Thursday, June 4, 2015

Day Six: Bavaria Beckons

Viking River Longship "Tor" and the Bishop's Lair overlooking Passau, Bavaria 

When I was looking at the itinerary for Viking River’s “Romantic Danube”, 
I am now ashamed to admit, I knew something about every place on the list except for Passau.  I read of its status as a University town, of its physical position at the confluence of no less than three rivers: The Danube, of course, but also the Inn and the Ilz.  Nothing really prepared me for this classically beautiful Bavarian town. 

In Passau, the buildings are color-coded by 'occupation'.
The pink building means a Patisserie is there,
the green, an apothecary, the yellow a food market.
Picture perfect sums up these last three days of our trip.  These are the Postcard towns, the television commercials, as seen on Downton Abbey, come alive.  Here are the beautifully painted houses, the flowers cascading from window sills, the cobblestone streets and the castles looking down from perches high above the river. Poor Passau however, has a somewhat darker side.

The three rivers have not always been kind to Passau.  Flooding has been an age-old problem: the most recent, and one of the most devastating, occurred just three years ago in 2013.  Then the waters rose to extraordinary heights as seen in the high water mark visible on this medieval tower next to the Inn river.  But if there’s a silver lining for all us lookie-loos, it is that the German government quickly stepped in with the help needed to bring the town back to life.  The whole place looks freshly painted.  A comparison to how Superstorm Sandy has been handled is hard not to make.  But then, this is Germany and Jersey is Jersey.

Frau Bachmeier is holding the
obligatory sign so that we can
locate her if we stray
away from the group
I’ve mentioned before how, at every stop, we are ushered through each place by local guides.  Because there are 180 of us on these tours, we’re broken into much smaller groups.  The guides I’ve had have been superb.  Facts, figures, history, all roll out of their mouths, sometimes with the most picturesque use of the English language.  But here in Passau, we reached the apogee.
         Frau Bachmeier and her fellow guides all appeared in traditional dress, bright, shiny smiles on their faces.  But the most wonderful thing about the very pretty Frau was that this is her town (I thank my new friend, David Jackson, for sharing his great picture of her, below.) She was born here, went to the local convent for school, saw her father’s ground level store destroyed in several of the local floods, married here and stayed here.

The Monastery in question is
on the hill in the background
behind Frau Bachmeier
Here’s one example of how the Frau’s experience makes the facts and figures so much more human: Across the Inn river, sits a monastery known for its pilgrimages.  The one hundred steps leading up to the sanctuary are regularly used in prayer on one’s knees.  The Frau recounted how, when confronted with a 40 year old son who was still unmarried, she herself made the pilgrimage.  The result, she informed us, was that she is now the grandmother of three boys.
The Bishop retreated to this Palace
above town where he proceeded
to lob cannon balls from his perch.
There were more stories to tell all along the way.  History became as good a yarn as you could ever hear.  Passau was once the exclusive domain of the Roman Catholic Bishop who controlled the wealth brought to the city by the Salt Trade.  Finally, the Bishop was replaced by lesser human beings and the town hall was built.  Frau Bachmeier recounted how the displaced cleric retreated to his palace above the Danube only to use cannons to rein down on the populace below!         
Passau is home to yet another spectacular Cathedral and yet another one dedicated to St. Stephen the Martyr.  Quite coincidentally, my own Episcopal parish in New York is Christ and St. Stephen’s so for me, this has been a kind of spiritual homecoming.  This St. Stephen’s, unlike my beautiful little parish church, is the largest Baroque Cathedral north of Rome itself.  And, in an odd bit of irony, it contains the largest pipe organ outside the United States. My Christ and St. Stephen’s proudly replaced our venerable instrument with a spectacular new one just a few years ago.  In case you were wondering, the largest pipe organ in the world is the one at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, UT.
Included in the tour was thirty minute pipe organ concert held in the vast sanctuary.  Sadly, out of the five components that make up the massive instrument, three were not functioning and so we had to make do with a somewhat muted version of what the organ sounds like.   The poor organist was effusive in her apologies.  But it only gave me a reason to go back to Passau in the future!

If there is any downside to beautiful Passau, it is that the town is a huge tourist draw.  Three Longships were tied up here as well as several competitor’s vessels.  Despite the best efforts of the guides to vary their routes, the tour groups kept running into each other in the narrow streets.  I can scarcely imagine what a tourist deluge must descend on the town during the summer season if what I saw the first week of June is any indication. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Day Five: Wachau Valley and Melk Abbey aboard Viking River Cruise's "Tor"

Melk Abbey took my breath away
Today, we awoke the find the Longship Tor cruising the stretch of the Danube between the villages of Krems and Melk.  This beautiful stretch of the river, the Wachau Valley, is as far from the urban centers we’d just visited as could be.  Here, medieval towns and castle ruins are strung between terraced vineyards that produce Austria’s best wines, renowned for their quality. Austria's reputation is built on its great whites.  However the appearance of Austrian Pinot Noir at the dinner table aboard the Tor suggests that reds are making inroads. Barely 3 percent of the country’s wine crop comes from this Wachau Valley but its fame far exceeds that figure.
We spent most of the morning on the top deck, which is outfitted with sun umbrellas and lounge chairs.  There’s even an herb garden which the Chef uses daily to season our meals.  It sits right up top next to the putting green, and yes, a shuffleboard court, the only nod to a traditional cruise ship on the Tor. 

