our first major capital city of the journey, and Zand and I find ourselves thoroughly overwhelmed by the speed of public transit, the noise of city streets, and kick of Viennese coffee.

We’ve come a long way since the Black Forest in Western Germany. Temperatures have dropped below freezing overnight a few times now…making the morning’s exit from the sleeping bag much more challenging. To combat the cold, Zand and I are eating foods with higher fat content, as the metabolism takes longer break down lipids. In other words, more scoops of butter in the pasta keeps us warm throughout the night, or alternatively: we go through peanut butter at alarming rates.

Our journey through Germanic territory has kindled the brain’s appetite for history, as we pass by lands and structures of remarkable historical significance. Almost as if we’re on a “random playlist” of historical knowledge, we frequently jump from imagining Roman fortresses, to picturing the Duke of Marlborough strategizing with the Earl of Savoy, to playing Second World War trivia. Follow along as I jump a few centuries to paint a picture of the past few weeks on the Donau. (Apologies ahead of time to my former history teachers and professors…)

Here in Vienna, I’m fascinated with learning about the two Turkish sieges. Both occasions marked watershed points in European history. The defeat of the Turks in 1529 put a halt to an almost unchecked Ottoman blitz through Central Europe led by Suleiman the Magnificent. The second seige in 1683 is the one that captures my interest, however, as the Battle of Vienna takes us upstream on the Danube to Passau. Led by the grand vizier Mustafa Pasha, the Ottomans arrived with nearly 200,000 men (20,000 of which were the rather nasty Janissaries) in July of 1683. King Leopold I of Austria recieved a rather stern message: “We shall destroy you and wipe all trace of infidels off the face of this earth, with no regard for age we shall put all through excruciating tortures before we give them death.”

Forgive me for hastily skipping the details, but in the interest of time, lets just say King Leo retreats up the Danube to Passau to convene with King John Sobieski of Poland, and plan the counterattack. We reached Passau late at night after our biggest day, putting up 102km, thanks to fast currents and only a few dams. We were even blessed with a bit of whitewater to play with. You can find a picture of Zand lining our boat through one of the bigger whitewater sections in the gallery below. We’ll come back to King John later, but he came to the rescue of Western civilization in a big way. in the early hours of September the 12th, Sobieski led his troops down the hill to meet the dense masses of the Turks in the plain below.

Shortly after Passau, we passed through the forests that played stage to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where Germanic tribes notoriously slaughtered three Roman legions. It was after this massacre that Emperor Augustus was to have been famously pacing around the palace, slamming his head against walls, exclaiming “Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” (Give me back my legions!).

Soon afterwards, we passed by the site of the Battle of Blenheim, where the Duke of Marlborough secured one of history’s most decisive victories in the war of Spanish Succession in August of 1704. Numbers vary, but some reports the Duke with help from the Earl of Savoy killed 12,000 Franco-Bavarian allies and captured 14,000 while suffering only around 5,000 casualties.

Continuing down the Donau, we run into the small Austrian town of Durnstein. Ruins remain of a castle overlooking town, that once held King Richard the LionHeart prisoner. As the story goes, King Richard and King Leopold find themselves celebrating a victory at Acre during the Third Crusade. Leopold apparently hoisted his flags a bit too close to Richard’s, Rich orders Leo’s flags torn down and thrown in the mud. Leo is so mortally insulted, he packs up shop, leaves Palestine, and heads home to Austria. The next year, Richard finds himself summoned back to England to deal with Prince John’s misgovernment of England. SO, Richard breaks off a successful crusade campaign against the formidable adversary, Saladin, and begins a journey back home. To evade his Christian enemies, Richard sets off in disguise on a pirate ship in Corfu. The ship wrecks in autumn storms at the head of the Adriatic. With no other option but overland travel remaining, Richard ventures in disguise through the dutchy of his old pal Leopold. All was going well until his disguise was foiled, supposedly because of the King’s dashing good looks and blond curls, while in a tavern outside Vienna. He was found somehow, by his minstrel, Blondel, who allegedly went to every prison he could find, singing the first verse a song he and Richard often sang together, until he heard his friend’s voice replying with the second verse. That’s a bit hard to believe, but it sure is a nice filler for lack of a better truth. The ransom finally paid for Richard’s freedom was so large (twice the annual GDP of England at the time), it took a few installments over a few centuries to pay off. Supposedly, it was this ransom money that helped pay for the for the fortifications of Vienna during the first seige of Vienna.

If you’re still reading along, thank you. I really wish I had the time to write this narrative along the river in better style with proper background and research for these events. Passing by countless castles, “schlosses,” and notable battlefields truly makes me wish I was a better student of history! But it’s provided a wonderful backdrop to our journey. Numerous castles of robber-barons, who prevented ships from passing by using suspended cables and prisoners hostage in “starvation chambers 8m deep,” all have their own stories to tell. The banks of the Danube are certainly rich with tall tales, Im sure many of which, perhaps the best of which, fail to make the print in the history books of academia.

Here’s a gallery of pictures of the past few weeks…hopefully this rambling post gives you a bit of an idea of the mental exercise in history we go through on a daily basis! Onwards to Bratislava and Budapest in the next 10 days…Cheers!

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