October 14–22, 2011

THE BIG PICTUREMap of Danube River

    Our week of river cruising followed a wonderful week in Prague. We boarded the “River Avia,” operated by Grand Circle Travel, in Linz and in seven days explored Linz, cruised through the Wachau Valley (with stops in Durnstein and Melk) to Vienna for two days. We stopped for a day in Bratislava and finished in Budapest. We returned home via London, Boston, where we spent the night with our daughter’s family, and then arrived in Denver in the early afternoon. It was nearly a week before we got acclimated to a new time zone.


    The Danube River (the Donau in German) portion of the trip was to be the romantic portion of our anniversary celebration: fine dining, sipping local wines as we watched the countryside glide by with stops in major central European capitals as Vienna and Budapest. We booked a comfortable stateroom with sliding doors that opened on to a narrow balcony on the top level—all the better to see the Danube River Valley.

    Of course things don’t always turn out the way you planned anticipated, or even hoped for. The second week in October in central Europe can be mild and sunny. So folks there say. Ours was not: gray skies a lot of the time and chilly weather made sitting outside quite uncomfortable. The occasional showers drove us inside where we watched the countryside glide by from the lounge of the ship. The lesson we learned is that unless you have a guarantee from an omniscient weather god, anticipate nothing and everything.

Judy and Caroline in Linz
    Our lasting memory of Linz will likely be the flea market extravaganza in the main city square or Hauptplatz. (Does this happen every Saturday, or did we just hit it lucky?) Surrounding the Pestsaule or “Plague Column” that honors victims of the many plague epidemics that swept through central Europe, were row after row of vendors (some professionals, some once a year folks getting rid of some unwanted stuff) offering everything from kitchenware to old magazines, Nazi ephemera, clothing, rugs, antiques, and furniture. You name it, they had it. Hughes was able to finally find his single souvenir of the trip: Skoda ball caps: one for him and one for all the guys in the family. We also found an antique china box to add to Cindy’s collection. We would have purchased more if we had taken the time and had more room in our luggage to take things home. Even so, we had a great time looking through what was available.

    While in Linz, we took on a mission to bring back a linzer torte for our daughter. We thought we could find them most anywhere in Austria, but it seemed one from Linz would be truly authentic. Hughes walked down the main street (Landstrasse) and found Backerei Hofmann which proudly announced in their window: “Home of the Original Linzer Torte.” It must be true if they said so. Their largest one was nearly 15" and it came in a sturdy, decorative box. Mission accomplished! It got back to Boston in fine condition.Interior of New Cathedral

    Just a few blocks south and west of Hofmann’s is the beautiful New Cathedral or Mariendom, an impressive neo-Gothic structure begun in the mid-19th century and consecrated as the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary in 1924. It seats 20,000 and is considered the largest church in Austria. Among its many stained glass windows is the “Linz Window” that depicts the history of the city. The cathedral was also planned to be the tallest, but was officially denied that honor in favor of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral (although there is some claim that the cross on the top of the spire is more that two meters, therefore making Linz’s cathedral taller).

    However, the tallest spires in Linz must surely be those atop the the Postlingberg Church that overlooks the city over 1,700' below. Built in the 18th century, this Baroque “pilgrim” church has survived several fires, Napoleon’s army, and decades of neglect. It managed to escape Allied bombing during WW II in spite of Linz being a strategic target. It can be reached by the Postlingbergbahn, an “adhesion” mountain railway that offers a leisurely view of Linz and the surrounding Danube Valley during the 7-minute, 1.67 mile journey from the center of town to the top. It It was constructed over 100 years ago and still uses trolley poles that connect to an overhead power line. Unfortunately, the day we were there, the trolly was in the shop for repairs so we took a bus up the twisting road to the top. The views were outstanding and the walk around the church was relaxing and very pleasant in the warm afternoon.

    [When we returned to our cabin that afternoon, there was a personal note from Agus, our room steward wishing us a happy anniversary (and a pair of “swan towels” arranged in the shape of a heart) plus a bottle of champagne, two glasses, and a note from the captain and crew also wishing us a happy anniversary. Both nice touches.]
City of Linz
    The city and the suburbs of Linz are home to, or associated with many famous people, including Johannes Kepler (17th century astronomer, mathematician), Anton Bruckner (19th century composer and organist), Rainer Maria Rilke (20th century poet), Mozart (who visited briefly, probably for the linzer tortes, long enough to write his  Symphony No. 36, the “Linz Symphony,” in 1783); and two of the nastiest people in history: Hitler and Eichmann.

