A Cruise Along the World's Most Scenic River.
Historic cities along the Danube
For many, a cruise along this scenic river could well be one of the most memorable lifetime experiences. The Danube originates in the Black Forest in Germany and flows through ten countries, more than any other river in the world, as it discharges into the Black Sea. Central Europe has a rich history, dating back to five hundred years B.C when the Celts ruled the region. This was followed by the rule of the Roman Empire who overcame the Celts around two thousand years ago. Their rule extended some fifteen hundred years, before collapsing. The Danube was once a long-standing frontier of the Roman Empire. Many of the towns along the river share a history that dates back to over a thousand years.
Budapest: The capital of Hungary unites the colorful hills of Buda on the river’s western bank with the city streets of Pest on the eastern bank. Architecturally diverse with its Art Nouveau, Baroque (primarily focused on Catholic faith), and neoclassical style buildings, several monuments grace the city—Heroes Square, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Matthias Church, Royal Palace, and the grandiose Parliament building, spectacular when lit up at night (pic. below).
Hungarian cuisine is renowned for being hearty and spicy, the most famous being the chunky beef gulyas (goulash) and chicken paprikash, served with pinched dumplings.
Among the famous Hungarian personalities are the escape artist Houdini and Ernô Rubik whose cube is universally popular. But an even more famous Hungarian was the glamorous Hollywood star Zsa Zsa Gabor. She holds the dubious distinction of being the most divorced personality—nine times, more than even Elizabeth Taylor! She joked: “I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.” Between her mother, her two sisters and herself, they were married twenty-four times!
Bratislava: As the capital of Slovakia, one of Europe’s newest nations, the city has forged a new identity as the cultural center of the republic. Like other cities in this region, this city has witnessed the rise and fall of many empires, dating back to over two thousand years. After the capture of Buda by the Turks in 1536, Bratislava temporarily became the capital of Hungary and the Hungarian crown jewels were once stored in the tower of the enormous castle that rises up from the gray buildings. Other old monuments in this graceful city are St. Martin’s Cathedral, the 13th century Old Town Hall, and the Franciscan church.
Vienna: The Imperial City, capital of Austria, with its legendary opulence and elegance, is known throughout the world as the cultural capital boasting classical music and exquisite architecture. The famed Ringstrasse (Ring road), is the main boulevard, lined with majestic Baroque palaces, parks, and monuments. Impressive monuments include the Hofsburg palace, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Parliament building, and the Opera House. On the city’s outskirts is the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace, once the summer residence of the Habsburgs family and rivaling the Versailles in Paris, with its well-manicured gardens that include a miniature structure of the Arc de Triumph (pic. below).
Several empires ruled over Central Europe, but the House of Habsburgs ruled the longest. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a dual monarchy, constitutionally formed in 1867 and ruled by the Habsburgs. The Empire was dissolved in 1918 after the First World War.
The most notable royal family member, with several monuments and statues named after her in Vienna, is Maria Theresien, who ruled for over forty years. She bore sixteen children and her grandson, Franz Joseph, was the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maria was known for building new palaces or adding extensions to older ones. The buildings were all painted in a shade of yellow, known as the Habsburg Ochre.
Wachau Valley: Upstream from Vienna lies this scenic valley with picturesque views of vineyards, castles, hilltop ruins, monasteries, and quaint houses rising up the hills. A quintessential village in the heart of the Wachau wine district is Dürnstein, one of the prettiest towns on the Danube with its medieval cobblestone streets and 16th century town homes and wine taverns.
Further upstream lies Melk, another quaint town, famous for the Benedictine Abbey. Originally a palace, it was handed over in the 11th century to the Benedictine monks who converted it into a fortified abbey. Crowned by towers and with a resplendent golden hue, the abbey is renowned as a spiritual and intellectual learning center with a library stocked with 80,000 priceless works.
The next stop was Linz, the third largest city in Austria and, for long, an important trading post. It was also the city where Adolf Hitler grew up. A short bus ride across the border to the Czech Republic lies the fairy-tale town of Cesky Krumlov. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, it boasts some of the finest medieval sites that include the State Castle and Chateau (below).
Passau: Further upstream lies Passau in Germany, another city with medieval monuments and with a rich history. A short bus ride takes you back to Austria for a visit to the scenic city of Salzburg, nestled in the Austrian Alps. Its historic sites include the Mirabel Palace, the Abbey, Salzburg Cathedral, and St. Peter’s Cemetery, but it is more famous for being the birthplace of Mozart and where the movie “Sound of Music” was set (pic. below). It also boasts of the oldest restaurant in the world, since the year 803!
Regensburg: The last stop on our cruise, this ancient city (in Germany) was once the capital of Bavaria and the residence of dukes, king, and bishops. Its famous monuments include the 12th Century Old Stone Bridge, used by the Crusaders en route to the Holy Land, and the Cathedral of St. Peter, that was built over more than five centuries and which has a uniquely asymmetrical design (pic. below). A bus ride took us to our next destination.
Prague: Situated along the river Vltava and known as the Golden City, the Czech capital boasts of over a hundred spires on its majestic buildings and the world’s largest, thousand-year old Hradcany castle (pic. below). Straddling across the river is the 12th century Charles Bridge, adorned with statues honoring the local saints. Some of the splendid landmarks include St. George Basilica, St. Vitus Cathedral, the Jewish Quarter, and the National Museum overlooking the vibrant Wenceslas Square. A funicular takes one up the hill to Petrin Observation Tower, a mini Eiffel Tower in design and from where one gets a magnificent view of the city. Further up is the Strahove Monastery where the monks have continued with the centuries-old tradition of brewing beers!
In the Old Town Square is one of the city’s major attractions, the Astronomical Clock, installed in 1410 and the world’s oldest operating clock. The Astro dial displays the position of the sun, moon and other details, but crowds throng on the hour to witness the spectacle of the “Walk of the Apostles.” On the hour, a skeleton figure, representing Death, starts to strike the time and two windows on the face of the clock open when figures of the Apostles peek out and walk past the windows. The crowing by a golden rooster standing at the top, marks the end of the walk.
The Czech Republic boasts of some of the best Lager beers, the process for this beer being developed in a Czech town called Pilsen. This was also where the more bitter version of Pilsner was developed. The original brand of Budweiser beer is from here but the brand was not registered in the US. There is thus a producer of beer in the US producer with this brand. Czechs have the reputation of being the world’s largest beer drinkers, a habit they claim originated when their drinking water was impure and drinking beer was considered a safer option!