The last morning on the Danube Waltz cruise came very early. Our departure point, the Munich Airport, requires a drive of about two hours. Viking sent us off with a pre-sunrise breakfast for those leaving in the wee hours. Our luggage was waiting on the dock, so we were reassured that ours would be loaded on the bus. Once at the airport, we made our way back to the states filled with memories of a cruise that far exceeded expectations. One can usually list a vacation’s most outstanding features – – the sites, the food, the history, the culture, the music. Not so with Viking, they gave you all, equally abundant, varied, enticing, enchanting, and truly memorable!
Arrival in Budapest: Viking Danube Waltz Cruise Day 1
Overnight flights leave most travelers tired and groggy, a feeling I experienced upon arrival in Budapest. Clearing customs quickly, my travel partner and I met the Viking Cruise representatives at the baggage claim exit. They escorted us to a bus that delivered the group directly to the Viking Vilhjalm docked on the Danube River. The mighty waterway, famous for the Straus waltz, splits the enchanting capital of Hungary with Buda on one bank and Pest on the opposite side.
A warm welcoming surprise awaited – – a stateroom ready for check-in before noon. How nice to freshen up after an overnight flight before enjoying a casual buffet lunch on the al fresco-dining terrace. Chef’s variety of fresh, light items and more substantial choices made a colorful display. The meal satisfied but the relief of settling in topped all.
We retired for a brief nap, slipping into soft white linens and a slew of pillows. The Vilhjalm’s 205-square-foot Veranda Stateroom made for a bright, sleek and clean refuge. Oak veneer surrounds, a large mirror and 40-inch flat screen TV dominate the far wall. One counter section fashioned into a vanity area offered a stool, while the opposite end houses a mini-refrigerator. Another chair sits beside the double bed.
The best part of the room may be the double floor to ceiling sliding glass doors that open onto a private patio – – a window on the Danube’s world. A relaxing a cup of coffee or glass of wine makes watching the river meander by delightful. The well-planned design even includes a small coffee table. A full-length mirror adorns the cabin door.
The bathroom, small as expected, proved quite workable. A shelf below the sink can store toiletries and two cups were attached to the wall. The shower pressure proved excellent. Not only can you control the room temperature; how about heating the bathroom floor!
Time to unpack. Each of us filled a set of three deep drawers and divided the closet space, finding the room more than ample. Stashing suitcases under the bed offered one of the great conveniences of cruising.
The Vilhjalm docks at the ultimate riverside landing on the Danube River, the first boat directly below the iconic Chain Bridge. The awe-inspiring Buda hillside commands attention, not just beautiful, but witness to more than a thousand years of history on the very spot. Castle Hill, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Gothic church spires that soar above are a constant lure.
Viking offered a 45-60 minute walking tour, but we couldn’t wait to get reacquainted with the city. We took a serendipitous stroll to nowhere in particular. Little shops ,chockablock with souvenirs, street side cafes, and appealing Art Nouveau buildings dotted the streets. The hint of spicy aromas filled the air, as did the melodic sounds of a busker playing the violin. We wandered into St. Stephen’s Basilica, with its wealth of Baroque design. The massive domed building looks older, both inside and out, than its 1905 construction would suggest.
We returned to the boat for a welcome party, champagne toast and information session. Joe, the Cruise Director, reviewed the schedule for the following day and answered all questions. A relaxing dinner in the main restaurant followed featuring, of course, the national dish of Hungry, Goulash, and options that included Ahi tuna. Staples like rib-eye steak, chicken, and burgers are always available. The food preparation and presentation rank on par with high-end restaurant fare. No, not Michelin star pizazz, but cooked by a serious, competent and attentive chef.
Forgoing after dinner coffee, we headed to the top deck for the gorgeous sunset – – a stunning backdrop to the sights on the hills of Buda. Soon, dancing lights waltzed over the Danube, beckoning all to the Sun Deck. The Viking Vilhjalm offers million-dollar views – – nearby landlubbers gathered on the Chain Bridge to share them. By bridge or boat, the illuminated splendor of the Buda hillside is unforgettable. There is little to argue with those who call the panoramic scene the most splendid in the world.
A long trip behind, a head full of the day’s delightful visions, we slipped into bed anticipating the adventure ahead.
Exploring the Pearl of the Danube- Day 2
ABOARD THE VIKING VILHJALM…Budapest has well earned its nickname of “the Pearl of the Danube.” The Danube River waltzes through the city core, dividing the old city on the west – – Buda – – and its younger sibling – – Pest – – on the opposite bank. Viking justly named its river cruise the Danube Waltz, accentuating the river’s music with a daily complimentary tour and a variety of optional excursions.
I started with the free driving tour around the flat banks of the Pest side. It showcases grand architecture and monuments of more modern times, both splendid and tumultuous. The Buda side climbs to heights to explore castles, churches and historic palaces from much earlier times. While I’d have enjoyed a dip in the famous thermal baths and a visit to the Grand Market, there is only so much time. This whirlwind day mimicked the exhilaratingly fast Hungarian dance called the Czardas; a more graceful, slow tune would have better served.
However, even a single day in Budapest is grand, and the panoramic bus tour revived history class memories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We scooted down tree-lined Andrassy Avenue, built to resemble the Champs Elysees, past Hero’s Square, and over the Elizabeth Bridge. Dropped off at the top of Castle Hill, we learned that Buda Castle dates back to the 13th century. However, post-WWII reconstruction changed its appearance, I’m afraid not for the better. The castle terrace offers panoramic vistas but a rather uninspiring changing of the guard ceremony.
The 700-year-old Mathias Church offered a lure for eye and soul, with its Gothic exterior and flamboyant steeple topped by the symbolic Matthias raven with a ring. Colorful patterns of Zsolnay ceramic tiles paint the roof brilliantly in an entrancing pattern. The moment you step through the massive doors, an astonishing swath of swirling hues and stenciled designs offer a welcoming embrace. The heavily adorned church served the Hapsburg kings as a coronation site for centuries including the last two.
Nearby, the Fisherman’s Bastion commands the steep descent to the river with its seven-level wedding cake-like construction of inter-connecting white stucco towers. Its terraces provide an overview of the river and, on the other side, Parliament. The most impressive building in the capital, this imposing and beautiful behemoth started construction in 1885 – – completed in 1904. About one thousand people used 40 million bricks and half a million precious stones to bring the Parliament to its impressive height and breadth. During the communist regime a red star perched on the top of the dome – – it came down joyously in 1990. Hungarian independence rang from the balcony on October 23, 1989. Today the Republic of Hungary uses only a small portion of the building.
The ride back to the Viking Longship passed 50 pairs of bronze shoes along the riverside. The gripping memorial reminds of the Jews shot along the banks in 1944 so that their bodies would fall in the Danube. An afternoon excursion to the Jewish Ghetto was offered and is itself a memorable stop, but I’d visited on a previous trip.
An afternoon jaunt to a Hungarian Horse Show grabbed my attention when perusing Vikings impressive pre-cruise materials. We bussed to Domonyvölgy about 40 minutes outside of the city. At Lázár Equestrian Park, we were greeted with pálinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy dating to the 14th century. It was very strong, and not much to my liking.
The horse show followed an announcer touting the centuries-old traditions of Hungarian horseback riding which form the stuff of military legend. An archer galloping by hit his bulls-eye seemingly without effort. Other riders gave commands to their four-legged friends to lie down — while they were still mounted.
A team of horses pulling carts zipped across, and one female equestrian impersonated Sisi, the Hungarian Empress known for her advanced riding skills. The costumed girl rode sidesaddle, directing her mount to tip-toe, dance and turn circles.
Another man performed trick riding with a team of five Hungarian Nonius horses, three in the front and two in the rear. He stood, straddling the rear horses with one foot on each. Pretty thrilling!
Four of the most enormous oxen I have ever seen pulled a cart slowly around the track. The announcer had to explain that they were moving at their top speed, somewhat humorous compared to the previous stallions.
After the show, the group took a jostling horse-drawn carriage ride around the park, meeting Hungarian farm animals—long-woolen Racka sheep, a Mangalica pig, and some Puli dogs.
We also toured the stables and the over-endowed trophy room of the Lazar Brothers. The famous siblings have earned 16 world championship titles in horse-carriage racing. A brief video gave an up-close look at the magic of their skills.
