Viking Grand European River Cruise 2023
Amsterdam to Budapest
Amsterdam to Budapest- A journey through Europe
Friday, June 9th, Amherst, New York
We were up early this morning, anticipating a long day. Breakfast at a local bagel shop started us off. We had already spent days packing, deciding which weather report to listen to and how much in Euros we had to take a long. It seems involved, but things work out better with proper planning. I had some trepidations about the walking tours that would accompany the long boat ride across Europe. An auto-immune disease had curtailed my ability to walk very far, at any one time. But, I remembered the advice from one of Mary's older sisters. Trish said “When you have a problem, throw money at it.” It was good advice. We obtained a small fortune in Euros and planned to call a cab or an Uber if walking became too difficult. It was good advice and we used it to great effect. Thanks, Trish.
An airport cab delivered us to Buffalo International at 11:00 A.M. We were scheduled to fly out to Philadelphia at 1P.M. and then on to Amsterdam, Netherlands, later in the day. Buffalo's airport is compact and user friendly. We breezed through the TSA checkpoints and found our gate. We were early, so we fired up the Kindles and waited for our departure time.
The two-hour flight to Philadelphia was uneventful. We deplaned and entered into the controlled madness that is Philadelphia's airport. Swarms of vacationers, business people and who knows who ambled about the busy hallways. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and walked very fast. We sought refuge in “John Dugan's Pub.” It was sro. Mr. John Dewar's helped pass the three hour wait for our flight to Amsterdam.
At 6:30 P.M, we off lifted from Philadelphia, and headed north and eastward for Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Drifting through space at 40,000 feet in altitude and ensconced a thin metal tube is somewhat disconcerting. Fortunately, Mr. Dewar's helped ease the passage. Some six hours later, about 1 A.M in New York, we drifted into Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. On the descending glide path to the airport, we could see a virtual forest of the metal windmills, scattered across the near shore of the North Sea. We were to find that all of the Europeans are way ahead of us in the use of alternate forms of energy.
Saturday, June 10th Amsterdam, Netherlands
Dutch customs was perfunctory. We collected our bags and looked about for signs saying “taxi.” I have a decent command of German, but the native Dutch was a mystery to me. Fortunately, most of the Dutch speak better English than we do. A series of WTF's led us through the right passageways and down escalators out unto the busy plaza in front of the airport. It was a sea of travelers. The guide books tell you that it easier and cheaper to take a bus or train to your central city destination. Forget that! Groggy from lack of sleep and mildly irritable, we hailed a cab and in my best German, asked that he take us to the Hotel Aalder in the Museum District. Like most of the cabbies here, he was of Middle Eastern origin. His command of both English and German was sketchy. Fortunately, we had the hotel information printed and he was able to use his GPS to find the small hotel. As always, the ride in to a strange city is interesting. Buildings, churches and businesses all were named in Dutch. It might have well been Martian. A thirty-minute ride brought us to the small boutique hotel. The Aadler sits a block over from the Van Gogh Museum. We had secured this fine inn for a modest 260 Euros a night, a bargain in pricey Amsterdam.
The small hotel was more of an inn than a hotel. A very cheerful clerk at the desk welcomed us and assigned us room #19 on the first floor. We had to remember that in Europe the first floor is actually the second. The bonus was that the occupants from the previous night had already checked out. She said that if we could wait an hour, we could check in. Is the Pope Catholic? We settled into a small bar area and enjoyed some pretty decent cappuccino, for 10 euros. The bar is a well stocked “honesty bar.” Whatever you used, you signed in the log for and they billed your room. Bless the Dutch for their decency. We were to find that all of the Dutch that we encountered were both honest, decent and a pleasure to deal with.
We settled in and opened the windows wide. It was to be in the mid-eighties all week and we didn't know the room had air conditioning. It wasn't until the third day, when the maid closed the drapes and placed the air conditioning controls in the center of the bed, that we realized that the room had AC DUH!!!
The fabled “Rijksmuseum” was only about one-half mile from our hotel. We scored tickets for 11:45 A.M. You have to buy your tickets online. Fortunately for us, the Vermeer exhibit had closed a few weeks before. The Museum had been sold out for months.
The walk over was of interest. Sets of train tracks mingled with the car lanes and bicycle lanes. EVERYONE in Amsterdam rides their bikes everywhere. Estimates of 1 million bikes ride across the city streets. This is in a city of one million people. As we were to find out, the trains and the cars might stop for you, the bikes stopped for no one. We learned to look left, then right, then run like hell across the street to avoid the bikes. For some reason I had a picture of Margaret Hamilton riding across the screen in the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” as she cackled and pedaled, hell-bent for someplace or other.
A good-sized park area led us to the museum complex. The Van Gogh Museum complex was just off one side of the park area. There were also a “Diamond Museum,” a “Modern Art Museum,” and a few smaller ones right in the immediate area, thus the name “Museum District.” The pedestrian path through the park was lined with small tent areas for beer, burgers, bratwurst, coffee and ice cream. It was Saturday morning and everyone was out and about enjoying the beautiful weather.
Approaching the Rijksmuseum is an experience. It is huge in presence. Two wings string off off a central edifice that is four stories high. Parks surrounded it. A main street led through the center of the complex. When you entered the museum, your ticket was scanned by a hand-held computer. (48 euros) No money ever exchanged hands. We then descended into a marble courtyard, enclosed by a glass ceiling, high above. Students, tourists and people from all over mingled about the courtyard, sat in the first-floor coffee shop or browsed the gift store.
The galleries on the several floors were adorned with grand murals and portraits of the wealthy, painted by the Dutch Masters. Most are of the dark and brooding style then in vogue. It was the style of the day and not much to my liking. Three portraits of the little corporal, Napoleon, and a few reclining nudes were the exceptions to the rule.
On the top floor we entered a grand gallery that was chock ablock with people. Three of Vermeer's “milk maid” series drew admirers in like bees to honey. At the far end of the gallery, like the central altar of a grand cathedral, inside a glass enclosed tabernacle, stands a sixty foot by 40-foot grand mural of Dutch cavaliers in full military regalia, riding horses and on patrol. It is the Rembrandt's famous “Night Watch” painting. Everyone stood, staring up at the grand mural and in awe of the visage presented. I wonder how anyone could capture in paint, a scene on such a grand scale. I can see it now in my mind's eye and marvel at the master's ability to portray such a complex subject matter so artfully. We had been in the museum for almost three hours, wandering. The “museum glaze” was overtaking us. It happens everywhere, even at the Louvre and the New York Metropolitan Museum. The mind and the eye suddenly say “Abbastanza” (I have had enough) “Let's get the heck out of here.”
Outside the museum, minstrels were playing for tips, amid students and tourists walking everywhere. The nearby canal had boat rides going all day along the many canals. The market area was sro with people, drinking beer and coffee, so we walked along a nearby street. Mary spotted a café that she had read bout in a guide book. “The Burger Room” is unique. Newly remodeled and featuring painted characters and scenes from the “Wizard of Oz,” it is an elegant stop. I enjoyed the “all day breakfast burger,” a combination of scrambled eggs, salmon and vegetables on great bread. It was wonderful. Mary had a chicken sandwich and we shared some fries. A large bottle of “der Spruddle vasser” (sparkling water.) On a hot day like this, it was wonderful. We enjoyed our repast. The tab was a reasonable 50 Euros. (one euro= $1.12 U.S.)
We walked through the park again, scoping out the area. We stumbled upon a small grocery store, that sits under a park hill. They sold wine there. We picked up two bottles of Cote De Rhone and, foot sore and weary, headed back to the Hotel Aalder. The sun shines until ten P.M. here, so we had no real sense of what time of the day it was. We only knew that we were as tired as old logs in a swamp. We walked back to the Aadler, settled in with a glass of Cote De Rhone and wrote up my notes. The large television had all of its channels in the Dutch language, so watching TV was out. On future days, we were treated to several episodes of "Pawn Stars," one of my favorites. The language was in English:) We fired up our Kindles and read until the sandman claimed us. It had been a long and interesting and eventful first day in Amsterdam.
Sunday, June 11th - Amsterdam, Netherlands
We were up by 7 A.M, our systems still not acclimated to the six-hour circadian time shift. Mary had managed to secure two tickets for the Van Gogh Museum at 9:30 A.M. this morning. (20 euros each) The rest of the day's time-stamped tickets were sold out. We walked to the nearby museum at 9 A.M. A line of entrance seekers had already formed outside. We sat for a time in a nearby courtyard, enjoying the cool of the morning. Then, we too stood in line awaiting entrance to the fabled museum.
A glass framed building serves as the entrance portal. You then descend into an entrance foyer like the Louvre. A small café, a cloak room, a gift shop and other facilities are here. Then, we followed the escalator to an experience we will long remember.
In a first-floor gallery, there is a row of nine self-portraits of Van Gogh. The spiky hair and intense eyes peer out at you. A brief history, in wallboards, acquaints you with his life. Born in 1853 in Zunder, Netherlands, he had lived but a brief 37 years. He was plagued by fits of depression and severe anxiety that kept him from normal employment. His brother, a successful art dealer, paid him a small pension that kept him afloat. Van Gogh would suffer severe bouts of depression that at one point had him institutionalized for treatment. When he and his brother passed on, the widow amassed the considerable collection of Van Gogh's works and donated them to a foundation that then created this museum to display his works.
On the second floor, several of his murals featuring peasants at work in the hay fields, gave you a feeling of perspective for his many works. It was said that he painted a work a day. Two of his more interesting works, “The potato eaters” and “The diggers” are dark pieces, reflecting peasants at work and eating a meal. The captions nearby said that he intentionally painted them in a dark and dusky style to reflect the grimy and dirty conditions in which these people lived. They were fascinating to look upon. Van Gogh's epic, “Starry Nights” was of curse missing. The last I have heard is that it owned by the Modern Arts Museum in NYC.
On the third floor, there are more of his paintings featuring the golden wheat fields. The color of blue sky and golden wheat jump out at you, as both restful and reflective. It is shortly after this period that he spent time under treatment in a sanitorium. We stopped for a break at the café and enjoyed some decent cappuccinos while watching the continually increasing crowds drift through the museum.
A docent had advised us to not miss the “special exhibits” section. We followed her advice and were glad that we did. Many of these wonderfully crafted pieces were from his after-treatment phase. Brilliant greens, bright blues and golden wheats jumped out at you. All of these works showed his influence by the French Impressionists. You stand about twelve feet back, at a 45-degree angle and everything snaps into sharp focus. His delicate portrait of “Almond Blossoms” is elegant. Sprinkled among his works is a Degas, a Monet and a Gauguin. This wonderful collection would be headed to the Musee D'Orsee in Paris in early September. We were fortunate to have seen them. By now, the “museum glaze” has over taken us. It was time to move on.
Just behind the Rijksmuseum, we found a Canal Tour (20 euros each). The hotel clerk had advised us not to take the hop on hop off tour boats, because most of your time was spent waiting for passengers to “hop on and off”. It was a good tip. We sat for 75 minutes, riding up and down the network of canals that frame this Venice on the North.
Three major canals, Princegracht, Herrengracht and Kaisergracht form concentric half circles, that frame the central area of Amsterdam. They are crisscrossed with smaller canals that connect them all, some 100 kilometers of canals in the network.
Along the canals, many of the old commercial warehouses, that stored the wealth of Amsterdam from trading, had been converted into attractive stone-faced residences. The 17th century architecture was well ordered and of interest to glide by slowly, enjoying the frantic ambience of the narrow lanes around us. The canals connected us with the Amstel River that flows our into the North Sea. A Grand Music Hall, a smaller art museum connected to the Hermitage in St. Petersburgh, an opera and Ballet facility, the pricey Amstel Hotel and many other grand facades tickled the eyes. Amsterdam is alive and thriving. Much of her fortune had flowed from the Dutch East India Company in settlements like Java in the far east. The wealth had remained here and helped develop modern Amsterdam.
After our canal tour, we wandered through the parks in the museum district and decided to try an interesting looking bistro for a late lunch. The venerable Keyser Brasserie was a good choice. Lobster bisque, salmon croquets, with a cream sauce and really good bread were accompanied by a bottle of mineral water. It was a reasonable 46 euros. Nearby, we stopped at our friendly A & H grocery store for wine and provisions. Then we sat for a time near the Van Gogh museum and watched the continuous flow of visitors into the facility. The line lasted all afternoon, as thousands of patrons were admitted to this remarkable museum.
