Books and travel literature are a must for every voyager. At least, I assume this: how much more can be gleaned from visiting new places when a reliable guide prepares you for them - and then helps you to remember them well. Egeria, that well-travelled woman of late antiquity, knew this when she wrote her famous guide to the holy sites of the Middle East to encourage Christian pilgrims. Artaud's guide to the pilgrimage to Compostela is another medieval example. When you are cruising and have only a few hours to spend in each site, possibly never to return in your lifetime, a good guide helps to make the most of a brief visit.
So I've brought with me two books on the Danube. Neither is a guide book in the strict sense; both are more in the nature of cultural histories and geographies, but I've found that their take on the river is stimulating and suggestive. Claudio Magris' book Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea is an eccentric piece of writing, but it sparkles brilliantly with insights laced with quotations from writers ancient and modern. Here is a man who loves the river and the lands it flows through, not least in the way he sees so much in its course that speaks in a symbolic way about the issues of our time. The other book acknowledges its debt to Magris while staying more in the mainstream (as it were) of travel writing, Andrew Beattie's The Danube: A Cultural History. But it too is serious literature rather than a descriptive travelogue, and I've learned much from it. And I've also brought Patrick Leigh Fermor's classic A Time of Gifts which I loved when I read it years ago, and want to revisit for its Danube chapters.
However, there doesn't seem to be much conversation on board about the places we are due to see. I find this lack of curiosity odd. I have seen one other guest reading a guide book to the Danube, and some others poring over the map in the lobby. Did I imagine that everyone would be sitting on deck reading Patrick Leigh Fermor and discussing the Ottoman Empire, Empress Maria Theresa, Austro-Hungarian politics, the Cold War, and the Danube's natural history and geology? It feels as though this little shipboard society is more interested in what is going on in our own midst. Our city is the ship itself: its passengers and crew, its daily routines and out-of-the-ordinary events: these are of much interest to everyone. I watch myself being drawn into this little world, hear myself taking part in its quotidian discourse. It's like being in one of Irving Goffman's 'total communities' where everyone lives, eats and sleeps behind the same walls. In these conditions people start behaving in distinctive ways. Prisons and psychiatric institutions were his famous examples, but a boarding school or a cruise ship (or as I found in another life, a theological college) could be others: anywhere that can become the proverbial goldfish bowl.
Bratislava is the next port of call. Beattie says that as a state capital city it's the poor relation of the others and its charms quickly wear thin. However, we find that it has pleasures to offer, even if these are modest compared to Budapest. A guide takes us up to the castle, the city's must-see tourist site, thought what must be seen is the view rather than the building itself. It has four tall turrets at the corners, hence its nickname of 'Bratislava's Upturned Table', an echo of St John's, Smith Square in London which is affectionately known as 'Queen Anne's Footstool'. It is Cistercian in its pure white simplicity. But the view is extraordinary. It embraces the paradoxes of the ex-Eastern Bloc countries. Across the Danube from the historic quarter are line after line of Soviet-style apartment blocks, from here presenting a dystopian vision of grim uniformity and decay. The bridge spanning the river has an enormous turret from which the load is cantilevered, straining back against the river-bank Atlas-like, as if to rise to the challenge of supporting this monumental weight. There is a revolving restaurant on top, from which the seamy south side of the river will be seen to even better effect.
The modern Slovak state parliamentary building is next to the castle. In front of the flight of stairs leading up to it, a forecourt is marked out by stone bishops' mitres embedded into the setts, a reminder that this was, and perhaps still is, a staunchly catholic nation that survived the years of cold-war oppression (and, its citizens might add, being yoked together in an unwanted late marriage with the Czech Lands). Not even in palatine Durham are mitres used so playfully.
We walk down through the old town. By St Michael's gate, the bronze figure of St John Nepomuk smiles down at us. He is one of central Europe's great heroes: more of him in Prague. The streets are charming and animated. In leafy squares fountains cool the air. In the main piazza a wooden Trojan horse, a temporary art installation,offers a humorous foil to the spire of the Jesuit church. A Napoleonic soldier sculpted in bronze leans nonchalantly against a bench while tourists take it in turns to be photographed next to him. I decide to find my way to the Cathedral. A few metres outside the west door, traffic on a 4-lane highway obtrudes its century into quiet cobbled streets where priests roam in cassocks. The church itself has a beautiful green copper spire, and a fine flamboyant gothic interior. In the crypt, a colombarium holds the ashes of the worthy departed - and probably the quite ordinary too, judging by the naïve script with which their names are roughly inscribed on their final resting-places.
