Prague – Castles, Culture and Cuisine

Our week-long cruise passed so quickly that we welcomed the extension of our tour with a trip to Prague.  We boarded the bus for the four hour drive from Passau to Prague.  As the bus moved first through the Black Forest of Germany and then into Hungary, we were entertained by George’s stories of his visit to this area as part of the American occupation following WWII.

We arrived in Prague and settled into our rooms at the Hyatt along the Vltava River. The next two days we enjoyed visiting some of the major tourist sites of the city. In the historic old city of Prague, we stood in the quaint town square and were entertained by the workings of the Astronomical Clock in the old clock tower. We stood on the Charles Bridge with its intriguing statues and toured the Jewish Quarter, the Josefov, with

its many synagogues and very interesting old cemetery.

 

 

The Prague Castle is amazing! Actually the grounds house several historic buildings – St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, the Powder Tower, the Old Royal Palace, and the Golden Lane. We attended a lovely organ concert in a small, but ornate chapel, and managed to snack on some good Czech pastry at a very authentic cafe.

We enjoyed our time in Prague, but we were eager to go to Warsaw and visit Erik, Lisa and little 9-month-old Jacob.

 

 

Passau – the Place of Parting

Saturday morning we arrived at our final port of call, Passau.  Leaving Austria, we had cruised during the night to Germany and a jewel in the Black Forest.  Passau sits at the crossroads of three rivers, the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz.  It’s a beautiful city!  We faced another hot day, but fortunately our walking tour began shortly after breakfast when the sun had not yet made touring difficult.

We met our guide in a park at the river’s edge.  From this vantage point we could clearly see the confluence of all three rivers and the different colors of their waters.  Contrary to popular opinion promoted by the famous waltz, the Danube is decidedly not blue.  Due to the high traffic and erosion, the river is a muddy brown.  The Inn and Ilz are fed by melting snow from the mountains and appeared less muddy.

Our guide, a jolly retired school teacher, lead us along hilly cobblestone streets while she taught us about the history and religious fervor of the quaint town.  Apparently, Elizabeth, one of the queens of several centuries ago, faced the loss of some of her children and then her husband.  She retreated to the convent located in Passau and became disturbed that the schools educated only boys.  She founded a new order dedicated to educating girls and opened the door to literacy for girls in many parts of Europe, starting with a school in Passau.

We learned how the town had suffered much during floods.  Our guide told us how homes and businesses sparsely furnished the ground floors of buildings and prepared to move into upper floors if the rivers showed signs of rising waters.  The town was beautiful, quaint and pristine.  Apparently the town’s people were very Catholic and very religious.  A large cathedral stood in one of the squares.  It boasted five pipe organs situated in various parts of the cathedral and linked together to respond to one console.

At the end of our tour, our guide led us to the large cathedra where we planned to hear an organ concert.  Before we could enter the cathedral, we were treated to a long pealing of the church bells.  Our guide said that the bells were ringing longer than the usual 15 minutes signaling a special event. 

As we approached the cathedral entrance, a large number of people were exiting the church.  Many women wore the authentic German dirndl dresses and the men wore Tyrollean suits.  Then we began to see several young priests of differing orders who had been commissioned for service.  It appeared a representative of the Vatican participated in the ordination mass.  It was encouraging to see these young men and their families celebrating their commitment to God’s service.

We had time to appreciate the amazing artwork in the sanctuary as we waited for the concert to begin.  It was awesome to hear the music from the pipes placed in various parts of the cathedral!  While some of the paintings and carvings depicted a view of God not quite consistent with Scripture, I marveled how much of exquisite artistry and music was created for the glory of God. 

Connecting with Erwin and Ursel and Deb and Bill, we headed to one of the restaurants in Passau for an authentic German lunch.  I had my first beer, a Radler, a mixture of German light beer, lemon and sparkling water.  It was so refreshing on the very hot and humid day. Garry shared his ‘weisse wurst,’ boiled bratwurst, with me, and I enjoyed a plate of German spaetzle and cheese.  It was so much fun to laugh with our new friends in this cute setting; Erwin and Ursel’s impecable German and German accents really added to the ambiance.

Our friends returned to the ship.  Deb did not complain, but we could tell she was in a lot of pain from the problems with her back and hip.  Garry and I planned to do some shopping, but the hot weather drove us back to the comfort of our air-conditioned cabin earlier than anticipated.  We spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and preparing for the next day’s departure.

We dined once again with our new friends and exchanged business cards and farewells.  Reluctant to leave, we joined Deb and Bill on the observation deck for a short visit before saying good night.

