The sun was just beginning to set as the Viking Spirit pulled into the tiny town of Durnstein, our final stop on the Danube before arriving in Vienna. The cluster of meticulously preserved 16 th century buildings and the crumbling remnants of a medieval castle perched high above the town look much like those in a dozen other picturesque towns along Wachau Valley. But Durnstein holds a special place in the history of both Austria and England.
Back in 1189 Richard the Lionhearted trucked off to the Holy Lands to do what British kings did in those days. He fought valiantly during the Third Crusade but made the mistake of insulting Leopold V, Duke of Austria, a man not given to forgive such slights. Richard's second mistake was trying to sneak back to England through Leopold's territory. Despite his disguise as a peasant farmer Richard was apprehended, tossed into the dungeon of Durnstein Castle and held for a whopping ransom. It cost the Brits 35,000 kg of silver to get their king back, a sum so large that much of the country's ecclesiastical treasure had to be melted down to make the payment. The ransom funded, among other things, the building of Vienna's defensive wall and the ruined castle where Richard the Lionhearted was held prisoner continues to draw tourists and their dollars to the town of Durnstein.
We pulled out of Durnstein early the next morning and a few kilometres downstream passed the town of Krems, an ancient wine- and salt-trading centre which, during the Middle Ages, was even more important than Vienna. Here the picturesque Wachau Valley ends. Its steeply terraced vineyards and rocky headlands give way to low banks covered with willow and scrub alder as the Danube spreads out behind the Altenworth hydroelectric dam. But beyond the dam the country is a pleasant mix of farms, vineyards and low, forested hills. This is the region that inspired Johann Strauss to compose Tales of the Vienna Woods and The Blue Danube Waltz. The very name "Vienna" conjures up romantic images of gentlemen in powdered wigs and elaborately gowned ladies twirling across marble dance floors to the music of Strauss and Mozart. But as it approaches Vienna the Danube is neither blue nor particularly romantic.
Ever since the Romans established the outpost of Vindobona at the crossing where Vienna now stands the town has had a love/hate relationship with the river. Located at a natural intersection between east-west and north-south trade routes Vindobona prospered, grew into the town of Wenia and finally into the city of Vienna. But until it was finally tamed in the mid 19 th century the Danube was a maze of sandbars and shifting channels that changed course after every flood, creating havoc in the city. Work to mitigate the flood problem began in 1868. Ten years later the Danube was confined to a broad, artificial channel that slices through Vienna as straight as an arrow and bears no resemblance to the romantic river celebrated in Strauss's famous waltz. In the 1970s a parallel channel, the Neue Donau, was dug to provide further flood protection. Today a man-made sliver of land known as the Donauinsel separates the two waterways. Stretching for 20 kilometres like the median of a watery freeway the Donauinsel has become one of modern Vienna's most cherished amenities - a rare open space where people come to bike, skate, picnic and bathe.