The flight from Paris to Vienna, looking on the left, had this wonder: for about an hour, the last hour, you see the Danube – appearing and disappearing, meandering and shooting straight, curving and arching, glowing and slowly slowly widening.
Of course all of this was just the opening, and it is only the upper part, the narrow part, of the river. The real thing, the majestic Danube, would appear later in this trip, in Budapest.
But before getting there, I have my own personal story with the Danube. For some really odd reason, I had not seen it since 1981 – when we stopped with my parents at the source, at Donaueschingen. I had managed to go many times to Europe – but always further south, west, north or even east but further north – I had not seen this river for more than three decades! The re-encounter was fulled of memories, of emotion, for me.
The first memory of the Danube I have was at Passau – at the border between Germany and Austria. Not too far from Passau, there was this picture at a camping where the Austrian keeper made my father sign the book – it was the first time in his life he saw South Americans. He couldn’t quite even place South America, let alone faraway Kolumbien. Bitte bitte, unterschreiben das Gastbuch! Zum erstmal hab’ich hier Gäste aus Südamerika…
After landing the presence of the river in Vienna is somehow always there, very clearly but not very visible in the town itself. The center offers so many glories that you might be excused for not missing the river so much. Yet the richness of the culture there is inextricably linked to Vienna’s position on the river, at the opening of downstream Pannonia and the many lands, the amazing variety of peoples who just up to a century ago were converging on Vienna for many reasons. The river there is felt there, in the variety of food, of peoples – in the presence of Slavic (Serbian, Czech, Slovak), Hungarian and even North Italian influences. The physical presence of the Danube in Vienna is scarce and a bit narrow for all the glory, though.
And then, the Danube in Budapest:
I have to quote from Magris here:
Budapest è la più bella città del Danubio; una sapiente automessinscena, come Vienna, ma con una robusta sostanza e una vitalità sconosciute alla rivale austriaca. Budapest dà la sensazione fisica della capitale, con una signorilità e un’imponenza da città protagonista della storia, nonostante il lamento di Ady per la vita magiara «grigia, color della polvere». Certo, la Budapest moderna è una creazione recente, ben diversa della città ottocentesca che, come scriveva Mikszáth, negli anni Quaranta del secolo scorso beveva vermut serbo e parlava tedesco. La magnifiscenza metropolitana di Budapest, che si basa sulla solida realtà di una crescita politico-economica, presente anche il volto di un seducente illusionismo, che l’arte fotografica di György Klösz ha colto con magica lucidità. Se la Vienna moderna imita la Parigi del barone Haussmann, con i suoi grandi boulevards, Budapest imita a sua volta questa viennese urbanistica di riporto, è la mimesi di una mimesi; forse anche per questo assomiglia alla poesia nell’accezione platonica, il suo paesaggio suggerisce, più che l’arte, il senso dell’arte.
(My own free translation: Budapest is the most beautiful city on the Danube; a conscious self mise-en-scène, like Vienna, but with a robust substance and a vitality unknown to the Austrian rival. Budapest gives the physical feel of the capital, with a panache and an imponence of a city which was the central character of a story, in spite of Ady’s lament for Magyar life as “gray, powder-colored”. True, modern Budapest is a recent creation, very different from the 19th century city that, as Mikszáth wrote, in the Fourties of the past century drank Serbian vermouth and spoke German. The metropolitan magnificence of Budapest, based on the solid reality of a political and economic growth, also presents the face of a seducing illusionism, which the photographic art of György Klösz has captured with magical lucidity. If modern Vienna imitates the Paris of Baron Haussmann, with its great boulevards, Budapest in its turn imitates that Viennese repertoire urbanistic, it is the mimesis of a mimesis; perhaps this is exactly why it resembles poetry in the Platonic sense; its landscape suggests, more than art, the sense of art.)
In some sense I (mostly) missed all that: I spent the day (a wonderful day!) doing math and talking with Péter Kómjath in an amazing Jazz Bar, IF, in the center of the city. I did then very little tourism in the city, for I only had one day there – but I talked and talked with two locals – one a mathematician, a colleague whom I needed to consult for an issue in infinite combinatorics, the other another mathematician who now runs that incredible café and Jazz Bar.
However, the River, the Danube was there, and I did go see it in the final two hours of my one-day visit to Budapest. I essentially walked back and forth on one of the bridges in trying to capture a bit of the vibrancy of the city. Here is a video with notes: