For many years I had promised myself the pleasure of exploring the beautiful Danube river. It was a river I had known since a tiny child because of my parents’ love for the immortal waltz by Johann Strauss – The Blue Danube, along with all the other wonderful romantic waltzes for which he is justly famous. So when a significant birthday was to arrive we decided that this is what we would give ourselves!
The Danube is the only major European river that flows from west to east, the Danube covers a distance of 2,845 km and crosses ten countries – Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia and the Ukraine – from its source at Donaueschingen to the giant estuary delta on the Black Sea. The Danube has served as a mode of transport and a trade artery for nearly five millennia. The Romans called it ‘Danuvius’ from which its current name has been derived. Even now it enchants and attracts visitors from all around the world and it does not disappoint.
We however did not start our journey at Donaueschingen its source but at Passau having travelled to Passau in a number of different ways. My recommendation is to fly into Munich and have a transfer to Passau. Passau has been a bishopric for 1,200 years and the town developed on a promontory at the confluence of the three rivers, Inn, Ilz and the Danube. Now as the border town between Germany and Austria it is called ‘the Venice of Bavaria’. The town owes its wealth to revenues from tolls and its grain and salt storage facilities. We did not have time to explore the town but simply arrived to embark on our cruise ship and later departed from the same place. The mighty river can handle the big river cruise ships at this point.
The cruise company gives one a welcome of a much needed tea and cakes and it was the tea I needed after a long drive! They were efficient and welcoming and later there was a welcome reception when the passengers were introduced to the captain and his officers and various crew members. After the reception came dinner which was well laid out in charming style with quality napery and silver cutlery and efficient courteous serving by waiters and a maître d’. The food was good and people settled into the cruise.
The next morning, I was up looking for the sunrise and discovered it very easily across the river and a lovely little group of swans in the early morning sunlight bobbing on the water alongside us. Breakfast is very well done with a large comprehensive buffet and eggs to order and every available food that one could want with juices, tea, coffee. The waiter assigned to your table then asks for your dinner order that evening from the menu which was a good time saving idea.
We loved strolling on the top deck in the sunshine and were all ready for our visit to Melk at which we had arrived very early in the morning have traversed ten locks along the way which kept the captain busy all night.
Melk is a delight. One can just walk off the ship and look around but a coach takes you up to the Benedictine monastery and the stunning cathedral of St Peter and Paul. We were enchanted and so interested in the history. The monastery founded by Leopold II and originally built in the Benedictine Age in early Middle Ages was ravaged by a succession of fires before being rebuilt in its current baroque style in the early 18th century. There is a lot to see and also the town is a delight with ancient streets and squares and welcoming café owners and shops. This was a very pleasant morning and a gentle walk downhill to the cruise ship.
Meanwhile all along as one cruises the beauty of the green hillsides, small towns with onion dome churches, river traffic, people kayaking and boating is all around and sitting in the warm sunshine is a delight. Naturally there are excellent lunches, and tea and cake or ice cream and then dinner.
That evening after a good dinner we were entertained by a quintet playing not only chamber music but modern music or their version of modern tunes and they were attractive young women with talent. They actually came from Bratislava. However, we were on course for Vienna.
We arrived in Vienna that evening in time for dinner; it was explained that in the 19th century the Emperor Franz Joseph has caused the Danube to have its course change and thus not enter the city and flood it, so the ships cannot moor right in the city but in a canal. We then went into Vienna by coach. Well, it is famous and barely needs me to write about it but yes I will. Elegance, grandeur and modernity is the fusion of modern Vienna with much to see.
The visit by coach and on foot was rather rushed but certainly gave one a taste of this great city. We returned for lunch to the ship and then in the afternoon were back to see the famous Schönbrunn Palace which is a World Heritage Cultural site and Austria’s most-visited sight. The baroque architecture consisting of palace and gardens was for centuries the property of the Habsburgs and is today largely in its original condition. We made a tour through the authentically furnished residential and ceremonial rooms of the Imperial Family in the palace, to the maze and the labyrinth in the gardens and a separate Children’s Museum. Earlier in the day we had seen from the outside Vienna’s symbol the ‘Stoffel’ the 137-metre-high southern tower of Stephan’s Cathedral which dominates the city.
The main part of the cathedral with its impressive roof featuring a distinctive coloured tile pattern dates from the 15th century. I would have liked to have taken tea at the world famous Sacher Hotel and eaten their Sacher Torte, whereas I had a rather poor imitation of it in a tourist café….my own homemade Sacher Torte is rather better than that which they are churning out! The famous Steiff Bears in the window of a toy shop were amusing and of course lots of wonderful jewellery, antiques and other collectibles attracted too. The Hofburg Palace is the former imperial palace in the centre of Vienna, Austria. Part of the palace forms the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria. Built in the 13th century and expanded in the centuries since, the palace has housed some of the most powerful people in European and Austrian history, including monarchs of the Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was the principal imperial winter residence, as Schönbrunn Palace was their summer residence.
The Hofburg palace has been the documented seat of government since 1279 for various empires and republics. It has been expanded over the centuries to include various residences (with the Amalienburg), the Imperial Chapel (Hofkapelle or Burgkapelle), the Naturhistorisches Museum and Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Austrian National Library (Hofbibliothek), the Imperial Treasury(Schatzkammer), the Burg theatre, the Spanish Riding School (Hofreitschule), the Imperial Horse Stables (Stallburg and Hofstallungen), and the Hofburg Congress Centre.
The Lipizzaner Horses are Europe ‘s oldest horse breed. These intelligent and lively horses bred from Spanish, Italian and Arab bloodlines are very special with their classic physique and grace they are ideally suited for the representative style of the High School of Classical Horsemanship. We saw a glimpse of their stables, but not the horses. The 21 November 2016 will mark the centenary of the death of Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled over the Habsburg Monarchy for sixty-eight years. So, there is a great deal to see properly in Vienna on another visit.
