Budapest-Amsterdam River Cruise – Final Chapter

You may never have heard of the “Main River” in Germany.  Compared to the other large rivers like the Rhine, the Elbe and the Oder it does not flow the same way. Those start in the south of Germany and make their way towards the North Sea or the Baltic Sea. The 330 mile long Main River cuts across Germany through Franconia, a beautiful area with gems of cities not to be missed. Canals with almighty locks connect this hardly known river with the Danube. The last part of the impressive canal was only completed in 1992. It provides an international waterway connecting Rotterdam at the North Sea with Konstanca on the Black Sea.

We visited many of the pretty, fairy-tale towns along the Main. Since Scenic Cruise Lines has electrically assisted bikes for more adventurous guests, about thirty chose to ride next to the ship and meet up at the next stop. Arriving in the area of the modern metropole of Frankfurt we again had a choice of excursions. We elected Heidelberg, the oldest and most famous university town in Germany. At one time in my life I had to lecture there, needed to go to a hairdresser, they talked me into a color rinse, and my hair turned out red. RED! I hated it – but it couldn’t be changed until it washed out over the next four weeks. We had also read the fabulous ‘Schellendorf’ series of books by Lynn Alexander, set in Heidelberg. We tried to find the Schellendorf house, stable and other places but naturally did not miss walking up to the old castle ruin which provides an incredible view over the surrounding wine country with the Neckar river winding its way through it.

Mainz is the city where the Main River joins the waters of the Rhine. Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz; the man who invented the movable lettering for the printing process, enabling the mass production of books in 1440. His masterpiece was the first ever printed Bible still displayed in the Gutenberg Museum. Several places in Mainz warrant a visit; the cathedral which looks more like a fort, the medieval Iron Tower, and the art lover surely would not want to miss seeing the Chagall window in St. Stephen’s Church. The history of this city goes back more than two thousand years when the Romans realized the strategic importance of its location.

Another excursion in this area offered by Scenic was a visit to Wiesbaden, in the 19th century one of the most exclusive spa cities in Germany due to many hot springs. Once called ’Aquae Mattiacorum’ was a flourishing Roman city two millennia ago. It still retains the aura of its heyday in the Belle époque. Wiesbaden brings up another memory: I was married there. But that is another story, told in the sequel to my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That.”

Father Rhine! We must have entered it during the night because I do not remember our ship slipping from the Main into the Rhine River. Many poets have written about the Rhine, many songs are sung about it, and many cruise companies offer tours up and down the Rhine River. It springs in Basel Switzerland and winds its way through vast valleys and narrow gaps between mountains all the way to Holland, picking up other, smaller rivers joining it along the way. The best-known one of such rivers is the Moselle. A dangerous turn to navigate the Rhine for any ship is the corner at the Lorelei. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote a song of a beautiful siren sitting on top of the steep cliff, combing her golden hair, singing and causing many a ship crashing, the captains lured by her and not paying attention at the sharp narrow bend in the river.

On both sides of the Rhine remain old castles, most now in ruins with maybe a small part made livable for an owner. Once upon a time they were built by robber barons, catching boats coming up or down the river and collecting fees. We had a historian on board telling the stories of twenty-three such castles. It was funny to watch people’s heads on the top deck swivel from one side to another, trying not to miss anything. I did a bike tour in 1957, and several castles were youth hostels. In the late eighties, we toured the Rhine area in a car, and we stayed in one converted to part hotel and restaurant. The owner was a Swizz man, he invited us for an after-dinner cognac (brandy) drink to enjoy with him. He lived alone and asked us many questions about life in Canada. The next day we noticed he had charged us for the drinks. Some invitation!

Not to be missed along the Rhine is Rüdesheim. Make sure to try a “Rüdesheim Coffee” laced with Assbach Uralt Brandy and sign up for a tour of the unique “Museum of Mechanical Music Instruments.” Rüdesheim is a truly ‘happy place.’

Scenic Cruises has a contract with the “Mark Castle.” We enjoyed a medieval dinner and show as well as being horrified by the room full of torture instruments of the not so good old times.

We sailed by the modern, extensive cities of Boppard, Bonn, Cologne; we had almost a day to enjoy Cologne, and then into the widening waterways leaving Germany to Holland, all the way to Amsterdam. Also known as the Venice of the North because of its many bridges, I’d call it the city of bikes. Highrise parking garages for bikes, bikes, bikes and more bikes. Houseboats along the waterways are beautifully tended with lots of plants and flowers, five or more story buildings all joined along the water, and one wonders how they were built on this watery part of the Earth.

An excursion brought us to an area with windmills, typical for Holland. We had fun visiting a store where the Dutch clogs were made, watching the craft production from a piece of wood to the painting of this footwear. I was reminded of my teen years when a pair of those (unpainted!) clogs kept my always icy feet warm, the only shoes I owned for a couple of years, worn for school, church and elsewhere. Interesting was a place where they made cheese, big wagon wheels of cheese were displayed to age on many shelves. And before you ask, yes, we could watch the process in the making and taste the types of cheese.

