A Watery Staircase: The Main-Danube Canal

Heading into a lock on the Main Danube Canal

The mighty Main-Danube Canal is a spectacular piece of engineering. It makes it possible to take a ship all the way from the Black Sea to the North Sea using the river system.


It was Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, who first came up with the idea of a canal around 1200 years ago.  But despite his best efforts ( the locking system had not yet been invented) it was Bavaria’s King Ludwig 1 who really made it happen. Inspired by the success of other canals in Europe, he began construction of the section from Bamberg to Nurenberg in 1834. Boats would be pulled through by horses.

But Ludwig’s canal turned out to be  too small to take the big boats using the Rhine and the Danube and facing stiff competition from the railways, it sank into disuse and disrepair.


It wasn’t until 1972 that work began on a new canal. Its builders faced massive opposition. The scheme was labelled ‘the most stupid construction since the Tower of Babylon’.  But the doubters have been proved wrong. It is a triumph. The watery staircase with its sixteen locks, crosses the continental divide. It rises more than 1100 feet, is 171 kilometres or about 106 miles long and thirty feet deep. What, you may ask is the Continental Divide? It is the summit of the Main-Danube Canal. All the rivers on the western side flow towards the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. All the rivers on the eastern side of the Divide flow towards the Mediterranean, the Adriatic or the Black Sea.



The wedge shaped sculpture (above) was designed by German Sculptor Hanns Jorg Voth to mark the Continental Divide but the actual marker is the tiny piece of concrete to the right.

The canal’s walls are mostly man made but there’s been a major planting programme to make them look like a river bank. Grass and wildflowers reach down to the water and the area has become popular for cycling, picnicking, camping and canoeing. Its beautiful to sail through because its so narrow, you can hear the birdsong and smell countryside.


The view from our cabin – you can smell the blossom.

When the canal was built no one had thought about passenger traffic. It was purely designed for cargo. Nearly five million tons of freight passes through the canal annually but because the bridges are too low, the lucrative container industry pretty much has to bypass the canal. But with the advent of river cruising The Main-Danube Canal has come into its own. Last year a hundred thousand passengers used the canal. It costs just 284 Euros per boat to use the canal ….amazingly cheap …. but they’re keeping the fees low to encourage traffic.


All up, our river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam takes in 68 locks. Many of them we negotiate in the middle of the night, surprisingly quietly! We were roundly impressed by our captain’s nerves of steel as he manoeuvred in and out of locks with bare centimetres to spare.

Interested in river cruising? Check out Avalon Waterways

%d bloggers like this: