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Cruising from Vienna to Amsterdam

Author: Bob W. (More Trip Reviews by Bob W.)
Date of Trip: June 2007

My wife and I enjoyed a long, colorful sunrise on the flight from New York, arriving mid-morning in Vienna to begin our 900-mile cruise to Amsterdam. Before we selected this "Great Rivers of Europe" cruise on Grand Circle Travel's River Melody, we wondered if we would be claustrophobic in a small cabin and whether dining choices would be too limited. We needn't have worried. Now, post-trip, we unreservedly recommend a river cruise, and this one in particular. Unpacking once, and having your hotel transport you to interesting places is a great way to travel!

The Grand Circle staff and crew were superb and thoroughly accommodating. The food choices and quality were excellent. Every cabin on the ship afforded an outside view, was comfortable and had ample storage space and a decent size bathroom. We stayed too busy to use the small TV perched above one of the beds. When we were not enjoying the incredible scenery along the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers or visiting uniquely beautiful and historic communities on the way, we were meeting fellow passengers in the lounge, dining room and upper deck.

A brief time in Vienna
Although we were to sail on the day of our mid-morning arrival, we hoped to squeeze in some sightseeing in Vienna. Our ship was docked near Vienna, by the little village of Nussdorf. To our delight, buses had been arranged to take passengers to the Ringstrasse - Vienna's old city center. After lunch en board River Melody, we had time for a quick walk to explore Nussdorf. Many Austrians were enjoying the walking and biking paths that stretched along the Danube toward the village and its small marina. The "Blue Danube" was a greenish-tan color, yet still beautiful, and apparently considered safe by the few swimmers and many sunbathers enjoying this mostly sunny and warm Sunday. A few private pleasure boats plied the river.

The center of Nussdorf, which is reached by a narrow tunnel under the roadway, is a picturesque community dominated by small, attractive inns, restaurants and churches snuggled against narrow, cobblestone streets barely wide enough to squeeze a car through. Outside the village, houses were scattered on high hills where residents could enjoy commanding views of the Danube.

After our walk, we boarded a bus to center-city Vienna where we got directions to St. Stephen's Cathedral and other nearby attractions. Our walk towards the cathedral took us past sidewalk cafes and ice cream parlors, crowded with people enjoying the warm afternoon. St. Stephen's Cathedral is a large, ornate and imposing stone structure built between 1147 and 1510 A.D. The beauty of its grand exterior was dimmed somewhat by a coating of grey grime on the lower half of the cathedral. The interior was dark and cavernous, dimly lit by distant windows. Whatever artificial lighting there may be for use during services was not in use. Nonetheless, we were in awe of its size and impressive construction. As we went to leave, booming thunder greeted us and we discovered crowds of people huddling, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the cathedral entrance to escape fierce lightning and a torrential downpour. The storm remained intensive for a full hour and a half. By the time it subsided, it was time for us to head back to the ship. Our short visit to Vienna was only long enough to whet our appetite for this great city.

Wachau Valley and Melk
Late Sunday evening, River Melody began its westerly cruise up the Danube towards Melk. Morning greeted us with gorgeous views of the Wachau Valley, a succession of picturesque tile-roofed towns, wooded hills and castles, including the ruins of a castle in Dunstein where England's Richard the Lion-hearted, was once held for ransom. The steep hills near Dunstein were terraced for the growing of grapes and apricots. The region is known for its fine wines and apricot brandy and liqueur. We climbed to the sunny top deck for unimpeded views of the ever-changing spectacle and to walk the deck's perimeter for exercise.

River Melody docked briefly in Melk for a visit to Melk Abbey, which has been a Benedictine Abbey since 1089. Much of this stately and ornate baroque abbey, with its twin towers and 208-foot-high dome, was reconstructed in 1736 after a devastating fire. The abbey is an imposing and magnificent structure, perched on a steep cliff-side with commanding views of the Danube and the town of Melk below. In a library having 365 windows, the abbey houses thousands of books and manuscripts from the middle ages. Most impressive is the ornate sanctuary, brightly lit by numerous large windows in its walls and dome. Red, orange and gold dominate frescoes on arched ceilings and complement the magnificent carved pulpit. Melk Abbey is a must see.

After exploring the abbey, we descended a stone walkway to the town of Melk. There, accompanied by two German-born fellow passengers, we explored shops, sampled apricot brandy, followed side streets to the river and, finally, found a place to quench our thirst before returning to the ship. That evening, the Captain's reception and dinner were followed by an evening of music. We soon discovered that our (Dutch) captain's excellent skills as a seaman were matched by his musical skill as he strummed his guitar and sang. Our group's Program Director, Robert, (also Dutch) impressed us with his humor, his knowledge, his fluency in seven languages and his superb skill as a mime. Turns out he had understudied for years with Marcel Marceau. On various evenings throughout the trip, we had musical and dance groups and other entertainment, even a wonderful performance on the zither (a 42-string German instrument about the size of a guitar but shaped much like a harp). Other than that brief comment, I will skip details of the entertainment and focus instead on places of interest that you, the reader, may someday enjoy visiting.

Early the next morning we entered German waters, arriving mid-morning at Passau, located at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn rivers. Passau is an elegant town of steep hills and narrow cobblestone alleys. We visited the ornate Bishop's Residence with its painted ceiling above the marble staircase and viewed the 14th century Town Hall (now a museum). One corner of the Town Hall is marked to show the high water mark of many serious floods - one price of being located at the confluence of three rivers. The latest flood recorded was August 13, 2002. The highest occurred in 1501 and appeared to be at least 12 feet above street level.