Writing about the Budapest-Amsterdam cruise and, despite having done others since, I dream and hope we can do this particular cruise again. There was so much to see and enjoy, and there wasn’t time enough to take it all in the first time. I am sure I will enjoy it, even more, the second time.

Good news: My e-books will be available at 50% off from December 25th to January 2nd on Smashwords:

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Budapest to Amsterdam River Cruise Part 3

Good Bye Vienna, I don’t know if I will ever see you again. We entered a stretch of the Danube through the Wachau with some of the loveliest landscapes you can imagine. We were cruising through vine country. Several vines of this region and even the most famous one, the ‘Veltiner Smaragd’ were served with dinner. We admired ancient castles on mountain tops, and many historic old cities along the river bank kept us all on the top deck. We even passed our first lock. Sometimes the Danube was as wide as a small lake, then again it narrowed, and we could talk to the people walking or biking next to us. Once it went almost around itself, and we could see the same sights twice. We even encountered a cable ferry crossing the river. Several smaller rivers joined the Danube along the way.

Remember the story of Richard, the Lionheart? During the Third Crusade, he was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria and interred in the castle above Dürnstein for three months until the sum of 150.000 silver marks were paid. There is a legend about his faithful Blondel who ‘rescued’ him. I would love to name and tell you about several of the beautiful towns we toured, but then these blogs would go on forever. The mighty Cloister Melk was overwhelming, the affluent Linz and the vast locks before we came to Passau, a city shared between Austria and Germany. The left bank is German, the right bank belongs to Austria. We had to do a self-guided tour in Passau. I attached myself to a German group since I could understand the language. Much better than that hand-held thing… but here I caught the flu, it was going around on the ship, and I was one of the last ones to get it. I stayed in bed for several days and watched a lot of great movies. Even ‘Schindler’s List.’

Luckily I was well enough not to miss Regensburg, one of the highlights of the cruise. There are lots of stories to talk about, but one occasion stays in my mind. We had to pass under a thousand-year-old Roman stone bridge. The wheelhouse was lowered and disappeared but not before the captain asked everybody to leave the top deck. A number of us stayed. Lying down on my back I could touch the underside of the bridge by just raising my hand. I felt the vibrations of the cars driving above me. Sometimes, when the water level is too high, Scenic Cruises has a bus waiting on one side and another cruise ship on the other. They make sure nobody misses anything because of Mother Nature. I could write pages about Regensburg. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is the most northern point of the Danube. Some great locks passed us into a canal, and this later released us into the Main River which flows towards the Rhine across Germany.

Nuremberg, another over the thousand-year-old city, is mostly remembered because of the infamous Nuremberg trials of the remaining Nazis. My first visit to Nuremberg was in the late 1950s when everything was still rubble due to the bombing during WWII. I was astounded how beautifully it had been rebuilt.

Aah, and we visited one of my favorite Places: Bamberg! Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bamberg is a fairytale town, built on seven hills and often compared to Rome. It rained cats and dogs. Everybody wanted to buy an umbrella, and the kind tour guide led us to a Euro-shop, but umbrellas were sold out. He raced us to another, they had stocked up, everybody got one. What a sight it was, seeing the bobbing umbrellas move up a steep street!

An unforgettable excursion was Rothenburg o.d.T., a town still surrounded by the medieval fortifications and four gates. Millions of visitors each year shoot millions of photos, every corner provides another picture worth taking. Don’t miss Rothenburg if you are ever in Germany. It’s the first stop when you are traveling the Romantic Road from Frankfurt after you pass Würzburg south to the two-thousand-year-old Augsburg with many unbelievably pretty old towns along the way and on to the Alps. One of my favorites is Dinkelsbühl with a moat and a high wall around it.

After we passed the Bishop’s seat Würzburg, we had a glassblower on board. He displayed some beautiful pieces.  His name was Karl, and he showed us his art by blowing liquid glass into some incredible forms. When he asked for a volunteer to try it, he had no offers. Karl revealed he takes a soothing drink before blowing, and whoever would give it a try will receive a whole bottle of it. Nobody? I dared and joined him. There was a round of applause, but he asked to wait until after I had blown something to bits. He started, and I took over. He warned me several times to blow slower and more carefully otherwise the bubble would burst. I was making a Christmas ornament. Wow, did I ever enjoy it! I wanted to make it bigger, but he stopped me when it had the ordinary size. He blew his and my name onto it, and then I could roll it in some glitter. And yes, I did receive a whole bottle of his special drink. It was a herbal liqueur in a small sample bottle! A one-time shot. This caused more laughter than applause as I played along and acted very disappointed.

The next day we were in Wertheim where he had a fairytale shop in a very narrow high house. Our tour guide had quite a time to get us to walk on through the pretty town as we had trouble to part with Karl and his sales staff. Lots of dollars flowed into his cash register.

Next time we will cruise from the Main River into what the Germans call “Father Rhine” all the way to Amsterdam.

River Cruising from Budapest to Vienna (part 2)

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.