The day was waning and so were we. We hiked back to the Aalder, wrote up my notes and enjoyed a glass of wine. We read our books for a time and drifted off to sleep, with thoughts of the many things we had seen this day.
Monday, June 12th, 2023 - Bruges, Belgium
We were up at 4 A.M., still struggling with adapting our Circadian rhythms. Coffee and a muffin in the room started us off for the day. We had booked a car service to pick us up at 7:15 A.M., to transport us to the Amstel port area, behind the Central Station. We had booked a bus tour to Bruges (Broozh) in Belgium. It is a world heritage site and we were looking forward to seeing the medieval village area.
The bus ride had been billed a s a three-hour tour of the Dutch and Belgium country side. We should have known better. The traffic on the four-lane highway was horrendous, with accident tie ups and vacationers. Trucks seemed to predominate the scrum. The three-hour ride turned into a five-hour marathon. We saw enough of the bucolic fields along the way. They were loaded with cows of many varieties, perhaps the source of all of the cheese products here. The ground was dry from lack of rain, just like everywhere else.
Finally, we arrived at the bargeplein (bus park) in Bruges. We walked through the park and across an attractive, red metal bridge and on into a park area that was both green and restful. The tour guide was talking into our headsets, but his English was a nuance off of center and some of his references were lost on us. The Minniewater Castle, just outside the village area, sits on a small lake. It is both scenic and inviting. It hold within a quality restaurant with a veranda along the lake.
From the Minniewater, we crossed a small stone bridge with swans floating nearby. The guide was trying to relate some failed love story about the area, but we missed his point. The rustic cobblestone streets led us to a collection of buildings, all apparently shuttered. During the 1700's and 1800's many wars in Europe had left a swath of widows behind. Some banded together in small communes, where they were able to support themselves. The guide kept referring to these women as “hippies,” but I think he missed his point linguistically.
The main street of the old village is charming. Steeply slanted, slate roofs, with gabled and pointed arches made for a storybook appearance, right out of a Hansel and Gretel story. The roofs bespoke of another era, when great snows had blanketed the area. Today, it was sunny and 87 degrees (F). The American town of Williamsburg, in Colonial Virginia, is the closest analogue to it that I could think of.
Gift shops, a Belgian chocolatery shop and several restaurants all competed for your attention. Most of the restaurants preferred it if you ordered a 12-course meal, several bottles of champagne and a dozen violinists to entertain you. We found Straffee Hendrik's tavern, where we enjoyed a salad, salmon croquets and some mineral water for 46 euros. The violinists were off bowling that day.
Mary made the rounds of the gift shops, perusing their offerings, while I sat by the lake and admired the swans. Several motor launches, loaded to the rub rails with tourists, drifted by. The village has several canals that crisscross the village, spanned by colorful stone bridges. Tour groups, students groups and hordes of seniors wandered up and down, looking for they knew not what. I had no clue either.
We had walked some two miles today and this cowboy was dragging in the saddle. We sat for a time in the small park area, enjoying the sun and our surroundings. Then, we walked over to the bus park for a welcome admission to the air-conditioned bus at 5:45 P.M.
The bus tour was running late and the driver knew it. He put “pedal to the metal” and hauled us back to Amsterdam in a record time of under three hours. Instead of the busy hotel where we were supposed to be dropped off, the driver unloaded us in the isolated area where he picked us up this morning. That meant another ¾ of a mile trek up to and through the Central Station to a cab stand.
Along the way, we spotted a Starbucks in the Central Station, and stopped by for some sparkling water. It was a welcome stop. We sat for a time along the Amstel River, watching the busy river traffic and the local entertainers performing for everyone. It was a pleasant visage after such a long drive.
At the cab stand, we were picked up by an affable and intelligent cab driver whose parents had emigrated here from Algeria a generation ago. His English was very good, his native Dutch polished and he could speak patches of a few other languages. We were to become friends with this bright young lad. He gave us his personal cell phone number and said any time we needed a ride, to call him. In the next few days we in fact did so. Brahim was the kind of young person that you know will succeed at anything he chooses.
On the way back, Brahim even stopped at a liquor store where we brought some medicinal liquids for the coming days. The cabs were costing us a small fortune, but it was worth the money for me to get around. The center of Amsterdam is verboten for buses and taxi drivers to enter.
Back in our room at the Aadler, we made the welcome discovery that the room was indeed air-conditioned
As a parenthetical, unless you find yourself nearby, or an hour away from Bruges, I would advise people to give it a pass. The town fathers are trying to make a medieval Disneyland of the place, like they do in San Gimiano, in Tuscany. They haven't yet succeeded here.
Tuesday, June 13th, 2023 - Amsterdam, Netherlands
We were up early at 5 A.M. Breakfast in the hotel was wonderful. (15 euros each) We decided that if we ate like this on the coming river cruise, we would be too heavy for the airlines to fly us home. We had called our new cabbie pal, Brahim for a pick up at 10:30 A.M. We had 11:00 A.M tickets (20 euros each) for the Ann Frank Haus on the Princengraght Canal. If you don't order your tickets well in advance, you have no chance of getting in.
We had sparkle water in a café next door to the museum, as we watched the veritable throngs of students and visitors, who milled about the small courtyard adjacent of the museum. I wondered how on earth were they ever going to get that many people through the small quarters of the hidden apt. that is now world famous. Anne, her sister Margaret, parents Otto and Edith and two friends had survived here for two years. An informer tipped off the Gestapo, who swept them up and sent them on to Auschwitz. Anne and her sister were later transferred to Theresienstadt. Otto was the only family member to survive the camps. The Russians had reached Auschwitz in January of 1945 and freed the inmates.
Anne had been an aspiring journalist in her teens. She had in fact composed a small diary about their experience in hiding. Her elegant script bespoke of a meticulous and intelligent nature. After the family had been arrested by the gestapo, a neighbor had collected most of their personal belongings. They now stand in a place of honor in the museum.
We had our tickets scanned as we advanced into the museum. We were provided head-sets. When you entered a specific room, a voice narrated what you were seeing. We climbed several flights of narrow stairs, patiently awaiting our place in line. The entrance to the hidden apartment, on the fourth floor, is accessible through a small book case that swung on a hinge. The informer who ratted them out was a former employee of the warehouse.
We were silent, all of the many people in line, as we viewed the modest quarters, two bedrooms, bathroom, a small kitchen and living area, wondering at the level of anxiety that the family felt each day. They had to be quiet as mice all day and make no noises, until well after work hours ended. Then, they entertained each other with reading and telling stories. Anne wrote her diary in a neat script, detailing how they lived. Most of us have read the book at some point, so the story was familiar to us. Several of the young girls in line were Jewish. For them, it was a religious experience. You could see the odd tear roll down the cheek of some of the youngsters, as they thought of what Anne had gone through.
The quarters had been kept as they were during WW II, so there is a sense of verisimilitude as you advance through the rooms. Three floors below, we walked past and admired copies of Anne's writings and her small diary. The poignancy of observing what she could have become, with hopes and aspiration, brings home and puts a human face on the horror of what happened to all of those people who were swept up and murdered by the Nazis. Walking out into the bright sun was like awakening from a bad dream. We had much to think about for the remainder of the day.
We walked along the narrow confines of the Princengraght in the “Jordan District.” It is a Bohemian section of the city. The streets are not well swept. The canal was lined with small houseboats. Apparently, during the 1960's, when housing was in extreme demand, the city had allowed house boats to tie up to sections of the canal walls. They remained here still, but now paid taxes and were hooked up to utilities. We continued along busy Harlemstraat. Small cafes, gift and junk shops and fast food places abounded. The city is alive and thriving here. I sat whenever my legs gave out and managed to get by pretty well.
The street empties into the huge Central Square Plat. The enormous Central Station is a nexus for bus and rail traffic from all across Europe. Literally thousands of bicycles were chained up all around us. Massive government buildings and a church of some note completed the vast square. It is here that we picked up the “hop on hop off” bus. For 39 euros each, you get a 90-minute ride around the exterior of the city. No buses were allowed in the city center. It gave us some appreciation for both the size and wealth of the city. There are stops for access to the “Red Light” district, the Joodmuseum, The Heineken Brewery Experience and other historical sites, that reflect Holland's development since the 1602 formation of both the East India and West Indies trading companies. One of the staff at our hotel had told us not to bother riding this bus, because it only rides around the periphery of the city. He was right.
We exited the bus at the Rijksmuseum stop and hiked back through the park towards the Van Gogh Museum. We stopped at the “Small Talk Café” for Greek salads and sparkle water. It was sunny, in the mid-eighties and humid out. The Aalder welcomed us into air-conditioned comfort. I constructed a vodka rocks and chilled out, as I wrote up my notes. It had been another long and interesting day on the tourist trail.
Wed. June 14th, 2023 - Red Light District of Amsterdam
We arose early at 5. A.M. A cappuccino in the room prepped us for the day. Our pal, Brahim picked us up at 9:15 A.M. We were headed for one of the more colorful districts in Amsterdam, “Die Wallen,” the famed “red light district.” We were headed for a delightful breakfast emporium, “Madam's Pancakes,” at 18 Lange Niezel. Brahim got us as close in to the district as he could. We hiked in after that. The narrow streets were crowded with honkey-tonk bars, sex shops and all manner of fast food places. The night before must have been pretty rowdy. The streets were still littered with plastic cups and assorted detritus of revelry. The area is the oldest of Amsterdam's neighborhoods, dating back to the 14th century. Sailors from ships used to come here “looking for companionship.” Today, prostitution is legal here and all of the practitioners are medically tested twice a week. Prices for services rendered are negotiable.
Madam's Pancakes was clean and elegant. We enjoyed pancakes with lox and blueberries, with good coffee. The tab was a reasonable 32 euros. From Madam's, we walked down the narrow cobble stone lanes, until we came to the broad boulevard of the Canal that divides the district. It is here that most of the trade's practitioners display themselves in the evening. At this time of day, we could but see broad curtained windows, along the second stories of stone-faced buildings. Tourists like us were walking up and down the streets, ogling the curtained windows and imagining what went on there in the evening hours. The guide books advise not to go here at night. Hooligans, pickpockets and riff raff abound, as seekers of services shop for their wares. We sat along the canal and watched the throngs walk hither and yon. The swirl of languages was interesting. French, Spanish, English, German and a host of others that I didn't recognize, tickled our ears.
Wikipedia defines the area thusly: Red Light District clubs and pubs
“The Amsterdam Red Light District is not only about prostitution and coffee shops. You can find a great variety of sex shops, peep shows, strip clubs, sex theaters and typical Dutch brown cafes. Furthermore, you have a few cultural activities such as the Museum of Prostitution, the Museum of Erotism or the Museum of Cannabis.
Whether you are window-shopping Amsterdam style, or actually wanting to buy something, there is likely to be a place, window, or even two, that cater to your every whim. For those not easily offended, there are plenty of live sex shows and the most notorious of these go on at the theatres Casa Rosso (OZ Achterburgwal) and the infamous Moulin Rouge (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 5-7). For the merely curious, there are numerous peep shows that may come with video booths.
But of course, for the more adventurous among us, there are more interactive shows, for example at Amsterdam Banana Bar (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 37). Exactly what goes on in these places is up to you to discover, if you so wish. For goods, there is a somewhat eclectic mix of videos, magazines, sex aids and toys. The RLD is also home to many gay bars and cinemas which can be found on the very busy Warmoesstraat. If the Red light alleyways are not your cup of tea, there are a number of brothels and private houses that offer a more traditional form of prostitution.
From the Red Light District, we walked up to Palace Square. Throngs of tourist were everywhere about. Mary spotted a T.J. Maxx store and felt obligated to stop in and shop. I sat nearby, fascinated as always by the crowds swirling by. The nearby Central Station was abuzz with activity. We picked up a sparkling water at Starbuck's and then sat along the banks of the Amstel River, watching the water traffic and the flows of people all around us. It was in the high seventies (F), sunny and pleasant.
A cab ferried us from the Central Station to the Aalder Hotel. I wrote up my notes and we conferred with the patron saint of naps, Mr. Ozzie Nelson. Later that afternoon, we walked up and down the very chic Pieter Corneliez Stroomen. Gucci, Rolex, Dolce Gabanna, and a dozen other fancy shops gave a good, expensive rendition of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or the Rue Honore' in Paris.
The lovely “Burger Room” was only a few blocks over. We revisited this lovely cafe and enjoyed a meal as good as the one we had a few days before. (56 euros) After our meal, we sat for a time in the Van Gogh Plaza and watched the people show, enjoying the cool of the evening. It was getting late and we still had to pack up and get ready to move on the morrow.