Durnstein and Melk – Dorfs of Distinction

Thursday morning we woke to quite a different view from our cabin window. Rather than a city of contrasts, we woke to decidedly Austrian countryside. The little river town of Durnstein nestled in the hills beneath the remains of a medieval fortress. Disembarking a short hike below the ‘kleines dorf,’ we sauntered past vineyards and old city walls to enter the town through narrow cobblestone streets.

It appeared we were waking the natives who, in leisurely Austrian fashion, tidied their little bakeries, cafes and souvenir shops to greet the new tide of tourists. The shops and apartments leaned one against the other along winding streets and terraces in the shadow of the crumbling fortress, a fortress whose walls once imprisoned Richard the Lion-hearted.

Garry and I enjoyed shopping and visiting with a few of the locals.  Like stepping into a fairy tale, I daydreamed about living in Durnstein and selling gifts to the visitors from the many river cruises.  The quaint surroundings and quiet pace seemed so inviting.  Reality set in quickly as I watched cars attempt to follow the one lane cobblestone roads and envisioned those hilly avenues after rain or snow.  One shopkeeper told us she did not heat her store because utilities were so expensive.  Guess I’ll stick with my day job.

We returned to the Legend, ate lunch and then went ‘topside’ to view river cruising at its finest.

Soon we arrived at our next port of call, Melk.  When we disembarked, we boarded buses for the winding uphill climb from the riverbank to the Melk Abbey which sat regally on the hill above the town of the same name.  Garry and I switched on our ‘walk-arounds’ and met our guide at the entrance to the Abbey.

It was obvious that our tour guide had quite a history with the Abbey. He told stories of visiting the Abbey as a child, and he genuinely revered the faith it represented.


Founded as a Benedictine abbey, Melk represented well the order’s values.  The patron saint, Benedict, spent several years in seclusion studying the Bible.  Little wonder the Benedictine order was established on a foundation of study and service.  The Abbey was pristine, its white stone walls glistened in the afternoon sun.

Garry took some wonderful pictures of the surrounding village from the veranda of the Abbey.  I preferred to leave the views at such heights to Garry but stood in awe of the magnificent library at the far end of the patio. Leather bound books of philosophy, theology, science, biographies and ancient Biblical manuscripts greeted us.  The library was elegantly appointed in marble, stone and beautifully crafted wood carvings.  I envied the young men who had access to this room!

Apparently, the Roman Catholic monasteries fell out of favor with one of the ruling kings, and he forced many of them to close.  God in His sovereignty used the circumstances to cause the nuns and priests to move from their cloistered walls to the community parishes, serving closely among the people.  As a follower of Jesus Christ, I found the guide’s open faith very refreshing.  But it also saddened me to hear how much superstition and empty ritual the Austrian Catholics maintained.

Garry and I decided to forego the bus ride and walk down the hill through the old part of Melk.  Our Cruise Director, Riga, a delightful German woman, told us that Thursday afternoon’s trip along the Danube would show us the beauty of river cruises. She encouraged us to relax on the observation deck and enjoy the amazing scenery.  Following her instructions, we ate lunch and hurried ‘topside.

Sailing along the Danube, we saw colorful villages lying lazily along the riverbank; they were divided by green hill, woods or vineyards.  Frequently, castles or fortresses on hills overlooking the river and villages testified to less peaceful days.  Their walls ravaged by time yet still daunting in their massiveness filled us with awe at the ability of their builders to place them strategically high above their surroundings. We sailed past hundreds of years of history, villages centuries older than what is considered ‘historical’ in the U.S.

I thanked Garry again for surprising me with an iPad for Mothers’ Day because it became my companion for capturing the sights and sometimes sounds of this wonderful landscape. Gliding along the river, passing through the occasional lock and drinking in the quaint scenery was so restful!

We had time to relax and change clothes before meeting Ursel in the lounge to surprise Erwin for his 70th birthday.  Jack and Beth, Deb and Bill, Roger and Pat, and Lynn joined us.  Sadly, Lynn’s husband took ill and could not join us.  Erwin was surprised and pleased.

Deb and ‘Ortho Bill,’ a fun couple from Michigan found the perfect gift, chocolate candy aptly named, ‘Rabbit Droppings.’  We had a good laugh and with champagne supplied by Ursel, toasted Erwin’s special day.  Then we gathered around a long table in the dining room for an evening of celebration.  At the end of the dinner, the Cruise Host brought a lovely cake complete with sparkler for us to share.  Ursel managed to order it without Erwin’s knowledge.  We later learned she is an amazingly creative hostess back in her home state of Florida!

