Thursday, 19 May 2016

On the Danube - second leg

Niether of us woke up to glimpse the locks during the night. Around four I woke up to discover we were no longer moving. The ship was moored along the riverbank in central Bratislava, and by seven thirty we were up and breakfasting, then ashore and ascending to the old royal castle which overlooks a city just a bit bigger than Cardiff, at eight thirty, in a Noddy Train.

The castle was ancient but when occupied by Napoleonic forces in the early nineteenth century, it was accidentally burned down, and remained a ruin for 150 years. Oddly enough its restoration was a project undertaken in the latter years of the Communist era - one of the few good things they did, our guide quipped. Actually, to the casual visitor, it feels rather dull and soul-less. Perhaps it only comes to life when there's a big event there. Apparently there has been a trading settlement in this place since the Celts came from the east in pre-Roman times. The view from the terrace of this high promontory is remarkable. Across the Danube a few kilometres to the west is Austria, to the east lies Hungary. 

This was a frontier town of some significance during the Cold War, and during the second world war when it was under Nazi rule. The names of Kyril and Methodius, apostles to the Slavs, are honoured here, as this was one of their early evangelisation successes and the language is Slavic, quite different from Hungarian, which is of Turcic linguistic origin, I believe. Orthodoxy represented the first chapter of Christian life and faith here, and this is still reflected in the Byzantine type cross in the red white and blue flag of Slovakia. The Papacy however, keen to extend its sphere of influence, both political and spiritual, eastward after the 1084 Great Schism, made disreputable efforts to proselytise and suppress Orthodoxy religion in favour of its own brand. It's only really in the twentieth century, with the movement of peoples in Europe, that Orthodoxy has established a minority presence again in a region, which to all intents and purposes, is strongly western facing.

Anyway, we rode back down to the edge of the old town in the Noddy train, but decided not to go on the guided walking tour, but to explore at our own pace and on our own terms an area with a rich and varied architectural history, reflecting its mercantile history. We visited the elegant 14th century Cathedral of St Martin, in which thirteen royal coronations had taken place over the centuries of Hapsburg imperial rule. It was crowded with tourists, who were all quite and quite well behaved, perhaps in awe of the beauty of the place illuminated with tall brightly coloured stained glass windows which caught the morning sun.

We found ourselves a very stylish Kaffehaus in the characteristic fashion we've seen in other european cities, with dark wooden panels, paintings and even mosaics on the wall, so atmospheric, that we sat and drank inside, rather than out of the street, savouring the occasion. From there it was just ten minutes to walk back to the ship in good time for lunch, and another departure as we were eating for a long haul journey across to the other side of Austria, along the canal which runs right through Vienna, with a major lock before sunset, and others to follow.

The river banks along its entire length are forested and lined with walls constructed of large rocks, like coastal sea defences. The Danube along its entire 3,000km length is flood prone as it runs across extensive plains in each country it passes through, so preventative measures are an essential form of international co-operation. The canalisation of the Vienna urban area has been vital for the development of the city over the past two centuries. On the northern and western side of the canal the various buildings of the United Nations commissions house in Vienna are located in their own special urban area, and a number of these show some quite innovative examples of contemporary architecture, a bit like the city of London. It was supper when we passed through, and I had to content myself with the knowledge that there'd be a return journey for another photo opportunity. I just hope it's not dark when we arrive and the way back to Budapest.

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