The unforgettable highlight of Budapest came (as it does for what seems like everyone in Budapest) at day’s end. A twilight cruise drifted slowly past the illuminated monuments further up the Danube. Then came a turn-around and final pass by the gobsmacking, golden glow of Parliament at night. You could take this ride forever and not tire of the splendor.
Bratislava: Exploring Behind the Former Iron Curtain Day 3
ABOARD THE VIKING VILHJALM …The Viking Vilhjalm cruise makes a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia, a country where people now travel freely. Until the early 1990’s, Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia and under communist rule, closed off to the world behind the “Iron Curtain.”
Bratislava, the capital city, lies at the strategic crossroads between Budapest and Vienna. In the 10th century, it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1536, what is now called Bratislava became the new capital of Hungary or the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy. WWI brought the collapse of that Empire, and the city became part of Czechoslovakia under Russian rule.
Slovakia declared its independence in 1993, and joined the European Union in 2004. Travelers are pleased to find they use the Euro.
Before the Vilhjalm reached Slovakia, the Longship needed to pass through a series of modern locks, the first one the largest. The locks are new – – Stalin didn’t want to open the Danube as an escape route to the west and freedom. Progress was like watching grass grow. Way too slow to keep the attention of most. Viking offered an educational video to explain the process and views of what goes on in the wheelhouse – where and how the captain steers the vessel.
The excursion to Bratislava started with a bus tour to the highest reaches of the upper town. Unfortunately, the bus was not permitted to stop so we couldn’t see much of the spectacular view. We passed a partially obstructed mansion that looked like a small version of the White House. Grassalkovich Palace is actually Slovakia’s White House, serving as the official seat of the President.
We caught a brief glimpse of the Slavin War Memorial surmounting a hilltop surrounded by a cemetery. It commemorates the city’s 1945 liberation from the Nazis by the Soviet Red Army, and provides the final resting place for nearly 7,000 soldiers who died in that effort.
Our Slovakian guide repeated the historical facts, leaving me straining to understand her accent. “In 1945, Czechoslovakia was re-established and under Communist rule became a Soviet satellite. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Slovakia became an independent state on 1 January 1993 after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia, sometimes known as the Velvet Divorce.”
The bus made its way down to about mid-point, where we jumped off at the Bratislava Castle. The town icon perches on a cliff looming over the lower city and the Danube. The white stucco palace has four large towers and red accents, but commands an austere presence. No Hapsburg royal flourishes adorn the structure. It dates from the 1950’s,fire destroyed the original in 1811. We were not allowed inside.
The panoramic view was the best part and historically significant. Our guide pointed out a dense forest where a fence prevented citizens from escaping to freedom. Many were shot and killed trying to reach Austria, just a few miles away. The powerful message reminded me how Americans tend to take their liberties for granted while Soviet containment happened not so long ago. Other remnants of the communist area were evident in the distance, a bland, high-rise housing project extending across a wide area. Recent efforts to paint sections to relieve the monotony had led to the nickname” Legoland.”
A curious bridge, built in 1972, spanned the river — an asymmetrical gray Soviet era construction. A discus-shaped tower resembling the Enterprise from Star Trek tops its pinnacle. Today you can beam up there to a restaurant and bar appropriately named UFO.
So far, I was disappointed, I wanted Bratislava to be more. Thankfully the day was still young.
I soon discovered what I was hoping for. As we neared the Old Town, we passed through St. Michael’s Gate, a tower that just oozed Old World Charm. We walked through the archway in the gate and proceed down a slight grade. We began passing pastel colored Baroque palaces – think buttercup, lavender and mint hues. Onion-dome turrets and spires rose above the cobblestone path lined with lively bistros and signage.
Arriving at the main square brought a soaring clock tower, Old Town Hall. A cannonball embedded in the façade memorializes a siege by Napoleon. Many arched entries and narrow passageways worm their way through the idyllic scene. Buildings constructed from different architectural periods magically blend together, like a small version of Prague.
A favorite site for all the old town’s visitors comes in the form of, believe it or not, a manhole-cover sculpture. Cumil or “the Peeper” as locals call the odd fellow. He offers a little Slovak humor. In the square, a man with a many-armed wand sent hundreds of bubbles into the air – – children madly chasing them and bringing smiles to all.
