Balkan Waters – Meeting Point: The Danube & Sava Rivers At Belgrade (Travels In Eastern Europe #35)

My main reason for traveling to Belgrade was to check it off on a list of Eastern European capitals that I wanted to visit. By going to the city I would be able to call myself a traveler rather than a tourist. Allow me to explain. Very few people visiting Eastern Europe go south of Budapest along the Danube. Conversely tens of thousands of tourists ply the river’s waters on exorbitantly expensive cruises through Germany, Austria, southern Slovakia and northern Hungary, but they go no further than Budapest. I have met an overwhelming majority of older Americans who arrive or depart on such cruises from Budapest. I have yet to meet a single American who was following the Danube into Serbia.

I will often ask these people if they have plans to travel further down the river into the Balkans by boat. The answer is always no. I suspect that they believe the Yugoslav Wars have continued unabated since the Cold War ended. I assume that for most of these tourists a boat ride to Belgrade is a risk not worth taking. The Danube might as well end at Budapest rather than the Black Sea. The reality is that the river continues onward, following a course that stimulates little interest among holidaying westerners. Budapest or even Bratislava sounds more appealing than Belgrade. These people have little idea what they are missing out on. For that matter so do I. I have never taken a boat ride on the Danube, but I have stood upon its banks in Belgrade, pondering its place in the city.

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two Great Rivers Converge – The View From Kalmegdan
All this comes to mind as I recall looking down upon the waterfront of the Serbian capital from the Belgrade Fortress at Kalmegdan Park. The river was deserted, its surface a glassy smoothness. A few boats were moored along the riverbank, but it was early spring, long before any tourist voyages would embark upon the Danube’s murky waters. The river was wide and full. And how could it not be? The Danube swallows its largest tributary by volume within sight from the heights of Kalmegdan. The Sava River is not considered one of the great rivers of Europe, but it should be. The Sava is a Balkan river through and through. It flows through the capitals of the three primary nations that the former Yugoslavia.

The Sava winds its way through Ljubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb in Croatia and finally debouches into the Danube at Belgrade. The city’s location at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube has ensured Belgrade’s importance in the region’s history. The saying that “geography is destiny” certainly seems apropos in this case, but what looks obvious to the historically minded is often obscured in the present. Only a handful of people come and go along either of these rivers today. I would guess that 99% of people traveling to Belgrade arrive by plane, car or as I did train. The Danube and Sava Rivers in Belgrade today have rendered lonely forces of nature by modern technology. They are crossed by bridge and hardly given a second thought.

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed (Credit: Duja)

Wedding Of The Waters – Two Rivers Become One
Walking down by the rivers just below Kalmegdan Park was a strange experience. It was incredibly quiet. I felt like I was on the edge of a nature preserve rather than two forces of nature, the Danube and Sava, which wash the banks of this bustling city. Perhaps I had come to the wrong part of the river in Belgrade. My visit was certainly in the wrong season. Early spring was obviously a slow season for river traffic since there was none. It felt as though I had the both rivers all to myself. Only a few scattered stragglers walked close to the banks. I have read that tens of thousands flock to the waterfront during the summer, as opposed to the handful that I saw on my visit. On the opposite side of the Danube, trees lined the banks. No sign of development or humanity was within sight, though behind me stood a city of over a million people. The Danube’s width and breadth was intimidating. There was little doubt that it was swift and powerful. The river might be silent at the moment, but it had the ability to carry away anyone or anything that did not respect a deceptively forceful current. It was hard to imagine the Danube this way judged by its current state, a thick ribbon of dark water slowly surging under a leaden sky. The river seemed totally remote from its surroundings.

Soon I found myself standing opposite of where the Sava and Danube mingled. For both waterways to converge at this point was an incredible act of hydrological travel. By the time it arrives at Belgrade the Danube has traveled over 1,500 kilometers and the Sava nearly a thousand. The waters wed within sight of the aptly named Great War Island. For it was on this piece of land, that one attack after another had been launched against the city. Depending on what source you care to reference, Belgrade has been conquered anywhere from twenty to forty times. Each time it was destroyed and rebuilt in a style that favored its conqueror. Belgrade’s reconstruction was done by the hands of man, while Great War Island had been restored by nature. It looked less like a place to mount an attack on the city and more like somewhere to watch birds. Time and technology had made martial usage of the island obsolete. A staging ground for centuries worth of war, was now peaceful and serene. Contrast and paradox define the stretches of riverfront that can be seen from Kalmegdan Park

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods (Credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers Run Wild – Back To Nature
A couple of years after I walked that sleepy waterfront, the Danube and Sava once again became their true selves. In May 2014 deluges further upstream led to massive flooding. One Serbian minister called the inundation of cities, towns and farmland the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The flooding caused an estimated one and a half billion Euros worth of damage in Serbia. Belgrade escaped the worst of the flooding, but the rising waters came frighteningly close to causing a cataclysm. It was a reminder that the rivers were still wild and always will be. They could never really be tamed. I did not see such wildness in the rivers when I visited. The Danube and Sava in Belgrade were a study in serenity the day I walked along their banks, but I sensed that eventually these rivers have to run wild and return to a state of nature.