My European river cruise experience

... a lesson in history, culture and language

by Jim Tierney

When I thought of a river cruise from Budapest to Prague, via Austria and Germany, I expected the stops along the way to be, simply walking off the boat and up the street into small villages. This was the case on only ONE occasion; all other stops were not much different than cities and towns back home. Except for the language and currency differences, everything seemed transparent, including McDonald’s. We began our 14 day trip at the InterContinental Hotel in Budapest which was no different than the InterContinental Hotel in Boston, with several business meetings going on and the men impressively in suits and ties and predominately WHITE shirts. Why did I think I was going to be walking down a dirt road in Budapest and bump into Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, making one of their Road movies, the Road to Budapest!!!!

Traveling along the Danube River going from country to country, Hungary, Slovakia,  Austria, Germany, and Czech Republic, was a very pleasant experience. The boat, the Avalon Tranquility, is a much smaller version of a normal size cruise ship but with many of the same amenities. It has a top deck with the usual deck chairs, three other decks below with cabins, dining room, lounge, and reception area. It moved very smoothly down the river, like the winding Charles River in Boston. You never feel it moving until you arrive at one of its many locks, adjusting it to the change in water level. The water level changes 400 meters (1200 feet) along the way and is adjusted in as many as 25 locks. We took a cruise through the Panama Canal once and marveled at the sight of just ONE lock.

We stayed in the Hotel InterContinental in Budapest for two nights before boarding, enjoying the sights and history of Budapest, including a Hungarian dinner and Folklore show, featuring dancers in Hungarian costumes and high leather boots and a dinner of Hungarian specialties like Goulash and spicy paprika. We also went to the Hungarian Puszta Farm for a unique horse show and lunch with native entertainment, and walked along the cobblestone streets in an artist’s colony, displaying the special wares and talents of the local people.

The history here is in thousands of years, rather than the few hundred back home and the people had to adjust to socialist, communist, and capitalist societies over the years. Budapest straddles both banks of the Danube with seven bridges, including the famous Chain and Elisabeth Bridges, connecting ancient Buda on the right and with Pest on the left. Yes, they were two different cities at one time. Notable sites along the river are the Parliament Building, the Royal Palace, the Hilltop Castle Complex, with Fishermen’s Bastian and Matthias Church, and St. Stephen’s Basilica. Stephen was named “King” of Hungary by the Pope and later canonized as a saint by the Pope. There was no separation of church and state back then.

We boarded the ship and headed for Vienna, capital of Austria, the “City of Music” that inspired the creative genius of Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss. Believe it or not, the Blue Danube Waltz is Austria’s national anthem that seemed to always be  “in the air” wherever we went. While in Vienna, we experienced the “sound of Vienna” at the Royal Waltz Concert Hall, featuring Strauss (of Viennese Waltz fame), Mozart (learned the violin at age 3), elegant Ballet dancers, and Opera singers. Also, visited the famous baroque Schoenbrunn Palace, with ONLY 1431 rooms, former home of the Hapsburg Royal Family, and St Stephen’s Cathedral.

Back on the water, marveling at both sides of the Danube, we were on our way to Durnstein, the only “walk off the ship and into the village” stop. At all other stops, we boarded busses to get to our “villages”. Even Durstein wasn’t a short walk off the boat but a long walk up the hill into narrow cobblestone streets. The view of the Danube was spectacular from the site of the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lion Hearted was imprisoned in 1192. Further down the river is Melk whose magnificent Benedictine Abbey, one of Europe’s largest monasteries, dominates the town from its commanding hill site. Both Durstein and Melk were built on hills away from devastating floods in the past at lower levels on the Danube.

Salzburg, home of Mozart and the Sound of Music was our next stop. The bus took us along winding roads with breathtaking views of the Austrian Alps with us all the way, covered with snow. Everything seemed to be Mozart and the Sound of Music.  You can “hear” Mozart’s concertos and “the hills are alive” everywhere we went. Visited Mozart’s birth house, now a museum with his desk on display where he created many of his compositions.  Expected to run into Julie Andrews and the kids at several of the spots where the film was made. The natives weren’t too happy while the film was being made with the constant disruption of traffic and the lack of authenticity.

Austria was under Nazi rule from 1938 until 1945 and Austria, as well as the other Eastern Bloc countries, were split four ways during the allied occupation after Word War II. Each quarter was governed by France, Britain, USA, and Russia. Listening to the history from tour guides, I’m not sure whether or not they think they were liberated or invaded again. And there was very little mention of the significance of the USA in their freedom, during the history “lessons” from the guides or anywhere else.  It seemed that it was “expected” from the USA and no thanks is necessary, like everywhere else in the world… STILL!!!.