    We are pretty sure we just barely scratched the surface in our explorations of Linz; there is much more to see and discover in a city of nearly 200,000. We had just a day, and the flea market was an unexpected/unscheduled attraction. For certain we missed two potentially interesting museums: the Lento Art Museum (19th and 20th art) situated on the south side of the river near our ship, and the unusual Ars Electronica Center, on the opposite side, that houses scientific and technological displays, many of which are interactive. The building is covered with over 1000 glass panels, each equipped with an LED bar the allow it change its color, which it does in the evening. Time constraints also forced us to miss the Mozarthaus, the Linzer Schloss (Linz Castle), and the Museum of the History of Dentistry in Upper Austria! This is a city we could return to and learn even more.

Castle on Danube

    Even with the drizzle and gray skies, there is an undeniable beauty and peaceful quality to this hilly region noted for its vineyards and fruit trees. The 25-mile stretch of the Danube between Melk and Krems is a World Heritage Site, so designated for its cultural landscape and long history of people living here: there is evidence of human habitation 30,000 years ago. In addition to fine wines, the fruit schnapps, especially marillen (apricot) we sampled were as sweet—and strong—as anything we’ve tasted. There are also in this region heurigen, or wine taverns, owned and operated by different wine growers. Though they are not open throughout the year, a wreath or a decorative bunch of twigs above the entrance indicates the wines are in and visitors are welcome. They may or may not serve a buffet or meal with the wine.

    The roads that paralleled the river were no longer crowded with bicyclists as they were the previous summer months. There is a bike path through the Valley which makes possible a three-hour ride from Melk to Krems on both sides of the river. It’s a trip we would glad take; or go even father, camping along the way or staying small local inns. We made two stops that afternoon: at Durnstein and at Melk.

    •Durnstein. As we rounded a bend in the river we saw an impressive light blue painted tower which, we learned later, belonged to the the 18th century Durnstein Abbey, now the parish church in Durnstein. It is striking not only for its colorful exterior (it was the only light blue church we were to see on the trip) but also for the design of the steeple that stands out from the more traditional red roof and stone design of the abbey buildings.
Durnstein Abbey
    In the background on the hill overlooking the town is the much older ruins of the Durnstein Castle. A 20-minute walk up the steep hill takes visitors to the castle and a magnificent view of the Wachau Valley. (Two routes take you to the summit; the rocky trail is to the left as you leave town; the righthand route is smoother and can be walked in ordinary street shoes.)

    The Castle figures prominently in English history as the place where Richard I (the “Lionheart” or “Lion-Hearted”) was imprisoned briefly when, upon returning from the Third Crusade in 1192, he was captured and imprisoned by Leopold V of Austria on suspicion of the murder of his cousin while in Jerusalem. We saw the iron bars of the cell where Richard was held until a ransom was paid to free him so he could return to England and help save Robin Hood from the Sheriff of Nottingham (or so goes the movie). The Castle itself was destroyed in 1645 by Swedish troops and left in the condition we saw.   

    After walking back from the Castle, we strolled along the one main commercial street of the small town, tasting samples of marillen at various shops, eventually buying two small bottles of Wachauer Premium Marillenlikör, which, sadly, does not seem to be available in this country. Our loss.

    •Melk Abbey. This impressive Benedictine monastery was founded in 1089 and has been a seat of learning ever since. The present complex of buildings was built in the first part of the 1700s and because of its great importance and stature, it managed to escape confiscation and destruction during the Nepolianic Wars; in fact, throughout its existence only the Nazis seized the Abbey but apparently did it no harm. It was returned following the end of the Second World War. It continues as a co-ed school with about 900 students.   
Abbey in Melk
    The church is as amazing in its ornate use of gold in the alter, pulpit, naves, and the rest of the interior. Paintings and frescoes can be found throughout, and the museum, which we toured, shows the history of the Abbey since its founding. The library, however, is famous as a significant scriptorium, both producing manuscripts as well as for maintaining the library which has approximately 100,000 items: manuscripts of both music and liturgical writing, books, and incunabula dating well before the 16th century. The tour went far too quickly to grasp the full extent of this structure and all that it stands for.

