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The International Writers Magazine: Europe Cruising

Cruising Europe: A Once in a Lifetime Trip
• Tom Peters
It was a simple reminder with such powerful overtones. It was dark. It was tragic. It was something that safe North Americans should experience. Sixty pairs of shoes, some for men, some for women, some for evening wear, some for children, and boots for everyday working people. Bronzed and permanently attached to the river wall lining the Danube in Budapest.

Shoes Monument

In the shadow of the massive Parliament buildings across the street, it was a Holocaust reminder and memorial to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who died in the Second World War at the hands of the Germans. Many brought to the wall, lined up and shot. Their lifeless bodies dropping into the Danube and drifting like deadwood down river.

On a warm late September afternoon, this was the start of what turned out to be a never-to-be-forgotten, 15-day river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, the Grand European tour of over 1,800 kilometres through five countries and along three rivers – Danube, Main and the Rhine. 

The shoes on the Danube wall would become a bookend to a trip that snaked its way through the countryside of Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany and The Netherlands. The other bookend of this once in a lifetime journey, was the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The museum is Frank’s actual hiding place and chronicles her days of hiding from the Germans during the Second World War and displays her actual diary and other notes she wrote during those days. It was deeply moving.

Bamberg Sandwiched in between these extraordinary highlights, were the sights and sounds and tales of several cities, towns and villages regaled to visitors who came to get a taste of Europe, some for the first time and others whose appetites for this part of the world  were not quite satisfied from previous visits.

Many of the names were familiar – Budapest, Vienna, Cologne, Nuremberg and Amsterdam while others not so familiar like Melk, Passau, Bamberg, Regensburg and Kinderdijk.   

The cruise started in Budapest, Hungary’s capital for which there were some preconceived notions on my part that it was maybe a cold, dark city that had lived through centuries of uprisings and turbulence and may still be dwelling on that history. That thought was never so far from the truth. Budapest, referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Danube’, as I was to learn, is split by the Danube into “Buda”, the old and hillier side of the city which offers immense views of the city and river, and “Pest” considered the livelier centre of this modern sprawling metropolis. A beautiful, clean place with its Heroes’ Square, museums, architecture and history, it proved to be a harbinger of the many stops we would make along the way.

We left Budapest full of stories about St. Stephen the state founder, in the early evening on our vessel Viking Prestige, sailing past the massive, stately Parliament buildings, brightly lit for all to see and leaving an indelible image.

Viking Our vessel, unlike massive ocean cruise ships that accommodate 3,000 passengers and 1,500 crew, was a three-deck ‘longship’ with a glorious top sundeck comfortable for reading, walking, sunbathing or sipping an afternoon cocktail. It's designed to handle the shallow waters of the rivers, to fit into the 68 locks we encountered and had deck chairs, side railings, sunroofs and the captain’s bridge that protruded from the sundeck, all collapsible so the vessel could slide very slickly under the dozens of low bridges that spanned the rivers.

The vessel accommodated less than 200 passengers and the cabins, food, the amenities, the service, and in particular, the entire staff, were five star.

On our third day, around noon, we slipped into the dock at Bratislava. The guided, walking tour in the afternoon pointed out many of the city’s grand features – St. Martin’s Cathedral, Michael’s Gate, aristocratic palaces and the baroque Jesuit Church.

This was just a warm-up for what was to follow the next day, Vienna in all its magnificent glory. Again, grand palaces and churches, narrow cobblestone streets and a real sense of old Europe.

The streets were alive with people shopping in many trendy outlets but also out enjoying the open-air cafes which we soon discovered seemed to be engrained in the culture of each and every community. People, scarves fashionably draped around their necks, sitting out sipping their coffee or savouring some famous mouthwatering strudel or maybe their wine of choice and chatting.

The highlight of Vienna for me was an optional event, an evening performance by the Vienna Residence Orchestra, a world-renown chamber orchestra that performed with opera singers and ballet dancers in one of Vienna’s most beautiful palaces. The mesmerizing performances of Mozart and Strauss classics were so incredible to hear and watch even for this old rock n’ roll fan.

Our trip took us through the Wachau Valley, the heart of Austrian wine country, for a short stay in Melk and a visit to its 900 year-old abbey perched high on the cliffs overlooking the Danube. Then on into Germany and the town of  Passau. Don’t miss the Bishop’s Residenz, the 14th century town hall and 17th century St. Stephan’s Cathedral which houses Europe’s largest pipe organ.  The narrow cobblestone streets gave credence to some of my prior impressions of Europe.

Nurnberg Nuremberg, rebuilt after over 90 per cent of the city had been destroyed during the war, was a visit of mixed emotions. The initial fascination for this 13th century medieval walled city and its many beautiful trees and parks became slightly curbed by the history of the pre-war Nazis and the large unfinished coliseum that played host to pre-war rallies. Again, reminders of more evil times. 

It was then onto Bamberg through the Main-Danube Canal. Roughly 160 kilometres long, the canal took centuries to complete having been started by Charlemagne in 793 and finally finished in 1992.

Wurzburg, with its impressive Lion’s Bridge, had its massive and impressive baroque Bishops’ Residence, one of Germany’s largest and most ornate. Wertheim was like a storybook village with its medieval townscape, open air market and where the art of glassblowing dates back several generations. On the way to Koblenz we cruised through German wine country and around every bend there seemed to been yet another castle standing sentry over the villages and towns below.

Famous Cologne, home of the modern day perfume (cologne) manufactured over 300 years ago by a man named Farina. His ancestors still produce many fragrances. On your tour you’ll pass by an active archaeological dig of an unearthed jewish community dating back hundreds of years and marvel at a massive Gothic cathedral where construction began in 1248 and finally completed in 1880.

Your first stop in The Netherlands is Kinderdijk, a region of the old traditional but still working windmills. The setting is such you almost expect to see little Dutch children running about the fields wearing their wooden shoes. In reality this was an educational stop where we learned about the windmills and their role in flood management in this low-lying country.

Amsterdam was our last port of call and we extended our stay for three extra days. The Anne Frank Museum and a boat tour of the canal system were definite highlights. Amsterdam is busy and struck me as a young person’s town with its very open and liberal atmosphere. And when you are out walking, beware of the bikes as much as the cars. Bikes are a major mode of transportation in this historic city of museums, restaurants, tree-lined streets and lots of shopping.
Red Light

Oh! And don’t forget the city’s famous Red Light District…And for the record, I didn’t buy anything, just did a little window shopping.

© Tom Peters Jan 2013
(Tom lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia,
Email: tomapeters(at)bellaliant.net

See Also:
Bratwurst & 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?  Today its Christkindlmarkt (the largest and oldest Christmas market in Europe)

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