The Danube Waltz

Our friend Andy picked us up in his taxi at 9am on Saturday, July 13th. He dropped us off at the San Diego airport, and we checked in and went to Stone Brewing’s airport branch, where we split their tasty duck confit with scrambled eggs and each had a glass of Aggro, their new IPA. We were celebrating while we waited to board Lufthansa’s flight 9075 to Munich, Germany.

We were about to embark on a grand adventure, Viking Cruises’ river cruise they call the Danube Waltz, seven days cruising down the Danube River from Passau, Germany, across Austria to Vienna, and then to Budapest, Hungary. We had booked the cruise months before and were really excited now that it was finally happening.

Viking Legend with adjacent sister ship

After transferring in Denver, we flew to Munich, and since we were flying east, lost nine hours and were greeted by hosts from Viking on Sunday morning. We joined a busload of some of the other 180 passengers for a two-hour ride to Passau, Germany, where we would board the ship Viking Legend. We’d stay overnight in Passau and see some of this lovely city before sailing to our next stop, Linz, Austria.

The countryside east of Munich is an interesting combination of industrial and agricultural, and we drove through miles of open broadleaf forest, interspersed with fields of corn and areas of industry that included a large BMW auto plant. Some of the fields were of solar panels, and we were surprised and happy to see the emphasis on solar energy here in Germany. Later, the land grew hilly and the conifers began to equal the broadleaf trees. The weather was showery, and there were times when the rain came down pretty hard, followed by bright blue-sky sunbreaks.

Once we had arrived at the ship and dealt with our luggage and settling into our stateroom, we climbed the staircase to the lounge at the bow of the ship, where we met Anja, a crackerjack bartender and coffee maven from Serbia. We asked her about the available beers and found that the ship did indeed stock a house IPA from Bayreuth. It was quite good, and we were pleased to know that it was available.

We went back to our room to rest after the long flight, bus ride and time change. For those of you who have cruised, river cruises are easy after dealing with the large ocean cruise ships of six to nine decks. The Viking Legend is three decks with a sun deck on top. Our stateroom was on Deck 2, the same level as the dining room and the reception area. Viking calls our room category a French balcony, which has no balcony but a wall-to-wall sliding glass door. The AC is turned on in the room. To turn it off, simply open the sliding door a bit for outside air.

The Grand Organ in Passau’s cathedral

At six o’clock, we walked down to the dining room for our first gourmet Viking experience. Our waiter, Borko, who was also Serbian, poured us glasses of local wine and handed us the menu. (Each meal had menu items, plus a large buffet selection in the middle of the room. Laurel ordered a ribeye steak, and I asked for the salmon. Our second waiter, Epul, is a charming young man from Djakarta, and he brought us a pair of excellent Caesar salads. The desserts were always sublime, from mango ice cream sundaes to perfect New York cheesecake. And all of our waiters were always happy to pour us just a little more wine.

The next morning, we boarded one of the buses that would take most of our passengers through the lovely city of Passau, including a visit to the magnificent Baroque St. Stephens Cathedral and its incredible pipe organ, one of the largest in the world with more than 17,000 pipes, where we would hear an inspiring concert of Bach and other Baroque pieces. All of us were equipped with headsets, keyed to our guides’ microphone. Each bus had its own guide, and we walked through the city listening to the local wisdom of Brigitte Keller. She was the best we had for the entire week. Born and raised in Passau, she knew the culture and history completely and had a delightful sense of humor to boot.

Cafe Simon–Delectable chocolate truffles, gin and tonic cake and so much more that’s sweet

On our own after the tour, we discovered Café Simon, a chocolatier ne plus ultra. How many places will you find in your life that will serve you a piece of gin and tonic cake? The most exquisite sweets we had ever seen, and we bought a few of their melt-in-your-mouth truffles, which we savored throughout the cruise. In the afternoon, I was confused about the time. We stopped for a  couple of beers and almost missed the ship sailing downriver to Austria, first stop Linz.

In one of the Danube’s locks

A side note: We traveled through nine locks while sailing to Budapest, the end of our journey. The Danube begins in the Swiss alps and drops 800 feet on our part of its route, and it becomes commonplace to see your ship tied up and dropping next to a stone or concrete wall of some lock or other. At times you look out of your stateroom, and all you see is concrete wall, sometimes only a few inches away!

Speaking of concrete walls, many of the walls in Linz came down at the end of the Second World War, leveled by Allied bombers flushing the Nazis out. Happily today, Linz has rebuilt and created a beautiful city filled with museums and art schools.

In fact, in 2009 Linz, together with the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, was chosen as the European Capital of Culture. Since December 2014 Linz has been a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities (UCCN) network as a City of Media Arts. Cities receive this title for enriching the urban lifestyle through the sponsorship and successful integration of media art and involving society in these electronic art forms. Linz is also well known for the Linzer torte, which is said to be the oldest cake in the world, with its first recipe dating from 1653.

Leaving Linz, we sailed through one of the prettiest places on earth—the lovely Wachau Valley. As you cruise, you pass one after another small, picturesque towns seeming to still be frozen in the 1700s, each with the high point of a church steeple and architecture that comes from picture books. And above them, on the steep hills, are vineyards growing the fabulous Wachau Valley grapes that went into the wine we enjoyed daily. Our favorites, Gruner Veltliner, a nice, dry white similar to Pinot Gris, and Stift Gottweig Pinot Noir.

The lovely Wachau Valley, Gottweig Abbey and Winzer Krems Winery

We arrived in Krems, at the east end of the Wachau Valley, in time for lunch. After lunch, we spent the afternoon touring beautiful Gottweig Abbey, which is partially financed by the wine made by its monks continuously since 1083. In 2003, UNESCO named the abbey a World Heritage site. Following the abbey tour, we were guests of Manfred Winkler, a man I will call “The P.T. Barnum of the Wine World,” who led us through Winzer Krems Winery, one of the valley’s largest wineries, with zest and humor, and just a little bit of instruction. We bought a half case of the fabulous white wine, surprisingly only about five dollars a bottle.

Swans for our tenth anniversary

Krems will hold a special place in our hearts, because we were there on July 17th, 2019, our tenth wedding anniversary. Lots of toasts with friends we had made on the ship, and Laurel and I split a bottle of Champagne. When we returned to our room in the evening, Razvan, our Romanian steward, had built of large heart from swans made of towels on our bed, and there was a card of congratulations from the ship’s staff.

—to be continued in Vienna and Budapest—

 

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