A vodka martini settled me in, as we packed up and got ready to head out. It had been a wonderful stay in a very old and interesting city, but it was time for us to move on.
Thursday, June 15th, 2023- Amsterdam. Netherlands.
We were up at 6 A.M. We finished packing our clothes, enjoyed a coffee and pastry in the room and got ready to head out. Faithful Brahim picked us up at 11:15 A.M. and delivered us to the waterfront section of Amsterdam, where the Viking ship Vali was tethered. We checked our bags in with the ship's attendants. They led us onboard to our second deck stateroom, number 335. We unpacked our gear and then wandered down to the first deck dining room. A light lunch of pasta and a glass of decent Riesling gave promise of a wonderful gustatory experience ahead.
After lunch, we walked along the Amstel, to the Central Station and found a drug store for medications. The many barges and river traffic are always a delightful parade of nautical interest. Back on board, we settled in on the room's balcony and enjoyed a glass of Cote du Rhone. A 5:30 P.M. get-together in the ship's lounge, introduced us to crew and passengers. Then at 7 P.M. the entire ships compliment was seated in the first deck dining room. We enjoyed a Caesar salad, some delightful Halibut, with a cream sauce, and a wonderful apple strudel with a warm vanilla sauce. Both a red cabernet and a white Riesling were available.
By sheer chance, we were seated with two remarkable couples, that we were to bond with over the next fourteen days. Wayne and Vicki Broyles, from the eastern shore of Maryland and Carla and Renzo Panazza, from Sydney Australia. We were to share dinner, laughs and interesting conversation with these estimable people for the next fourteen days. We would come away with a bond of friendship and an appreciation of the wit, humor and intelligence of these fine people. They would much enhance our journey across Europe.
Friday, June 16th, 2023 Kinderdijk, Netherlands
We were up by 4 A.M. We enjoyed coffee and a wonderful chocolate muffin on our balcony. We had discovered that amidships, a coffee machine dispenses any kind of coffee or cappuccino that you wished. The station also held a store of chocolate muffins and raisin cookies available 24/7. Uh oh. The ship had motored overnight and docked near an environmental and nature preserve, called Kinderdijk (children's dike). It contains 19 of the original old wooden windmills. They stand along a narrow canal and marsh area. The venerable and still operable structures are from the 1700's. The area is managed and funded by a Dutch cultural foundation.
Coffee and a light breakfast on the second-deck, open fantail, readied us for the day. We were booked on an 8:15 A.M. barge tour of the preserve and windmills. (60 euros each). We marched about one half mile through the tall reeds of the preserve, until we came to a large concession stand and ticket booth. A small passenger barge was tied up to the dock there. We piled on, enjoying the fresh breeze from the North Sea. A Preserve volunteer accompanied us.
The towering windmills around us seemed almost otherworldly. Standing some 28 meters tall, these wooden and stone towers are crisscrossed by the large wooden vanes that catch the wind and turn the gears to power the grist mill inside. Each of the windmill arms is constructed of wood. Half of the arm is open lattice, covered by a taut canvass that is adjustable so that the amount of wind driving the arm can be regulated. The entire structure can pivot around itself in a 180 degree arc, manipulated by wooden gears and using the human energy of foot and hand. It is really a marvel of engineering from another age. As well as a grist mill, the mills serve as a drainage pumps to keep the ever encroaching waters of the Rhine /Maas River delta from drowning the area. The preserve itself sits eight feet under sea level. The guide also noted that Schiphol Airport area lies fifteen feet under the sea level. Without continuous pumping, it would disappear. This is the marvel of the Netherlands land reclamation. By use of dikes and pumps, they had reclaimed huge areas of the shore line of the North Sea for agricultural use.
We tied up at one venerable windmill from the 1630's. Each mill is inhabited still by a Dutch family that operates the sail vanes and preserves the structure. They receive a stipend of 50 euros per year and lowered rents for their services. In another age, millers had also trapped moles in the marshes and sold their pelts to haberdashers for use in hats and gloves. Around the mill, each miller has a small vegetable garden and a few animals for personal use. Out this far in nature, they don't have a corner drugstore to run to for any type of supplies. They also have to use bicycles to reach a car park for transportation.
Inside the mill, there is a small first floor area, with an iron stove and water pump in the kitchen. A small living area fills out the level. Above them, an exterior loft serves as a sleeping quarters for the family. You just might fit a small family in these quarters. How they squeezed a large one in, and they did, was a mystery. In essence, the mill complex functioned like it had 300 years ago. The waterfowl, fish and other game also supplemented the family diet.
It was an interesting visit to the rural Holland of another age. The local Dutch come here in all seasons to enjoy the beauty of the preserve. In the winter time, the canals often freeze over. The Dutch use them for recreational ice skating, along the miles of canals. No wonder they do so well in the Winter Olympic skating events.
The barge returned us to the gift shop/ concession area. We trooped back to the tethered Viking longboat Vali and read for a time on our balcony, enjoying the cool of the North Sea Breeze. Lunch time found us sitting with Renzo and Carla Panazza. Red pepper soup, salad Nicoise, ice cream and a glass of Riesling were wonderful. I could see right now that we were going to have to start skipping some meals or they would have to roll us off the boat with hand trucks.
In the late afternoon, we sat in on an interesting lecture of the Rhine/Main River system and how important it was to European commerce. The river road ranges some 1,100 miles, from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Crazy German King Ludwig had been an early developer of the Main River/ Canal complex. It now sports some 68 locks to traverse the system. Along its way the history of medieval Europe had been written with Castles and Kings, Prince Bishops and marauding armies. The mysterious Celts, the “barbaric Germanic tribes” and other early inhabitants had run smack into the Roman juggernaut emerging from the South, two thousand years ago. The battles were constant and the geographic and national boundaries fluid. It was fascinating stuff to me, a student of history.
Dinner that evening found us seated with a delightful Kiwi couple from the South Island of New Zealand, Alan and Wendy. Crab cakes, perch, lava cake and a rough cabernet made for a decent repast. Tired from another hard day at touristing, we repaired to or cabin to read on the balcony and enjoy the cool night air. This trip held great promise for an interesting journey.
Saturday, 6/17/23- Northern Netherlands, on the Rhine
Overnight, the Vali had motored up the Rhine River. We were approaching Cologne (Koln) Germany. A brief stop at Zon, let some passengers disembark for an excursion. We then continued on and tied up along the Koln waterfront. Several passenger ships were already berthed there. The practice in these busy wharf slips, was for ships to tie up along-side of each other. Passengers would then either walk through two or three entrance portals at sea level, or climb top-side and make their way across the sun decks and down the final gangway to shore. It might sound confusing, but it seemed to work along the Rhine, with so many port towns crowded with tourists.
There were four buses of tourists from the Vali, making the walking tour. We were placed at our request, with the lame and the halt, God Bless them. I came to admire a few of those rugged souls who struggled so much against adversity and never complained. One older man had arm crutches. Another guy was recovering from a stroke. Both of them moved along well. One admirable Kiwi woman pushed her husband along in a wheel chair. Whew!
The cobble stone streets are attractive, but difficult to walk on. Koln, like many of the Rhine Valley Towns, was both a Celtic and then a Roman settlement, dating back some two thousand years. Sections of the old city wall, and other reminders, were everywhere around us. Koln is a good sized city of one million souls. One of the bridges across the Rhine has the local version of the “padlock” love custom. Lovers would lock their own device to the bridge with initials of both of the parties. The metal glistened in the morning sun. In one of the bridges in Paris, the locks had become so profuse that officials had to cut them all off, lest they bring down the bridge with their weight.
Walking the narrow lanes, we came upon a temporal anomaly. High atop one of the office buildings sits a full sized Ford Fiesta, with golden wings. Ford is one of the major employers in the area and has been since WW II. I almost wished they had made up a better story for that apparition.
The major attraction in the area is the Grand Cathedral. With twin spires and sculpted fluting, the enormous facility looks like a visage of the home of a “Dark Lord” in a Walt Disney movie. The sandstone structure had become begrimed over the centuries from air pollution. Still, it is impressive to look upon. The huge wooden doors are surrounded by carved figures and lacy sculpting. I don't think the place has a local version of Quasi Moto, like Notre Dame in Paris, but you could well imagine one swinging from the massive stone columns inside. The stained glass windows reflected the daylight and gave off the aura of an ethereal temple. Like many of the churches we entered, wooden figures had been gilded over to draw attention to them.
The real attraction here were religious relics that had been enshrined for several hundred years. Reputedly, German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa had apparently looted a church in Milan and brought home the relics of the Magi, the fabled three kings who had attended the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Whether you buy into these legends or not, over the centuries, many thousands of pilgrims had made their way here to Koln, to worship the remains of the Three Kings. The Cathedral itself had started construction in 1248. Wars and other disruptions had taken church fathers another 600 hundred years to complete the Gothic masterpiece. We sat inside and looked about, contemplative of the sculptured wonders around us and aware of the thousands and thousands of pilgrims who had come here before us. We were to find, on our journey, that Europeans have a better sense of history than we do in our young Republic. They walk along roads and sail along byways that have been in use for thousands of years.
Outside the church we were to find that even the church participated in what I have come to call “kidney terrorism.” The loo or WC requires a fee of .5 to one euro to gain entrance. It isn't so much the price as it is the lack of awareness for this custom that causes the hardship. Older folks don't do so well when they don't have the necessary coinage to do their business. If the Christ child, who had cleared the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem, were about, he would have taken a sledge hammer to the metal stiles that barred entrance to the loos. If anyone tried this in America, they would be strung up by their thumbs.
It was sunny and in the high 80's (F) out. We made our way back to the waterfront. In that it was a Saturday morning, there had apparently been several sporting matches hereabouts. The taverns and open air beer halls were chock full of celebrating participants, their jerseys announcing their provenance. I have hoisted a few beers in my time. But I don't think I have ever seen or heard this large a crowd singing, swaying back and forth and hammered by 11:00 A.M. Most were enjoying a local brew called “Kolsch.”
Along the waterfront, the Vali had shifted anchorage and was awaiting a new berth. We sat and watched the multiple activities along the busy Rhine riverfront. The loud rollicking of a nearby beer hall, set the stage. Cyclers, walkers and moms with baby strollers passed by in a continuing parade of Koln townspeople, enjoying themselves out of doors on a sunny Saturday. At noon, bell carillons from several of the churches, rang out a loud hymn, temporally drowning out noise from the beer halls.
Back aboard the Vali, I had an important conference with Mr. Ozzie Nelson. (patron saint of afternoon naps.) Then we read for a time and sampled some decent German Vodka on the Balcony. Life is good. We cleaned up and sat again with the Kiwis for dinner. A Caesar salad, Cod filet and carrot cake, with a crisp German Riesling, was its usually wonderful repast. At Nine P.M., the Vali slipped her lines and continued up the Rhine River. We were headed for our next stop, Koblenz, Germany.
Sunday, June 18th- Koblenz, Germany
We were up early at 6 A.M. We enjoyed the cool of a Rhine River morning, at 59 degrees (F), with coffee on the balcony. Breakfast, at 7 A.M in the dining room, readied us for the day. We were scheduled at 9:00 A.M for a walking tour of Koblenz. The ship tied up at the pier along the seawall by 8:30 A.M and we were off.
As we disembarked the ship, we could see the overhead tram that crossed the Rhine River above us and ferried visitors up to the imposing bulk of the Ehrenbreitstein Castle, on the eastern bank of the Rhine. The delta of parkland that we tied up to sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine Rivers, as they flow northward towards the North Sea.
Laura, our guide, scooped us up for a ninety minute walk through the town. First settled by the Celts, and later the Romans two thousand years ago, the area overflowed with historical interest. The Teutonic Knights had been founded here in 1,110. Earlier in 810 A.D., the Treaty of Koblenz had separated the Holy Roman Empire into three sections after Charlemagne's death. Each heir was a son of Charlegmane.
The delta shaped park was dominated by a huge statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I. During the second world war, allied soldiers had “shot the hell” out of the monument. It had been refurbished afterwards. Nearby, a large cross, on a two story brick building, identified the building as a former hospital of the Teutonic Knights, operating in 1,110. Now, the building served as a modern Arts Museum. Hundreds of years later, in 1805, Napoleon and his armies had swept through the area, destroying many of the older structures. History was everywhere around us.
