In May and June 2023 Tibby and I did a 22 day, 3,100km river cruise from Bucharest to Amsterdam on Viking Vidar. We were travelling with our friends, Mikelle and Doug, from Daytona Beach, Florida. We first met them on a river cruise in 2014 from Lyons to Avignon on the Rhone and in 2018 cruised with them from Nashville to New Orleans on the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers.
Travelling through the heart of Europe it was difficult at times, to sufficiently understand the history. The history stretches back thousands of years with a common factor being the Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs, Napoleon, two World Wars, the era of Communism and the Yugoslav Wars. An important factor has been the interaction between Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christianity, Protestants, Jews and Muslims. Building styles include Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Modern.
I recognise that the term highlight should only apply to a few items but at the end of this article I identify 28 highlights of the trip. I have marked those highlights with the word HIGHLIGHT in the text.
Day 1 – Bucharest, Romania
Yesterday Tibby and I flew 3.5 hours from London to Bucharest. We were transferred by Viking to the JW Marriott Grand Hotel in Bucharest where we met up with and had dinner with Mikelle and Doug.
A little research told me that Romania is surrounded by the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine and Moldova. We were 285km from the Ukrainian border and 560km from Odesa. The Danube delta empties into the Black Sea.
This morning, Wednesday 17th May 2023, we left our hotel at 09h15 in the care of our excellent guide, Chris. His great knowledge and happy jokes in the rain could not make Bucharest exciting. A lot of the buildings are run down or are uninspiring communist era blocks of apartments.
Our first stop was a view of the Parliamentary Palace. A building of absurd magnitude, the Parliamentary Palace hosts Romania’s Parliament, but also perfectly encapsulates Nicolae Ceausescu’s megalomania. At 365,000 square metres, it’s the largest administrative building in the world, intended as a residence, and despite today containing reception halls, museums and government offices and the parliament hall, is still almost three quarters empty. The palace was raised at an enormous cost, in terms of money but also lives, as thousands of people are claimed to have died during its construction in the second half of the 1980s. The palace was the focal point of Ceausescu’s redesign of Bucharest following an earthquake in 1977, and had eight subterranean levels, at the bottom of which was a nuclear bunker.
We stopped at Revolution Square, which was known as Palace Square until 1989, when it was renamed after the Romanian Revolution of December 1989. Chris explained that the Romanian Revolution, also known as the Christmas Revolution, was a period of eight days of violent civil unrest in Romania from 16 – 22 December 1989 as a part of the Revolutions of 1989 that occurred in several countries in Eastern Europe, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Romanian Revolution started in the city of Timisoara and soon spread throughout the country, ultimately culminating in the drumhead trial and execution of long time Romanian Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, and the end of 42 years of Communist rule in Romania. It was also the last removal of a Marxist–Leninist government in a Warsaw Pact country during the events of 1989, and the only one that violently overthrew a country’s leadership and executed its leader. According to estimates, over one thousand people died and thousands more were injured.
Prior to 1948, an equestrian statue of King Carol I of Romania stood in the square. Created in 1930 by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, the statue was destroyed in 1948 by the Communists. In 2007, the Bucharest City Hall tasked the sculptor Florin Codre, to create a sculptor that is visually like Meštrović’s, but not an exact copy.
Chris explained that Romania was ruled by foreign powers for much of its history and in the process parts of the country were given to neighbouring countries with some areas returning. The Romans ruled from 106 AD until 271. For 1,000 years, numerous migrating people including the Goths, Huns, Gepids, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, Magyars, Cumans, Greeks, and Mongols overran the territory of modern Romania. From the 11th century until 1541 Transylvania was an autonomous part of Hungary. From the 1600s to the late 1800s at least some part of Romania was under direct or indirect control by the Ottoman Empire. The country was part of the USSR from 1945 to 1989.
We next spent an hour at Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum which is an open-air museum located in the King Michael I Park, showcasing traditional Romanian village life. The museum contains 272 authentic peasant farms and houses from all over Romania. This was the highlight of the day.
Our coach dropped us off in Lipscani (Old Town), a pedestrian zone that has boutiques, restaurants and bars in restored buildings. We did not do justice to the area because of the rain although we enjoyed visiting the Stavropoleos Monastery Church.
We had an apparently typical Romanian meal of uncertain ingredients at Hanu Lui Manuc Restaurant and were entertained by four folk dancers.
