Down the Blue Danube (sometimes)

Many Americans are in denial about climate change, particularly those of us in the Northeast,  because they have yet to feel the effects of the extreme weather patterns taking place in other parts of the country, and all over the world.  Here in NY we had a summer that alternated between extreme heat and heavy rain.  It was unpleasant, but it wasn't dangerous.  The west coast wasn't so lucky as droughts brought the right conditions for wildfires.  The south suffered the effects of warming oceans causing hurricanes.

My complaint is small potatoes compared to what other parts of the world have suffered, but for my vacation, I had a direct experience with the effects of global warming.  Nobody was harmed, but many were inconvenienced.

We had the warnings.  Two or three weeks before our trip Kevin and I both saw notices online about the summer droughts causing low water levels in the Danube.  If the water levels are too low, ships can't pass.  River cruise companies have to come up with alternate methods of providing passengers with their tours so they won't demand a refund.  We knew this.  Viking, the company we sailed with, was reticent to say anything.  They made sure to warn us of the possibilities when it was too late to cancel.  They covered the rear and expected us to go along with whatever happened.

Did we have a bad vacation?  No.  We had some special experiences.   We met many fun people.  It's just painful to think of what our cruise could have been and what we could have seen and done if it hadn't been for that low river.

Day 1+
We had a Friday afternoon flight so Mom, Kevin, and I left for the airport at midday and headed to JFK to meet up with Eleanor, Arlene, and Janice.  We had no issues with getting to the airport or dealing with security.  We had to fly to Paris and then take a connecting flight to Nuremberg.  I think I was awake for 24 hours that day.  The flight was at 4:30, so it was still early evening NY time once the meal was served.  I decided to watch a movie (finally saw Frozen in its entirety - my unpopular opinion is that it was overrated despite the fact that it passed the Bechdel Test).  It was still too early for bedtime NY time and I wasn't tired, so I watched another movie.  At that point there were only two hours left in the flight, so even though it was bedtime, I stopped trying.

There was one small wrench in the works here.  I was getting sick.  The sore throat was coming on Thursday night.  It felt worse by Friday morning.  The sniffles followed while I was on the plane.  This cold would be my traveling companion for the entire trip.

We arrived in Paris early in the morning.  We had to get a wheelchair and an escort for Eleanor since she can't walk far due to a bad back. When I went to Paris in 2010 I didn't find the stereotype about rude French people to be true.  It was true at the airport this trip.  Arlene accompanied Eleanor and the rest of us were separated until it was time for the flight.  The airport employees handling the situation were not nice.  We were told they wouldn't announce our departure gate until a half hour before boarding, so we were stuck in one holding area waiting for the announcement while Eleanor and Arlene were held elsewhere.

 Eventually we got on the plane to Nuremberg and there were no complications.  We had a Viking representative meet us as soon as we disembarked.  We were herded onto the bus to the cruise ship and our adventure began.

We boarded the ship, The Viking Gullveig, quickly.  Many passengers took an additional side trip to Prague before the cruise and had not returned, so there was no line to board.  This was so much easier than boarding an ocean cruise.  While it wasn't quite so simple as Julie McCoy directing us to our room with a clipboard, we didn't have to go through multiple levels of security or wait to have our photo taken before we were allowed on the ship.

We settled in our room and unpacked.  The room was tiny, but it was well laid out.  We didn't lack for storage in either our stateroom or our bathroom.  We had a large balcony that we almost never used.

We met up with the family for lunch on the Aquavit Terrace, the more casual dining option.  I was exhausted by this point and my cold was making me miserable, so after lunch I went back to my room, took a cold pill, and slept away the afternoon.

I learned it's important to never miss the cocktail hour in the lounge before dinner.  Even if you don't want a drink, the time before dinner is when cruise director Deborah (think of a middle-aged, somewhat heavier, Welsh, Julie McCoy) made all announcements and kept everyone informed of departure times for the next day's excursions.  It's hard to not have a drink while you're up there, which is helpful for the ship.   Beverages are included with meals, but not at other times.  They must make a fortune on booze.

After dinner there was a klezmer band in the lounge.  This was the only night we had specialized entertainment.  Most nights we just had a piano player.  After dinner entertainment is another way to squeeze passengers for cocktails.