Note the mechanism under the Wheelhouse which
raises and lowers it to pass under bridges
The herb garden is on the same deck as the Wheelhouse.  Because of the varying depth of the river and height of the bridges we pass under, the wheelhouse itself can be adjusted up or down.  Thus far, it has remained in its full upright position. This will change in a couple of days when we enter the Main-Danube canal. There the clearance is so tight, the deck is off limits to passengers and the wheelhouse sometimes has only 6 inches of clearance between its top and the bottom of the bridges we cross under.
The Gardens are almost and spectacular
as the Abbey itself
Every town is dominated by a Church.  Catholicism is deeply imbedded in Austrian culture to the point that a common greeting is "Grüss Gott", or God bless you.  Nowhere is this domination of a village landscape more visible than the Melk Abbey.  This is Austria’s second most visited landmark, bested only by the Shöenbrunn Palace in Vienna. 

The origins of the Abbey go back to the 11th century when King Leopold II presented the palace to Benedictine Monks who turned it into a fortified abbey.  The current abbey was built between 1702 and 1736.  It was not merely home to Benedictine monks, but also a Royal Palace with ceremonial court rooms and a staggering number of guest apartments.  The royal entourages often consisted of 300 people all of whom had to be lodged, hence the enormous size of the place.

The Stiftskirke or Abbey Church
The royal apartments survive. No longer a royal retreat, the Abbey serves as a school for 900 children aged 10 to 18. Today there are only 30 monks there and I had to wonder how so few teachers teach so many students.  
The centerpiece of the Abbey is the “Stiftskirche” or Abbey Church. As many of you know, I am a devout Episcopalian but nothing prepared me for the sense of awe this jaw-dropping church gave me.  It is truly a baroque extravaganza and, as my new friend Al, a retired Lutheran minister from St. Louis pointed out, meant to conquer the growing threat to the Catholic Church that Martin Luther provided.  The idea of this magnificent structure was to lift your eyes up to the kingdom of heaven and to convince any fence-sitters that the Roman Church was the only place to experience all its glories. 

The Village of Melk as seen from the Abbey
Quite honestly, if this trip ended today, I would truly have felt that I had experienced everything this cruise has had to offer.  Even the views of the village below reminded me of so many childhood books of fairy tales and castles and everything I’d ever imagined a fairy tale kingdom to be.   

 The Breathtaking Interiors of Stiftskirke, the Church of the Abbey of Melk

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Day Four: Viennese Waltz

Schoenbrunn, the Hapsburg's Summer Place
And I thought houses in the Hamptons were getting too big.
The first of 29 locks the Tor will
pass through en route to Nuremberg
As night fell, Viking River Tor passed through the first of a series of locks that will bring us up river and will raise the ship a staggering 1300 feet before we arrive in Nuremberg.  This particular lock put us in the extraordinary position of being able to touch the walls of the lock from our balconies. We might have been 6 inches from its side and the entire ship was well below the depth of the canal.   Once we were in the lock, it quickly filled with water and we rose up till we emerged onto the next level of the river. I’ve sailed through both the Panama and the Corinth Canals and to me, a lock is one of the most interesting of all feats of engineering.  These locks were no exception.
Bratislava and its castle
It was the middle of the night when we passed through the portion of the Danube that borders Slovakia.  We sailed past Bratislava, its capital city dominated by the eponymous Bratislava Castle. 
         Then we were on our way to Vienna, Austria’s capital, the home to 1.8 million of its population of 8,000,000 people.  It was my first visit to the city and I had created quite an image of it. But certainly it was not what appeared through the glass doors of my stateroom.  There 
was a city as modern as any,
Modern Vienna.  Who knew?
dominated by several very recently built skyscrapers.  Since my vision of Vienna ended with Hapsburgs, I was quite taken aback.  It was only when we disembarked for our City Tour that "my" Vienna appeared.  Even then, one quarter of the city was destroyed by Soviet bombs in 1945. So instead of the almost complete homogeneity of Budapest, Vienna’s blend of buildings is an often jarring set of contrasts.  Old ornate facades from Austria’s glory days as the capital of an Empire, stand cheek by jowl with utilitarian buildings thrown up to replace bombed-out shells. Fortunately there is now some newer, and much finer, Modernist Architecture.
Maria Theresa, Mistress of Her Domain
The heart of the old city, circled by the Ringstrasse, or Ring road, is mercifully intact. It is dominated by the extraordinary Royal Palace.  The palace is a mastery of symmetry and classical elements representative of the enormous power and influence of the Hapsburgs. This Dynasty ruled this country and many of its neighbors from 1440 until 1918.  The zenith of their power was the reign of Maria Theresa, Mother of 16 children, and thence, Grandmother of a huge swath of Europe.  Intermarriage among first cousins led to their eventual downfall but their power and majesty is still apparent in the glorious structures erected on their behalf. 