Laura is an American expatriate. She had come here on vacation forty years ago and met and married a German vineyard owner. She told us much about contemporary German society. One curiosity is the nine per cent church tax levelled on all practitioners of organized religions. It collects billions of dollars annually. We were unclear what the funds were used for. She also said that all German workers are entitled to 30 vacation days annually, plus ten holidays. Women get up to two years for maternity leave. Rentals of apartments are expensive and residents have to bring their own kitchen with them.
We walked through the narrow cobbled stone streets, appreciating the half-timbered and ancient buildings and the stories abounding with them. One curious feature is of a carved face high up on a building wall. At each quarter hour, the eyes in the face rolled upward and a tongue slips out, denoting some skepticism in what it was looking down on. Like many of the German towns, its Jewish population, some 600 souls, had been swept up in the Nazi pogroms. Only 22 of them survived the war.
The Jesuit Square is an open-area, stone court surrounded by a church, gift shops and cafés. It too has an oddity. A sculpted figure of a boy, standing in a fountain, regularly sent a stream of water from its mouth outward, surprising unaware passersby. It is called the Schengelsbrunner. (the spitter in Deutch) We had some free time after the tour. We walked into “Der Alt Stadt Hotel” and ordered zwei cappuccinos for 10 euros. The attractive waitress spoke English better than I did German. The vessels were enormous bowls of this delightful brew. We sat in the open area courtyard, enjoying our confection and watching the ebb and flow of people traffic on this hot and sunny morning in Koblenz. Then, we reassembled the group nearby and Laura led us back to the Vali. We climbed aboard and appreciated the air conditioned bubble that we were traveling in. Aboard ship, lunch featured a red pepper soup, salad Nicoise and chocolate brownies. I wrote up my notes in our cabin and we readied for the afternoon cruise up the Rhine Valley. A brief conversation with Mr. Ozzie Nelson intervened.
Topside, on the sun deck, most of the ship's compliment were gathered under sun shaded screens. In the next few hours, we were to view many castles. All are story book in appearance, with turreted towers and ancient battlements. They sat, perched high along the steep and hilly shores of the Rhine Valley. In Feudal times, land owning barons had well-defined estates along the river. Anyone seeking to pass through their portion of the river, was made to pay a tax. The castles were for the “tax enforcers” of the day. The very steep hill sides were often terraced and planted with grapes for eating and wine making. We wondered how they could possibly tend such steep arbors. Later, a guide advised us that special tractors, with very low gear ratios, enabled the vintners to harvest their grapes mechanically.
The castles all had individual style and were characterized by multiple stories involving one old German family or another. The Oberwessel castle complex is now a four star hotel. It was one of many converted to commercial use. A huge castle complex at Reichenstein caught our eyes, with wonder. Along this seventy mile stretch of the middle Rhine, there are no bridges crossing it. Several car and passenger ferries had sprung up, in towns like Marburg and Neiderheim Bach. Bingen appeared to be a thriving tourist town, with multiple stacks of condos built along the banks of the river.
Along the banks of the river, in flatter areas, we were to see collections of recreational campers with vacationers. It is apparently a favored activity among local citizens, to camp, fish and swim in the shallower spots of the river. We were always mindful of the huge surge of water that must pass through this valley, when the river floods, and the damage it must cause to localities. The mists and the rains that swept through here engendered many myths of spirits and supernatural forces at work. Every castle had its resident ghost and a local drama about family fights or feuds with neighboring Lords. In the bright sunshine, everything looked peaceful and bucolic. But underneath it all, we knew there are temporal echoes of frantic battles between the native tribes and the aggressive Romans that had frequently altered everything around us. It made for an interesting afternoon of historic viewing.
Afterwards, we cleaned up for dinner and met our companions, Vicki and Wayne Broyles and Carla and Renzo Pinazza in the dining room. Fish soup, Ahi Tuna and an ice cream dessert were capped off with a crisp Riesling. These next several evening dinners, shared with these estimable friends, and the wonderful and humorous conversations that we enjoyed, were to prove the most memorable of the voyage.
Monday, June 19th- Miltenberg, Germany
We were up by 7 A.M It was a cool 61 degrees out. (F) We had coffee on our balcony, watching the Rhine River Valley float by us. Breakfast, in the main lounge, brought us a few more friends. Clayton and Madeline, from Toronto, Canada and Jolene and Steve, from the heartland of Iowa, joined us. The conversation was lively, with new ideas and exchange of personal information.
We had the morning free, so we lingered at breakfast chatting and then read and sipped coffee on our balcony, watching the Rhine River scenery. We were passing through a whole series of locks that raised us up to the level of the approaching Main Canal and Main River complex. It was 80 degrees (F) and cloudy out.
At 2 P.M., the Vali reached Freudenberg and tied up at the dock there. We had a 3:15 P.M walking tour of Miltenberg scheduled. Buses ferried us to nearby Miltenberg. Just near the dock stands an oddity. Three young lads carved in metal were standing and peeing into a fountain. Everyone got a pic of that statue. No one offered an explanation for it either. I will have to make one up in a later draft of our trip log.
The scenic town had not been bombed in WW II because it had no real manufacturing capability. It does have many old style half- timber houses. A bay window apparently denoted a wealthy inhabitant. The local castle had been built in 1226 and stood solidly still. The City Hall was constructed in 1397. These are dates that, to Americans, sound like figures from the dinosaur age.
A pedestrian mall in the city center was lined with merchants of all types. We found an apothecary and obtained some precious Sudafed. We were both suffering from a noxious sinus and upper chest cold. Half the ship had come down with it. Just down the street, we entered into “Der Riesen Biergarten.”(Giant Beer garden in English) It is reputedly the oldest operating tavern in Germany, having served steins of beer for over 400 years. It was extremely hot out. Most people coming in first asked for the badenzimmer (WC) and then settled into some wooden tables for a beer. A glass of wheat beer was refreshing. The Broyles had joined us and were sampling a “slider” of beers. This is about six small glasses that start with a lighter wheat beer and graduate to the heavier and darker beers. The inside of the Tavern was wooden paneled and comfortable. A whole lot of folks before us had sit in here, drinking for the last few hundred years. The place had a full menu of bratwurst and other German specialties. We were in a rush to make it back to the Vali, so we paid our tab in Euros and made off. One of the other passengers was struggling with the “no credit card” practice. We had heard of a creative solution to this in another town. The quick thinking clerk led the guest to a nearby store where they could buy Amazon gift cards in the amount owed at the Tavern. Good employee. We were to find the “no credit card” policy in several towns along the river. Euros were the standard specie.
It was 93 degrees (F) and sultry out. We hiked back to the buses and were ferried to the Vali's new location, at 5:15 P.M. The skipper wasted no time. By 6 P.M, the Vali had slipped her lines and was motoring up the Rhine, headed for Karlstadt and Wurzburg on the morrow.
We joined our boon companions, the Broyles and Pinazza's for dinner at the 7 P.M. seating. Minestrone soup, poached salmon and an apple tart, with a crisp Riesling made for the usual delicious repast. Our conversations and consumption of wine stocks was increasing. We were getting to know each other better and the conversation was laden with movie references that we all related to. “The Big Lebowski” was a Broyles favorite. Renzo had us all with the “Bangok Hilton,” an early Nicole Kidman flick. It was fun to be there.
Tuesday, June 20, 2023 -Wurzberg, Germany
We were up by 7 A.M. It was raining and cool out. Our tour of the Wurzburg Bishop's Palace was scheduled for the afternoon. We met up with Clayton and Madeline in the main dining room, and had a leisurely breakfast with them, trading stories of what we had each seen and done during the last few days. It was a leisurely and pleasant morning.
The Vali, had motored down the Rhine overnight. We stopped briefly in Karlstadt, around 8 :30 A.M. to let off passengers for their excursion to Rothenburg, on the fabled Romantic Highway. Although we did not join them on this excursion, I include my notes, from a visit to Rothenburg on a former trip through Bavaria, for the memories of our other passengers.
The bus was travelling down the “Romantic Highway.” Created in the 1950's, it is a route passing through a series of medieval villages and ethnic centers that runs some 350 KM from North to South in Germany.
Whatever the name, all highways in Deutschland are the “autobahn.” That means buses are restricted to 120 KPH. Cars can go any speed they can manage. It wasn't unusual to see some high-powered Porsche roar by us like we were standing still. Of course, you would soon see their taillights flash, because it is only a two-lane road and not everyone wants to drive that fast. We were also to encounter what the Germans call “Die Stau.” It is a twenty-mile long traffic jam that moves very slowly.
The valleys here are green and rolling. Neatly ordered farms bespeckled the hillsides. It is a region for growing hops, corn and oats. It is also a region that produces beer and wine, which the Germans consume with great vigor. We crossed into the Tauber River Valley, headed to the medieval town of Rothenburg.
A huge fortress dominates the head of the valley here, with the village spread out behind it. From the fortress, we could look out over the vast Tauber River Valley and admire the countryside. A formal garden was growing next to it. As attractive as the village is, there is of course a dark side. 450 townspeople of the Jewish Faith had been penned in a tower in 1215 and then burned to death after being accused of stealing communion wafers. It wasn't an area that tolerated cultural or religious differences. In later city and town visits, in the entire mid European region, we were to learn that whatever the local baron, lord or King chose for a religion became the official religion of all the people of the area. Those not so inclined to participate were encouraged and assisted in vacating the town, sometimes forcibly. This practice was the major cause of the Thirty Years War that ravaged the area. An earthquake destroyed the castle in 1356. It had been rebuilt in its current form.
We walked through the cobble stoned streets, admiring the half-timber houses so characteristic of the period. The village is a Christmas (Weinachten) center on steroids. The “Weinachsdorf” is a Christmas store with everything imaginable for sale to decorate homes, trees and persona. We admired the many glistening ornaments, woodcarvings and shiny baubles on sale. The village has an official Christmas season. People from all over the region come here to celebrate Weinachten.
It was hot and in the 80's (F). We found a wonderful little bakery shop in the main town square (Markplaz.) “The Markplaz Eight” served us up some warm apfel strudel, with a heated vanilla sauce and cappuccino, that were exquisite.
At 1:00 P.M. we all gathered in the Markplaz. Two stories above us, at the crack of 1 P.M., carved wooden figures started emerging from the wall above, accompanied by music. The colorful musical diorama reenacted a local legend. In it, a conquering Swedish General, in the employ of the Hapsburgs, offered the town a deal. If someone could drink four flagons of wine, the town would be spared. The locals apparently managed well enough. When I saw the size of the flagon, I thought, 'Hell this wouldn't last the first hour in a South Buffalo tavern.' Four of them wouldn't last much longer.
This raised the topic of another odd practice, after drinking water and coffee all morning. It literally governed our movements. Most rest stops in this region, as well as Austria, Switzerland and Italy, charge a fee for using the restrooms. (kidney tax) In years past, it used to be a little dish that you tossed a coin onto. Nowadays, it is a metal stile that issues you a ticket after you pay from 50 to 70 cents. There are no exceptions, unless you find the occasional rest stop with “frei washrooms.” So, we all learned to carry one or two half-euro coins on us daily. Even at a McDonald's, you need a code from your purchase to access the rest room. I muttered to the Aussies ruefully that we could be rich if we started this practice in an American gin mill, if they didn't shoot you first that is.
We took a small back road headed south. The “Castle Road” passed through a bucolic farmland of neatly ordered fields. We were headed towards Augsburg, passing through rustic villages like Dinkklesburg. Augsburg had first been founded by the Romans in 15 B.C. and named Augustus. It was then linked, directly to Rome, by the Via Claudia. The entire area is rich in underground salt deposits. This “white gold” was to fuel much of the Bavarian and early Austrian economies.
Near there, we passed through a geographical oddity at Reisbayern. Millions of years ago, a huge asteroid had struck the area, forming a bowl-shaped depression some 20 km across. Nordlingen village now sits in the center of the depression. That must have been some meteorite. As a parenthetical, we saw entire acres of solar energy hookups and many units attached to the roofs of homes in the valley. They are extremely eco-conscious when it comes to energy.
The Vali tied up in Wurzburg by noon. It was sunny and in the mid-eighties out. The day promised to be a hot one. At 1:30 P.M., we climbed up to the top deck and then made our way across two other ships berthed there, exiting down the gangway of the ship nearest to shore. The buses loaded us up and we were on our way to the fabled Prince Bishop's palace of Wurzberg. Famed architect Balthazar Neuman, had created this magnificent complex of buildings in the 1720 era, when the area and its Bishop Prince was at its wealthiest.