Day 2
We woke up to find the ship docking in Nuremberg.  It was a beautiful, sunny day, like most days we had for the course of the trip. (The positive side of the drought was the beautiful sunny warm weather we had for the entire trip.  It was quite a contract from our Amsterdam trip last year.)   We had two choices to view the city.  We could either do a tour that only focused on World War II or one that focused on the entire history of the city.  The latter one was free and focused on more areas of the city, so that's what we chose.

We started out in a coach driving around and learning the story of the city from Roman times to Medieval times to World War II and the reconstruction.  Nuremberg is one of the few cities in Europe that still maintains its old fortifying walls.  You can see sections of them when you drive around.  We also drove by the Zeppelin Field, where Hitler used to hold his rallies.  We saw the podium where he stood to speak.  It was chilling.  We didn't stop the bus to get out and take pictures.  Those who took the WWII tour were able to do that.  I regretted taking the free tour when I found that out.

We left the bus and walked up to the castle hill.  The fortification of the castle was fascinating.  The moat is dry.  If any attackers wanted to enter, there were small slits at the base of the wall where defenders could attack invaders from beneath.  The bridge that crossed the moat wasn't straight and was also steep.  This was to make it difficult to attack the front gate with a battering ram because the curve and the grade made it difficult to run with any speed.  Once you enter the gate, you pass beneath a tunnel that has "murder holes" over the top where attackers could drop rocks or hot coals or bodily fluids onto any invaders.

There is a beautiful view from the top of the castle grounds.  Our guide showed us just how much the city had to be rebuilt after World War II.  So much was destroyed. When you tour historic sites in Europe, you are often seeing exact replicas, rather than originals.  Humans like to destroy stuff.

Nuremberg was the home of Albrecht Durer and his house stands and is a museum.  There is a bizarre rabbit statue in the market square to commemorate his famous rabbit painting.  Rabbits are a common decor theme in Germany thanks to Durer.

We had some free time to explore the area after the tour including the cathedral.  It was Sunday so most stores were closed, but there was an interesting open-air crafts market in the main square near the church of Our Lady.  I am a sucker for beautiful tableware and many of the stalls featured beautiful pottery.  I refrained from buying any.  It's too risky to cart that stuff home.

After our tour we returned to the ship, relaxed on the upper deck, and enjoyed a scenic trip down the Danube Main-Danube Canal (a canal that connects the two rivers).  It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed watching our ship go through the locks.  Sometimes the locks would fill up with water and we would be elevated to the next level.  Sometimes the water would drain out of the locks and we would be lowered down to go under a doorway.

That night at cocktail hour there were no scary announcements. They introduced the captain and the crew.  So far everything was normal.  We were set to dock in Regensberg the next morning with no issues.

Day 3
We were docking in Regensburg when I woke up in the morning.  Regensberg is at the end of the canal so we were officially on the Danube.  The ship docked right in town, so we had easy access to the city.

I didn't know too much about Regensberg before the trip.  (I know Pope Benedict came from there, but I had forgotten that fact before my tour guide reminded me.)  It's a city with a long and rich history.  The earliest buildings in the city date back to ancient Rome.  The remains of an old fortress are embedded in one particular building.  There are praetorian style buildings throughout the city, some with Roman art.  Some of the structures were built in the 12th century, such as its old stone bridge connecting it to the nearby town.

Our tour focused on the Jewish history of the city as well.  There was a thriving Jewish community in the city until the 16th century.  At this time there was a pogrom and the Jews were expelled.  The synagogue was destroyed and a church was built near the ruins.  The Jews did return to the city, but the Nazis destroyed their synagogue (although it was falling down).

One of the most disturbing aspects of the pogrom was the cemeteries were destroyed as well.  The city residents used the graves as building materials.  Some tombstones can still be seen embedded in the walls of the buildings.

Another horrible example on the outside of the cathedral where there small frieze on one column depicting Jewish children nursing on a sow.

Oskar Schindler had a home in Regensberg and it is noted on a plaque.  There are also bricks among the cobblestones to memorialize people lost in the Holocaust.

Archaeologists  found the ruins of the original temple.  There is a courtyard built on top of them called the Meeting Place to honor the memory. The church that was built to replace the ruined temple is now a major supporter of the construction of a new synagogue.

Once our tour was over we had the afternoon free to explore.   I had to go inside and check out the art and architecture of the cathedral.  Then it was all about the shopping.  Regensberg has many beautiful shops selling locally made clothing.  There is a store called Hat King (Hut Konig) that sells many locally made beautiful hats.  I admit I indulged in a bit of retail therapy.