The ship sailed on to Budapest and the top deck proved a delight with hot sunshine and a calm panorama to look at in between a good book or just chatting amongst people one met. The ship has to also go through quite a few locks and these prove interesting and need the skill of the captain to navigate.
Budapest was a delight and we approached this great city soon after breakfast the following morning. The harbour master had said the captain had to sail up and under the various bridges and then come alongside his mooring having turned around. It was glorious to have this wonderful view of this very grand panorama. We moored very close to the wonderful wedding cake parliament of Hungary and the sun came out.
We left the ship on foot and immediately went to see the poignant memorial to the Jewish people who had been shot there on the quayside by Fascists in 1945. It is a very vivid reminder of the hatred, cruelty and dominance that had overtaken Europe between 1939 and 1945. It did not cease with the end of World War II because Hungary became a satellite country of the Soviet Republic and in October 1956 the Hungarians staged a revolution; I became aware of this though very much as a child in India but my parents told me with outrage what was happening and that the rest of the West did nothing to help these poor people when 6000 Russian tanks poured into their city. The scars of that time are there to see now and one is aware that the 60th anniversary of that sad tragic time is approaching. Hungarians are very conscious of their hard won freedom and I salute them all.
Budapest is a glorious city and very well maintained and easy to walk about in. We loved it and plan to return one day soon and take a self-catering flat to really visit it properly. As it was, after a good lunch we went on a coach tour of the city and saw the architecture and beauty of the place and ended up at the wonderful baroque cathedral of St. Stephen’s. It is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038), whose supposed right hand is housed in the reliquary. It was the sixth largest church building in Hungary before 1920. It is the co-cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest. Today, it is the third largest church building in present-day Hungary. More of Esztergom a little later. It is an example of the highest baroque but was I gather only finished at the end of the 19th century. It is very similar in the interior to the wonderful cathedral at Melk. The organist was playing a most stirring piece which drowned out any form of conversation so we went into the pleasant square outside and had a coffee. The Hungarians were over the moon as one of their athlete’s had just taken a medal at the Rio Olympics.
That evening we went to a rather typical tourist establishment some way into the countryside to experience the traditional form of dancing and to eat goulash and it was fine but a bit crowded and hot and not really my scene though I appreciated going up to the vantage point we had been to earlier in the day and now we saw Budapest by night. I actually love goulash and have happy memories of skiing and goulash and gluhwein afterwards!
The following morning we went to visit a very well kept horse stud and farm which took us through the countryside which is always enjoyable. The Hungarian Great Plain is famous for its Grey Cattle and Puszta Horses. The Lazar Equestrian Park is a lovely farm and we actually came close to a couple of Lipizzaner horses; they are different with quite protuberant eyes. Greeted with Kelinka shots which I avoid (strong stuff!) or white wine and a scone; we took a wagon ride through the property which is very green and beautiful and had an explanation about the famous grey cattle of Hungary, the meat of which was the origin of goulash. The horse show was fun and the riders very skilled, especially the man riding a team… interestingly the Empress Elizabeth known as Zizzi was much admired and a female rider demonstrated her prowess dressed up as the famous empress who loved the Hungarian countryside and preferred living there to in the city. These excursions can be expensive but we had negotiated a price that was inclusive so went along happily.
We observed the huge basilica of Esztergom, the seat of the Hungarian Catholic Church, which is one of the oldest towns in Hungary. The Basilica of Esztergom, a masterpiece of Classicism, is the third largest church in Europe. Established around 972 AD, Esztergom has always played an important role in Hungary‘s history. It was the birth and coronation place of the first Hungarian king, St. Stephen, as well as the capital of Hungary until the 13th century. After the Mongolian invasion, King Bela IV moved the Royal Seat to Visegrád and later to Buda, giving his palace to the archbishop and making Esztergom a religious centre. This cathedral church is immense and stands out on the banks of the Danube. It must be a very pleasant smallish town to visit being so old and full of Hungary’s medieval past.
We arrived at Bratislava in the early morning and again this is a capital where the ship can moor right on the quayside and one just walks off to visit this pleasant place. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia formerly known as Pressburg and has been the capital of Slovakia since 1993 when the former Czechoslovakia became two nation states – the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The architecture is mainly baroque and the castle stands a little apart and dates from the 9th century. It is quite small and easy to walk around with a cathedral and town halls and lovely squares and a shady avenue which resembles the Ramblas in Barcelona. There is an opera house and quite a few elegant looking hotels. It would repay a long week-end’s visit undoubtedly.
The cruise continued on its return journey and the ship moored at Krems as there was not sufficient mooring available at Durnstein. Krems is an attractive town situated between the Danube and the River Krems and it was but a ten-minute drive to Durnstein where we were headed.
Durnstein is a small ancient town, more a village with vineyards all around and the beautiful Wachau Valley. It is reputed to be the place where King Richard the Lionheart of England who was famous for his Crusade travels was imprisoned by King Leopold V who had taken against him. Apparently the musician Blondel who knew King Richard came to the village and was singing and the king in his prison heard him and started to also sing and Blondel recognised who it was and freed him. So the story goes! It is a charming small place which is very patient with all its visitors and apricot schnapps and other such drinks are available to buy along with marmalade.
After a very pleasant farewell dinner we docked at Passau early the following morning and after the usual good breakfast took our leave of the ship and her crew and set off home.
I would do another river cruise as it is very relaxing and comfortable with good food and one can find people with whom one wants to socialise. It is preferable to have a companion I think but not essential. This has become a very popular leisure pastime in Britain.