High on a lofty hill and off in the distance, we could see the huge specter of the Marienberg Fortress, built in 1200. The Palace itself is a rather large affair. The central causeway led us to the entranceway. Behind a fountain and floral gardens, stands this gray, stone edifice that rivals the majesty of many foreign palaces. A central two story keep is flanked by a wing on either side. There were already several tourist and school groups gathered outside of the front entrance portal. It would be a scrum walking through this place.
Inside of the entrance lobby, we walked up the grand staircase to the second level. The entire area is covered by a free-standing domed ceiling, with an enormous painted mural stretching across its length and breadth. The guide dutifully tried to explain about the artwork portrayed. Four god like figures, representing the four continents. (Australia not discovered yet) were pointing inward towards Wurzburg, the center of their universe. Italian Master Giovanni Tiepolo had created this masterpiece for the resident Prince Bishop. You would need several books and a very long time, to interpret all of the mythology represented by Tiepolo above us. It is similar in experience to looking up while traversing the Sistine Chapel, in Rome. You do well, just to admire the artistry on display. Trying to understand all of the symbolism will make you dizzy. The statues carved into and atop the surrounding walls also bespoke of an active artistic imagination. It is an impressive display. This dome and its artwork, are the only pieces of the original palace that survived bombing, by allied bombers in W.W.II. But, that is a story for a later time.
The surrounding rooms, the “White Room,” the “White Hall,” and corridors between them, are a wonder of gilt-crested statuary that rivals Versailles. Ornate mirrors, wall-sized tapestries and colorful frescoes tickle the eyes. To each room and its contents, there are legends and stories galore. I would think you would have to visit this palace on several occasions, to get a fuller understanding of what is on display here.
The Imperial Wedding Room is cluttered with portraits of royalty from the last few hundred years. The relationship of families, kingships and countries is a tangled affair that would confuse even a competent historian. The gilt here is everywhere, calling attention to the importance and wealth of all those displayed.
This ornate and impressive edifice had all but been destroyed during W.W. II. It was a U.S. “Monument Man” named John Stilson, who first came upon the ruins late in 1945. Recognizing their historic and artistic value, he spearheaded the recovery of artifacts and the government restoration of the palace. In his honor, there is a separate room dedicated to and describing his efforts.
It was 91 degrees out (F) and sweltering, even inside of the lofty chambers of the palace. We reassembled our group and walked down the entrance walkway to our bus, much appreciating the air conditioned bubble that it represented. The motor coach ferried us back to welcome coolness of the Vali. We settled in with a martini, and watched some news on CNN. Then, we cleaned up and met up with the Broyles and Pinazza's for dinner in the main dining room at 7:00 P.M. The very good German Cabernet accompanied a repast of black potato soup, a King Dorado fish course and a cheesecake dessert. We were all a little done in from the day's heat. Mary and I repaired to our cabin, to read and enjoy the magnificent atmospheric explosions of an electrical storm that erupted above us and all up and down the Rhine Valley. The elemental brilliance of the storm reduced all that we had seen and done to a mere footnote in time.
Wed. June 21, 2023- Karlstadt & Wurzburg
We were up by 7 A.M. Coffee on the balcony was a welcome way to start the day, cruising along the Rhine River. We met Madeline and Clayton for breakfast and enjoyed a leisurely morning, trading anecdotes on their experiences and ours. A lecture on Bavaria, held in the ships lounge, was of interest. Bavaria was an important Kingdom of the Middle Ages with an army of its own. One anecdote had Napoleon taking 33,000 Bavarian troops to Russia with him in 1805. Only three thousand had come back. The Germans never forgave the French for that escapade. Crazy King Ludwig and had been the “Castle Builder” in the German hereditary line. “Schloss Neuschwanstein,” after which Walt Disney had drawn inspiration for “It's a small worlds” exhibit in his theme parks, was among several of his projects. We had seen another one of his castles, on a previous trip, near Oberamegou.”In the days ahead, we were to see a veritable Greek Temple sitting high on the Rhine Hillside. It was another of Ludwig's castles. Eventually, the spending excesses had done him in. Reputedly, the family had him and a faithful attendant strangled and thrown into one of the castle lakes.
An announcement that a member of every stateroom should attend a meeting in the lounge, caught our attention. No one was hollering “abandon ship, swim for shore,” but the meeting purpose caught everyone's attention. The ship's Captain told us, in careful language, that the level of water in the Main Canal system was too low to allow passage downstream for the Vali. This was a poser. Fortunately, Viking had and does deal with this issue every year. We were advised to pack up our gear this evening and leave it in our staterooms. Then, we would proceed on our tour of Nurenburg on Thursday. Later, after a lunch in town, a bus would ferry us beyond the low water blockage, where an identical Viking sister ship, “The Tir” was waiting for us to board. We were even assigned the same staterooms. The move would be effortless.
We boarded buses at 1:15 P.M., for our “Franconia Tour.” Franconia was the name of the region before Bavaria assumed ascendency. Many of the locals still claim that identity. Stopping first at Zel am Main, our guide showed an actual “Witch Tower. During a period of time in the 1600's, where harvests were bad and the economic sector in free fall, conditions spawned the notion that witches were the cause of the bad luck. Interrogations were held on those poor people denounced by neighbors. The tools were thumb screws, leg irons and other niceties. Naturally, everyone interviewed, confessed. They gave up names of people around them, also then accused of complicity in witch craft. They too were “interviewed.” A goodly number of souls were dispatched that way, during a twenty year period. The confessed witches were burned in the tower. In that it was thought that witches could fly, there were no windows in the tall silo-like structure. The same witch hunting process was then occurring in Salem, Mass. A pillory, where miscreants were chained to the City Hall wall and left for all to see them, was also a vestige of these troubled times.
From these benighted settings, we set off and motored up the backroads of the area, to a marvelous vista of the whole Main/Donau Valley. There, a small church, that of Maria Limbach, sat quietly looking over the valley. Behind the plain, white-stone exterior, lay a treasure house of gilded altars and confessionals that would serve well a royal family. We ogled the ornate carvings and Mass settings, appreciating what this must have cost to build. At the rear of the church was a well flowered and orderly grave yard, that stretched back in time. The grave sites are leased for a 25 year periods. Family members must trim and attend to them. If no one renews the lease, then other families take over the plot, with their deceased love ones. Funeral costs were currently running 10 thousand euros. Cremation cost came in at six thousand euros.
Descending the narrow roads to Memmeldorf, we stopped by a local brewery. “The Three Crowns Brewery” is an attractive and comfortable Tavern and brewery run by three sisters. We sat down and tasted two types of beer that they brewed in small batches. One was a lighter “blond beer.” It was very good. The second concoction was a dark amber “smoked beer,” that is a local specialty. It tasted like smoked bacon to me. The waitress brought us all some large, doughy pretzels, favored by Bavarians. The food was accompanied by a very sweet mustard that was wonderful. We enjoyed the stop, appreciating the coolness of the tavern and the warmth of the hospitality.
Next on our line of march was “Schloss Seehof.” It is an enormous stone palace, the home of the whole line of “Prince Bishops” that had ruled the area. Somewhere in this line of PB's, was a Count Stauffenberg, a five generations removed ancestor of the Count Stauffenberg who had tried to assassinate Hitler at his wolf's lair HQ during WWII.
The whole notion of Prince Bishop's was new to us. These potentates were both the titular head of the Catholic Church in the area and the hereditary state ruler of the government. Hence, they held the title “Prince Bishop.” Their authority was absolute in all matters, with no appeal. The wealth that they amassed funded these enormous palaces. The walk into Schloss Seehof passed a glassed-in structure, that the French would call “le orangerie.” It enabled them to grow oranges, limes and lemons. Groves of these fruit trees formed a formal garden in front of the Schloss (Castle). A large ornate fountain completed the entrance. The Schloss itself is imposing. Two wings crowded the central, two story keep, with ornate statuary abounding.
The Grand Ballroom is imposing, with painted ceiling murals and large glass mirrors reflecting the light. Interview rooms for supplicants to the PB, and waiting areas, were set aside for business purposes. Silk wallpaper graced the walls. The bedrooms, living areas and guest bedrooms were all fit for royalty. Small porcelain furnaces warmed the rooms. They were fed fuel from behind, in small corridors, unseen by the residents. Prince Bishops lived in grand style. The formal “White Room” ceiling also held a painted fresco of Greek Gods.
At the rear of the Schloss, we descended a two level stone staircase to stand around another grand fountain that showered water on a number of imposing statues. Below us, several large ponds served as aquatic hunting areas for royalty. Guests would stand still, aiming their 17th century arcbusses at a flight of geese and waterfowl that had been stirred up by servants. Fishing expeditions were also available for the privileged. We walked along shaded arbors of Linden trees, back to our bus. It was a brief glimpse into another era. It was hot out and we were tiring.
Back aboard the Vali, we prepped for dinner at 7 P.M. We were joined by the Broyles and the Pinazza's. We traded tales of our day's tours and enjoyed the pleasant company of friends at dinner. An avocado salad, shrimp with rice and a Black Forest torte, accompanied by a decent German cabernet, made for a great meal. This was to be our last night aboard the Vali, so we made arrangements to tip our room maid and a favored restaurant waiter. Daily tips, that are shared with the entire crew, are included in the cruise price. But, additional tips, for superior service, are welcomed.
We headed back to our staterooms, to pack our gear and get ready for another adventure. It had been a good day. Like most obstacles that you run into while traveling, you just learn to rock and roll and go with the flow. The Viking personnel made it easy.
Thurs. June 22, 2023- Nuremberg, Germany
We were up early, perhaps thinking of all that we had to do today. A light breakfast, in the open air aqua vit terrace, got us underway. We would be leaving the Vali today. She had been a good ride, with a wonderful crew.
Our bus tour of Nuremberg got underway. The city had been founded in 1050. Its name meant "rocky mountains" in German, perhaps because of the proximity of the Alps. The buses cruised through the outer perimeter of this working class city. During the days of the late Kaiser's realm and the early Weimar Republic, Nuremberg had been a leader in constructing decent public housing and gardens for the working class. The style was a somewhat severe, Stalinist architecture, like east Berlin, but it was a well-intentioned effort.
We passed by the huge parade grounds, Congress Hall, where Hitler had held his monstrous annual Nazi rallies during the 1930's. Now, they looked like an old football stadium steps that had fallen on hard times. There were some two dozen solid stone WC facilities that had held up well. It was perhaps a fitting monument to national Socialism. The aging loos were filled with the same type of content that the Nazis had espoused during the 30's & 40's. The nearby SS barracks was solid and menacing. The good Lord only knows what horrors that building had seen.
The solid bulk of the federal court house is the most noted building in town. It was here that the Nazi war criminals had been brought to trial by the victorious allies. We had chosen not to take this portion of the tour. I had seen enough of those horrors on the old news reels. Twenty four of the nastiest rascals had been convicted and hanged for their crimes. That fat schmuck Herman Goering took his own life, before he could be tried. Presiding at the trials, was the honorable Thomas Jackson, from nearby Jamestown, New York. He would later be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Passing by the very old St. John's Cemetery, with graves dating back to the 1100's, we mused upon the varied history seen in these environs. Amidst the awful memories that the city evokes, Pachabel's Canon, a work of timeless beauty, had been composed here. Like every city, there are saints and rascals in its history. I think I will keep in mind the imagery of the stone WC's, and what content filled them, as a commentary on the merits of National Socialism.
Our bus dropped us off in the main plaza of Nuremberg, the Haupt Market Square. Most of us went immediately to pay our kidney tax in a nearby one-euro facility. Several flower, fruit and vegetable stands occupied the square's center. Around the periphery, sit a host of coffee shops, gift stores and other merchants. There were school groups and other tour companies like ours walking about, looking for they knew not what. It was over 92 degrees out (F) and very warm. The city's main administrative hall sits in the square. Several happy groups, clad in various types of formal and semi-formal dress, stood waiting for their nuptial ceremonies to be performed. Picture taking was all around us. The central fountain in the square was an odd affair. Composed of a single ornate spire, it was surrounded by a tall, black-metal work fence. A low set of steps surrounded the spire. Many people tried to take shade in its presence. Like most tourist areas, the only place to sit down was at a restaurant where you paid for your place.
We walked about the square and over the bridges, spanning the city canals, for a time enjoying all of the activity. There were some trendy shops nearby, but it was too hot. An Apothecary provided us with some additional meds. Seeking shelter, we sat under the welcome shade of the Café Potenza. Cappuccinos, with water, were a welcome thirst quencher. We had found often enough, on other visits, that only the French and the Italians know how to make decent coffee. Cafe' au lait or Cappuccinos were the better choice everywhere else. I suppose, the locals were used to having a light beer at breakfast or lunch. It was a habit from the days when the beer was safe and the water wasn't. A few panhandlers were aggressively seeking money from tourists. These were the first bums we had seen on our trip, may the Lord be good to them.