We walked across the stone bridge at the end of the day just to get some views of the river and of the town of  Stadtamhof and returned to the ship.  It was a good day, but the evening's news would not be so good.

During the evening briefing Deborah informed us that the water levels were too low for our ship to continue to the next port of Passau, a city on the Austrian border.  Instead we would dock in the remote town of Straubing and do our Passau tours from there.  The next day the cruise line would take us into Austria by motor coach and another ship would take us down the Danube in a different port.  

Kevin and I hadn't planned to spend the day in Passau.  We booked a tour of Salzburg.  The bus ride to Salzburg was supposed to be two hours away from Passau.  It was over three hours from Straubing.  It was a major inconvenience.  We didn't want to cancel because it was an expensive excursion and Kevin's mother had paid for it as a gift to us.  

We can't say we weren't warned.  All we could do was go with the flow.  The ship left for Straubing that night.

Day 4
Straubing doesn't look like a cruise port.  It appears to be in the middle of nowhere.  The center of town is a couple of miles away (and the town isn't that interesting).  Deborah advised everyone not to stay on the ship and take the scheduled excursions or we would all be bored.  Kevin and I boarded the coach for Salzburg and hoped the long ride wouldn't be too tedious.

We arrived in Salzburg in less time than we expected.  It's a beautiful city.  We started out walking through the Mirabell Gardens and then into the heart of the old town.  Our guide covered everything from Roman times to Mozart to World War II to the university to The Sound of Music.  

For years The Sound of Music was outlawed in Austria.  It was considered a Nazi movie and Austrians disowned it without knowing the plot.  They are slowly embracing it now and Salzburg is happy to make money off the publicity.  

After the beautiful Mirabell Gardens we viewed the building that was Mozart's birthplace.  Then we walked across the river and saw some beautiful view of the old town.   Once we were in old town we saw Mozart's childhood home before heading to the St. Peter's Abbey complex.

We spent a large chunk of the time in Abbey complex.  The cathedral was badly damaged in World War II and it's interesting to look at since the back half was rebuilt and looks rather boring, but the facade was saved.  

The Abbey is a thriving place with its own bakery and restaurant.  During our free time we explored the Cathedral.  Then Kevin took a break and I explored the cemetery grounds. 

This was the area where the Von Trapps hid from the Nazis during their escape in The Sound of Music.  Above the cemetery were the catacombs.  These caves carved into the hillside provided some beautiful views and also contained some old chapels (one that is still in use).  There was a creepy feel about the place, but I loved the sense of history despite that.  There was a viewing platform at the midpoint of the cave complex.

The inside of the cathedral was as beautiful as all European cathedrals tend to be.  

We went down into the crypt and saw this strange display of shadow figures on the wall.  Not sure what it meant.  I have been trying to look it up, but have had no luck. 

They served lunch at the Abbey restaurant complete with a Sound of Music show.  It was a bit hokey, but I will admit the performers were talented and did a good job.  The lunch was a little dull, but they served bread from the bakery.  It was delicious.  It might have been the best bread I ever ate.  I wished I could have brought some home.  

I wished we had some time to visit the fortress, but it would have taken all our free time and Kevin wasn't sure if the funicular would trigger a dizzy spell.

This is the problem with cruises.  You get such limited time in interesting places and it's impossible to view as much as you would like to see.

Both the woman who manned the donation booth at the church and the man who sold tickets at the catacombs asked me if I needed a Spanish language brochure.  I thought that was funny.  I joked with the ticket guy about that and he said blond Austrians think dark-haired Spanish people are beautiful and exotic.  People want me to be Spanish.

We returned to Straubing at the end of the day.  Dinner that night had an Austrian buffet and we had some Austrian-themed entertainment during and after dinner.  Then we had to pack our bags because it was time to disembark the Viking Gullveig and board a new ship the next day.

Day 5
After breakfast we left our ship and boarded a bus again to take us back across the Austrian border.  

The most interesting part of our ride was our stop at a highway rest stop.  I have never seen a highway rest stop like this one.  There was a market full of fresh food.  It was almost like a small supermarket.  The restaurant looked like a real restaurant and not like a Denny's.  The bathrooms were clean (although you had to pay for them).  The area behind it was all fields and country roads.  There was even a small apple orchard. The gift shop sold merchandise people with taste might consider buying.  Some of my fellow travelers and I thought we should go into business opening Austrian-style rest stops across the United States.  It is world's apart from the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the Jersey Turnpike. 

