There is no river in the world that runs through more countries than the Danube. More than hundred million people live on or near the river, and more than 20 languages are spoken. It connects Western and Eastern Europe. These facts are probably the main reason for the Danube to be one of the historically most important sites in the world – the place which has always inspired people to develop and grow, to create and enjoy the beauty, but at the same time, to conquer and defend, to sail and to come back. Cultural, historical and natural heritage of the Danube region reflects those times and those people, as well as people of modern times.
The historical importance of the river is best illustrated by the relicts of the past excavated or foundon its banks. One of the first human dwellings was locatedhere: in Vinča (near the Iron Gates in Serbia) there is a village dating back from the sixth millennium BC, while in Vučedol (near Vukovar in Croatia), there is a site from the third millennium.
Ancient Greeks sailed the river, but the Romans (coming after them) left a significant impact. At the beginning of the first millennium, they expanded the territory of the Empire and left a number of monuments to testify to their power and wealth: each ofLower Danube countries boasts at least a couple of major Roman artefacts.
The river would again become strategically and economically important during the times of the Crusades, from the 11th to the 13th century. On their way from the Western Europe to Asia Minor, the Crusades used the Danube as a waterway for transportation of military force. Only a century later, the people living on the banks of the river will be subject in a series of wars and conquests which would affect even the modern-day Europe: during the Ottoman invasion, from the 14th to the 19th century, the Danube was the Northern border of the Ottoman Empire, which theyunsuccesfully tried to cross and invade for five centuries. Some of the most important battles of those times took place literary on the Danube banks: the Battle of Nicopolis (1396), the Battle of Mohacs (1596), the first Turkish Siege of Vienna (1529), the Siege of Esztergom (1543), the Long War ( 1591–1606), the Battle of Vienna (1683), the Great Turkish War ( 1683–1699).
The border between Ottoman territories and the ones they never conquered, still exist in a way: along the central segment of the Danube flow – in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria – the architecture on one bank differs from the architecture on the other, since Turkish building and infrastructure elements are still visible.
At the time of Ottomans, Austrian-Hungarian Empire reached its peak, which is also obvious in baroque art and architecture not only of Austria and Hungary, but also of Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia and Romania. It is also important to mention that Napoleon fought his second campaign in the Danube region following Austria’s rising against his control in early 1809
During the 19th century, Lower Danube people all started their battles for independence – some against the Austrians, some against the Ottomans, which resulted in almost simultaneous development of national arts and traditions.
During the 20th century, the Danube region shared the fate of Europe: it was a place where battles took place, where bombs were falling, where the future of the world was being decided. After the World War II, it connected some of the most developed capitalistic countries to the countries of the Soviet Block or communist orientation. That contrast is still visible today, more than thirty years after political changes in Europe: the infrastructure of highly developed countries is sometimes incomparable to the one found in other countries. On the other hand, that contrast can also be seen as an illustration of what was happenning in Europe for almost half a century.
Since the Danube lies in the centre of Europe, it is difficult to find any historically significant person who never lived on its banks, or at least paid them a visit. All European scientists, architects, painters,writers, poets, composers, historians – the ones that made strong impact in their own fields – left their trails in the region surrounding the Danube, thus influencing its culture, tradition and heritage.
Most of Danube landscapes and monuments are under the protection of the state – which includes more than twenty national parks and numerous buildings, streets and monuments from prehistoric, Roman, medieval, baroque or modern times.
Some of those are evenon the official UNESCO World Heritage List . At this moment, these are: old town of Regensburg with Stadtamhof in Germany, Wachau cultural landscape and historic centre of Vienna in Austria, Hungarian capital Budapest (including the the banks of the Danube), Gamzigrad-Romuliana in Serbia, Danube Delta in Romania and Srebarna nature reserve in Bulgaria. There is, of course, even longer list of the sites which are on the “tentative list” and started the procedure of getting the World Heritage status.
The most important Danube heritage is not, however, on any list or under specific protection regime. It is the river itself, in its total length, with everything built or grown beside it. Segments of the river are important, beautiful and deserve attention and respect, but only the whole of the Danube makes it what it is – the cultural heart of Europe, historical crossroad of all the invasions and wars, a point where different worlds and traditions collide and connect.