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The Mark Twain Bar

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

Why does this always happen? Why does it become strangely quiet whenever you publicly embarrass yourself?

It was so quiet that you could hear a pint of beer drop. And many did. 

A whole pint of beer spilt on the front of my shorts. A dozen pairs of eyes penetrated my embarrassment. A fashionably dressed young man seated at a wooden table failed to conceal a smirk. His female companion looked appalled. It was my first drink of the day.

To make matters worse, eight days on the rolling river had rewarded me with a troubling bout of mal de debarquement. Not only were my shorts soaked and stinking of beer, but I was also light-headed and unbalanced. My poor wobbly legs could barely keep me vertical as I staggered and swayed. To further compound my misfortune, the back of my shorts displayed a suspicious mud-coloured mark, following an earlier slip on the river bank.

I looked rough. Unshaven.

Three hundred and sixty kilometres away, and eight days earlier, my River Danube stand up paddleboarding trip began in the picturesque German city of Passau, close to the border with Austria.

From the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, the Danube flows through ten countries and four capital cities. A distinctive ribbon of blue dancing across the map of Europe. At least it looks blue on the map. In reality, I found the river to be a muddy brown colour — the same colour as the back of my shorts. ‘The Blue Danube’, Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz, might be musically harmonic, but it is chromatically inaccurate.

My quest: to paddle the Danube from Passau, through Austria, and on to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Within eight days. 

An adventure that wasn’t entirely problem-free, particularly on the final day. Powered by recent heavy rainfall, the Danube was running high. 

High and fast.

And rapids. They don’t call them ‘rapids’ for nothing.

The groynes were my biggest challenge. Man-made lines of rock jutting out at ninety degrees from the river bank. Their purpose is to reduce silt erosion — not to hinder my progress. But, of course, they did. First, I heard them. Then I saw them, piercing through the surface of the water. As soon as I could see them, I was upon them. White water pounded the rocks and rushed through the gaps — no time to take evasive action.

Three times I was trapped by my rocky nemeses. On each occasion, I was forced to dismount and lift my board over the hostile barrier. It felt like an obstacle course. Or perhaps an obstacle curse?

The only way to avoid the groynes was to paddle in the shipping lane. But that’s where the shipping was. The Danube is a busy commercial waterway. Between the shipping lane and the groynes, I found another hazard — the navigation buoys. Some red, some green. Six feet tall and hurtling directly towards me, at speed and with menacing intent. Bobbing aggressively from side to side. Following my every attempt to avoid them. 

In truth, the buoys were stationary. I was moving towards them, propelled by the mighty Danube. Shortly before the Austrian town of Hainburg an der Donau, a police launch slowly passed, taking a close interest. Were they concerned about my welfare? My heart was pounding, and my head was throbbing. Fortunately, I had no time to feel the fear. And the previous seven days had imbued me with the confidence of a superhero. I knew I had the correct safety equipment. I knew I had the skills. I knew I could do it.

‘Keep going!’ A voice in my head spurred me on. 

‘Just keep going.’

And I did.

The late September sunshine warmed my skin and nourished my inner spirit as the current began to slow. Rounding the final river bend, I saw Bratislava ahead. The tension evaporated as I gently paddled into a small side channel on the outskirts of the city. Thrilled to complete my journey, I recalled the riverside Mark Twain Bar from a previous visit. A simple wooden shack with outdoor tables, combined with a brightly painted boat, moored at the water’s edge. I deserved a celebratory pint of beer. I eagerly anticipated the adulation of my fellow drinkers as I regaled them with tales of derring-do, of days on the Danube.

It fell silent.

A beer dropped.

A feeling of shame.

To the owners of the staring eyes, perhaps I looked like a drunk and incontinent fool. But inside, I knew I was an all-conquering paddleboard hero!

The bartender poured me a replacement pint.

I think he knew too.

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