The outdoor cafes and bistros jostle against each other making for a bustling and lively scene. Enticing aromas of sausage and beer filled the air. Seems everyone was caught up in the joyous spirit, not only the group of Brits celebrating a bachelor party.
Our walking tour ended at another square with a name I can’t begin to pronounce. The impressive Slovak National Theater building acts as the anchor. We had the option to follow the guide back to the ship or enjoy free time.
We stayed on to sample a pint of Slovakian beer, in my opinion, excellent. We meandered around the outdoor kiosks, mostly selling souvenirs, and paused at St. Martin’s Cathedral, a vast Gothic church that was consecrated in 1452. Depending on your source, anywhere from 11-18 monarchs were crowned there, including the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa.
We returned to the ship delighted that the hodgepodge of buildings. The vibrant atmosphere in the Old Town let loose the heart of the place. Bratislava is a hidden gem, some of its jewels are authentic, and some just pretend. Go see for yourself – – you might like both.
Vienna: Hapsburgs, Lipizzaners, Mozart and Strauss
ABOARD THE VIKING VILHJALM …The Hapsburgs ruled the Austro Hungarian Empire from Vienna using their fortune to build Baroque palaces, churches and museums across the city. Those buildings form the core of what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Vienna’s rich history and culture continue to dance – – like its famous waltzes – – sweeping you in and maintaining your interest. My Viking Danube cruise provided a day with many opportunities to touch and taste the capital of Austria.
Viking ’s complimentary panoramic tour takes passengers via bus into the historic city center for a walking tour. A Close-Up Tour does the same, substituting the subway as transport.
My travel partner and I chose the subway tour, wanting the less regal, more down-to-earth sense of this grand city. Lucky us, we were the only two to choose this tour, ending up with a private tour guide. Doesn’t get much better than that! We could ask the questions we wanted and vary the itinerary according to our desires.
Nowhere is the combination of aromatic coffee and sweet chocolate cake more famous than Vienna. My wish- – a stop in the Hotel Sacher for a piece of their famous Sacher Torte. Wish granted at the Sacher coffee house instead of the main hotel — same cake; a delightful Viennese way to relax with an espresso! Sacher Torte, a luscious combination of chocolate cake layers spread with apricot jam comes encased in thick, deep dark chocolate frosting. A dollop of whipped cream on the side complements the slightly bitter and not overly sweet chocolate.
After my treat, we walked toward the enclave of Hapsburg buildings, taking in the architectural highlights. A stop in the Augustinian Church (or St. Augustin) brought us to the site where many royals married and were also partially buried. Marlise, our guide, explained, “The bodies of the Austrian Habsburg emperors are each buried between three Vienna locations; their entrails in the crypt of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, their bodies in the crypt of the Capuchin Church, and their hearts in silver urns in the Loreto Chapel of the Augustinian Church.” The joke is the Hapsburg’s don’t rest in peace – – they rest in pieces.
A slow stroll past behemoth statues and monuments, brought a wealth of information about the monarchy, politics, wars and specifically Franz Joseph and Sisi, his wife who is often compared to the late Princess Diana, Eventually we made our way to St Stephen’s Cathedral, topped with it’s a massive reconstructed Gothic spire rising above all. World War II ravaged the structure, now fully repaired. We were set free to explore inside the church at our own pace before meeting up for the subway ride back.
We learned much and truly enjoyed our private tour, adding detail to the basics we had learned on a previous visit to the Austrian capital. Thanks, Viking.
The afternoon brought a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lipizzaner Stables. The Lipizzanners, a renowned breed of white horses, get their training at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Nothing new, the Spanish Riding School celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2015. To perfect the difficult equestrian maneuvers, the matched rider and horse train anywhere from 8-12 years before performing in public.
No photos allowed in the stables, but afterward, I captured one with a long lens from an exterior window. The large horses show amazing muscular development. Dark in color at birth, the foals only gradually turn white as they age.
Our excellent guide explained that there are three branches of the Spanish Riding Academy. Piber serves as the breeding and birthing ground. Young stallions go to the second, the Heldenburg training center to begin their training. This center also serves as the vacation sport where performance stallions spend six to eight weeks in summer. Retirees spend the rest of their lives at Heldenburg. The third branch is the “haute ecole” or high school where rider and horse train in Vienna. It includes the fabled performance hall decked out with crystal chandeliers.
