From its headwaters in the Black Forest of Germany the Danube, Europe's second longest river, flows through 10 different countries before spilling into the Black Sea near the Rumanian port of Constanta. For a landlocked country like Austria the Danube is both a gateway to the rest of the world and a national treasure steeped in romance, legend and myth. Few of the world's great rivers have had such a profound influence on history as the beautiful "Blue Danube."
We began our cruise across Austria in the German border town of Passau, the "city of three rivers," where the Danube meets two of its major tributaries and nearly doubles in size. Across the border in Austria our ship, the Viking Spirit, shares the broad slow-moving river with other sightseeing craft and a variety of heavily laden merchant ships - cars and machinery moving downriver from Germany and barge loads of raw materials heading upriver from Hungary and Slovakia.
For centuries the Danube has been a trade route between eastern and western Europe. The ancient Celts were the first to settle along its banks. They were displaced by the Romans in about 30 B.C. and for more than 400 years, the Danube served as the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. The Romans used the river to move their legions and supplies inland and many of today's towns and cities along the Danube, including Vienna, had their origins as Roman garrisons or defensive forts. But while they share a common history each town along the Danube has its own unique relationship to the river and its own story to celebrate.
From Passau the river takes us through the foothills of the Bavarian Forest and around a sweeping curve to the Austrian town of Linz, capital of Upper Austria. Behind the industrial docks lining both sides of the river stacks of steel mills rise above the roofs of factories and warehouses. Linz is an iron and steel town but, like many of Austria's industrial towns, it has preserved much of its original charm.
From our dock we followed a narrow laneway leading to the town square, once the largest in Austria. Surrounded by ancient warehouses and well preserved patrician houses, the square has not changed much since the middle ages when it was a salt market and transfer point where tradesmen bought and sold their wares. At the centre of the square the Trinity Column is a reminder that the river has been a mixed blessing, bringing wealth and war, pleasure and pestilence to the people living along its banks. Made of polished white marble and standing 20 metres high, the intricately carved baroque column was built in 1723 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity in gratitude for deliverance from the plague and the Turkish invasion which ravaged the town in the early 1700s.