Unrealized Potentials – Traveling the Tisza River

Thousands of tourists cruise the waters of the Danube River each summer. Along the way they have the opportunity to pass through four European Capitals, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. They might also float by such historic cities as Ulm, Regensburg and Linz among many others.  Those traveling further down the Danube to Belgrade might fail to notice one of its most important tributaries across from the non-descript Serbian village of Novi Slakamene. It is here that another important European river has its mouth. This river is the largest left bank tributary of the Danube, though rarely given much thought or recognition. It is called the Tisza. Unlike the Danube’s most famous stretches that flow through the heart of Central Europe, the Tisza is both naturally and culturally an Eastern European river from its headwaters high in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine to its meandering course across the Great Hungarian Plain all the way down to its mouth in northern Serbia. The Tisza has a rich, distinct history almost entirely unknown. Though it lacks the cultural cachet and name recognition of the Danube, the Tisza has its own delights, offering adventure and discovery of the unknown.

Map of the Tisza River and the southern part of the Danube

Map of the Tisza River and the southern part of the Danube

Taming the Tisza – Placing Nature In A Straitjacket
Like all major rivers in Europe, the Tisza as it exists today is very different from its original form. The most dramatic changes to the river have occurred over the last two hundred years. The forces of industrialization, technological change and modernization all in the name of economic development reshaped the river. In the process, the Tisza’s flow was transformed from a serpentine course to a relatively straight and much more navigable waterway. Staring at the languid waters of the Tisza today, one gets the sense that the river is rather benign. This is deceiving. Not that long ago the Tisza was a wild, dangerous river that periodically inundated the surrounding landscape, tormenting villagers who relied on its waters for their livelihood. The project to tame the river took decades. It was massive, especially by the standards of the 19th century. When it began in 1846, the river stretched 1,419 kilometers (880 miles), equivalent to the distance from Amsterdam to Budapest.

By the time “regulation of the Tisza” was complete, the river had been considerably shortened. 453 kilometers (280 miles) of bends and ox bows had been cut off. Ships and barges were now able to travel further up the Tisza into the heartland of the Kingdom of Hungary.  This expedited commerce, especially the transport of grain. The areas through which the Tisza flowed became a breadbasket for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In the late 19th century, the river had taken on its present form. With the Tisza’s development, cities along its shores also grew, but never to the extent that those along the Danube did. Cities such as Szeged and Szolnok blossomed, but never grew in size anywhere close to the extent of Budapest or Belgrade. The Tisza had become what it still pretty much is today, an important, albeit economic backwater. In essence, a vital artery for the region it drained and flowed through, but of no greater significance outside of its adjacent region.

The Tisza at Szeged, Hungary

The Tisza at Szeged, Hungary – the largest city on the river (Credit: Zsolt Varadi)

Tourism & the Tisza – A Confluence Of Pleasures
The same could be said of the Tisza’s present day tourism potential. If one is looking to get away from the crowds on and along the Danube, then following the Tisza can certainly result in a unique experience. Those traveling on the river are most likely to start in Tokaj, Hungary, the center of a UNESCO World Heritage Wine Region Cultural Landscape. They then cruise down to Szeged, famed for its beautiful turn of the 20th century architecture that stemmed from a massive effort to rebuild the city in the wake of catastrophic flooding from the Tisza in 1879.  Further down, the river meets the mighty Danube at Novi Slankamen in the Vojvodina region of Serbia. That is as far as most travelers are likely to venture along the Tisza, they have little idea that the most interesting areas are much further upstream.

The adventurous need to seek out the Tisza’s wilder upper reaches. The provincial hub of Rakhiv, Ukraine is the top destination for this area. Almost totally unknown even today, Rakhiv has only become accessible since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Tisza proper begins here as the waters of the White and Black Tisza, streams that flow down from the highest reaches of the Ukrainian Carpathians unite at Rakhiv. This is a much different version of the Tisza than the more familiar one in Hungary.  The river’s current is swift and sure as it runs through a valley that it helped carve over many millennia. This is not the place for genteel cruising. Instead it is a playground for recreational paddlers with the river running swift and sure, the nature wild and untamed.

The Upper Tisza at Rakhiv, Ukraine

The Upper Tisza at Rakhiv, Ukraine (Credit: Ivan Bil)

Eastern Approaches – Against The Shores of Progress
Incidentally for all the remoteness of its upper reaches, the Tisza flows within a few feet of what was once deemed the geographical center of Europe. Just 15 kilometers from Rakhiv is the small village of Dilove. This was where the center of Europe was located by a team of Austro-Hungarian geographers in 1887. Today this designation is open to much debate, but it is striking that all of Dilove’s competition can be found in Eastern Europe as well. Who would have thought that the obscure upper reaches of the Tisza would run right through what many consider the geographical center of Europe? Most fascinating of all, for both paddlers and travelers, is the fact that the upper Tisza straddles the Ukraine – Romania border. On one side stands a society still trying to escape from the legacy of Soviet influence, on the other a member of the European Union. This is one of three stretches along the Tisza where this occurs. The others are the Ukraine – Hungary and Hungary-Serbia border. The Tisza as it stands today is not just a river, but also a border, where the old Eastern Europe washes up against the shores of the new.

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