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The International Writers Magazine: European River Cruises

Bratwurst and Sachertorte : Pleasures of the Palate on the Danube
• Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger
Can there be a better place to begin a river cruise than in Nuremberg?  Bavaria`s second largest city, although virtually destroyed during WWII, has been lovingly rebuilt, and is today noted primarily for its Christkindlmarkt (the largest and oldest Christmas market in Europe) and its world-famous Lebkuchen. 

Danube Cruise

But my excitement in having a chance to see Nuremberg at the beginning of a week-long cruise on the Danube on the Amadeus Elegant (one of  Lueftner Reisen`s comfortable boats plying the river) had little to do with Christmas markets.  Of course the splendid cobbled-streets of the Altstadt and its Gothic churches has a certain appeal, but mostly I wanted to see the home of the famous Nuremberg Bratwurst. 

For centuries the citizens of Nuremberg have celebrated their tiny bratwurst, which is generally served by the half-dozen on heart-shaped plates, or drei-im-Weckla (three on a bun) with the accompanying sweet mustard, sauerkraut and potato salad.  About one million of these small sausages are produced here daily and several restaurants, some founded in medieval times, specialize in this fare.
Bratwurst The Nuremberg Bratwurst dates back to the 1300`s and is the subject of legends.  One of these tells the story of Hans Stromer, a town magistrate in the Middle Ages,  who was imprisoned for not being loyal to his city. The one request made by the unlucky man was to be given two Nuremberg sausages every day.  The wish was granted and Hans Stromer ate roughly 37,000 sausages  during his 38 year jail sentence, an unbeaten record to this day.

There are rather strict laws regarding the production of the bratwurst.  In 1997 the Association for the Protection of the Nuremberg Bratwurst was established and this was followed in 2003 by a European Union law where it is stipulated that the tiny sausages must be produced in Nuremberg, be made of lean porc meat with the addition of a certain amount of marjoram, have a length of no more than 7-9 cm.and a weight of under 25 gm. The mixture is then to be stuffed into a sheep`s intestine, the best of which for over the centuries have come to local butchers from Iran.  But inflation and consequent rising prices, as well as the US embargo on Iranian goods, has driven up the cost of producing the casing and hence the bratwurst.
In a recent article in the SPIEGEL, the German political journal, Claus Steiner, a German butcher long in the bratwurst business, was interviewed and confessed that he has been stockpiling sheep intestines in anticipation of further rising costs.  According to Steiner, 90 meters (295 feet) of sausage skins, enough for 1000 tiny bratwurst cost just over  6 Euro in the summer of 2010 but would today fetch nearly three times that amount. 

The story of sausages continues, as we ply down the Danube on the Amadeus Elegant towards Regensburg.  Here, in this former capital of Bavaria, once the hub of Charlemagne`s empire and the seat of the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, we are in a perfectly preserved medieval city with over a thousand buildings of  historical significance.  There are ofcourse other major attractions, such as Regensburger Karmelitengeist, an alcohol-based cure for flatulence  made and sold by Regensburg`s Carmelite monks from their monastery on Alter Kornmarkt square.  The liquid contains 12 herbs and it is said that only two monks know the magic formula.

Regensburg The biggest single attraction of Regensburg besides the cathedral is the Steinerne Bruecke , the famous arched bridge across the Danube built in 1130 and for centuries the only river-crossing between Ulm and Vienna.  Attached to the bridge is the Regensburg Historic Sausage Kitchen, perhaps Germany's oldest restaurant.  It is unmissable because of the all-pervasive smell of  the small grilled wurst.  Supposedly Goethe, Mozart and Haydn were no strangers here.  At their time the best address in town was the White Lamp Hotel just behind the trestle tables of the Sausage Kitchen.  Their choice rooms probably faced the bridge, and so the famous trio must have been tormented day and night by the smell of grilling sausages drifting through their windows. 

After a brief early morning stop in Passau to gaze with awe at the 17,774 pipes of  St.Stephan`s immense organ, the largest in the world , we continued our Danube journey on the much expanded Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, heaving downriver into the confluence of the Inn and the Danube.  But sadly we must now leave behind the land of sausages as we  head into Austrian torte country.

Our next stop is Linz, the largest city in Upper Austria, once the country`s most famous port. The docks here were built after Austria-Hungary was forced to give up its seaport, Trieste, as a result of WWI.  Thereafter  the Danube became the focus of shipping and the Linz shipyards picked up most of the business.  But today Linz is better known for exporting its Linzer Torte, a tart made of short crumbly pastry, filled with raspberry jam and covered by a lattice of dough strips.  Many imitations of this famous cake have been attempted but confectioner Jindrak claims to reproduce the original which may be bought at the Hauptplatz or on-line (jindrak@linzertorte.at).

