Final Doings: Danube

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

So on the eleventh of July, the Sheas and the senior Dinsmores (aka Bob and Pat) got on a Lufthansa Airbus at Boston’s Logan Airport for a long hop to Frankfurt, a short hop to Budapest, and the beginning of their Danube cruise. Ports of call would be Budapest, Vienna, Passau, and Regensburg, with special stops for the monasteries at Melk and at Weltenburg, in the Danube Gorge. We would leave the Danube at Kelheim, the beginning of the gorge, making our last leg the Danube-Main Canal to Nuremberg. We would pass through almost thirty locks.

To pack so much into seven days does indeed sound like “If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium.” For example, we arrived at the ship in Budapest in mid-afternoon and set sail (yes, I know that’s an anachronism) for Vienna after lunch the next day. A seasoned traveler might think it criminal to see only Heroes’ Square in Pest, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Fishermen’s Bastion in Buda. That’s a fair point. Seven stops in seven days. Castles and cathedrals and monasteries begin to liquify, to run together into a great baroque abstraction. But it can’t be helped, and I am glad that we squeezed in so much, even if we never get back to spend a week in Budapest as we spent a week in Florence a couple of years ago. And if you really want to see a place, you should be talking about months, anyway, so I am not going to fret about it.

What made this trip markedly better than the usual tour bus blitz is that we traveled by ship,* in our case the MS Viking Elegante. She was brand new, launched this past April, and elegant she was. About a hundred yards stem to stern and thirty yards abeam, powered by two 1000 hp Caterpilar diesels which, I swear, I never heard or felt. There were three sleeping decks (our cabin, on the middle deck, was just above the waterline). These were aft of the reception area, and at the stern was a small library with a 24/7 complimentary coffee machine and a couple of computers to check your email. To the fore were the galleys and so forth (I suppose), then a dining level, and above that a lounge level. Above all, running almost the whole length of the ship, was the sundeck. A characteristic of the ships that ply the European waterways is that they have to be able to slip under some very low old bridges. For this reason, there are only three cabin decks, and everything on the sundeck is built to “go flat.” Side rails flop down, the sun tarps and deck chairs are stowed, and the wheelhouse can be lowered hydraulically to (by my guess) somewhere behind the bar in the lounge. If this maneuver ever did occur, I’m afraid I slept through it.

Viking is probably the leader of the cruise lines and now offers river cruises all over Europe, in Russia, in China and Southeast Asia, and on the Nile. The staff was knowledgeable and cordial, the food was first rate (four course gourmet meals every night). Our cabin was well laid out and we never felt claustrophobic. Of course the ship was air conditioned (Europe was just as hot this July as were the States). There were about a hundred and forty passengers—almost all from the States, with a smattering of Australians and Canadians—so very quickly we were on a first-name or at least nodding basis with our fellow passengers. The prospect of one of those ocean mega-cruises, thousands of people, a floating city, leaves me quite cold. And finally, a ship is not just a means of transportation but, as noted, a hotel and restaurant to boot: two nagging daily decisions taken care of. Consider it recommended.

Saki has a wonderful line about the people of Crete who, he says, “make more history than they can consume locally.” So with the Danube. Settlement along the Danube predates the Romans, predates the Celts, and goes back to peoples who are lost to history (the charming “Venus of Willendorf” dates back to the stone age). Cathedrals, castles, and monasteries (which rival cathedrals in their splendor) are everywhere and, as I said, tend to melt into one. But in the cities, on foot (keep your eye on the red “lollipop,” stick with your tour guide), you are still happy to visit yet another one. The monastery at Weltenburg, in the Danube Gorge, has been there since the eleventh century and has been brewing its famous beer for just as long. The monastery church and the beer garden are equal draws.

What was the high point of the trip for me? That’s a tough one, but I am going to say that it was sailing through the Wachau Valley, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Small tidy villages line the banks, backed by vineyards, and every couple of kilometers (no, really), looming over the river, is a castle ruin. I am looking at my screensaver as write this, and I am pretty sure that I am looking at Durnstein, a little village with a not-so-little church, and up on the bluff is the ruin of Kuenringer Castle where Richard the Lionheart, captured by Duke Leopold V, was imprisoned and held for ransom so many centuries ago.

THAT you don’t find in Albuquerque.

*I was taught that craft that ply lakes and rivers are called “boats,” and only ocean-going craft are called “ships.” But the crew continually referred to the Elegante as a ship, and I decided not to make waves (so to speak).

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