Hungary Magazine

Interview: “The Danube has long been a frontier and a battlefield”


This week, Kafkadesk spoke with Emmanuel Ruben, a French author and geographer who published On the Danube’s path (Sur la route du Danube), the fascinating account of a 48-day cycling odyssey along the mighty river which served as a link, a frontier and a battlefield throughout European history.

Hello Emmanuel, can you first briefly tell us about yourself?

My name is Emmanuel Ruben, I’m 40 years old, I am a writer, and geographer by training. I live on the banks of the Loire river, in France, and already published approximately ten books – essays, stories, novels. I manage the Maison Julien Gracq, a place of residence for authors and artists from all over the world located near the French city of Nantes.

How did you come up with the idea of embarking on this odyssey along the Danube river?

I’d been living on the banks of the Danube, in Novi Sad, Serbia (Vojvodina) since 2015. At the time when I was still living in Paris, I had started a kind of initiatory novel about the crossing of Europe by two cycling friends, Samuel, the narrator, and Vlad, a young Ukrainian immigrant in France. But I couldn’t make any headway since I had never done the trip myself – even though I’ve been a cycling fanatic since I was a child, I had never undertaken a big cycling trip.

Then, after spending time on the banks of the Danube, reading, writing, walking, biking, jogging, I suddenly had an enlightenment: why not travel up the Danube on a bike? I suggested to a friend of mine who was a cyclist to come along with me – I told him: “Your name will be Vlad, you’ll be a character in a novel.” He said ok, and we left for Odessa in June 2016.

The stairs of Odessa, Ukraine. Credit: Emmanuel Ruben

Tell us about your journey and the route you took.

We arrived in Odessa by plane in June. From there, we decided to reach the Danube Delta – 200 km, or 2 days of cycling, to Vilkovo where the river flows into the Black Sea. Then we cycled up the river for 48 days and over 4,000 km of roads and paths crossing all the countries along the river, and taking a long break halfway to Novi Sad where we were both living.

We were completely autonomous: our bikes weighed 15 kilos and we each had 15 kilos of luggage, with a tent, a duvet, food and as little clothing as possible. We tried to stick to the Danube as much as humanly possible, to get as close as possible to the river, which wasn’t always possible, especially in the first countries we crossed – Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania, Bulgaria. That’s where we made our most beautiful encounters – all these “yellow vests” of Europe, as I call them, people forgotten by the European Union.

Did you encounter any particular difficulties during your trip?

Stray dogs were possibly our worst encounters, especially Romanian ones, which are particularly aggressive, no doubt because they sometimes have to spawn with wolves. We sometimes got lost in swamps when we tried to remain as close to the Danube as possible, especially in Ukraine, and we almost got stuck in the mud a few times and threw in the towel. Finally, there was the heat wave, which followed us for half of the trip: when we arrived in Galati, Romania, it was 42°C in the shade. 

Do you have particularly memorable memories or experiences?

There are so many that I can’t mention them all! A Ukrainian granny who wanted to be served beer after beer and know how it was like in Odessa; a Ukrainian fisherman who drank the river water; a Romanian captain who looked like Hugo Pratt; a former Bulgarian metallurgist who told us “Fuck you Gorbachev” to sum up the situation in his country; an old Serbian lady who was carrying garden tools on her bicycle and refused to let a man approach her; a former Serbian officer who had fallen into alcohol since the war separated him from his Croatian wife and children.

And everywhere we saw Gypsies, musicians or simple rubberneckers bathing in the river. We saw what Svetlana Alexievitch calls “the end of the red man”.

Vilkovo, Ukraine. Credit: Emmanuel Ruben

How would you describe the importance and symbolism of the Danube for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and European history in general?

The Danube is what connects us Western Europeans to the east of the continent. It is the only river in the world that crosses ten countries, most of which are now part of the EU, while others aspire to it: Serbia, Ukraine, Moldova.

It has long been a frontier and a battlefield, a place of confrontation between Rome and the Barbarians, Christianity and Islam, the Eastern bloc and the Western bloc. But not all the tensions have been resolved and it was, at the time we were there, the main axis of passage for migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Danube has a special place in European history and geography, especially for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Does the river still have a special place in the collective consciousness of the countries and populations it crosses? Has its symbolism evolved over time?

The question is far too vast to answer here. What has marked us is the attachment of the riverside populations to the river. It is a river in which we bathe, along which we walk, kiss, play, fight and make love.

Until recently, the Hungarians used to cook their fish soup in its waters. That’s what touched me the most, the daily and common uses of the river. The Danube is the only inland sea that crosses Europe, because the Mediterranean today is a border, or even worse, a graveyard.

Have you noticed key differences in how each country relates to the Danube?

Again, this is a very vast question. The attachment I know best is that of the Serbs, and in particular the Serbs of Vojvodina. After the collapse of Yugoslavia and the separation of Serbia and Montenegro, the Danube, which was already considered almost the equal of a God – Sveta Dunav, the Serbs say, the Holy Danube – became the main holiday resort, the equivalent of a seacoast.

It is here, in this landlocked country that has lost its access to the sea, that you’ll see the most open-air cafes, villas, vikendica as they call them, and fishermen’s huts by the river. There are also many leisure centres and in the summer the beaches are crowded.

In Ukraine, we saw WWF volunteers fighting for the protection of the sturgeon. As we approached Vienna, we were struck by all the naturists bathing naked in the Donaukanal. But the banks of the Danube downstream from Budapest are still very polluted (the NATO bombings in Serbia were a huge ecological disaster in this respect) and it’s time to imagine a European management of the river.

A sort of Danube parliament that would allow the river – via a federation of local associations – to protect itself against all external assaults: dams, hydroelectric power stations, nuclear power stations, slaughterhouses, factories, but also all the towns and cities that discharge their waste-water into the river.

Can you tell us more specifically about your experience in Hungary?

We went through Hungary at the time of the migration crisis. I have written about it in two other books: Terminus Schengen and The Heart of Europe. A neo-fascist regime was established at the centre of our continent which systematically flouts all the values upon which Europe is based. When I see what is happening in Hungary, I feel the pain of Europe. If you stay in Budapest, you see almost nothing, Budapest is an island that has nothing to do with the rest of Hungary.

You have to go to the Hungarian countryside, especially in the south, towards the Serbian border, to take the measure of the economic and psychological misery of a good part of this country which sees itself as the guardian of Europe, of Christianity, as if we had returned to the Middle Ages and had to face the Ottoman Empire.

In reality, it was just a matter of letting through a few thousand refugees who were fleeing the war, seeking to reach the major economic centres of Western Europe and had no desire to linger in a country where the prevailing xenophobia is used for political ends.

Any advice for people who would also like to cycle along the Danube?

Go all the way and never give up – it’s worth the trip. Listen to the people and don’t settle only for the beauty of the scenery.

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.