The stretch of river from Bratislava to Vienna is punctuated by two main events. The first is the so-called Porta Hungarica, where the Danube leaves (as we are sailing upstream) the Eastern European lands and enters Austria. The castle of Devlin stands proudly on a bluff guarding this strategic gateway. In the middle of this beautiful medieval site, a functional 1960s or 70s building obtrudes crassly like the classic carbuncle. It looks derelict, but you never know in Eastern Europe. Was it, is it, a hotel or restaurant run by Intourist or its Czech equivalent? Or a frontier post perhaps? - for here, the Iron Curtain once crossed the river, and there were gantries for armed guards stationed at regular intervals in the forests along the northern bank facing Austria.
Now we are back in the west. It is hard not to notice how much tidier the river banks are, how much greener. This is Lower Austria, the homeland of Haydn whose music echoes with the peasant melodies and rhythms of Slovakia. The country is uneventful. But near Vienna, we encounter our first lock. In fact, this is not the first on our voyage: that happened in the middle of the night downstream of Bratislava. We were dimly aware of lights and noise outside but missed the action. These giant locks on the Danube are a far cry from the intimate affairs you find on the Grand Union or Llangollen Canals. Some are a quarter of a mile long, and wide enough to contain two huge cargo boats side by side. What they lack in charm they possess in sheer monumentality. A vast quantity of water flows in and out of these locks every time they are used, but there is no detectable turbulence; the only movement you sense is the gentle rise of the boat up the lock. It is like being in a well-maintained lift. It calls for precision to line up our port side as close as possible to the concrete wall of the lock; so well is it done that you could not drop a scone down the gap. It is all managed electronically, while the captain, an inscrutable Russian, keeps a careful eye on proceedings, smoking a cigarette.
And so we glide into Vienna. Or at any rate, its outskirts. Vienna is not like Budapest or Bratislava, making the most of its privileged riparian position. I have been to Vienna before, and never set eyes on the Danube. We are moored in the village of Nussdorf. Along the bank, a busy highway is supported on stilts, while S-Bahn commuter trains rush past. Here the Danube feels almost forgotten, a side-show to the true delights of Vienna's cultured city-centre which feels a long way from this backwater. On the north side of the river, away from the historic old town to the south, skyscrapers present the image of a contemporary capital city with an active commercial and intellectual life. Headquarters of international organisations have their home here. Vienna has been accused of being locked nostalgically into its imperial past. If that was true once, it is not true today.
Each night in the season, there is a concert in some historic venue in town, geared to the needs of tourists like us. 'Viennese' means Mozart and Strauss, a miscellany of favourites that always includes the Blue Danube Waltz. At €33 each, we give it a miss and spend €2.40 on tram tickets into the city centre. Riding trams is among the pleasures of European cities, and increasingly, UK cities too. I am proud to have been dean in a place (Sheffield) where there is a tram-stop named after the building it stops by - 'Cathedral'. Tram D takes us on to the Ring, the boulevard that encircles the centre along the line of the former city walls. The great buildings follow one another with bewildering speed. We get out at the Opera and walk along the Kästnerstrasse, one of Vienna's best shopping streets. It is pedestrianised, and thousands of people of every age are out in the mild evening air shopping (the stores are open though it is past 8pm), eating, drinking, enjoying street music and film, or simply wandering. It is exhilarating.
A vast crowd is surging round the Cathedral. Inside, some kind of event is going on that involves coloured light and lively music. We fight our way in. A friendly young priest says Wilkommen. Hundreds of people of all ages are moving around the great space, some singing, sitting quietly, lighting candles. Coloured lights play over the gothic interior illuminating it in brilliant reds and greens and golds. We discover that this is the 'Nacht der Kirchen' when churches are open all night offering hospitality, music, arts, discussion and liturgy. The surging crowd looks largely like prosperous Western Europeans, presumably highly secularised, yet they seem to be rediscovering and joyfully celebrating their catholic roots, at least for the evening. Is it a Kirchentag or a Back to Church Night? If we tried this in Anglican cathedrals, would English people's vestigial Anglicanism come flooding back in the way it does in catholic Austria? It raises intriguing questions about implicit or 'folk' religion and how to tap into its potential.