Vienna was at one time the fourth largest city in Europe, capital of music (Mozart, Beethoven, Lizst), literature (Goethe), intellect (its university is 650 years old) and home to such modern figures as Sigmund Freud and most unfortunately, the little house painter, Adolf Hitler. But the old city of Vienna belongs to the Hapsburgs.

The Guided Tours could not be better and
they are all part of the fare.
Viking River offered two Guided city tours.  There was a full City Tour and one that focused on Vienna’s role as a capital of Art Deco.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Viking’s daily shore excursions are included in their fares and they are wonderfully well done, with knowledgeable local guides who fill their talks with facts both informational and fun. We passed every major monument in the heart of the old city.  Several of these are currently having their exteriors sandblasted after years of soot and grime have turned their limestone facades black.  City Hall (the perfectly named Rathaus, translation not required) is one.  
And you thought Don Draper's
judgment was off. 
And then there's the very symbol of Vienna: Steffansdom, St. Stephen's Cathedral.  The Gothic South Tower rises 446 feet and is visible from almost everywhere in the city.  It is considered the symbol of Vienna, what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Undergoing its sand blasting, one entire end of the Cathedral is covered in scaffolding.  And on top of the scaffolding is a scrim.  And printed on the scrim, courtesy of the Coca Cola Company of Atlanta, Georgia is a giant bottle of Coke and the headline: "I kissed Vienna".  Honestly, if this is not cringe-worthy, what is? I can only imagine the outcry if the similarly shrouded St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York were decked out with a Coke bottle.  Well according to our guide, this bit of crass commercialism replaced something even worse: An intimate apparel poster featuring an underwear-only model.  

Really, Starbucks?
Second prize for "Most Chutzpah by an American Company" is surely the presence of 9 Starbucks branches.  Since Coffee culture is an inherent part of Viennese culture, represented by the 600 Konditorei (Coffee Houses), some of which date back to Mozart, what is Starbucks thinking? Well the Viennese haven't taken to Starbucks.  Planned expansion to 60 branches has stopped and the only people who frequent Starbucks are those Americans who cannot leave home without their double Caramel Mocha Machiatto Latte. No self-respecting Austrian has darkened their doors after their initial curiosity was satisfied. 

Sacher Torte mitt Shlag
       At the end of the guided portion of the tours, there’s free time to pursue one’s own interests.  Since Vienna’s Coffee culture will be the focus of one of the pieces  I am doing for The Daily Meal, I took off to the Sacher Hotel Konditorei and its justly famous Sacher Torte.  Stay tuned for that.  Back to the ship for lunch, which I elected to take on the Aquavit Terrace in the bright sunshine. 

Did Viennese Pastry get her into
a whole lot of trouble?

Extra charge excursions are offered only when time permits.  In Vienna, I joined the tour of the Summer Palace of the Hapsburgs, Shöenbrunn Palace.  This summer retreat, now well within the city limits, was home to Maria Theresa and her large brood of 16 children. Most famously, one of Maria Teresa's daughters took the grandeur of the palace to heart.   She was Marie Antoinette whose admonition to ‘let them eat cake’ sealed her fate at the guillotine. Whether the French Queen was referring to Sacher Torte is not recorded. 

Shoenbrunn's Beautiful Fountain
Shöenbrunn means “beautiful fountain” and an enormous one behind the palace is remniscent of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.  That is, if the Trevi were surrounded by acres and acres of formal gardens.  It was Sunday when we visited and, by all accounts, the first decent weather weekend in Spring.  As a consequence, the place was mobbed and not just with the well-behaved passengers from the Viking Tor.  People pushed through our group, elbowing their way to the front of the rope cords that keep the public a safe distance from the priceless furniture in each room.  It was almost relief to get out of there.    
Goulash Soup, a perfect end to another
perfect Viking Cruise Line day.
The Mercedes Coaches dropped us off at the ship at 5:30.  Since there was yet another optional excursion, this one to see a command performance of “The Marriage of Figaro”, dinner was infinitely more subdued than the night before.   By midnight, we were on the river again en route to the Wachau Valley, Austria’s wine country.  But first, I had to wait up for a bowl of Goulash soup served for the returning Opera goers.  Because who can go to bed without one?