The Danube, Hungary’s most famous river, plays a critical role in the nation’s history. It flows though ten centuries of Hungarian history. If geography is destiny, than the Danube is Hungary’s. The five historic capitals of Hungary have all been located along its banks: Esztergom, Buda, Visegrad, Pozsony (Bratislava) and Budapest. The nation’s largest city by a factor of ten, Budapest, blossomed into a major European metropolis due to its location straddling the Danube. The river facilitated economic trade for centuries and helped lead an industrial boom during the 19th century with steamships plying the slate gray waters. It both divided and united Budapest. In the 20th century one of its islands, Csepel, became the throbbing, belching industrial center of the nation. It is hard to overstate the Danube’s role in creating modern Hungary, which is really the creation of 19th and 20th century Budapest. Put another way, consider two questions inextricably linked: where would Hungary be without Budapest and where would Budapest be without the Danube? One cannot exist without the other.
A Danubian Paradox – Against the Current
All other Hungarian rivers pale in comparison to the Danube, just as all other Hungarian cities pale in comparison to Budapest. The lack of awareness concerning the many watercourses which crisscross the Carpathian Basin is understandable in light of the Danube’s outsized prominence. It overshadows Hungary’s second and longest river, the Tisza. In Hungary the Tisza may stretch three times the length of the Danube, but it still becomes a tributary of the latter. The Danube swallows the Tisza not far beyond the Hungarian border in northern Serbia. The rest of Hungary’s rivers might be summed up as, “there are some, but there might as well be none.” Knowledge of Hungarian rivers besides those two largest happens to all but nonexistent. The Maros, Körös or Rába do not make anyone’s list of memorable waterways.
It is obvious that only the Danube has the prestige and power to stir the national imagination. This is ironic since the Danube feeds off other waterways. It reverses the course of nature, as prey comes to predator. The magnificent river that flows into Budapest is largely a product of its tributaries. Viewing the Danube from the Chain Bridge is a window into the contents of innumerable streams and rivers, a whole made from constituent parts. Those parts have been subsumed by the mighty main stem of the Danube, but without them the river would not exist. The intermingling of waters creates its own natural paradox. Somewhere submerged in this paradox is a river all but lost. It can only be recovered by heading upstream, against the prevailing current.
The River Tamed – Meandering Into Oblivion
A natural remnant and subtle wonder awaits discovery at Danube-Ipoly National Park. The park offers an opportunity to experience one of the lesser known, but no less important tributaries of the Danube in a natural setting. The second part of the park’s name comes from the River Ipoly. With its headwaters in Slovakia, the Ipoly winds its way through the northern uplands of Hungary and the Borszony Hills, then on into the Danube. The Ipoly snakes across a total of 212 kilometers (144 miles). Much like the Danube, it has been straightened in order to limit a natural tendency to meander and flood. Despite mankind’s harnessing of the Ipoly, flooding is a natural process that is the hallmark of a healthy river. In modern Hungary, like the rest of the developed world, flooding is something to be feared rather than admired.
The Iploy may be much smaller and tepid than the Danube, but it is also shares a similar trait. Both rivers have been narrowed and tamed. The state of nature that exists for both of these today is nothing like the wild, roiling rivers that existed less than two centuries ago. These rivers bear little resemblance to their former selves. A river’s power to strike fear in the hearts of Hungarians has been all but lost. From life giver to destroyer to tourist attraction the moderation of nature seems nearly complete. Straightened channels make disaster improbable, catastrophes all but impossible. Technology has tamed nature, helped manage disaster and led to a less than healthy respect the true power of a river. The change has been so rapid, the transformation so complete, that hardly anyone notices. Fortunately there is a vestige that still remains. The remnant of a river’s past awaiting rediscovery.
The Ipoly – Flowing Back To Life
In Hungary, the Danube may get all the glory, but the Ipoly has one pristine stretch that is the rarest of natural exceptions protected in the national park. For twelve splendid kilometers (7 miles) along the Hungarian-Slovak border the Ipoly flows freely. This is one of the last remaining stretches of a wild river in Hungary, offering an immersive experience in nature and natural history. Wetlands abound. Water inundates the land adjacent to the river, creating a multitude of marshes. The saturated flood plain is as much about sound as it is sight. The river languidly flowing acts as a deep and soothing soundtrack. The Ipolya, offers a voice from the past, expressing the true state of nature.