Floating down the Danube

“Well, I can’t say when we’ll be leaving,” says Captain Fabian. “The water level might be going down, but I don’t know …”

My friend Kim and I are supposed to be cruising for a week down the backbone of Europe – the legendary Danube – through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. But Mother Nature has other plans. The rains have been so heavy we’ve skipped the original embarkation at Nuremberg. Instead, we’ve met the ship at Regensburg. That way, we will be poised to slip beneath a bridge just outside of this Bavarian town as soon as the waters of the Danube drop enough to allow us passage.

Some of the nearly 100 passengers aboard the ms Amadeus Symphony are unhappy about missing Nuremberg, so our cruise director makes arrangements for them to go there by bus the next day. Right now, the mercury is hovering around 8 C, and the rain hasn’t ceased. But it’s cosy on the ship with its comfortable lounge, airy restaurant and crew of about 40. We unpack in our compact cabin, windows tightly closed against the rat-tat-tat of the rain, and wait for the bell that summons guests to dinner. It’s a single open seating, which allows us to meet our fellow passengers. There are several other Canadians, although the manifest is dominated by Americans with a smattering of Germans, Israelis and Irish. Wines are included with the full-service dinners; hot breakfasts and lunches are buffet-style. The talk at the tables tonight is the height of the water: is the Danube still rising?

Monday morning, it’s chilly – and still raining. We grab umbrellas and head off to explore Regensburg, the oldest city on the Danube. It escaped bombing during the Second World War, leaving its medieval city centre almost intact. We walk through the north gate of the Roman fort built in AD 179 and stroll the narrow streets of this charming town. We marvel at the speckled appearance of the Cathedral of St. Peter with its mix of limestone and sandstone construction. We stroll the ring of avenues, which surrounds the city in place of the medieval fortifications, and come across the extensive grounds of the Palace of the Princes of Thurn and Taxis. Only the violets are in flower today but in my mind’s eye, I can see the gardens in the full bloom of summer. Originally the monastery of St. Emmeran, the buildings were sold after the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire to the Princes of Thurn and Taxis, representatives of the monarchy who had grown wealthy from their monopoly on the Empire’s postal service. The palace is the size of the one at Versailles and may have more rooms than Buckingham. Today, the palace is quietly inhabited by the 47-year-old widow Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. But it was the scene of many a wild party when her husband, Johannes, was alive. His 60th birthday party in 1986 was a million-dollar affair attended by Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall among other ’80s icons, all dressed in 18th-century costumes and powdered wigs. The staterooms are now open to the public – with 150,000 visitors a year – as are the medieval cloisters and crypt.

Tuesday brings more showers, although the sun is desperately trying to burst through. The forecast is more showers, but the temperature is climbing to 15 C. The ship is not moving, so we walk back into Regensburg with a couple from Newfoundland, giving them our grand tour of yesterday, a day they had spent in Nuremberg. We wander through the markets, passing the 500-year-old Historische Wurstküche, purportedly Germany’s oldest restaurant. But we don’t stop. Lunch is waiting for us back on the ship where we’ll get an update on the navigation conditions.

The good news is we’re finally getting underway. The bad news is we’re not going far. The water is still too high to allow us under the bridge, so we’re moving down the Danube closer to the problem. A sister ship is heading toward us and will dock below the bridge, ready to take us on.

About 10 kilometres downstream of Regensburg, the sun breaks through as we pass a white classic temple with Doric columns on the north side of the Danube. It’s Valhalla (home of the gods in German mythology), built in the 1830s in the style of the Athens’ Parthenon to bolster German confidence after the Napoleonic Wars and the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. I’m happy to be seeing the 358 stairs leading up from the river to this German hall of fame from the comfort of our sun deck.

At our new ship, the crew transports our luggage to the cabins, although there is some difficulty for the cruise director, when she discovers that the staterooms are below deck on the Rhapsody and not above as on the Symphony. Our room is almost identical although the ship is a little older and has a slightly different layout.

While some of the guests head off by bus on Wednesday to tour Salzburg, Kim and I choose the bus trip through Passau. Our guide is a jolly Bavarian with an unusual accent, dressed in a traditional dirndl. We ask if she learned her English from an American. With a burst of boisterous laughter, Eva tells us she was born and raised in Chicago. She came to Germany 38 years earlier and, concerned she was losing her native tongue, took a part-time job as a tour guide when not working at the University of Passau.