Prior to the cruise, I prayed God would put us with the people of His choosing, and we were delighted to meet these couples!  We all agreed that touring with such wonderful couples made the cruise very special.

Vienna – Coffee, Cake and Courtly Splendor

Wednesday, June 27, we woke in the port of Vienna.  Capital city of the smallest republic in Austria, Vienna nevertheless houses a quarter of the country’s residents.  It holds a place among cities boasting the best quality of life, promotes a culture of innovation and attracts diverse international congresses. Its rich history began with Celtic and Roman settlements and became the resident city of the Habsburg dynasty and the de facto capital of the Holy Roman Empire.

Our tour bus headed directly into the city center passing the largest ferris wheel in the world.  Some of the cars, antique trolley cars, may be rented for weddings and special occasions.  It was quite impressive!  The guide described the many palaces, opera and concert houses and the cathedrals we passed while riding along the central ‘Ringstrasse,’ Ring Street, that encircled the center of the city.   Once the outline of the city wall, the wall has been removed and a street established in its place.

Leaving the bus and turning on our ‘walk-arounds,’ we followed the guide past opulent palaces.  Once these mansions housed nobility of the era, Habsburgs and nobles representing the Holy Roman Church in northern Europe. These individuals spared no expense in supporting lavish lifestyles.  At one time the Habsburgs owned 600 carriages and kept the required horses in stables that fit architecturally well among the palaces.

After our guided tour, Garry and I spent almost two hours viewing the exhibits in a building that once housed the apartments of ‘Cissy,’ a beloved yet troubled princess of the Habsburg Dynasty.   The accouterments of royalty were staggering! Countless sets of china and silver dinnerware, drawers of carefully adorned flatware, gilded candelabras, ornate furniture, glassware and hand embroidered gowns displayed the burden a country faced in supporting the emperors and empresses.

Cissy’s apartments testified to a very interesting young empress.  Married in her mid-teens, the royal beauty did not relish court life.  She also did not take well to life as a young mother.  Royalty did not escape the tragedies of life, and this young princess faced the loss of one young daughter and a son. Her apartment included a bathroom with a working toilet, quite unusual for her day.  She also spent the two hours it took the maid to do her lovely thick hair studying Latin, Greek and other languages of the empire.  She even insisted on doing calisthenics each day to keep her tiny figure! 

Staying in the city, Garry and I ate a simple lunch.  Then we wandered through Old Vienna and its many coffee houses.  Coffee is a beloved drink in this Austrian city, and where you have coffee, you also find wonderful pastries and chocolate.  We returned to Demel, a bakery highlighted on our tour.  The display window is a ‘must see!’  Each year it boasts a different amazing cake.  To our delight, in the window stood a life-sized model in an ornate wedding gown.  Next to her stood her matching wedding shoes. Everything was edible, an amazing work of art in cake and confectionary.

We browsed through the store and through a glass window watched the pastry chefs work their magic. They were amazing!  Then we settled into the coffee shop to order coffee and the famous Sacher cake, a chocolate cake infused with apricot preserves and covered in chocolate frosting.  Well, when in Rome…

A View of Three Countries

We didn’t need to hurry to breakfast Monday morning; at day break the Viking Legend was still cruising to Bratislava.  Breakfast offered another opportunity to connect with fellow travelers, so we took advantage of the extra time to visit.

Because the ship would not dock until 2 p.m., the staff offered various activities from a tour of the wheelhouse to a lecture on the Viennese art of coffee drinking  to a demonstration of original Austrian applestrudel baking.   Garry and I opted to enjoy some leisturely reading  in our cabin.

About 10 a.m. we climbed the stairs to the observation deck for a clear view of the locks. The Danube has many locks; over the entire cruise, we navigated through eleven of them. But the lock between Budapest and Bratislava appeared to be the longest and deepest. It was amazing to see how quickly the incoming water could lift the ship to the level of the next section of river!

After lunch, buses took us into Bratislava; as we meandered through the city, our guides pointed out the ‘mansions’ in the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Slovakia.   The large homes on the hilly, windy roads looked a little worn, but offered luxury living for ambassadors, visiting dignitaries and the few citizens who could afford the prices.