At 1:00 P.M. the horn from the mother ships sounded, like E.T's UFO calling, and we all came running. Our tour director, Gabriella, led a very large crowd of us through the square to the “Weinsteuben Restaurant.” We were seated at tables of eight. A very efficient staff served us beer, wine or water and then a salad. A plate of local bratwurst and sausages was served. I managed to get some decent ravioli. Vanilla ice cream was served and of course everyone tried it. They also offered refills on beer and wine. Viking was picking up the tab, trying its best to improve the mood of her passengers, for the ship transfer.
After lunch, an aging and somewhat sleepy passenger contingent made it through the square to reboard our buses for the three-hour ride to Passau and our new Viking ship, “The Tir.” Along the way, we observed prosperous fields of barley, wheat and corn, that filled the verdant countryside. Many of the passengers nodded off. The traffic was heavy on the autobahn. Fields of windmills, generating electrical energy, sprouted up along the way.
It was after 6 P.M. when we pulled into Passau, and boarded the Tir. The ship slipped her lines soon afterwards, headed downstream for Regensberg. As promised, The Tir was a duplicate to the Vali. We walked into our state room and unpacked quickly. Then, we prepped for dinner and made our way to the 7 P.M. sitting in the main dining room. We joined the Broyles and the Pinazza's for dinner. Sweet potato soup, a filet of sole and some interesting bread pudding filled out the menu. We also tried and liked a very good German Cabernet. The conversation was lively, with exchanges about what we had all seen and done that day. Viking had handled the transfer of bags and passengers effortlessly.
After dinner, we repaired to our cabin “stanke morte.” (dead tired) We unpacked our gear and settled into our new room, like we had been there all week. Outside a violent electrical storm lit up the skies of the entire river valley, reminding us that these environs weren't always so bucolic and restful. We slept like the dead that night, grateful to be safe in our new berths.
Friday, June 23, 2023- Regensburg, Germany
We were up by 6 A.M. It was cloudy out, with a light mist of rain. Breakfast found us joining Madeline and Clayton. Exchanging stories, lifestyles and previous adventures is one of the great pleasures of being on a cruise or tour. Our schedule was free until this afternoon, so we dawdled over breakfast, chatting with our new found friends. Then, we read for a time in the lounge. The ship was motoring down the Danube and approaching Regensberg. I had never before heard the name of this town, but others had. It was the home of Joseph Ratzinger, later in life to become Pope Benedict XVI. Johannes Kepler, the astronomer, had also called the area home.
The Tir docked at Regensburg in the late morning. There were already six other cruise ships tied up along the pier, with a light rain. We met our guide “Susan” on the pier at 2 P.M. She is an elementary teacher here and had already worked a full day when she met up with us. She would prove to be a wonderful and energetic storyteller, and much enhanced our experience of the town.
The city wall and tower along the pier had been erected in 900. Various uses had claimed the tower in the years after, including the storage of gun powder and a repository for corpses. There is a university here, so there are lots of pubs and cafes to loiter in. The area had been spared total destruction in WW II because there wasn't any industry of note present. A Messerschmitt aircraft plant in the far suburbs had absorbed much of the devastation delivered by allied bombers. We walked along the pier. A grand stone bridge, built in 1138, crosses the Danube here. It had also been a way station for the collection of taxes, especially on salt, considered to be the white gold of its time. One of the last great Crusades of the Middle Ages had been launched from this bridge. A huge warehouse to hold the salt still exists and is now used as a library and a museum.
A curious statue sits on the banks of the river. It is that of a Golden Walla. Once a year this odd shaped fish rises up from the bottom of the Danube, to feast on the annoying plethora of bugs that carpet the river in August. A wooden canal boat had been restored and anchored here. In centuries past, it had been used for hauling cargo. Horses had dragged the ship along the river, using ropes deployed from her bow, walking along the banks of the river.
Like most towns, along this area of the Danube, Regenberg had been a Roman fortification two thousand years ago. Remnants of the original Roman walls turn up every time new construction begins. The fierce Germanic tribes held sway across the river. The Romans had lost three entire legions, fighting the Barbarians in the early years. They had good reason to try and keep the fierce tribes at bay.
A humorous aside occurred as we walked. One of the guest remarked upon the historic appearance of the cobble stoned streets. Susan remarked, somewhat candidly, that “yes, they were indeed historic, having been installed in the mid 1970's as a tourist attraction by town fathers.” It was all part of the tourist-oriented “medieval Disneyland” concept that we were to find everywhere. High above us, on a promontory, sat the old Bishop's Hof and tower. The Prince Bishop governing concept had held sway all throughout the area. In the city's mains square, on the walls of the Rathaus (city Hall) are several iron bars prominently displayed. Susan explained that during the Middle Ages, virtually every town had their own system of measurements. The bars were posted to demonstrate what size each measurement depicted. It enhanced fairness in trade and prevented some nasty misunderstandings between merchants, about how much was actually how much in the transactions.
The tour had been billed as a “walking tour of Jewish History.” There was much to say and not much of it good. Serious persecution of the Jewish population here had begun in the 1400's and continued on with varying degrees of ferocity until it penultimate horror show in the 1940's. In 1518, the Jews had been completely expelled from Regensburg. Their homes and property were confiscated. Conditions didn't improve until King Frederick Barbarossa declared the area a free city, in the 1600's. Napoleon and his armies had ravaged the area in 1805. And then, the Nazis came during the 1930's. All of the local Jewish population was sent off to the extermination camps.
One bright note on the tour, was a stop at the “Oskar Schindler” Haus. After WWII, Schindler, who had saved so many Jews, retired here. He was impoverished, but kept alive by donations from relatives of the many people he had saved during the Nazi era. He later moved to Argentina and died there in relative poverty. His wife had returned to Regensburg. Their Haus had been made into a shrine of sorts. Our last stop on the tour was a controversial one. On the walls of a Catholic Church stands a raised etching of a pig, beneath it suckled three people in garb associated with the Jews. At the time, it was considered a penultimate sneering derision of Jews. In later decades, town fathers had debated having the shameful image removed. The argument that prevailed was to leave the stain in place, as a lesson of what hatred and bigoty could spawn. A monument to the suffering of the Jews, a new temple, had been erected in the area in 2018. Susan left us here. We thanked her for her lively narration. We had much to think about that afternoon.
As a parenthetical to this issue, currently in Germany, there is wide discussion about what happened with the Nazis and the concentration camps. The facts of the Holocaust are taught in public schools and the provenance of the ethic and religious hatred discussed openly, perhaps in the hopes of avoiding such awful behavior in the future. I am mindful of the fact that concentration camps were first used by the British during the Boer war. Perhaps had that been openly discussed, it might have deterred some of the murderous behavior. Most “civilized nations” have a darker side to their history, regarding the treatment of indigenous peoples and religious minorities. Indeed, China currently heads the list of “civilized nations” who abuse and mistreat ethnic minorities. We all have a lot to talk about, in the hopes of avoiding behavior like this in the future.
Reboarding the Tir, we cleaned up for dinner. The Tir slipped her lines by 6:30 P.M. and motored down the Danube towards Passau, Germany, on the border with Austria. We joined the Broyles and the Pinazzas for the 7:00 P.M dinner seating. Cream of asparagus soup, sea bass, and an apple crumb desert, accompanied by the now favored German cabernet, made for a delightful repast. The conversation was lively, as we all traded stories of what we had seen and done that day.
After dinner, we read for a time and then were gratefully welcomed into the arms of Morpheus.
Saturday, June 24, 2023- Passau, Germany
We were up by 6 A.M. It was 64 degrees (F) and cool out. We breakfasted in the first floor dining room, and readied for the day. We were scheduled for a 9 A.M walking tour of Passau. The town sits at the confluence of the Inn, Linz and Danube Rivers. Virtually every major power in Europe had traipsed through the area at one time or another. The mysterious Celts had been supplanted here by the Roman garrisons. Later waves of Ottoman Turks, Tatars and other raiders had washed over the area looking for plunder. Finally, the Hapsburgs in the 11th century laid claim to the regions and it was stabilized, until the world wars of the twentieth century.
Rudy, our guide, met us on the pier and introduced himself. He started with a description of the Danube floods that periodically see the river rise over fifty feet above its banks and swamp the lower regions of the surrounding valleys. He showed us a high water mark along the river front wall, with an accompanying date. Then, he showed us another one and another and another one. “Aabbastanza” (enough please) we said to ourselves. Enough with the floods.
The medieval structures of Passau had mostly been destroyed by a great fire in the 1660's.Their replacements had all been constructed in the ornate Rococo style. Many of the buildings reminded us of Venice. Even the colors were Neapolitan. I would guess the Italian Renaissance at the time was influencing architectural styles all across Europe. Across the river, and atop a very high bank, we could see an imposing castle that had been built in the 800's. It was now a four star hotel.
Rudy's narrative style had not improved much, so we fled from the tour, hoping to escape into the crowds around us. The City Hall (rathaus) square was chock ablock with weekend shoppers. Mary investigated several gift stores along the way. I sat at a convenient bus stop and watched the peopled array flow by, fascinated as always by the parade. Sitting and watching people was not a chore for me. An impeded walking ability had consigned me to frequent stops along all of the walking tours, using whatever bench, seat of fence I could utilize. The brief respites charged up the batteries a little bit every time. It was enabling me to get through these tours quite ably.
Just down from the square, in a dark cobble stoned alley, we came across another oddity. Here, amidst the medieval streets of Passau, sits an Irish Pub. I thought maybe we could get a quick consult with Mr. Jameson, but the place was closed until later in the day. The alleyways flowed westward and downhill, towards the Danube. All manner of shops were open for the locals to run their errands.
And then, we came upon a very upscale pedestrian mall. Clothing shops, cafes, and other browsable spots, were flooded with locals, enjoying a warm and sunny Saturday. We espied Fiona's, a small café with shaded tables, that sits along the mall. We decided to visit. We sat down gratefully and ordered some very good cappuccino and enjoyed some even better apple strudel, with warm vanilla sauce. It was wunderbar. (23 euros) We sat for a time, enjoying the flow of folks passing by with their kinder and freunds. It is one of our favorite things to do in places like this. Afterwards, we drifted down towards the Danube and walked along the river banks, curious at all of the river traffic and the many citizens cycling, walking and enjoying the morning. It really is a delightful little town.
Abandoning Rudy, we had missed a visit to St. Stephen's Cathedral. It reputedly has the largest pipe organs in the world. It plays the carillons periodically, to the delight of the entire town. The church had been ruined in the 1660's fire and rebuilt in the ornate rococo style. We didn't mind. We were now beginning to understand the mantra of well-travelled friends. (AFC, AFC) “Another friggin' church, another friggin' castle.” Passau's St. Stephens would have to go unappreciated. Besides, we had visited St. Stephen's Cathedrals in Munich, Vienna and a few other places. This guy must have been someone of great stature back in the day.
The afternoon approached. We made our way back to the Tir, and then sunned and read our books topside, enjoying a gorgeous day on the Danube. A welcome vodka martini capped off the afternoon, before we cleaned up and readied for dinner. It was “German Night” in the dining room, memorializing our last night in Deutschland. We were greeted by staff, dressed in lederhosen and Dirndls, offering us a small glass of beer and a shot of schnapps. We accepted both with pleasure. We sat with the Broyles and the Pinazzas again, now old friends. We were linked by that mysterious bonding process that I have come to label “fellowship of the road.” The offerings that night were heavy with sausages, bratwurst, cabbage and other German specialties.
The German Cabernet drew our attention, despite the menu., and the preceding schnapps and beer. A cheese course, followed by a local fish and then more of that delicious apple strudel made for a very good meal. Not addled enough, we managed a glass of wine in the second floor lounge with our friends. It had been a good day on the Austrian border. We still had a few days left on the tour, but the 'Museum glaze' was starting to descend on me as “the tour glaze.” It was nearing time to head on home.
Sunday, June 25th, 2023 - Melk, Austria
We were up at 7 A.M and joined the Broyles for an early breakfast in the main dining room. Most of the ship's compliment was scheduled for a 9 A.M tour of the world famous “Melk Abbey,” nearby.