Eva escorts us through the streets of Passau, a 7,000-year-old town on the border between Germany and Austria at the confluence of three rivers – the milky green Inn, the dark peaty Ilz and the brown (not blue) Danube. North are granite hills, and south the limestone Alps. Eva seems to know everyone in town, and everyone seems just as pleased to see her. We stop at the baroque-style St. Stephan’s Cathedral to see Europe’s largest pipe organ – the daily organ recitals carry the cost of the church; marvel at the murals on the wall of the city hall; travel the footpaths along the Danube and Inn; pause quietly at the monument to the Jewish people murdered by the Nazis. Passau was devastated by the floods of 2002, and the tower of the town hall has plaques bearing testament to the height the waters reached, although the highest water marks belong to the floods of 1501, 1545 and 1954.

Back on the bus, we cross the border into Austria where the gardens are about two weeks ahead of those in Bavaria: forsythia, magnolia and apple trees are in blossom; tulips, daffodils and forget-me-nots are blooming. It’s an omen that all will be well for future cruising.

At 8:30 on Thursday morning, the tour for the Austrian town of Melk departs. This is the one destination I’ve really been anticipating. This sleepy little town of 5,000 welcomes up to 5,000 visitors a day – 500,000 visitors a year. Ninety riverboats arrive on the Danube each week. The town is overshadowed by the incredibly beautiful ochre and white Benedictine Abbey, established in the 11th century and continuously active as a Benedictine monastery since its foundation. It has withstood the Reformation of the 1500s, Napoleon in the 1800s and the Nazis in the 1900s. Today, only 33 monks are in residence, and 900 students are enrolled in the school. Our guide that day had been educated here, and one of the monks proudly welcomes her.

We tour the 60 rooms built especially for the royal family. What we thought was marble was plaster ingeniously painted pink to look like marble or yellow to look like gold. Who could blame the monks for trying to pull one over on the Habsburgs? While the rooms had to be constantly prepared for the monarchy, there were only two royal visits in 250 years.

The ceiling of the abbey’s magnificent baroque library (painted by Paul Troger) is an incredible trompe l’oeil of St. Benedict’s ascent to Heaven. Containing more than 100,000 volumes identically bound in leather on carved wooden shelves, the library is a working one. Students can access any book. Of course, if the book is old – more than 600 years – a copy is used, not the original. The recent restoration of the abbey was partly financed by the sale of a Gutenberg Bible to Harvard University in Boston.

Back on board, we head to the sun deck as our ship cruises into the Wachau Valley, the 30-kilometre stretch of the Danube between Melk and Krems. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and rated as one of the top 10 cruises in the world by Insight Guides’ Great River Cruises, the valley enjoys a mild climate and is Austria’s prime wine-growing region. Its steep sides are latticed with vineyards and apricot trees, interspersed with charming villages that seem not to have changed in centuries. The sun is shining, and we toast the Wachau with a locally produced wine.

That evening sees us docked outside of Vienna. A coach takes us to the Augarten Palace, home of the famous Vienna Boys Choir where a private 40-minute performance has been arranged for us. Their angelic voices soar in the intimate setting although one of the singers is about to “graduate” – his voice is changing.

Friday dawns sunny and warm, ideal for a tour of Vienna. We stop at Hotel Sacher, where we enjoy a slice of its famous Sachertorte and a cappuccino served in the traditional manner – with a glass of water on the side. Then it’s off to see the Opera House, which runs on a deficit all year round except for the annual ball, when the seats for 1,600 are removed to create the world’s largest ballroom for debutantes – 7,000 people attend the all-night revelry.

Back on the ship for lunch, we cruise to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, arriving around dinnertime. The picturesque old town centre has magnificent buildings from the 14th and 15th century. Behind Michael’s Gate is the narrowest house in central – or perhaps the whole of – Europe. A quick tour of the city, and we’re back on board to cruise overnight to our final destination of Budapest. The pace of the cruise has definitely picked up since our leisurely two days in Regensburg, and I make a note that Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest all deserve a return visit.

Not all cruises are created equal. Ours wasn’t the largest luxury ship plying the waters. Not everyone dressed every night – to the chagrin of those who did. But the food was excellent, the wine first class and the service superb. The size of the ship allowed for some intimacy, and we knew many of our fellow travellers by the end of the week. The focus here is on the countries and cities on the agenda, not on the holiday aboard ship. Unpacking once yet seeing four countries and six cities is a great way to explore new lands – as long as the water doesn’t keep rising.

Danube River cruises
CARP Travel offers several river cruises on the Danube. www.carptravel.com 1-877-246-2277