Sadly, it appeared that this city too found its voice in spray paint.  We stopped at a castle high on a hill of the city.  Also in the process of renovation, its grounds afforded us a wonderful view of three countries – Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. It was sobering to realize that the Slovakian people, suffering the oppression of Soviet rule, could see the Austrian border through the trees, a mere 5 kilometers from Bratislava. Yet those who attempted to escape to freedom were shot on sight.

We enjoyed strolling down some of the side streets of Bratislava.  Down one avenue, we observed three men laying roof tiles high on one of the steeply pitched roofs, without using any safety equipment!  OSHA has not reached Slovakia.

Returning to the Legend, we changed for dinner, and after supper we enjoyed a Hungarian folklore show, a combination of talented siging and dancing, in the ship’s lounge.   We retired to our cabin to read and prepare for the next day’s excursion as the ship pulled out of the harbor bound for Vienna.

Budapest – Hungary’s Sister Cities

Monday morning we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast in the Legend’s dining room and gathered for a bus trip into Budapest.  Two cities, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube, now combined, are connected by beautiful bridges both ancient and modern.

Our bus rolled first through the Pest side of the city.  During our tour, our guide educated us about the history of this lovely but worn city lying on the flat side of the river.  First settled by seven pagan tribes, it successively experienced rule by kings bringing Christianity, pagan uprisings, devastation by the Turks during the seige of the Ottoman empire, unwanted rule by Romans and Hapsburgs, devastation by plagues and world wars, and finally, the demoralization under rule of the Russian Communists.  

The hopelessness and poverty engendered by 40 plus years under Communism plays out in the lack of care for public parks and buildings.  Graffiti seems to be the major artform of this once proud city.

Completing our tour of Pest, our bus rolled across a massive stone bridge named for beloved empress, Maria Teresa, and wound our way up the Buda hills to an overlook that provided panoramic views of the Danube and the city of Buda.  We could see a lovely large cathedral and a synagogue that remained after the sad history.  The large castle at the top of the hill looked rather forlorn; we were relieved to hear it housed an 11 story library.  It was being renovated, a welcome sign of reviving optimism.

Returning to the Legend, we relaxed in the afternoon and then enjoyed meeting more guests during supper.  We joined the captain on the observation deck at 9 p.m. for the official ‘sail away.’  It was beautiful!  The weather cooperated; the rains earlier in the afternoon gave way to clearer skies.  The city of Budapest treated us to a lovely farewell by lighting the bridges and parliament building, amazing sights against the darkening sky.

We retired to our cabins while Captain Attila sailed the Legend upstream  toward Bratislava.

Bon Voyage!

Our adventure began Friday evening with dinner at Chianti’s with dear friends and houseguests, Gene and Edie Soderberg.  After a leisurely breakfast Saturday morning, Eric Muetterties arrived to graciously drive Garry and me to SFO.

Budapest Airport

The 11 hour flight to Frankfurt proved quite relaxing; Lufthansa’s comfortable economy seating made sleeping and relaxing fairly easy, and the hot dinner at the beginning of the flight and the full breakfast at the end helped us adjust quickly to the time change. Following a one and a half hour flight to Budapest airport, we boarded a bus with several other couples for the 20 minute drive to our cruise ship, the Viking Legend.

Boarding the Viking Legend in Budapest

The travel brochures accurately pictured this comfortable river cruiser.  The 180 passengers trickled in from as far as Hawaii and as near as Great Britain, and soon we were unpacking our suitcases in our staterooms. Garry and I found our cabin on the second deck very comfortable with ample storage.  Two comfortable chairs sitting beside the French balconey would provide the perfect place to enjoy our quiet times, leisurely reading and blogging while cruising along the Danube.

Stairway to Second Deck

We listened to instructions and welcomes, and then we moved from the lounge to the dining room for a wonderful three course dinner.  Our table companions were delightful! Ursula and Erwin, German natives residing in Florida, were well-traveled and recommended cruising to us with several wonderful stories.  Pat and Roger and Lynn and Bill, good Brits all, made their introductions with classic British humor and made us feel instantly ‘at home.’

Before retiring to our cabin, Garry and I toured the observation deck, met a few more fellow passengers, acquainted ourselves with the cozy library, and then slipped beneath the comfortable duvets to enjoy some welcome sleep anticipate the next day’s tour of Budapest.

Let’s begin…

 

I’m blogging!  Like Grandma Moses who decided to put her pictures on canvas at a ripe old age, I’m learning in my graying years to write my musings on the cloud.  Our trip to Europe provided the perfect material, and Garry’s gift of an iPad gave me the portable tool.

Come with us on our ‘great adventure,’ life in the cloud!