There's something fundamentally romantic about all rivers in the world. But some rivers have far brighter romantic colours than others, because they happen to be pictured exquisitely in world-famous works of art, music or literature.
One of the finest examples of such works is the immensely popular waltz An der schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube) -- composed by Johann Strauss Jr. of 19th-century Vienna, immortalizing the magnificent 1800-miles-long river which flows through picturesque scenery in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in the Balkans.
Distance adds greatly to the romantic appeal of any setting; and my own original perception of the Danube was particularly colourful because, as a sensitive schoolboy in far-away Madras in South India -- armed with an adequate self-taught knowledge of French and a fabulous made-in-England super-heterodyne radio set bought by my father in 1939 -- I regularly used to hear crystal-clear broadcasts in French from Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, and occasionally heard the lovely tunes of The Blue Danube dance on those or other stations.
And later on, among the very first set of long-playing records I bought as a young man in New Delhi was a fine collection of Johann Strauss waltzes including The Blue Danube, rendered beautifully by a full-fledged symphony orchestra. And in due course, I would hear many superb orchestral and choral versions of the masterpiece on the radio, LP records or audio cassettes; and my romantic vision of the river just grew and grew!
So it was only natural that I was looking out for the Danube with great expectations when I happened to visit Vienna 30 years ago. At first I was mildly disappointed because what flowed inside the city was only the Donaukanal, a far less imposing branch of the river (though it did have its own charm, I must say). And although I wasn't really expecting to see sparkling blue waters when I drove out to see the actual river, the ground-level view of the dull gray mass of water wasn't particularly impressive.
But my day-dreams about the Danube did come true vividly a couple of years later when I visited Budapest, where the river bisects the city into the twin equal segments of Buda on the hills and Pest on plain ground. And whether I looked across the river from a hilltop on one side or from the riverbank on the other -- or stood above the river midway on the quaint old Széchenyi Bridge -- I had some truly breathtaking views of the Beautiful Gray Danube.
With so many wonderful impressions of the Danube tucked away in one's memory, it's extremely distressing to witness the ongoing environmental drama in Hungary, where a horrendous mass of red toxic sludge had recently burst through the walls of an alumina factory reservoir about 50 miles away from the river, turning into a menacing flood, wrecking large sections of the countryside, and eventually flowing into the Danube itself through creeks and connected waterways.
This disaster has not only caused a colossal ecological crisis in Hungary, but is also posing a grave threat of pollution to several other countries further along the Danube's course (Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine), and also the Black Sea. Not that those sister countries are all just innocent onlookers! Some of them seem to be having their own toxic time-bombs ticking away in the shape of derelict storage tanks and ponds holding enormous quantities of poisonous chemical and metallic wastes.
And in many of those hazardous spots, which are not far away from the banks of the Danube, run-down storage facilities seem to be just waiting to burst and pour voluminous and venomous effluents into the great river. How long, I wonder, before someone composes a nostalgic song called The Blue Danube Blues!