We enjoyed Passau's beautiful gardens as we approached the Dom, the twin-towered St. Stephen's Cathedral. Its ornate exterior was impressively bright compared with St. Stephen's in Vienna. In fact, workmen were in the process of treating its sandstone exterior with a white, impervious substance. Its brightly lit interior of white marble, intricate ornamentation and circular ceiling frescoes is stunning and opulent. Except at the base of pillars, every inch of interior walls appeared to be embellished with statues and frescoes. Compared with Melk Abbey, it had very little gold trim; but, like Melk Abbey, high windows provided ample light to view its extensive artwork. This 17th century cathedral contains Germany's largest pipe organ with an astounding 17,774 pipes, 234 stops and 4 carillons. We purchased tickets (4 euros each) and returned later in the day to enjoy a half hour organ concert. Hearing the powerful organ reverberate through this grand cathedral was a treat!

Following the concert, we took pictures of the flower-bedecked waterfront and decided there was still time to see the glass museum housed in a waterfront hotel. We took an elevator to the top floor of the hotel and discovered that the exhibit of 30,000 items took up a substantial area on each floor of the building. By the time we worked our way back to the ground floor, it was closing time and too late to visit the Worlen Museum of Modern Art, which we had also hoped to see. The glass museum was well worth the 5 euros entrance fee. Friends reported that the modern art museum was also worth a visit.

The cruise from Passau to Regensburg took us through beautiful areas that appeared to be wildlife preserves. Blue Herons, swans and ducks populated both sides of the river. Walking on the top deck, we heard an endless concert of birdcalls, many unfamiliar to us. Fit and healthy-looking men and women of all ages could be seen biking, rollerblading, walking and jogging along riverside pathways. Periodically, we would pass clean, bright villages and towns, each with well-kept gardens and flower boxes and prominent onion-domed churches. Typically German, clock towers always displayed the correct time.

Regensburg itself is Germany's largest medieval city. The historic city center remains beautifully preserved, surviving undamaged from World War II. Prominent near the waterfront are the turreted Old Town Hall, a beautifully restored 12th century warehouse in which luxury goods and salt (once almost as valuable as gold) had been stored and sold, and the famous stone bridge, the oldest bridge in Germany. The bridge of 12 stone arches and cobblestone surface was built between 1135 and 1146 when the city was a major commercial hub along the river. The city's cobblestone streets and squares have great charm. Along the squares are cafes with street-side tables and chairs, under colorful umbrellas. We settled into one of these to rest our feet and wash down a snack.

Of special interest in Regensburg were relics of Roman times. The ruins of the Castra Regina fort - Porta Praetoria - contains a stone inscribed AD 179, when Marcus Aurelius was emperor. Nearby is a Roman stone tower. Next to the tower is a home once owned by a wealthy merchant during the middle ages and now used as a student dormitory. Also not to be missed is St. Peter's Cathedral, a gothic cathedral with twin spires and beautiful stained glass windows.

Weltenburg and the Danube Gorge
The next morning, en route from Regensburg, on a high hill overlooking the river, we spotted Valhalla, a copy of the Parthenon built in 1830 by Ludwig I of Bavaria to serve as a hall of fame for the German nation. We stopped briefly in Kelheim to board buses for an optional tour that included a visit to the church at Weltenburg Monastery. The monastery - Germany's oldest -- sits on a bend in the Danube at the entrance to the Danube Gorge . The church at Weltenburg Monastery is a baroque confection of stucco, polished marble, gilt and painted ceilings. It has extravagant artwork, including an ornate domed ceiling and a large sculpture of St. George and the Dragon behind the altar. Both the domed ceiling and the sculpture are cleverly backlit by hidden windows. A Benedictine brother of the monastery explained its history and construction. The Abbey houses the oldest monastery brewery in the world. Of course, we had to honor the nearly 1.000 year-old tradition by hoisting a glass of the monastery's tasty "Dunkel Bier" to wash down soft pretzels. The beer garden pays for the upkeep of the monastery.

After relaxing in the beer garden, we walked on the beach of small round river stones at the bend in the river. There, a man in a flat boat (basically an overgrown rowboat with outboard motor) was taking paying passengers across the river. Without a nearby bridge, we wondered how they would cross in the peak of winter. A short distance farther we reached a dock and boarded a local ferry for an enjoyable half hour trip through the Danube Gorge. The Gorge is a narrow passage through tall, Jurassic-era cliffs along the deepest and narrowest portion of the river. Buses were waiting for us as we exited the Gorge in Kelheim.

Our next stop was in Michelsburg to visit Liberation Hall built by King Ludwig I to honor the German tribes who banded together to defeat the French during the Napoleonic Wars of 1813-1815. Liberation Hall is a tall, classically styled cylindrical-shaped building edged by tall statues and rimmed with pillars at the top. To enter, you walk up 80 steps to view the 34 goddesses of victory under an elaborate domed ceiling. From there, stone staircases ascend to the level of the goddesses within and to an exterior walkway affording spectacular views of the Atmuhl valley and the Danube.

We were bused back to River Melody to continue cruising. As we sailed, we marveled at the great variety of bridges spanning the river. The low height of some forced the captain to order that the top deck (a popular place to walk or sit) be lowered for much of our cruise. We disembarked at Niederberg for transport to the little town of Bierberbach. There our group enjoyed a kaffeeklatsch (delicious coffee and homemade cake) hosted by German families. My wife and I and another couple were welcomed by Annaliese Wolf, who gave us a tour of her beautiful home and gardens and answered questions about her family and community. She proved to be an energetic and remarkable woman who hosts groups like ours, raises three children, paints on silk fabric, tends to her large and successful flower gardens and still finds time to mow the front lawn of the nearby community church. On weekends, she and her businessman husband tend to crops on a small farm they own in an outlying area.

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