The horses receive the utmost care and get a two-week break on the farm after six weeks of performing. I asked if the horses liked performing and our guide said, “They are very excited when they return to Vienna, practically jumping for joy.”
The tour included the tack room, full of various items of gear, including the performance sets. The guide explained how they were made, and adjusted. A visit to the training ring offered got a peek inside the performance hall from a horse’s point of view. If only we could have seen one do a few maneuvers, but you have to go to a show to see that. Apply for tickets well in advance.
Back onboard, my full day continued with an early dinner arranged for those of up who signed up to go a concert. Usually, Viking River cruises offer just one dinner seating. We followed dinner with a return to the city, to hear the Wiener Hofburg Orchestra. The Mozart- Strauss performance proved better than expected, including two opera singers and two dancers. We heard Strauss waltzes and selections from Mozart’s The Magic Flute—music that has defined this magical city. I’d call the repertoire more lighthearted, but entertaining.
Viking offers a full range of morning, afternoon and evening excursions so you can see and do as much of Vienna as possible in your short time there.
Exploring the Wachau Valley Day 5
ABOARD THE VIKING VILHJALM …Early in the morning, my Viking Longship arrived in Krems, a small Austrian village on the banks of the Danube. Red roofs, a bulbous turret and a yellow clock tower rising above the town greeted us.
Viking cruises offers an exclusive visit to the Benedictine Abbey of Göttweig, a working monastery that’s been in existence for more than 900 years. The monks live, work and worship from a hilltop overlooking postcard-pretty Wachau Valley.
Welcomed into the abbey’s flourishing apricot garden, we began with a taste of locally produced sparkling apricot wine. A short film about monastic life followed, exclusive to Viking guests, explaining what it takes to run a monastery today.
We then crossed the abbey’s central courtyard, past a cluster of buildings topped with onion-shaped domes, and into the abbey’s museum. A variety of displays chronicle the history of the Augustine shrine and its role as a monastic retreat.
The Benedictines arrived in 1094, a fire destroyed their castle in 1718, and it was rebuilt a few years later. The Nazis confiscated much of the artwork during World War II. After the war, the monastery housed 3,000 Russian soldiers. Today, it reigns in peace, back to its intended purpose.
Like some other abbeys in the region, Göttweig included imperial wing (an incredibly upscaled kind of travelers rest for past royals). I didn’t expect to find a dazzling white-on-white three-story Baroque staircase in a monastery. One of the largest and most spectacular ceiling frescoes in the world crowns the ceiling, depicting the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI as Apollo.
Reaching the top of the stairs, we found many works of art and more of the abbey’s treasures. Then came free time to explore the cathedral and its rainbow-colored interior. A curious gathering cut our time in the cathedral short – – dozens of motorcycles had roared onto the grounds for a blessing, certainly one of the oddest I’ve seen.
Down in the abbey’s cellars we had a taste of several wines from the monastery’s vineyard. Then, we hustled back to the bus – – set for ride to another abbey, this one at Melk.
Believe it or not, one of the joys of this tour was the bus ride. We passed through towns so tiny that the narrow roads just barely allowed the bus a little “squeeze” room. Other fairytale-like villages and ruins of castles dotted the opposite riverbanks and clung to its dramatic hillsides. Our guide’s insightful explanations offered an understanding of the area that would come in handy during the coming afternoons’ cruise.
Crossed a bridge we rode uphill to mustard-colored Melk, standing high above the Danube. Here, we joined an official abbey guide, passing through chronologically arranged rooms tracing its history. Because of its proximity to the royal court, the monastery built extensive royal apartments – seems like the monarchy must have had its own early hotel chain in these parts.
Of course, a banqueting room was also necessary. This hall’s columns looked like marble, but were faux, painted to look like the real thing. The ceiling fresco too fooled the eye with trompe l’oeil effects giving the appearance of great height.
The library remains Melk’s foremost treasure, its lined floor to ceiling with dark bound volumes. The 100,000-book and manuscript collection includes a ninth-century manuscript, rare collections and lots of gold accents. The abbey owned a copy of one of the original Gutenberg Bibles, but it went to Yale in a sale to fund needed roof repairs.