The town of Melk sits at the confluence of the Melk and Danube Rivers, at the base of the lush Wachau Valley. The verdant hills and fields produce a bountiful supply of wine from the many vineyards. It is a major product of the area's agriculture and economy. The Benedictine Abbey at Melk is over nine hundred years old. It sits high on a hill side, over-looking the town. The Abbey complex consists of several courtyards, with light yellow sand-stone walls on the façade of buildings. At one time, the Abbey had been a major congregation of the Benedictine religious order. The upper and imposing battlements of the complex sit several hundred feet above the town. The Benedictines, like the Jesuits, had been major players in the Byzantine orchestration of European politics during the middle ages. We had been fortunate to visit the original Benedictine Abbey in Monte Casino, Italy. It is equally as imposing.
The Tir had tied up to a floating pier, on a steep embankment of the Danube. Perhaps these reinforced shores were a local flood control project, to hold back the river when it rises. The entire scrum of ship's passengers hiked for ten minutes, up a steep pathway, to the bus parking area nearby. A short bus ride brought us to the Abbey's parking area, above the actual Abbey. We walked down two flights of stone stairways. The “imperial steps” to the Abbey Complex.
The initial forecourt holds a small café, tourist offices, A WC and other administrative functions. Walking through the second archway brought us into the main, pebble-lined courtyard. The Abbey complex was built around seven of these courtyards, scattered throughout the complex. It had been constructed in 1297 and then rebuilt after a ruinous fire. Symbolically, the Abbey featured 365 windows to represent their study and devotion for the entire year. The Benedictine Order held as its mantra, “listen, learn and work.” Though religious in nature, the complex had also served as a meeting ground for the royals of the empire. The Abbey once held over sixty guest rooms set aside for visiting royals and their entourages. Although there are still a small compliment of Benedictines in residence, most of the Abbey had been renovated by the Austrian Government and turned into a public museum, featuring various elements and practices on the Middle Ages.
Entering the museum, we passed through the first display area. A large gilded statue of the 6th century St. Benedict, looked over us. He was reportedly poisoned by rivals later in his life. A very small book in a glass case, was an example of an item that all of the monks carried with them while travelling. It enabled them to read the scriptures when they had time. The room was darkened. The highly-gilded, wooden statues were accompanied by a notation of the church's philosophy at the time. It was more important to “look wealthy” than to “be wealthy.” The concept of “Illusion” was important to the order. It was a curious idea. The museum gave no further explanation of the provenance of notion.
Another room featured a “treasure chest” that enabled the monks to gather their valuables and skedaddle when raiders came their way. A more curious exhibit was the “reusable coffin.” The wooden coffin had a trap door in its bottom. After the requiem service, the decedent was released into his earthly grave and the coffin was ready for reuse. Though economical, the concept had never caught on.
A lavish formal dining room had served the visiting dignitaries, both religious and civil. I think more than a few plots must been hatched around the meals at this table. There were glass cases that held finely threaded monks' ceremonial robes of the era, further expanding the notion of “look wealthy, rather than be wealthy.” The ceiling frescoes in the dining room were grandiose and reflected religious themes.
One of the major attractions of the Abbey is its two-room library complex. The rooms hold over 15,000 books and manuscripts, scripted in Greek, Latin, and German. These finely detailed books serve as the “wisdom of the ages,” for the monks. The collection had been lovingly assembled, much like that of the Library at Alexandria, Egypt must have been, before its destruction by vandals. Here too, the monks were afraid of damage by fire. In the library rooms, there were no candles allowed. Instead, a series of doors, cleverly inlaid and hidden along the walls, opened up into small reading and working areas, each in front of one of the 365 windows. It allowed the monks enough illumination to read and write. The leather-bound books now receive a temperature and humidity controlled environment, to prevent more damage from their long life.
From the Library, we walked out onto the upper battlements. The open gallery here looks far out across the town and the Wachau Valley. The drop to the land below was several hundred feet. It was enough to get my attention and spark my quick departure. Lastly, like all museums, we entered into the spacious gift store. It features religious items of all types.
It was 76 degrees out (F) and sunny, as we emerged from the museum/abbey. We found an elevator near the grand staircase. It lifted us up towards the bus parking area. We caught an early bus back to the Tir. It had been an interesting and educational visit to a historic treasure. I would love to hear some of the back stories, from knowledgeable historians, of the intrigues and events that had taken place here at the Melk Abbey. But then, that is what travel is all about. You get introduced to new ideas and new situations and learn from them.
Back aboard the Tir, we were in time for lunch, something we had skipped for several days, to help stem the caloric tide. Black bean soup and pasta with salmon were very good. After lunch, we sat topside, read our books and enjoyed the beauty of the Danube Valley, as the Tir cruised south along this magical highway. The Austrian countryside is lush and verdant, a palliative for the eyes. In the world around our travel bubble, a minor military revolt had occurred in Russia. The ruckus put in perspective all of the medieval machinations that had occurred over the centuries in the area round us. The Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Bourbons, Tudors, Romanovs and a coterie of other Royal Houses, were always maneuvering, and often fighting, for the acquisition of more lands, more wealth and power. Many had this way come and left their mark.
It was a lazy afternoon that allowed for a brief conference with Mr. Nelson. (patron saint of naps) Later, we cleaned up for dinner and joined the Broyles and the Pinazzas for dinner at 7 P.M. Butternut squash soup, potato encrusted shrimp, with Tartufo for dessert, were washed down with a very tasty German Cabernet. After dinner, in the lounge above, we enjoyed a presentation by two Austrian folk dancers and sampled a glass or two more of the cabernet. It had been a good first day in Austria. We were glad we had this way come.
Monday, June 26, 2023- Vienna, Austria
We were up early at 4 A.M. We prepped for the day and then breakfasted in the main dining room. Most of the ship's compliment was scheduled for a 9 A.M. bus tour of Vienna. We assembled dockside and mounted our tour buses, with great expectations of what we were to see. We had been to Vienna once before and were looking forward to revisiting this wonderful old city.
Five arms of the Danube and two rivers flow through the delta of land that forms this ancient capitol. Vienna is by any standards, an imperial city. Once, Vienna had been the capital of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, an expanse of eighteen current countries. This city of two million souls had been the seat of the Hapsburg Royal family. They had ruled here from the tenth century until after the end of W.W.I, when the empire had been broken up by victorious allies. The impressive buildings and city layout reflected its imperial heritage. Built in concentric circles, the city has 23 separate zones. Every building loomed larger than life.
We drove along the Ringstrasse. It was the outer and most prominent main thoroughfare. It had been built after Emperor Franz Josef levelled the city's outer defensive wall and filled in its defensive moats. The walls and moat weren't just for show. The forces of the Ottoman-Turks had besieged the Capital twice, in 1529 and 1683.It was the armies of the Princes of Poland that had ridden to break the sieges and scatter the armies of the Ottoman Turks.
The architecture, along the Ringstrasse, represents a variety of differing styles, ranging from Gothic, to Romanesque to Beau Arts, depending on what era the buildings had originated in. In great old cities like Vienna, you got a sample of just about everything. I had the same impression of Vienna, that I did upon entering Washington D.C., or any of several other Federal capitols. The place had been built to impress visitors.
The Ritz Carlton and the Imperial Hotel are five star residences for visitors. Curiously, a memorial to a soviet soldier still stands. It was a relic of the era after WW II when the city, like Berlin, had been divided into four sectors, one of them governed by Russia. The memorial was erected in the honor of the several thousand soviet soldiers who had been killed here in WW II.
The ornate Opera House, the Goethe Memorial, the Maria Teresa Art Museum and an impressive Greek style Parliament building stood in stylish architectural array. Outside of Parliament stands a 75 foot tall statues of Athena, wearing a golden helmet. Wags say that it is the only place near Parliament that truth is represented. A Volks Garten, with four hundred types of roses, softens the city center. Five universities call Vienna home, with their many thousands of students populating the cafes and bistros.
The bus dropped us off on the Schwedenplatz, a conglomeration of bus and rail lines in the city's center. We then hiked along busy Rotturn Strasse to the ancient, 650 year old St. Stephen's Cathedral. With its ornate twin spires ascendant, the building is impressive. Built in the Baroque style, it is ornate, but begrimed by centuries of industrial pollution. The square out front of it was awash with tour groups and student assemblies. We went inside and sat for a time, enjoying the ornate, gilded statues and huge pillars that supported the vaulted roof. The support of flying buttresses, like those of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, for the massive, vaulted roofs, had not come into architectural use when these grand churches were constructed. Mary lit a votive candle for all of those we knew who were ill and needed our prayers.
It was hot outside. The temperature was in the mid-eighty degrees range (F). We walked down the crowded and busy Rotturn Strasse, headed towards the Schwedenplaz and our bus. A small café, with shaded umbrellas, caught our attention. The “Rot # 12” offered up some decent cappuccinos. We sat for a time, outside the café, and watched the busy swirl of people flow by us. Many languages, and people from everywhere, were visiting Vienna this day.
The buses returned us to the Danube and our berth aboard the Tir. I wrote up my notes and we enjoyed a glass of Cote Du Rhone on our balcony. The river traffic was nil here. This section of the Danube must be reserved for tour boats. We cleaned up and prepped for dinner.
Our boon companions, the Broyles and the Pinazzis met us in the dining room at 7:30 P.M. We enjoyed some wonderful mushroom soup, a cod with roe and a sinful cherry strudel, all washed down by that very good German Cabernet.
After dinner, we retired to our cabin. We watched some of the run up to the Russian military revolt and then read for a time. It had been an interesting day in one of the world's more historic capitols.
Tuesday, June 27th, 2023 - Vienna, Austria
We were up by 5:30 A.M. It was 63 degrees out (F) with a light rain falling. We enjoyed a late breakfast and then had a brief walk along the Danube. We were taking the day off. We have been to Vienna before. There are a few art galleries that tempted us. One had a Vermeer exhibit that sounded interesting. But, the local cabs wanted a mortgage on a house to ferry you there and back. Public transportation was an option, but the nearest link was a good ¾ miles each way. That, and the walking involved with the museums, would I thought not be within my capabilities.
When last here, we had dined in the Vienna woods and much enjoyed the experience. I include a description of the practice that locals call “Hurtigen.” Vienna is a large city in area. Its north side encompasses grape arbors and a large wooded section called appropriately “The Vienna Woods.” There, we dined at a small restaurant with the name “Schrieberhaus” on its front. We filed into the very German looking restaurant. It opened up onto a large outdoor patio that sits on three levels of terraces, connected by stone-flagged steps and shaded by large Linden Trees. We sat at open picnic tables, on the upper tier, about ten feet from rows of grape vines. The waitresses brought pitchers of red and white wine, which we imbibed liberally. They brought out platters of appetizers and then entrees family style and in good quantity. An accordion player sang for his supper, with many Austrian melodies, while we enjoyed dinner al fresco. The wine flowed freely and so did our moods. We sang, laughed and enjoyed the customs of “Hurtigen” about as much as anyone could. We all tipped the accordion player as we left. It had been a fun night in the Vienna Woods.
We had also spent a Day at the Hapsburgs “Schoenbrun Palace.”
Set in a grand entry plaza, the three-story center building of the palace was daubed a pale yellow and looked somewhat Georgian in appearance. Symmetrical wings, for servants and guests, stretched out on either side of the grand dual staircase. The palace has over 1400 rooms, but only 40 are open for public viewing. WWII bomb damage had been slight and quickly repaired.
We lined up for the inside tour and were suitably impressed. This wasn't one dreamer's attempt to replicate Versailles. This was Versailles on steroids, the Imperial seat of the Hapsburgs Dynasty. Wooden parquet floors stretched throughout and were framed by the flocked and gilded wallpaper, accentuated by grand crystal chandeliers throughout. In nearly every room stood a seven-foot porcelain and hand painted furnace, though none were ever used here in summer. 18th century portraits, of all the Hapsburgs Royalty, smiled down on us in Reubenesque fashion. Marie Antoinette. A royal daughter and Princess of the Empire, looked well dressed and fashionable, like her relatives. You couldn't yet imagine her stretched out over the guillotine waiting to be beheaded.
Blue velvet drapes adorned the master bedroom. In spite of all the grandeur, the place looked comfortable to live in. Padded divans, sofas and chairs were set near card tables and fire places, like the residents would return soon to take up their lives. The grand ballroom was meant to impress. Vast ceiling murals, crystal chandeliers above a marble floor and bedecked with oil portraits of various royals, gave utterance to who lived here. Khrushchev and Kennedy had met here in the 1960's discussing various international matters, as had other European leaders. The palace had been in the spotlight of history for generations. The Hapsburg dynasty is a complicated mishmash of Spanish, German, Austrian and other royal ties, all intermarried. World war I, as in most of Europe, was more of a family feud that sectarian warfare.
