We were doing some real cruising recently, but far from the Midwest . . . it was a trip on the Danube River from Passau, Germany to Budapest, Hungary.
Our ten-day cruise was labeled the “Delightful Danube,” and the adventure began in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.
Prague managed to escape much of the bombings of World War II and is considered one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cities. There’s plenty of good sites and architecture to see.
Wenceslas Square features a large statue of good King Wenceslas, whom we sing about in the Christmas carol. He was really just a Duke, but after his brother murdered him (!) in 935, the Duke was elevated to Sainthood and considered a king.
Wenceslas Square is an important place in the modern history of the Czech Republic. It was here that thousands of people gathered in 1989 to demand the end of Communist rule.
It was Rosh Hashanah when we were in Prague so museums and other sites in the Jewish Quarter were closed, but we walked around the neighborhood and saw buildings from the outside, including the oldest synagogue in the city.
You can take the usual horse and carriage rides in the Old Town Square, but a popular way to tour Prague is in a vintage car. Drivers zip over cobblestone streets in these open-air vehicles while pointing out the sites to their passengers. We noticed most of the cars were Fords.
After leaving Prague, we boarded our ship in Passau, Germany. We were supposed to get on in Nurnberg, but the water level of the Danube was so low that we needed to go further east to Passau. Europe was experiencing a drought which greatly affected river traffic. Passau is a city where three rivers meet – the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn – so I guess the combined rivers gave us enough water to sail.
Our home for the next nine days was a river longship named the S.S. Beatrice, owned by Uniworld Boutique Cruises. The ship was registered in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and our Captain was a Dutchman named Jord Zwaal. We shared the boat with 136 other passengers.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served on the ship. The food was delicious, and the daily menu reflected the country we were in. We enjoyed apple strudel, weiner schnitzel and spaetzle, Mozart cake, and Hungarian goulash. There was unlimited drinks and a 24/7 coffee lounge. In the lower level was a spa that was always very busy. Life was grand.
When the ports were busy, ships were sometimes docked three across. If your ship was on the outside, you would walk across the tops of the other ships to get to shore. One time we went through the lobby of another ship rather than the top. It was fun to check out the other boats.
A well-known landmark in Passau is St. Stephens Cathedral. We enjoyed looking around at the fancy baroque architecture.
We returned to the Cathedral Square later that night to see a spectacular light and sound show projected onto the facade of the church. The 20-minute production reviewed 1,500 years of the church’s involvement in the region.
Our ship, based in Passau, acted as a floating hotel while we were bused to different cities upriver where the water was low. We got out on the Autobahn to visit the Bavarian city of Regensburg. Buses and trucks have a speed limit, but cars can go as fast as they want. Our guide told us the auto makers like Audi, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, etc. lobby the government hard to keep that privilege for their customers. But we also learned that the speed issue is somewhat self-regulating. Gas is expensive there (it was about $7.00 a gallon) and people tend to drive slower to conserve fuel. At the German-Austrian border, car owners engage in “tank tourism” – they cross over from Germany to Austria to fill their tanks because gasoline is cheaper in Austria.
The Bavarian countryside was interesting to see. It was harvest time, and heaps of sugar beets lay in the fields. And the cows grazing in the fields looked much larger than the ones we have here in the States.
In the 1800s, Bavaria was the poor region of the country. Many of the citizens immigrated to the United States to seek a better life. Then the two World Wars happened and industry took over. Now it is the most prosperous area in Germany. The auto industry is big and so is logging and making things from wood by-products.
Regensburg is a picture-perfect European town; the medieval city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The stone bridge there was completed in 1146.
For a taste of the city, our guide recommended her favorite place, the historic Wurstkuchl (Sausage Kitchen.) It’s considered one of the oldest continuous restaurants in the world, dating back to 1320. The sandwiches are fairly simple and made up of a bun, two smoked sausages, sauerkraut, and mustard, but they are absolutely delicious.
Interesting sidebar: When the Danube threatens to flood the area, owners of the sausage kitchen empty it out, seal up the building, and flood it with fresh water. When the flooding subsides, they open the building and let the fresh water out. Clean-up is much easier than if flood water had gotten inside.
Just down the river from Regensburg, in the lovely little town of Straubing, we visited an old cemetery and heard a story of the worst in-laws ever.
The tale involves Agnes Bernauer, who was born the daughter of a barber in 1410. She became the mistress and perhaps the first wife of Albert III, Duke of Bavaria.
Albert’s father, Ernest, who was the ruling Duke of Bavaria at the time, considered Agnes beneath his son’s social standing. While Albert was away on a hunting trip, Duke Ernest had Agnes arrested for witchcraft and drowned in the Danube River.
Upon his return to Straubing, Albrecht was furious to learn what had happened to Agnes, and left for the neighboring town of Ingolstadt. Everyone was afraid it would literally be war between Albert and his father, but after a few months, the two were reconciled.