Our coach ride came to an end at the town of Ypps.  It was a pretty spot.  There was a lovely riverside park one side of the road and on the other side there was a beautiful old building that we learned was part of a psychiatric hospital.  I'd go insane if it meant living in that building.  

Our new ship, the Viking Egil arrived almost at the same time we did.  We were able to board and have lunch.  The ship's layout was identical to the one we just left, so we were in the same stateroom and nothing had changed except the staff.

The ship departed for our next port of Krems after lunch.  We had two choices.  We could either take the excursion to Gottweig Abbey or else stay on the ship and relax on the scenic cruise along the Wachau Valley.  Deborah recommended staying on the ship because it would have the best views.  Even though they Abbey would be another hour of driving, I was tired of sitting on boats and buses and wanted to get out and walk around somewhere.  Kevin and his family stayed on the boat while Mom and I went to the Abbey.

We didn't miss any of the beautiful scenery on the Abbey tour.  We drove alongside the river through the Wachau Valley to reach our destination.  We were up close among the beautiful terraced vineyards and apricot orchards.  We also drove through the charming little towns in the hillside.  The downside was that we couldn't take many pictures on a moving bus.  I did manage to take photos of Melk Abbey at the beginning of the tour and some of the fortresses and castles along the route, but not all of them.  We saw the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned, but it was on the other side of the river and there was no way of taking a photo.  

The valley is so stunning Mom commented it doesn't look real. 

Gottveig Abbey sits at the top of a hill and has majestic views.  The grounds contain beautiful wooded trails (you can walk to Spain from there is you have three years to spare), vineyards, and apricot orchards.  They make their own wine from the grapes as well as wine and liqueurs from their special breed of apricots.  There is a restaurant and a hostel as well.  Our guide  (an Australian married to an Austrian - that's a couple for the ages) took us through the museum, which contains some books from the massive monastery library (the library itself isn't open to the public)  from the 6th Century and a beautiful baroque staircase with ceiling frescoes.  Other rooms contained some historical works of art pertinent to the history of the property.  We walked through the church and enjoyed some beautiful sunset views of the courtyard and the valley.  

Our tour finished with a wine tasting and some time in the gift shop.  I had to indulge in a few bottles to take home. 

We returned to the ship for dinner and prepared to sail to Vienna for a full day.

Day 6

If I had to pick a favorite day on this cruise, it would be hard to make a choice between Regensberg and Vienna.  The one disadvantage of Vienna is our ship docked far away from the city center.  That made it harder to explore Vienna the way we explored Regensberg.  We spent the morning taking the ship's free tour of the major sites such as the museum quarter and the parliament building.  It was no surprise that Vienna is full of concert halls.  Our tour consisted of along talk of the history of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and ended at the Hofburg Palace.  

Mom, Kevin, and I used our post-tour free time to explore some of the churches near the main square.  We went into St. Stephen's Cathedral first.  It was huge and dark and there were many men outside dressed as Mozart trying to sell tickets to local concerts.  Then we checked out the smaller church of St. Peter's.  Our guide advised us to check out St. Michael's but there was a mass going on, so we were unable to view it.

We had lunch at an outdoor cafe in the palace courtyard.  We decided to skip the savory stuff.  We were in Vienna and there is only one thing you want to eat in Vienna.  We filled ourselves up on cake and strudel and washed it down with hot chocolate.

After lunch we went for the highlight of our time in Vienna.  We booked a tour to the Spanish Riding School.

They have two types of tours at the SRS.  You can watch the horses and riders do their morning exercises in the Great Hall, or you can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the stables and grounds (or you can do both in one day) in the afternoon.  We wanted to see the city, so we decided to do the ship's bus tour in the morning and the behind-the-scenes tour in the afternoon.  I wondered if we were better off watching the morning exercises and then taking the tour of Shonbrunn Palace in the afternoon (it cost extra to do that).  Eleanor, Arlene, and Janice did the Palace tour and said it was rushed and not worth the money, so it seems we made the right choice.