    We walked briefly through the quiet town of Melk which, like other medieval towns we visited, had cobblestone streets, pastel plaster buildings, and a quiet sense of its historical importance.

    [Note: The night we left for Vienna we got word that a tummy bug was making its way through the passengers and crew. About 30 of the passengers (out of 160) were down for at least one day, some longer. It sounded like the sort of thing we have picked up while in Latin America where bad water was the culprit. Here we’re not sure of its source except we were told that it travels from person to person. Wash hands a lot was the best advice. We avoided the malady, though several of the folks we spent time with were confined to their rooms for a day or two. No fun. Everyone appeared to be OK by the end of the trip.]


    We toured the magnificent Vienna State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) in the morning. There was, of course, no activity, but walking through the hallways, rooms, and the theater itself was as impressive as any art museum. Wonderful frescoes, friezes, paintings, and sculptures are found throughout. It would have been an incredible experience to attend a performance there.
Palace at Schonbrunn
    When the group broke up after the tour, we joined David and Caroline for our own tour of the Schonbrunn Palace,  the summer residence of the Habsburgs on the outskirts of the city. Schonbrunn is the Austrian version of Versailles, both in size and grandeur. The gardens were beautiful and a pleasure to stroll through. We spent so much time going from room to room, listening to the audio guide which was excellent, we did not take advantage of visiting the zoo or the Grosses Palmenhaus (Great Palm House) or Wustenhaus (Desert House). Visitors really need to spend the day, take frequent rest periods, and snack occasionally for energy in order to properly see all there is to see. We spent only a half day at most.

    We did have our pastry that day at the famous Cafe Sacher, home of the legendary Sacher Torte. The cafe was small, crowded, and, alas, the torte did not match its reputation. Most pastries we had in Prague we considered far superior. Oh, well. Afterwards, we walked to St. Stephens Cathedral, Austria’s main cathedral. Its rival, the New Cathedral in Linz, was as impressive both the outside and the interior.
Sacher Cafe
    The following morning we watched the Lippizaner Stallions practice at the Spanish Riding School. What a treat, not to be missed! In the same arena where they evening performances, we were treated to twenty horses in four groups of five go through their exercises for a half hour (each group of five). They did not do all the leaps and “tricks” that are in their repertoire and they did not work in unison,  but watching these talented horses and riders was a real treat.

    We were surprised to see one of the twenty horses exercising that morning was not white (probably a bay, since we later learned that it is traditional to have at least one bay Lippizan among the group.) Lippizans are bred to be gray—they are not white horses—and may be born with any number of different color coats. The graying process is usually completed between six to ten years. The history and traditions of the Lippizans is well documented and go back hundreds of years. They have been the subject of many books and films, perhaps best remembered is Disney’s “Miracle of the White Stallions,” which dramatized saving the horses during World War II.

    We walked to the Naschtmarkt, 5-6 blocks of solid food: cafes, restaurants, produce, spices, meats and fish, baked goods, liquors, and a few non-food vendors (we found a lovely scarf there for our grand-daughter). The narrow street was jammed with folks eating or looking or buying fresh goods. The choices were overwhelming and great fun to browse through for exotic foods and produce.
Vienna Food Market
    We took the trolley through the city and got off at a subway that took us back to our ship in time for dinner. As we approached the ship’s dock, we finally paid attention to a beautiful church we’d overlooked in our haste to get to town each day: Franz-von-Assisi Kirche (also called the Emperor Jubilee Church or the Church of Mexico!), designed in the late 19th century in the “Rhenish-Romanesque” style, making it unique among the churches we saw on the trip. It was a haven of calm and beauty against the backdrop of high rises and traffic. We should have visited it sooner.

    We found Vienna high-powered, bustling, self-important, impersonal, and expensive. There are dozens of museums, events, and places to explore. We might have done more had we spent more than two days there, but we were honestly glad to have had two days and no more. Maybe we are getting travel weary? We might come back, but probably it would not be high on our list of return visits.