The adjoining church, another area used by the royal household, is a Baroque gilded jewel box. I thought it looked like someone poured liquid gold over the interior, freezing it in place. If the purpose of Baroque is to overwhelm the viewer, the Melk church succeeds. I found the golden touches dazzling, but too extravagant. However, the abbey remains a joy to behold, a kaleidoscope of brilliant color, and I’m glad I visited.
The afternoon cruise on the river proved one of the best on the entire cruise. The 18-mile, slow journey across the Wachau Valley meanders through a UNESCO World Heritage landscape site. Lovely to sit back and sip the local wine while seeing the combination of terraced vineyard slopes, dry stonewalls, hillside castles, and riverbank villages.
We passed the Wedgewood blue and white towering confection of Durnstein, the steeple belongs to the monastery. Locals are not happy about the recent change to this color palate, but so it remains.
Above Durnstein, the rocky remains of the 12th-century Kunringer castle loom. It was near here that Richard the Lion-Hearted, disguised as a peasant, was captured. He was reportedly imprisoned in the castle by Leopold V of Austria and paid a ransom for his release a few months later.
I found Spitz another attractive town, framed between the Danube and fruit trees and vineyards. Spitz boasts a “thousand bucket hill,” an area known to produce enough grapes for a thousand buckets of wine (12,000 gallons).
The enchanting panorama provides a photographer’s delight and memorable vista all will enjoy.
After dinner, we joined a rousing round of group trivia participants and retired early. Tomorrow would be a daylong excursion to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.
Cesky Krumlov: Fantasy Town on the Vltava River
ABOARD THE VIKING VILHJALM… Today’s adventure takes us to Cesky Krumlov, slightly more than an hour and a half away from Linz, Austria where we are docked.
Cesky Krumlov rates just a small and meek dot on the map of the Czech Republic – – politically inconsequential. But she’s a mighty tourist cauldron, simmering a mixture of Medieval, Renaissance, baroque and rococo in a rich pilsner beer broth. And the kettle bubbles over.
I first visited Cesky Krumlov eleven years ago and loved the little red-roofed hamlet encircled by the Vltava River. No cars allowed on the cobblestone alleys and bridges that course around medieval townhouses like a maze.
Back in the early 2000s, the UNESCO World Heritage site was sadly fraying, bursting at the seams from a deluge of visitors. I am thrilled to report renovations and a hamlet that seems to be on the rise, likely due to UNESCO’s support and the Czech Republic becoming part of the European Union.
Buses must park out of town, so my cruise excursion group walked up to the formal gardens to begin our tour. I’d missed what turned out to be an impressive horticultural display on my previous trip. The path from the greenery descends gradually down to the town, but some of the best views come early. A concrete viewing platform has been added, a perfect perch for photo-worthy panoramic shots including the horseshoe bend in the river coursing through the town. Below lies the signature landmark, the castle’s decoratively pastel painted tower. The tall cylinder looks as if Botticelli frescoed it using the same colors and clamshells chose for his masterpiece, “Birth of Venus.”
Our guide told of the families who ruled the Moravian village – – from the Rosenbergs to the Schwarzenbergs. The Rosenbergs, ranked among the most powerful aristocratic families in Bohemia, their members repeatedly holding the highest offices in the land.
Cesky Krumlov passed to the Eggenbergs who held it until 1719. Later, under Eggenberg rule, castle and townhouses were remodeled in the Baroque style. Then the Schwarzenbergs took over until 1947. The last important changes, by the Schwarzenberg family, came in the second half of the 18th century. Since then Cesky Krumlov has preserved the romantic atmosphere that attracts many tourists every year.
The decorative painting on the exterior buildings surrounding the upper courtyard had been repainted since my previous visit- an excellent touch.
We came to the main castle courtyard, and then we crossed the drawbridge over a pit where, until recently, two brown bears lived; one has died. Since the 16th century, the bears have provided the protection usually offered by water in a moat. They also symbolized a link with royalty. It seems the castle owners added a bear motif to the coat of arms to flaunt their relationship to the “Orsini” line – a noble Italian family. “Orsa” means she-bear in Italian, so they began keeping the real deal.
Beyond the castle, jewelry shops, souvenir stands, and cafes line the narrow alleyways. They lead to another bridge and up toward the main town square that swarms with bedraggled backpackers, a thick potage of the camera frenzied, a smidgen of European families and we cruisers.