At the rear of the palace, vast formal gardens stretch several hundred yards to a hillside. At the center and crest of the hill is seated a victory arch celebrating a defeat over Napoleon Bonaparte. It was only one of the many wars that raged here over the last few centuries. We enjoyed strolling through the grounds and admiring the castle in the brilliant sunshine of an 85 degrees Austrian day. By 10 A.M, the enormous forecourt, of the palace, was jammed with thousands of tourists waiting for their timed tours. Some three million souls per year visit here. Schonbroen, as a tourist venue, is like the Vatican. Get here early.
Back aboard the Tir, topside, all of the twelve moored ships were engaging in what I can only call a “ship's ballet.” Due to the limited docking space in Vienna, several of the two-deck cruise ships were often berthed alongside of each other, raft style. During the day, each ship, would change its position, depending upon what hour of the day they were due to depart. It enabled the earlier departing ships leeway to maneuver.
We read for a time and then conferred with Mr. Ozzie Nelson. It was a nice day off and a way to slow down and ready for our last city, Budapest, and then a lengthy trip home. At 6 P.M. we assembled in the second floor lounge for a meeting regarding our ship's disembarkation procedures, buses to the Budapest airport and other details we needed to get ready to depart.
The Broyles and the Pinazzas joined us for dinner at 7 P.M. A shrimp cocktail, a local trout and crepe suzettes were wonderful. The wine flowed rather freely. Perhaps we were celebrating our friendship and the success of the tour. Laughter and a flow of stories were traded back and forth. Our good friend Mr. Pinazza importuned his pal, Andrei our faithful waiter to deliver two bottles of wine to us as we left. We settled into the second floor lounge and the merriment continued. It was fun and laugh filled. Mary and I managed to leave before midnight. Our good friends left when they left. You never ask those questions when everyone is out and carrying on. Whisper on the ship the next day placed a very happy Australian gent at the bar, sipping a good Kentucky Bourbon, with the ship's hotel manager until a “later time.” You never ask those questions. What happened in Vienna stays in Vienna. It had been a good visit to a very interesting city.
Wednesday, June 28th, Budapest, Hungary and on away home
We were up early at 5 A.M. and had breakfast in the main dining room. Then, we readied for our tour of Budapest, scheduled for 9:15 A.M. The Tir had motored here over night and berthed in the early morning hours. We first had to distribute a few extra gratuities to the cabin maid, our friendly waiter and our much admired Tour Director, Gabriella. This estimable woman, a Hungarian by birth, is fluent in several languages. She now resides in Tenerife, in the Azores. She had led us skillfully through Europe, arranging and overcoming the many logistical mountains in scheduling of tour buses, museum tickets, and the various requirements of 180 passengers. She and Viking had handled the whole “ship transfer” effortlessly. In addition, Gabriella gave a presentation every night, of coming attractions, accompanied and observed many of the tours for quality and served as an all-purpose den mother for all of the ship's passengers. We tried, in the trip survey, to bring the attention of her Viking employers, to the abilities of this multi-talented and capable woman.
Hungarians claim ancestry from wild Siberian tribes, who has swept westward, during the early Middle Ages. The had settled upon the bucolic shores of the Danube. I am pretty adept at languages, but Hungarian is a poser. It sounds like the strangled and harsh emittances that movie producer Gene Rodenberry had ascribed to Klingons, in the old Star Trek T.V. series. The printed version of the language also looks a bit “Klingonish.” That might sound a tad unkind of me, but I could not for all of the world imagine trying to tackle this linguistic monster. The various foreign embassies allot a few years of language training to any diplomats that they post here. We also learned that “water polo” is the national sport of Hungary. I will watch for their teams in the next Summer Olympics.
The city of Budapest is split by the wide Danube river. Three newer bridges here connect the two halves of the city. Retreating Nazis, in WWII, had demolished all three of the city's bridges. The eastern half of the city, Pest, is flat and even. It holds most of the city's administrative offices, its retail sector and tourist hotels. Across the Danube, the Buda side is rural, suburban and the residence of most of the city's more prosperous citizens. It holds a unique “Capitol Complex,” sitting high atop a promontory along the river. We would visit it shortly.
Hungary was a new experience for us. It is a country that had been ruled by Communists since the second world war, and only recently established as a functioning democracy. Its economy is in the tank. Residual vices from the totalitarian days still crippled her development. One of the guides was scathing in his review of the government's rather questionable way of doing things. A certain boyhood friend of the premier reputedly got many of the municipal construction contracts. Quoting a staggering and ruinous annual inflation rate of 24%, living here is difficult. The native currency, the Florint, had taken a beating. It now requires 371 Florints to equal the purchasing power of a single Euro. It reminded us of Italy, some years back, when you were staggered by the 100,000 Lire cost of something, until you found out that the large sounding amount meant only $60 U.S. The man, who spoke perfect colloquial English, was encouraging all of his children to emigrate to America, or one of the developed Western Nations, for better employment opportunities.
The bus tour drifted along the main boulevards of Pest. Tourists and students seemed to be in abundant supply. We drove by and admired the modern construction of the new Art Gallery in Hero Square. It is impressive. The “Statue of Liberty,” standing high on a hillside on the Pest side, also caught our attention. It is a memorial, built by the Russians, to commemorate Soviet soldiers, lost here during the WW II battle with the Nazis. A large ferris wheel here serves as a prominent attraction for tourists. Zsa Zsa Gabor and the inventor of the Rubik's cube had been prominent citizens of Budapest. The composer, Franz Liszt, had also called the city home. The ubiquitous St. Stephen had been crowned here in 1000 A.D. at the Coronation Church. He must have been someone of great import, to witness all of the churches named in his honor across this section of Europe.
One of the more interesting anecdotes the guide relayed to us had concerned the Royal Crown of Hungary. During WWII, Hungarians had handed it over to advancing American forces, to keep it from the “forever possessing” hands of the Soviets. It had remained in American custody during all the ensuing years of communist rule. A visiting American legislator, in 1970 and on his honeymoon with first wife, had become aware of the dilemma. When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, the young legislator importuned President Carter to “hand the crown back to the Hungarians.” His efforts were successful. In a state department ceremony in 1978, Jimmy Carter did in fact return the Golden Hungarian Crown to its proper owners. The young legislator's name was Joseph R. Biden of Delaware. He is remembered fondly today by all Hungarian patriots.
We then crossed the handsome green bridge across the Danube. We ascended some steep hills to what is identified as the “Castle Complex.” It is a collection of newer buildings and tourist facilitators that surround the 800 year old St. Mathias Church. The bus dropped us off below the complex. A kidney tax facility collected the one euro tolls from our aging cargo. Then, we walked up the hill to the Old Church. Inside, we enjoyed the massive scale of the ancient house of worship, with all of the gilded statues and religious icons. (AFC) As an interesting aside, Sulieman the Magnificent, an ancient Arabic warrior, had once occupied Budapest and turned the St. Mathias facility into a Mosque, for the remainder of their stay. Next to the church, sits a massive new construction project, still under wraps. It is the new Hungarian Finance Office of the Central Government, apparently built by the Premier's old childhood pal.:)
Outside of the church, there is a grand square called the “Fisherman's Bastion.” Why, I do not know.” A grand two-story and stone viewing platform looks out over the wide panorama of the Danube and the river valley that surround Budapest. The top level requires an entrance fee. But, the bottom level has several roomy arches where you can look out and enjoy the same vista. We did for a time, as did everyone else. We had another Kodak moment, while we captured ourselves in pictures there.
It was a very hot afternoon. We sought shelter in a Starbuck's there and enjoyed some very good cappuccinos. The tab was 3,700 Florints or about ten euros. Others got relief from a small ice cream stand. The afternoon was passing and the bus was waiting. We hustled down an avenue that the guide told us was a short trek back to the bus. We should have known better. The well treed street, coursed along the top of the bank, above the river. It did indeed lead us back to the bus, but we had to hustle. Dawdlers would be left behind.
Back aboard the Tir, we had lunch with the Broyles and Pinazza's, talking about what we had seen and heard. The Broyles were headed out this afternoon to see an exhibition of Hungarian Horsemen. God Bless them for their stamina. We managed a quiet nap and then began packing our clothes for the ride home on the morrow.
Dinner at 7 P.M. found us all together again. We were quieter this evening, after last night's revelry. It was also Renzo's “39th” birthday. A cake and decorations, accompanied by a lusty happy birthday chorus from the wait staff, came with our meal. We toasted our now old friend and wished that he and his wife Carla, have many more years of health and happiness. We were reflective on the many things that we had seen and done these last few weeks. We were also appreciative of the wonderful bonhomie, developed from our “Fellowship of the Road.” These estimable friends would remain long in our hearts and minds. Not wishing to repeat the follies of last evening, we repaired to our cabin after dinner and finished packing. It had been an interesting and enjoyable trip, but we were ready to “go home.”
Thursday, June 29, 2023 - Budapest, Hungary
We were up early at 5 A.M. We had an early breakfast at 6:15 and then finished our packing. We put our bags out in the hall, after 8 A.M as instructed. Crewmen ferried them to the bus on the river banks above us. We assembled on the bus at 8:15 A.M. As per usual, one knuckle head was late, claiming he hadn't heard any announcement. It was a 40 minute ride to the Budapest Airport, where we were dropped off at the Air France area. The airports and airlines were in melt down status right now. Many cancellations, delays and other pita's ( pain in der butt) are common. It is a big holiday weekend in the states. The terminals were full of people from many nations, all whom must live in our version of Elksnout, Deer Tick and Bumblesnort. Try reading the Klingon announcements, written in Hungarian, on the walls. Sheesh. Luckily, we found an Air France counter and stood in line for 45 minutes, until employees arrived. We checked our bags in and went through customs again. The flight, from Budapest to Paris, was uneventful. We got a little nervous however, when we saw the stewardess using duct tape to seal the exit door.
Charles De Gaulle Airport is an enormous facility and is under construction in all of its sections. We had a good impression of it, until Air France cancelled our flight to New York late Thursday. Mary dealt with the presiding rascals, with her usual patience and aplomb. I would have throttled the clerks and ended up sleeping there on the marble floor. The airline actually secured Business Class for both flights the next day and paid for a room at a nearby airport hotel, the Golden Tulip. They also threw in dinner and breakfast. In that we were dead tired, it worked out well enough. We hailed a cab for the short ride over. Dinner was a very pleasant seafood buffet. We were able to buy a tooth brush and paste at the hotel desk as our luggage was already in the possession of Air France. We then slept like old logs in a swamp.
Early Friday morning, after breakfast, we were ferried back to CDG. Due to construction, the van dropped us off about seven leagues from our terminal. A forced march, amidst throngs of Bumble-snorters, finally got us to the correct terminal. Along the way, we had to tackle every official, who was slow enough for us to catch, with an “ou e le porte ?” The security lines everywhere were both lengthy and a pain in le derriere. Some of the French civil servants moved slower than an old friend reaching not fast for his wallet when the check comes for dinner.
Finally, we boarded an Air France plane for JFK in New York. The now much-valued clerks had actually secured for us a “Business Class” cubicle. Bless their mothers for giving them birth. Champagne, a good Bordeaux and decent food all day across the Atlantic, worked its magic. Three movies later, we touched down at JFK. It also is under a huge reconstruction. We walked much and found a shuttle to the correct terminal, after again asking many times “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ?”
The rascals, now elevated in our esteemed opinion, to treasured clerical staff, had placed us on the wait list for an early flight to Buffalo. It was chock full to the rafters. We missed standby inclusion by two seats. (Who the heck is going to Buffalo with such urgency?) That made for another four-hour flight delay and some aimless walking and loitering. We watched the hectic throngs run hither and yon. Finally, at 10 P.M, we off lifted from JFK, bound for the “Big B.” Once again, we were in Business class. We had two large seats, this time in row number two. I was actually beginning to think well of airline people. A double potion of a magic elixir, from Mr. John Dewars, set me in the right frame of mind. We arrived in Buffalo, without incident, before midnight. Wonder of wonders, our luggage had made the circuitous journey and arrived before us. These airline people usually did try their best to accommodate passengers. Wearily, we summoned up “der Taxi” and after a brief ride to our nearby abode, we stumbled into the castle, turned out the lights and were welcomed into the arms of Morpheus. It had been an epic journey, peopled with fine friends and companions that we had met along the way. We were glad that we had this way come, but were even more pleased to “be home.”