The next stretch of the Danube is probably the loveliest and is considered one of the finest landscapes in all Europe.  The Wachau riverbanks are studded with castles and family-owned vineyards from which comes the Gruener Veteliner grape and wine, Austria's best known white variety and the star of the wine industry.  More than one-third of all Austrian vineyards cultivate the Gruener Veteliner grape which grows on the steep-terraced granite shores of the Danube riverbanks.  Although we can taste the famous wine here, there might be a better selection of the young wine to be had later on our cruise in the many Heurigen taverns in Grinzing

An unusual sky-blue and white Baroque monastic church adorns the shore of the town of Duernstein, the centre of the Wachau.  The apricot is king here and you can purchase everything imaginable made from the famous fruit which in 1996 came under EU protection.  

Above Duernstein stand the ruins of a hilltop castle where Richard the Lionhearted was supposedly  imprisoned by the Habsburg Emperor Leopold for his racuous behaviour on the front-line.   To find him Blondel, Richard`s faithful troubadour, sang his master`s favourite ballads outside every castle until the prisoner finally joined in the singing.

The baroque ochre-coloured Benedictine Abbey of Melk is situated on a steep hill overlooking the Danube and is for many the highlight of a Danube River cruise.   The original 11th century structure was completely redone in the early 18th century and was at times the home of Emperor Charles VI, Maria Theresa and Napoleon.  The Abbey church is most elaborately decorated and the library is full of glorious frescoes and 85,000  ancient manuscripts. 

After Melk we enter the serious torte-and-coffee country.  Coffee has played an important part in Vienna.  It was introduced in the late 17th century  by retreating Turkish troops, who left behind sacks of the brown beans in 1683. Thus, was born the tradition of the coffee house,  an institution which took firm root on Habsburg soil. Before WW II, more than 600 of these delightful meeting places could be found in Vienna.  Many of my fellow passengers on board the Amadeus Elegant intended to spend their day in Vienna visiting some of the city`s magnificient coffee houses,  Demels or the Landmann, the Central or the Hawelka, or perhaps even the Sacher.

The coffee house was an extension of civilized life, a place to discuss politics,  literature and music. One was free to think, to dream, or to write or....  just to sit and  watch the world go by drinking mocha and eating a delightful cake, perhaps a Sacher Torte, a rich chocolate cake with apricot jam, or a Demel Torte, a concoction of chocolate and nougat, or a glorious Apfel Strudel.

We were still dreaming of the pastry and cakes of Vienna during our visit to Bratislava but now began also to anticipate the delicacies awaiting us on our next and final stop in Budapest, the only capital city on our route which truly straddles the Danube.  Once safely anchored, many of my fellow travellers  continued their rounds of Viennese-style coffee houses found here as in other towns of the old Habsburg Empire like Prague, Cracow and Lvov (Lemberg).

 There is a legend told that one of the Budapest coffee houses became so popular that a customer stole the keys to the front door to keep his favourite cafe from ever closing. Before WW II there were hundreds of these coffee houses in  Budapest  but the Communists had no time for such free-thinking frivolity and swept them away.  In more recent times some have been restored such as the baroque New York cafe where  it was said `time and space were consumed but only the coffee appeared on the bill`. The most famous of the Budapest coffee houses like Gerbeaud, the Central, the New York and Ruszwurm now draw large numbers of tourists.

And for those passengers who were unable to visit at least one of the many coffee houses in Vienna and Budapest,  our marvelous in-house baker made a wonderful Hungarian Dobostorta (a five- layered sponge cake filled with chocolate buttercream and topped with a thin carmelized icing), an Ischler, a cake made of two shortbread biscuits with an apricot filling the whole dipped in dark chocolate.  and an Esterhazytorta, a whirl of  chocolate buttercream between layers of almond meringue.

If You Go :  Lueftner Reisen/Menardi Center, Amraser See Strasse 56, A-6020
Innsbruck, Austria  Tel 43 512 365781  info@lueftnerreisen.com
The new Lueftner Amadeus fleet, eleven elegant river cruise ships, ply many of the important waterways of Europe and the world.  I sailed on the Classic Danube Cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest on the Amadeus Elegant, with prices starting at 1603 Euro.

© Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger December 2012
e.merklinger (at) sympatico.ca

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