In 1436, Duke Ernest had a Bernauer Chapel erected in the cemetery of St. Peter in Straubing, probably to appease his son.
Today Agnes Bernauer is celebrated as Straubing’s most famous daughter. Since 1935, the Agnes Bernauer festival club has presented an historic play about the life and death of this unfortunate young woman. It’s performed every four years with the next being in 2019.
Agnes also has a dessert named for her that can be found at the Café Kroenner in downtown Straubing. Agnes Bernauer Torte is a layered cake, filled with almond meringue and mocha butter cream, topped with roasted almonds and nuts, and dusted with powered sugar. We bought a couple of pieces and enjoyed them later on the ship.
We docked one night in Austria at a small village called Grein. We had a chance to get off the ship and explore the town. The main attraction there is Greinburg Castle. If you’re a fan of “Victoria” on PBS Masterpiece Theater, you’ll recognize this as the home where Prince Albert grew up, along with his older brother, Ernest. The castle was built in 1493 and purchased by Prince Albert’s father in 1823. It’s still owned by a member of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family and open for tours.
One of my favorite stops was the handsome Melk Abbey in Melk, Austria. It’s situated in another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The abbey dates back to 1089, but the grand baroque architecture was done in the 1700s. Their library contains medieval manuscripts and a globe from 1622. (They owned a Gutenburg Bible at one time, but sold it to Yale University because they needed money to maintain the property.) Maria Theresia of the ruling Habsburg family said after a visit in 1743, “I would regret if I had not been here.” I couldn’t agree with her more.
After a visit to Melk, the afternoon was spent strolling around the charming little village of Spitz. It’s a wine producing region with vineyards everywhere. The “Hill of a Thousand Buckets” is so named because of all the grapes grown there. Apricots are also a big crop in this Wachau Valley area. We brought home apricot jam and apricot liquor that we purchased at Melk Abbey.
A couple of afternoons were spent cruising the Danube to get to our next port. The scenery of country churches, castle ruins, and green forests was always idyllic.
We came across a Viking party boat one day, and as we passed by, one of the Vikings wearing his plastic helmet with horns yelled out, “Give us your women!”
From the quiet Austrian countryside we arrived in the capital city of Vienna. I found Vienna to be rather crowded and noisy, and too much graffiti on the canal walls. The culture and architecture in the historic areas, though, made it a worth-while stop.
St. Stephens Cathedral in the city centre is magnificent with its patterned tile roof. It dates back to 1160. The roof is so steep it rarely holds snow in the winter time. Mozart was married here in 1782 and later his funeral took place in one of the chapels.
Our walking tour of Vienna took us to their famous music hall, the Musikverein. Inside is the Golden Hall that is the site for the annual New Year’s concert shown on PBS. Every year when I watch the concert, I always wonder how the lucky people attending got their tickets. We learned that the tickets are sold through a lottery process. Each year about 500,000 people apply for the 1,200 seats available.
Vienna is home to the Spanish Riding School. Our tour didn’t take us inside, but I got a peek at the stables and some of the Lipizzaner Stallions.
We spent an afternoon at the Habsburg summer palace, Schonbrunn, about four miles outside of Vienna. It has 1,441 rooms. The gardens are well-kept and beautiful. Schonbrunn is the most popular tourist attraction in Vienna.
At night we were treated to a Mozart and Strauss concert at the palace for Architects and Engineers.
It was on to Budapest, the capital city of Hungary. I liked Budapest. It had an exotic, Eastern European feel.
The Houses of Parliament, sitting there on the Danube River, is the most spectacular building I have ever seen. It was the architectural highlight of the trip for sure.
In the Middle Ages, the fish market was here in Fisherman’s Bastion, and this area was defended by the Fishermen’s Guild. You have a great view of Budapest from the terraces.
Like St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Matthias Church has a colorful, ornately patterned roof. The building, completed in the 15th century, is Roman Catholic, and has been the site of several coronations.
Budapest has its own version of the Statue of Liberty. Locals have nicknamed her “the Bottle Opener.” Liberty Statue was built in 1947 to thank the Soviets for liberating Hungarians from the Nazis. Then the Communists took over and stayed for 40 years. After they were driven out in 1989, the statue was covered for three days and unveiled as a memorial to all those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom and prosperity of Hungary. Liberty’s new stance is that of waving good-bye to the Soviets.
Along with interesting history and architecture, Budapest is also the home of Erno Rubik, the fellow who invented the Rubik’s Cube. He’s lived there all his life.
Our journey on the Danube ended in Budapest and during the final evening, the Captain took us on a night cruise of the city. Budapest rivals Paris for lights, and it was a memorable good-bye to my favorite city and a delightful trip.
I love traveling abroad and taking in the centuries of history, but it’s always good to come home. International travel helps me appreciate my country even more. God Bless America!