On our way to Nuremburg, back on the water, we stopped at Regansburg, one of Germany’s best preserved medieval cities and had a lunch of beer and sausage at Germany’s oldest restaurant (12th Century) Historiche Wurtkuchl (old sausage kitchen). This area is where Pope Benedict XVI was born and grew up and was a professor at the University of Regansburg, and is still on the faculty. We visited the Weltenburg Abbey, founded by Irish and Scottish in 620, and where monks brewed beer 1050.

Nuremburg was one of the highlights of the trip, although more a lowlight. We relived the horrors of the Holocaust and the ambition of Hitler to take over the world from this spot. This was where the Nazi Rally was held annually and the continuous building of the Nazi army, including the grooming of the Hitler youth. He was building Marzfild (March Field) parade grounds, and Deutche Stadion (German Stadium) designed like the Coliseum in Rome and to hold 405,000 people. It never got beyond the foundation work. He also built the mammoth Congress Hall, providing space for 50,000 people, to be the command center for controlling the world. It is now called the Documentation Center and displays all the Nazi documents, plans, films of what might have been. He was a crazy man and had his people brainwashed, including many in neighboring occupied countries. There seems to be a Code of Silence about the past in these countries. They want their past to go back only so far because of the many Nazi sympathizers and their involvement in Nazi atrocities. During that time, neighbors were turning in neighbors and family members were turning in family members, including brainwashed children. Because of its significance as Hitler’s planned command post, Nuremburg was the site of the Nazi trials and location of the Nazi criminal executions, both of which we visited.

We disembarked in Nuremburg after a memorable 7 day cruise down the Danube River, stopping several times along the way visiting the “Old” world with its cobblestone streets and the “New” world of paved streets. The Old world with its gothic and baroque cathedrals, castles, and palaces and the New world with its familiar Hilton Hotel and McDonald’s. The bus took us across the Czech border through the Bohemian Forest, heading for Prague.  Prague is a 1000 year old city preserved in time, with treasures such as the Old Town Astronomical Clock, Hradcany Castle, St. Vitas Cathedral and the famous Charles Bridge.

Our tour finished up with a 3 night stay at the lavish Hilton Hotel (NEW world) with its extravagant buffet breakfast. We attended the famed Prague National Opera House that resembled the famous LaScala in Milan, Italy; we saw Tchaikovsky’s Ballet, The Swan Lake, and we were back there two nights later to see the Opera Madame Butterfly. During the day, we walked more cobblestone streets through Old Town with its unique shops and hand-cut crystal for which is internationally known. We were at the Astronomical Clock “on the hour” to watch the “Walk of the Apostles”, a clockwork hourly show of moving figures of the Apostles and other sculptures, and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. The Astronomical Dial represents the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details. And we can’t forget St. Barbara’s statue on the pedestrian ONLY St. Charles Bridge and also the origin of the Infant of Prague at Our Lady of Victories Church. An unexpected “extra added attraction” at the hotel was the Patriots/Vikings game LIVE on television.

Some European churches tax members in order to be a member of the church; funds are taken out of their pay, along with regular income taxes. The rate varies according to country. Ironically, Hitler imposed the church tax on Austrians to drive them away from the church. It seems to be working TODAY because, of the 75% of Austrian Catholics , only 15% go to church. We encountered several different languages and dialects from Hungary to the Czech Republic but, fortunately, there were many people speaking English, especially the young people. The currency fluctuated from one country to another; the “universal” Euro, the British Pound/Sterling, the Hungarian Forint, the Czech Crown, and the least desired dollar. However, we quickly learned the exchange rates and used the currencies wisely, coming home ONLY with Euro which we exchanged locally for MORE in dollars.

Our final European experience was an extraordinary presentation of Czech and Slovak Folklore Heritage, with dancers, vibrant music, and a traditional Czech dinner. Czech Republic and Slovakia were formerly Czechoslovakia and then split because of cultural differences. After we had overcome the language and currency barriers, we left Europe with more satisfaction and enrichment than we expected. We can now rule off European Cruise from our Bucket List.

Our European experience could have been enhanced if my companions agreed with my suggestion. On the way to Budapest and on the way back home from Prague, we had a three hour layover at Heathrow in London each time. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the layover to see London. An hour or two taxi ride would cover all the major attractions in London, including Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, 10 Downing Street, and London Bridge. I had no takers for various reasons, including being delayed in London, going through security again and, perhaps, missing the flight. I was tempted to go it alone but I may have been so in awe of it and lost all track of time, I could STILL be there. Of course, I was accused of trying to save money to avoid a future trip to London.

January 7, 2011

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