Main Square Braislava
    Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary (in 1536–1830), now capital of Slovakia, Bratislava (formerly Pressburg) was first settled by Celts (here they are again) in third century BC. The Romans conquered in the first century AD, followed by the Slavs who founded Moravia. The Hungarians established the Kingdom of Hungary in the 9th century. The city was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of WW I when it became part of Czechoslovakia and many Hungarians fled, leaving their homes to Czechs and Slovaks. The Nazi occupation was followed by Communist rule until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1993 Bratislava became the capital of the Slovak Republic after the “Velvet Divorce.”

    Today Bratislava is a city of about half a million nestled snugly on the banks of the Danube. It may lack the sparkle and dynamic atmosphere of Vienna and Prague, but offers visitors a calmer pace with a relaxed Baroque/Middle Ages feel. If many of the buildings in the old part of the capital are in need of paint and repair, there are modern office buildings, museums, concert halls and theaters that also define this city—a mix of the old and new, some built during the Communist period, some in the 2000s following the country’s independence.

    Our morning guided tour was through the Old Town section near the river: what we did see was charming but limited to what was old, rather than parts of the city built since independence. Happily we did find:
Man in the Sewer
    •Strong hot chocolate at Cafe Maximillian, a well-known upscale chocolaterie. Sinful, but we needed to get off our feet and warm up on what was a chilly morning.

    •Several whimsical bronze statues are scattered around the Old Town. We could identify Hans Christian Anderson and a Napoleonic soldier, but we learned about the others:  “Paprazzo,” “Schoner Naci (who tips his hat to all the pretty girls who pass”) and the most photographed statue: “Cumil” (“the peeper”) who seems to be looking out from a sewer watching people going through the old town center. Next to him was a fellow mimicking the statue but with his hat out.

    •Novy Most (the “New Bridge,”) over the Danube was erected during the Communist period, completed in 1972. Its flying saucer shaped restaurant on the top of the bridge’s only pylon is certainly distinctive. Most memorials to the Communists that could be removed or destroyed have been, but the flying saucer restaurant and observation tower are stand out and bring in some revenue (7 Euros): as Rick Steves wrote, built in “heavy-handed communist …reclaimed by capitalists.” The north side of the bridge went right in front of  St. Martin’s Cathedral—nearly cutting off the entrance—and many houses and buildings in the predominantly Jewish section were torn down to make way for the approach to the bridge.
Bridge in Bratislava
    •Bratislava Castle offers the best views of the bridge and the city itself. It is not the original used by the Habsburgs: Empress Maria Theresa loved Bratislava and converted the castle from a military facility to a royal residence. Locals nicknamed it “little Schonbrunn.” However, a fire in 1811 destroyed it and it was not reconstructed until the Communist period (1953). The result is unimaginative and drab; the courtyard more like a prison exercise area. However, the the city views are excellent.

    •It is clear from the number of young people out and about that Bratislava is a university town. Comenius University enrolls 10,000–15,000 students offering degrees in medicine, law, sciences, pharmacy, education, management, and general studies.

    Old Town Bratislava is changing, at least that’s what everyone says. It does need some TLC: paper and plastic litter in lots of areas (must be those darn college students!), plaster cracking and paint peeling on many of important buildings (darn Communists!). We did not see the newest sections, and that may well have changed/improved our impression of the city.

Castle in Budapest    
    Buda on the south side of the river (Buda Castle is on Buda Hill) and Pest on the other side (Parliament Building dominates the north shore). This World Heritage Site with 1.7 million people in the city, twice that in the surrounding area, has been unified into one city since 1873.

    First settled by the Celts (surprise!), then the Romans, then the Hungarians (Magyars), pillaged by the Mongols, but reclaimed by Hungarians, ruled by Ottomans, Habsburgs, Nazis, and Communists until 1989, when Hungary once again regained its freedom and independence. The city boasts the world’s second oldest underground/subway (after London), 80 geothermal springs, and the second largest synagogue (the Dohany Street Synagogue consecrated in 1859) which is part of Budapest’s Jewish section with a Jewish Museum much like the one in Prague.     