 After lunch we met up with a tour group at the SRS.  Our guide led us through the summer exercise area, the tack room, the stables, and the Great Hall.   She talked about the history of the school and the breeding and training of the horses and riders.  In the tack room we saw both the schooling tack and the performance tack.  We weren't allowed to take photos in the stables, which was disappointing since it was so cool seeing these magnificent horses just chilling in their stalls like any other
horse.  We were told it was forbidden to feed, pet, hug, or kiss the horses.  I laughed at the long list of stuff we weren't supposed to do because it was clear the staff knows horse people well.

During lunch Mom commented on what a dream trip Austria had been so far.  While Kevin and I were in Salzburg, she went to a Bavarian Beer Fest at an equestrian facility where the kind owner gave her a tour of the stables and introduced her to the horses.  She loved the drive through the Wachau Valley that she said was unreal in its beauty.  Then in Vienna she was sitting in the cafe eating the best strudel she ever ate while horses pulled carriages all around her (many carriage horses in Salzburg and Vienna are Lipizzaners who didn't make the cut for the SRS) and called it the perfect day.  Does that sound like ironic foreshadowing? *cue ominous music*

We returned to the ship by taxi and enjoyed the rest of the beautiful, warm, sunny day.  We relaxed on the upper deck with some wine and awaited the cocktail hour and evening announcements.  That's when the trip took another bad turn.

At the evening briefing Deborah announced that we hit another low spot in the river.  The water levels were so low in Hungary that the border was closed.  Nobody could go in or out.  We would have to disembark once again.  The cruising part of our cruise was over.  We had to pack our bags again and board a coach in the morning.  Viking would drive us to Budapest by bus and we would have to stay in a hotel for our last night.

That night we went to a Mozart and Strauss concert performed by a small ensemble at one of Vienna's concert halls.  There were some comedy bits along with the music and two ballet dancers performed as well.  It was a pleasant evening, but the changes to the itinerary cast a pall over the evening.

Day 7
The drive to Budapest took close to four hours, so we had limited time in the city.  We would not be able to take the excursions we booked and paid for.  Kevin and I booked a city hike in the morning and tour of one of major food markets with the ship's chef in the afternoon.  All of that was canceled.  After lunch at a restaurant our only tour was a bus tour that went to Castle Hill.  It was great to see that, but I had hoped to see more.

Our guide walked us around the castle complex and took us through the cathedral.  We took photos of the views during our short free time and then we were herded back on to the bus to our hotel.  The hotel was mediocre, but it was the only hotel that had rooms.  Budapest was filled with cruise passengers stuck in the city the way we were.  After dinner I took a walk along the river for some night photos and that was it.  Vacation ended with a whimper.

Day 8
More bus transfers and plane transfers.  We flew from Budapest to Paris and from Paris back home.  At least it was an uneventful flight. (This time I watched Coco on the way home.  This was a far superior movie to Frozen.  Highly recommend.)  We were even able to go through immigration at JFK is less time than it usually takes.

Now that it's over, I am reluctant to ever take a river cruise again.  I'm not convinced Viking gave us the best alternatives for dealing with the water level issues.  I also think they weren't completely honest with us before the cruise.  They credited the cost of the unused excursions to our bar bill and sent us a 50% off voucher for our next cruise, but I doubt we will use it.  Viking cruises are for retired people.  They don't offer many active options and the itineraries are long.  The Danube trip was only 8 days, but many of their cruises are 10 days or more.  It's just not practical.

Viking has its strong points.  Even though our room was small, it was comfortable and laid out well.  We had plenty of storage for our stuff in the room and in the bathroom.  The staff was mostly friendly and efficient.  Occasionally we had a server in the restaurant or the bar who was a bit surly or slow, but it was rare.  Deborah made a good effort to keep things running smoothly despite the river disasters.  (She said Julie McCoy was a huge influence on her.)

The food wasn't great.  I never had a bad meal, but I never had a really memorable or delicious meal.  I would say the food was good enough and that's it.  It's no better than the food on a mass market ocean liner.  Considering what Viking cruises cost, it should have been much better.  One thing I did like was that they always had cookies at the coffee station,

I would have liked a gym on the ship as well.  I know river ships are small for a pool, but a Jacuzzi would have been nice.  Viking is one of the only river cruises that doesn't have a gym. Again, I think this is because Viking caters to an older, less active audience.  The typical Viking cruiser thinks whatever walking you do on an excursion is enough activity.

 For what Viking costs, it should offer more.  I had a good time, but I am not impressed with Viking in general.


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