Nguyen Trung

One of Europe’s most famous rivers is at its loveliest in the autumn

This golden verse echoed in my mind as I wandered along the river that passes through three countries: Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. The lovely Danube, known as the Dona, Dunaj, and Duna in those countries’ languages, sometimes appeared and vanished, like a quiet and generous companion. Its magnificent capitals, ancient relics, and charming natural landscapes kept me enchanted.

Traveling between the capitals of these three neighboring countries is seamless: you can take a city-link ferry between the capitals of Austria and Slovakia, then proceed to the Hungarian capital, or hop on a train to cross the Austrian-Hungarian border.

Along my journey, road signs spoke of famous artistic places: Vienna, Munich, Budapest, Bratislava, Prague … In the autumn, the trees along Europe’s second-longest river turn into a multitude of red specks, glowing against the azure sky and the gray surface of the hazy Danube.

Built from 1898 to 1910, St. Francis of Assisi Church stands in Vienna’s Mexikoplatz

Under scarlet trees

The history-rich city of Vienna is forever linked with the Danube, charming tourists with its famous and palatial museums, opera houses, and chateaus, all clustered within the center of the Old Town, or Innere Stadt. Centuries ago, these buildings were set far from the Danube to avoid the annual floods. In the autumn, Vienna’s streets and tranquil ancient buildings are brightened by gold and scarlet leaves.

The winding paths by the Donau Canal on the southern edge of the Old Wall lead to many city parks, aligning with Ringstrasse, which encircles Vienna’s central district. Silent avenues and neighborhoods shelter beneath grand trees, reminding me of Stefan Zweig’s melancholy and romantic short stories “Moonbeam Alley” and “Letter from an unknown woman”, written in the 1920s. The city’s tram runs unhurriedly through the city center, ensuring its passengers won’t miss a single tender maple leaf slowly falling past the window, just like a fermata in a famous waltz by Austrian composer Johann Strauss II.

In Vienna, popular tourist sites include the Hofburg Royal Palace; the Sisi Museum, dedicated to Empress Elisabeth; the Albertina Museum; the Leopold Museum; the Vienna Art History Museum; and the Vienna Museum of Technology. Also not to be missed are the city’s tranquil tree-lined roads. In addition, despite being located on the outskirts, Schönbrunn Palace is worth a visit, boasting extravagant architecture that led to its nickname of “East Versailles”. Its best-kept secret is the vast garden behind the palace, which holds a carefully-pruned green maze and whimsical cobbled paths that form a giant chessboard. In the autumn, against a canvas of scarlet trees, the monumental white marble chess pieces shine brightly, as if to murmur: “Here comes the autumn.”

A scenic train ride between two capitals

Austria and Hungary share a close history, as shown by their capitals. In the autumn, the three-hour train ride from Vienna to Budapest rewards you with magnificent views of these two eminent capitals and many reminders of classic books and films. I felt nostalgic as the train passed through the border of Austria and Hungary, the line between Eastern and Western Europe. Endless fields race to the horizon, and hidden villages and cities magically emerge along the rails beside the lovely Danube, providing an unforgettable travel experience.

Budapest welcomes visitors at Keleti Station, an old building on the east side of the Danube, or the “Pest” side, in contrast to the opposite “Buda” side, home to clusters of ancient chateaus. Relics from the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seem more grandiose here than in the western part of the city. Budapest is exceptional in that the city is situated on both banks of the Danube, boasting an irresistible charm in the autumn. Urban planners of successive eras always respected the city’s historic center, allowing Buda Castle on Western Hill to stand out on the city skyline, overlooking the Chain Bridge and the facing 1904 Parliament Building.

Slovakia’s Bratislava Castle at sunset

Visiting the misty pier

Slovakia and Austria’s capitals are among the rare neighboring capitals located close to each other. It takes just an hour and a half by boat to travel from Vienna to Bratislava. On a peaceful autumn day, the journey downstream was so smooth I forgot we were crossing a border and entering a new country. Along the river banks, I saw paths hidden behind rustling trees and melancholy river mist. This river cruise through the heart of Europe covers just 70km and provides picturesque scenes of surreal rural beauty.

After the boat gently docked at a foggy pier, I stepped ashore and looked around. The impressive flying disk shape of the SNP Bridge slowly appeared as if it were soaring into thin air. Across the river stood the medieval castle with the same name as this proud hilltop city, a witness to the ebb and flow of time. Unlike bustling Vienna or majestic Budapest, the enchanting little ancient town of Bratislava is dotted with Czech relics. It is a miniature museum where reminders of a once-chaotic period of this marvelous Eastern European land remain preserved.

The Danube River was my wonderful companion on this fine autumn journey, filling me with curiosity and indescribable emotions as I encountered its splendid scenery, rich cultural layers, and profound history.