The sound it made was extraordinary. I had to keep stopping to listen. The constant nudging and barging of drift-ice produced a shuffling, creaking, clicking, punctuated by pops of air and occasionally a quick shushing sigh as something in the structure gave way and a larger drift pushed through. It sounded like hundreds of people murmuring and licking their lips at the same time, engaged in a whispered negotiation. Along the banks the ice had been forced into serried ridges that looked like scales, bizarre crystalline formations caused by constant cracking and refreezing, like a sci-fi illustration of an alien planet. In the middle stood a solitary heron, dimly-glimpsed through freezing mist. It could have been the ghost of a flamingo.
The river looked utterly wild and strange, but, as I soon found out, this dramatic build-up of ice was essentially man-made. A few miles downriver, I reached the brutalist concrete hulk of a hydroelectric dam, a great grey girder holding back the river. It was only the first of many – I averaged about one a day during my week’s walk to Vienna. Austria generates over half its energy through hydroelectric power, and one of the side-effects of these dams is to slow the Danube’s flow to a speed at which the water grows sluggish, and eventually freezes over. Beyond the dams the river flows clear, even sparkling blue in the sunlight, so over the course of the next few days it felt like passing from winter to summer and back again as I walked.
Ice was backed up for miles on the approach to Persenbeug, a village whose name has loomed large in my mind since I began this journey. In 1934, in a riverside inn here, Paddy met an anonymous character named only as ‘the polymath,’ an old man of aristocratic descent whose monologues ranged from the fall of Rome and the wanderings of Germanic tribes to the creeping blandness of modernisation and the future of the river’s wildlife. One utterance in particular has always fascinated me, a passage I have come to think of as the Persenbeug Prediction:
‘Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power-dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the east, they would never come back. Never, never, never!’
I have many reasons for making this journey – some of which are probably obscure to me even now, and may remain so until the end – but if I had to summarise my original impulse for setting out, these words would be the easiest way to describe what I’m after. Has Europe been tamed? Has everything vanished? These are the vague, perhaps unanswerable questions that prompted me to repeat Paddy’s journey almost 80 years later – and, maybe because of this vagueness and the fact that my feelings change every day, dependent on landscape and weather and mood and whether I’m walking past factories and billboards in seemingly endless suburbs or wandering through forested foothills, away from human sight and sound, I still wouldn’t want to give any kind of definitive answer. It’s a ongoing meditation, and my thoughts will keep changing. But Persenbeug felt like an important personal landmark.
Because of this, I had a vivid mental image of what the place would look like. I’d always imagined the polymath’s inn perched on a rock, with a backdrop of vine-covered cliffs, and water raging wildly in a chasm far below. Of course, it wasn’t like this at all. There were no vines, no cliffs, no chasm. The neat little houses of the village were huddled around a well-preserved schloss, and the schloss itself was huddled under the Ybbs-Persenbeug Donaukraftwerk – the vast hydroelectric power-dam, constructed in the 1950s, that bestrides the river. The polymath’s prediction was more accurate than he could have known. Not only did they build a power-dam here, in the very place his prophesy was made, but they actually christened it after the village itself.
There was a kind of grim satisfaction to the completeness of this discovery. It made me feel very much like drinking a beer and brooding a while – and where better to do this than the appropriate inn? The appropriate inn, however, was elusive. My only clues from A Time of Gifts were that it overlooked the Danube, and was owned by an innkeeper whose daughter was called Maria. I could find no bar within view of the river, but made inquiries in an oldish-looking place in the square opposite the Rathaus, which turned out to have an interior done up like an American diner. I found myself ushered into a back-room occupied by a single old man with a baggy, liver-spotted face, immaculate in a light blue suit, sipping a large glass of white wine. He looked like an aged mafia don, but turned out to be the village’s former mayor. With translation help from two pierced children who had come into the room to smoke, I tried to explain what I was looking for.
The old gentleman spent a long time scrutinising the map I showed him, intoning the names of Danube towns – ‘Ach, Ybbs, ja, ja… Passau… Melk… ach so… Linz…’ – and then began a rambling story about previous devastating floods, indicating the hochwasser flood marks with his hands – ‘In 2002 the water was here. Look! Here! Where this shelf is now…’ – and often he broke into laughter, his face creasing like a delighted monkey. The children soon gave up and drifted away. After some time we were joined by the cook, an enormous muscle-armed woman clutching a book called the Kronik von Persenbeug, a chronicle of village life from which she teased out a complex history of vanished guesthouses, taverns and inns, some of which may or may not have been owned by people with daughters called Maria.
In spite of the efforts of the ex-mayor and the cook, I left Persenbeug without finding a match for the inn in my mind. The image I’d originally held was further away than ever now – the inn was gone, the river bisected by a monolithic concrete block, and it seemed, in the dreary afternoon light, that this landscape had indeed been tamed. The prediction had proved true, and an older, wilder, more thrilling world had taken a big step backwards into history.
The following morning, as I walked on, the river appeared to be on fire. Freezing mist slid like smoke on the water, gliding and swirling with an eerie motion that seemed independent of wind, white-frosted trees appearing and vanishing like ghosts on the far bank.
A few days later I entered the Wachau, a valley of steep slopes and pine-stubbled hillsides, the rocks fanged with icicles as long as my body, great stalactites of yellowish ice and entire frozen waterfalls in jellyfish-like formations of domes and tentacles.
Still later, crossing into Slovakia, the Donau-Auen National Park stretched for almost three whole days – one of Central Europe’s last intact wetlands, the remnant of the Danube’s natural floodplains. This boggy and mysterious mistletoed realm was a glimpse of what the river looked like before hydroelectric power – the only dams on the water in these parts were built by beavers.
As I said, my thoughts will keep changing. But with sights like these, the wildness returns. The Danube’s vast power might be tapped for energy, but, as the ex-mayor showed with his hochwasser marks – and evident from the flood defences thrown up around the villages now – the river is still very far from tame. Its strength is still something actively feared, and its beauty, in these swirling mists, is still something to inspire a savage sensation of awe.