After checking in to our Scenic “Ruby” riverboat and getting settled in the cabin with the help of our own butler for the fifteen days of the cruise, we joined the other 167 travelers for a briefing. Before we knew it, we had cocktails in our hands, looking for a seat and munching on goodies placed on the tables. The cruise director welcomed everyone and caused a lot of laughter with his own brand of humor. He told us the do’s and don’ts while on the cruise. Lots of people were ecstatic about the fact that the drinks all day and evening were free. I would say, not really ‘free’ because we paid ahead of time, and drinks, excursions, and tips were advertised as included. For the next two weeks, we didn’t need any cash or credit card money. Most of the guests were from Australia (Scenic Cruises is an Australian company), the second largest group was from the UK, then Germany. We were about a dozen Canadians. Seating for meals was open, but the team of eight from our Probus Club in British Columbia stayed together for the dinners. I could tell you funny stories of our and other people – but this blog is not about people but the cruise.
Casting off before dusk, gliding along the (not blue!) Danube, passing under the magnificent bridge between Buda and Pest, by the incredibly beautiful and lit up Parliament Building and Margaret Island, we had a three-course Hungarian dinner, red and white Hungarian wine and musical entertainment with Hungarian folk dancers.
We arrived in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, the next morning. A fortress on a hill, castles, many other large buildings, and domed churches formed the magnificent skyline. At one time in history, it had been the Royal city of the King of Hungary. Almost a dozen queens and kings were crowned here. The Habsburg Emperor was also King of Hungary, though not at the same time. Bratislava was thriving during the 18. Century under the Empress Maria Theresia. More Austrians and Germans lived there than Slovakians. It became part of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the great war and the fall of the Empires, and it got its independence in 1993.
At each stop on the way to Amsterdam, we had a choice of three excursions. Here, in Bratislava, we decided to join a trip to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. We enjoyed an impromptu concert at the cobblestone plaza, we wandered the alleys, stopped for an ice cream in a typical Czech restaurant, didn’t understand a word spoken, decided to do the strenuous hike up to the old castle, and we loved the view from up there. After an exciting evening on our floating hotel, we were on our way to Vienna to enjoy Austrian food and wine.
It was great to have two days in Vienna, this world-renowned city; the city of art, music and elegant living. The souls of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and many other famous musicians live on in Vienna; the first waltz, considered a sinful dance, composed by Johann Strauss was danced here. Many years ago, when I was visiting Vienna for the first time, I had met the Grandson of one of the Strauss composers in Grinzing, a romantic part of the city known for its wine drinking cozy establishments. He invited me into the Strauss home for Sunday afternoon coffee, and I touched the Grand piano that two Johann Strauss men had composed on. I was desperate to find my friends again, checked the Vienna telephone book, phoned several Strauss names, I asked many people who might know of them, but to no avail. A city tour is a must; lots of walking in the inner city with lots of pedestrian-only narrow streets, and visiting the famous coffee houses and sampling the many Vienna cake specialties will tire you out. I desperately wanted to see the Lipizzaner horses, possibly a show, but the building was closed. All I could see were posters with pictures to die for. Interesting was the evening concert and ballet offered by the count of Liechtenstein in his Vienna Palais. A champagne reception and little canapés preceded it. If you read my book ‘Forget Me Not’ you know I had met him once before in his castle garden in Liechtenstein. (page 99, story “I own this Joint.”)
Our highlight on day two was the visit to the Schönbrunn Palace. Every person on our guided tour through the palace was overwhelmed by the art, the richness of the décor and the luxury the Habsburg Emperor family had enjoyed in Schönbrunn, it only being their summer retreat. The extensive gardens were fashioned after the ones in Versaille. To my surprise, our tour guide pressed her ‘lollipop’ sign into my hands before hurrying off to get our tickets. While waiting for her return, many of the group turned to me with questions, even people from other groups. I tried as well as I could to pretend I was ‘cool’ with being a tour guide.
I would like to spend more time in Vienna, live their lifestyle for a few weeks or months, maybe even during a whole winter with a chance to visit the Burgtheater (castle theater) where many famous actors, conductors, and singers perform. I had met a new man-friend about fifteen years ago, who promised to take me to the Vienna New Year’s Ball. It was almost impossible to get tickets for the ball a year in advance, but he said: “I have my ways.” I bought a stunning evening gown, and it is still hanging in my closet. Sadly, our friendship didn’t develop into what he had hoped. One of Vienna’s winter highlights is the New Years Concert, broadcast from Vienna and now copied by Symphony Orchestra in many cities of North America.
Join me as we continue the cruise through romantic ancient towns of Austria towards Germany in Part three.