In a park at Donaueschingen in Germany there is a pleasant ornamental spring surrounded by a stone balustrade and crowned by a Baroque statue. Unless you read the sign you would scarcely guess that this modest pond is the generally-agreed origin point of the mightiest river in western Europe.
From Donaueschingen the Danube flows through ten countries and four capital cities, acquiring tributaries like a fan-following on its marathon 1,780 mile meander from the Alps to the Black Sea.
- Bratislava, Slovakia
- Budapest, Hungary
- Durnstein, Austria
- Melk, Austria
- Nuremberg, Germany
- Passau, Germany
- Vienna, Austria
Capital and largest city of Slovakia, Bratislava was before 1919 known as Pressburg and narrowly escaped being renamed Wilsonov in honour of the US president of the time. It straddles both banks of the Danube and has a beautiful old town which features many medieval towers and Baroque palaces as well as grand public buildings and theatres. There's a castle here (two actually), a museum of clocks, various galleries and art museums, the narrowest house in Europe, a statue of a paparazzo taking a sneaky camera shot round a corner, and a famous bronze of a workman climbing out of a pavement manhole. As you do.
Hungary's capital emerged from Ottoman rule to become the throbbing heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today is one of the EU's largest cities. Described by Condé Nast Traveller as the world's second best city and by Forbes as in the top ten 'most idyllic places to live', Budapest has a wealth of museums, galleries, and great architecture including Buda Castle, Gresham Palace, St Stephen's Basilica, Matthias Church, Fisherman's Bastion, and the awe-inspiring Parliament building, the third largest in the world.
This pretty little town acquired its name 'Dry Stone' after the medieval castle on the hill which, being stone, was dry most of the time, especially in relation to the oft-flooding plains below. This castle has a bigger claim to fame though, as it was here in 1192 that King Richard the Lionheart was held as a prisoner by the Duke of Austria after a royal tiff. Sadly Dry Stone Castle is today a rubble-strewn ruin thanks to the Swedish, who blasted through here with some heavy artillery in the 1640s. If you don't fancy the hill climb, check out the Dürnstein Monastery, which hosts guided tours.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site packs a lot of charm into a small space, with medieval town gates, cottages and towers, a Gothic church, a 400-year-old bread shop, a Baroque post office and sundry Burgher houses, all clustered around the historic centre. There are four 'themed walks' marked by coloured signs, so you don't need to miss anything. The main attraction though is the Abbey overlooking the town, a huge structure and a huge tourist draw every year. First founded in 1089, the present Abbey dates from 1702 and features a Baroque library with medieval manuscripts and an eye-popping church dripping with gold leaf and frescos by Rottmayr.
Somewhat like Henry VIII's England centuries before, Austria experienced a Dissolution of the Monasteries under Emperor Joseph II in the 1780s, but Melk managed to survive and thrive. Against the odds it also made it through the Napoleonic Era and even the Second World War, so that it has become a cultural icon of Austria and was commemorated on the 10 Euro coin in 2007.
This ancient city was once a Hohenzollern seat and later unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire and cultural centre of the German Renaissance. This was a hub of science including printing and astronomy, with the first publication of works by Copernicus and star charts by local woodcutter Albrech Dürer. Baroque composer Pachelbel was born here (you'll know his Canon in D even if you don't realise it), and so was Christmas tinsel, invented in 1610.
It's impossible to overlook Nuremberg's role in the Nazi era, when huge rallies were held here and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for her propaganda films, and later – and for the same reason - the famous trials were also held here. The wartime destruction of the historic centre was virtually total, but massive reconstruction after the war brought much of its playful medieval appearance back from the ruins. Some of the Nazi-era buildings designed by Albert Speer have nevertheless been preserved as memorial museums, their severe neo-classical lines a powerful evocation of the era.
Other things worth seeing are Nuremberg Castle, the German National Museum, the Chain Bridge, a Toy Museum, a Transport Museum and Albrech Dürer's house.
Like a man on a three-legged stool with a fortress for a hat, Passau sits at the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. The fortress is the Veste Oberhaus, founded in 1219 and today a museum, art gallery and restaurant. Dominating the town is St Stephen's Cathedral, rebuilt in the Italian Baroque style from 1668 and featuring a beautifully ornate interior with domed ceiling frescoes. Here you can find the world's largest cathedral organ, with an astounding 17,774 pipes and 223 registers (permutations of the positions of organ stops). It's also got some heavy-duty bells, the largest weighing in at 7,550kg.
Warriors from sword-fighting days had an almost mystical regard for Passau steel, whose magical powers were believed to make its wielder invincible. The Passau wolf ensign, stamped on the blade, was considered such a powerful talisman that other cities stole the design and started doing cheap wolf-stamped knock-offs.
As with many of the riverside towns, Passau has seen its share of major floods, the most recent in 2013. The Old City Hall tower bears on one wall an engraved vertical line of high-water marks. 1920 is chest-high, 2002 is head high, but to reach 1954 and 1501 you'd need a ladder.
With eye-popping palatial architecture, world-class theatre, art galleries and museums, and a music CV like no other, this is a capital city which practically wears out superlatives. Spend an hour here and you'll see why Vienna is the cultural hub of Europe and one of the world's top ten bucket-list destinations, receiving around 8 million visitors a year.
Its cultural pedigree is virtually unequalled anywhere. Famous as the 'City of Music', this was the birthplace of Schubert, Johann Strauss I & II, and Arnold Schönberg, while musicians who lived here included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler.
It's even more famous as the home of Sigmund Freud, but it has also spawned a host of world-famous scientists and philosophers, and even Hollywood directors like Fred Zinneman (High Noon, The Day of the Jackal), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) as well as actors Erich von Stroheim, Romy Schneider, Christophe Waltz and Hedy Lamarr.
Things to see are too numerous to list, but outstanding attractions include the Museumsquartier, including art collections by local painters Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, the Hofburg Palace, home to the Habsburg Crown Jewels, the 1,441-room Baroque Schönbrunn Palace with its enormous formal gardens, and the hugely popular expressionist Hundertwasserhaus apartment complex.