    Our visit to Budapest was, unfortunately, limited to a single day. During our short guided tour portion, we were bused to the Castle District which overlooks the Danube and Pest. However, what we and other modern visitors to the castle see today is not the original castle that grew from a fortified village in the 13th century, nor the palace built up by the 15th century. These buildings, which have been described as one of the greatest palaces in Europe, were destroyed during Turkish rule that ended in the 17th century. Much of the “new” palace built by the Habsburgs in the 1700s was destroyed by fire in 1810, but was added on to later in the 19th century. During the World War II and the Communist period, the palace was gutted and the interiors of the time of Maria Theresa and Franz Joseph were mostly destroyed. Finally in 1966, the palace was rebuilt, though plans are still in place for completing the interiors. Truly, the castle has a tumultuous history and remains a work in progress.
Hungarian Parliament Building
    We admired the decorative tile design of the roof but we did not tour the interior of the castle. We also admired, in the same area, the fine needlework and traditional dolls for sale in the many shops that line the streets leading to the castle. No bargains to be had, but on the other hand, when you see how much handwork was required—in addition to the artistry—you could not expect folks to sell the items for less.

    We were bused across the river for a driving tour of Pest:
    •Parliament Building, a magnificent building which looks remarkably like London’s House of Parliament.

    •Heroes’ Square, a large open area surrounding the Millennium Memorial honoring those who gave their lives for the independence of Hungary over the centuries, as well as statues of leaders of the seven founding tribes. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art are on either side.
Shoes Along the Danube    •The Great Market Hall is a multi-level complex of shops featuring all manner of produce, meats, spices and teas, and, on the upper level, tourist goods (embroidery, crafts, etc.). Every kind of paprika imaginable is available for sale.

    After lunch on board the “River Aria,” Judy went for a run along the waterfront and Hughes headed for a walkabout in Pest. As we both headed down along the waterfront (“Danube Promenade”), we passed what was for us the most chilling monument of the entire trip: a row of  sixty bronzed shoes along the water’s edge, in a random line of pairs and some single shoes clearly of men, women, and children. We were so taken with the shoes that we did not see the plaque that explains what the shoes represent or whose they were. We were to learn that this was the site where, in 1944–45, Nazis and members of the “Arrow Cross” (a local militia) “routinely” shot men, women, and children in the back while chained together and let their bodies (without their shoes) fall into the Danube. The effect on us of this Holocaust Memorial was more powerful than the Prague Ghetto.

    Hughes strolled through the narrow streets of the area behind the Parliament Building, ending up at St. Stephan’s Basilica, named in honor of Hungary’s first King (975 AD). His right hand can be seen in the reliquary. The basilica is a beautiful Neoclassical structure completed in 1905. He spent so much time there that he didn’t get to the equally famous and outstanding Dohany Street (“Great”) Synagogue a few blocks away. That visit will have to remain for a future trip to Budapest, as will any of the famous bath houses and museums, Margaret Island, and Gallert Hill.

FINAL EVENTS AND REFLECTIONSParliament Building at Night

    At dinner that last evening aboard the “River Aria,” the captain’s table was filled with tour directors and selected guests. The entire crew joined in putting on a series of humorous skits after dinner, and we all went to our bedrooms to pack for early departures in the morning.

    Our two weeks were filled with new sights in areas of the world we had only read about. Prague was remarkable; everyone we have talked with since our return had either been there and were as impressed as we were, or wanted to go because they heard what a wonderful city it was to visit. Our time on the Danube went by all too quickly: we saw a little of the countryside since most of the movement of the ship was at night, and our time in any of the cities where we stopped was limited to one day, except for our two days in Vienna. We learned a lot and saw places we had only vaguely known from reading or movies/documentaries.

    We enjoyed our traveling companions a great deal. Most were around our age, most were experienced travelers who had been, collectively, everywhere, and they knew how to travel. Most fortunately we were guided by Tereza, who made our visit to each of the countries/cities on the trip comfortable and rewarding.

    Would we return? To Prague, for sure. Budapest? Probably, since we know there was much more to see and learn about that city. The Danube?  What fun it would be to bicycle along this mighty river and learn about the folks who live in the small towns along the way.  And if we’re in the area of Linz on a Saturday, we’ll hope the flea market in the Hauptplatz is in full swing again.

Judy and Hughes Moir
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