After our tour, we found a restaurant behind a hotel alongside the river and ordered wood-grilled local specialties and a refreshing pint of Eggenberg beer. The cool brew did nothing to damage the well-earned reputation of Czech beers, beating an early heat wave in June.
We meandered around, zapped of energy, deciding to skip the climb to the castle tower. Unfortunately, the museums are closed on Mondays. Raft tours on the river coursing through the city’ are wonderful, but I didn’t find them open either.
No matter, more angles for delightful photos hid behind corners, stairwells and perches until we met up with a couple from the cruise for another refreshing drink.
Cesky Krumlov is a photographer’s delight, a fairy-tale village that rightly attracts and pleases. If you take the Viking cruise, be sure to add the excursion to this Czech masterpiece.
Passau, Germany: Three River City
ABOARD THE VIKING VILHJALM …The morning we arrived in Passau, I was suffering from allergies. Perhaps the beautiful flowering trees had upset my equilibrium. Rarely sick, I was sneezing like crazy, felt rotten and decided to spend the morning in bed.
Beyond what I could see of the charming, colorful houses lining the river banks, John, and Wikipedia got the assignment to report on Passau.
According to Wikipedia, “Passau, a German city on the Austrian border, lies at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. Known as the Three Rivers City, it’s overlooked by the Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century hilltop fortress housing a city museum and observation tower. The old town below is known for its baroque architecture, including St. Stephen’s Cathedral, featuring distinctive onion-domed towers and an organ with 17,974 pipes.
The complimentary excursion consisted of a walk through narrow streets that have seen more than their share of floods over the years. Many of the buildings mark the depths – – some of them high above the heads of tourists straining to make out a cluster of lines and numbers resembling a child’s growth chart on the door jamb. The jumble of rivers has often struck fear into the hearts of the townspeople. This day, their slow drift past colorful old structures (many repainted brightly – – others still showing the waters’ effects) punctuated the town’s charm. Like some old Italian neighborhoods, overhead decorations swung between the centuries old housed on either side. They boasted strange centerpieces – – collections of litter intended to remind those below to show the town a bit more deference.
Other interesting “overheads” came in the form of arches high above the ground and connecting two ancient structures. Turns out they aren’t squirrel expressways, but supports to help the old buildings, mostly houses, keep standing after so many years. Some old doors continue to grace the buildings. Many of those with windows bear witness to other sad memories of the inhabitants. They were cut to provide a passageway for the healthy to deliver food to plague sufferers on long poles (hence the 10-foot ones you wouldn’t touch someone with).
The cobblestoned streets include brightly and variously painted ones looking like chicklets and serving to direct foot traffic down paths past points of interest. Works of art and artisans dot windows on either side, some of it head-turning.
After lunch, everyone on ship seemed to relax, many using the time to pack for the return home. Others were reorganizing for the post tour of Prague.
I rallied enough to attend the lecture on the Danube hosted in the lobby. The Danube is Europe’s second longest river, after the Volga, and flows through 10 countries including four national capitals. The waterway has always been an important economic resource and has its own governing body. Its development as an international waterway was boosted by the decline of Communism, when fears of its use as an escape route to the West diminished.
Following the presentation, our tireless Cruise Director, Joe, reviewed instructions for disembarkation and transportation to Munich. When Viking arranges your flights, they include pick up and return to the airport, making the process seamless and one less worry. It is hard to underestimate how much care they give to making the process comfortable.
Cocktail hour had become another joy of cruising. The choices offered in the premium beverage package make ordering a fun experience. No need to worry about the bill later. John especially enjoyed the single malt whiskies – – all of them first rate, and some of them truly exceptional.
Dining is yet another delight on the Viking Viljham. Chef Roman Paput and his small staff that does its creating in cramped quarters shipboard outdid themselves. Every meal arrived at the table looking mouthwatering good and tasted fabulous. The variety of choices were plentiful and varied day to day. I especially enjoyed the offerings of regional dishes, as did others. But beware, ordering dessert becomes a habit, one I must to break at home.
For most Boomers, travel is about the experience: going to new places, learning the history and culture, and tasting the local specialties. Viking does all this with bravura and with a style that’s as simple and direct as it is fulfilling.