Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Saturday, 19 June 2010 12:37 UK

Tears and the blues on the River Danube

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Budapest

Life on one of Europe's most famous rivers has many delights, from houseboats, cormorants and flotillas of toy yachts - even in a season of floods.

The customs warehouse in Galati, a shipbuilding city on the Romanian stretch of the Danube delta, is quaintly housed in an old school building.

Danube tug cabin
With floating debris, steering a course on the Danube can be treacherous

Just inside the door, the first thing you see are fishing nets, like mermaids' underwear, piled high on the shelves.

"Some were confiscated," a customs officer explains, because the mesh was too fine and would catch even the smallest fish. Others because fishermen were caught using them out of season.

In the next classroom are the cigarettes, stacked to the ceiling, all the brands of the world, waiting for destruction.

And outside on the grass is a selection of the vehicles which have been confiscated from the smugglers, in the latest Romanian attempt to deter the trade.

Angry waters

Powerful motorboats with outboard engines from James Bond movies, Turkish lorries and German tourist buses, swanky Mercedes and hopelessly decrepit Ladas.

All impounded from owners who were tempted by the profit margin between cigarettes inside the European Union and beyond.

On the wilder stretches of the river, overhung with willows and infested with cormorants, the clouds admired their faces in the water

Thanks to tough EU taxes, the same packet costs five times more in Romania, 10 times more in Ireland, than it would in Moldova or Ukraine.

But with the Danube swollen by more than a month's steady rain, the smugglers are staying at home, or seeking safer routes. Some venture on foot through the mountains further north, others smile wanly at sharp-eyed customs men, as if oblivious to the tobacco fortune buried beneath the rim of the spare tyre.

Even the border police hesitate to brave the angry waters of a river awash with whole tree trunks and broken branches, oil drums and traffic signs, and other debris harvested by the tide from the flooded shores.

A collision with much of this, at high speed, would sink a boat in seconds.

Heading upstream

Just before the falling rains and melting Alpine snows made navigation on the middle Danube too treacherous, I spent a pleasant morning delivering a house-boat from Budapest to Esztergom, about five hours' chug upstream.

Our craft was a 50-year-old former tug, lovingly restored by enthusiasts. Up on the bridge, a young man sat in a high chair, spinning a steering wheel as large as a child's hoop.

map

On the wilder stretches of the river, overhung with willows and infested with cormorants, the clouds admired their faces in the water. Time is suspended, or rather, life on a boat generates its own micro-time, which has more to do with the pot bubbling on the galley stove below, than the timetables of those condemned to their chores ashore.

"Why did you give up your life on the river, if you miss it so much now?" I asked a former midshipman of the Hungarian Shipping Company.

"Because the smuggling dried up after 1989," he explained. Until the Iron Curtain fell, he travelled twice a month by barge upstream from Budapest to Regensburg, in what was then West Germany.

Smugglers' bounty

On each trip, the gaps behind the panelling, the cavities in the ceiling, the bilges and the life-belts were packed with cheap east European goods, like champagne and caviar from Russia, and peppery Hungarian salamis.

River Danube
Life on the river Danube generates its own form of time

On the way back the same spaces were loaded with French perfumes, and brand-name jeans, hard to find in the shortage economies of state socialism.

When the borders opened, he explained, the game was up. Anyone could travel east or west, and buy the goods for themselves and wages were so low on the river, you could not hope to live from them alone.

So he traded his sailor's cap for an office job and a steady salary.

Summer broke over us as fast and unexpectedly as a storm. I pedalled with my youngest son on the back of my bike along the city shore, watching the bridges grow to their normal stature before us, and blear-eyed, bearded men contemplating a return to the underpass they slept in, before it turned into an underwater cave.

The floods had briefly turned Budapest into another city.

"Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues," wrote Herman Melville, of the peculiar power of water to plunge men and women into what he called "ocean revelries."

But as the waters receded, the tourists lining the river banks returned to their tall hotels and the workers to their homes.

Voyage of tears

And our nursery school held its annual sailing boat launch from the Bald Weir. At dusk, the children commended the little ships they had made, with short masts and canvas sails to the gods of the river.

Toy boats on the Danube
Little ships can make a big splash in the Danube

And I waded as far out into the swirling waters as I dared, nudging each craft with a long stick until the current caught it, and swept it away.

Small, unlikely candles fluttered on the bows of each, to light their route down to the Black Sea.

A boy called Vincze was inconsolable when the flotilla sailed, and he realised for the first time in his four years that rivers cannot be reversed, and he would never see his ship again.

And no tales of boys downstream delighting in his gift could stem his tears.

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