We then had a 60km trip through relatively flat countryside to Giurgiu, a port on the Danube River, where we boarded the ship Viking Vidar. We settled into our cabin, attended a welcome briefing, participated in an emergency drill and started a three-week marathon of overeating.
The welcome briefing was provided by the Program Director, Niki Nikolaus (51), who will prove to be a crucial element in the success of our cruise. He was born and grew up in Salzburg. He went to sea in a junior capacity and worked his way up. He went to college as a mature student to study tourism and has been a program director for the last twenty-two years. Except for four years in the Indian Ocean his experience is all on European Rivers and particularly the Danube. He is fluent in German, English, French and Italian and is an expert on the history and sights of the countries we passed through. Most importantly he is an outstanding speaker and a wonderful host. He was the person who made the biggest contribution to us having an outstanding cruise.
Day 2 – Ruse, Bulgaria
During the night the ship relocated across the river to Ruse (also spelt Rousse) in Bulgaria.
Our guide, Sylvia, explained that Ruse, with a population of 150,000, is the fifth largest city in Bulgaria. Thanks to its location and its railway and road bridge over the Danube it is the most significant Bulgarian river port, serving an important part of the international trade of the country. Five hundred tourist boats dock each summer.
Sylvia led us to the Holy Trinity Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral. Built beneath the ground in 1632, it is the oldest church in the city and was constructed during the period of Ottoman occupation. This is an attractive church made more interesting because a service was being conducted while we were there.
We walked past the State Opera House to Freedom Square a large pretty pedestrianised area in the centre of the city. The main feature of the Square is The Monument of Liberty, which was built at the beginning of the 20th century to celebrate the liberation of the country from the Ottomans by the Russians in 1878. The statue on top represents a female figure, who is holding a sword in her left hand, while pointing with her right hand to the direction from where the national liberators arrived. The statue now forms a part of the coat of arms of Ruse.
We visited the Rousse Regional Historical Museum which occupies the building of the former Battenberg Palace and displays important elements of the history of the town.
We ended our tour at The Kaliopa House a popular name for the Bulgarian “Urban lifestyle of Rousse” museum. It was built in 1864. According to a legend, the house was bestowed upon the beautiful Kaliopa, the wife of the Prussian consul Kalish, by the Turkish governor, Midhat Pasha, who was in love with her.
The displays show the influx of European urban culture into Bulgaria at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Sample interior layouts are shown, of a drawing-room, a living-room, a music hall and a bedroom, with furniture from Vienna, as well as collections of urban clothing, of jewellery and other accessories, of silverware and china, which mark the changes present in the daily life of Ruse citizens. The first grand piano imported into Bulgaria from Vienna can be seen here. A pianist entertained us by playing classical pieces.
We have seen some pretty buildings in Romania and Bulgaria but a feature of all the towns has been abandoned factories and brutalist residential blocks of apartments that are very run down on the exterior. Our guides assured us that the interior of the apartments are beautiful and modern but that the occupants can neither agree to plans for refurbishment of the exteriors nor can they afford the work needed.
We learnt that both Romania and Bulgaria have lost about 25% of their population, since joining the European Union. People have moved to other countries where wages are far higher. This is having a significant impact on these two countries as the loss of so many productive people has serious impact on the output of the countries.
Day 3 – The Belogradchik Rocks, Bulgaria
The ship sailed all yesterday afternoon and through the night, but a strong current meant that we could not make Vidin on time for our morning excursion. So, our coaches were redirected, and picked us up at Lom, 50km short of Vidin.
Our 60km route to Belogradchik started on the plain and then started climbing. The Belogradchik Rocks are a group of strangely shaped sandstone and conglomerate rock formations just east of the town. The rocks vary in colour from red to yellow with some of the rocks reaching up to 200 m in height. Many rocks have fantastic shapes and are associated with legends.
Our guide, Abena, told us that the Romans recognised that is was easy to build a fortress around the rocks. The rock formations in the area served as a natural protection, as fortified walls were practically only built from the northwest and southeast, with the yard being surrounded by rocks up to 70 m high from the other sides. The Bulgarian tsar of Vidin, Ivan Stratsimir, extended the Fortress of Belogradchik in the 14th century and the Ottomans made several further extensions. The fortress was last used in warfare during the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885.
The modern-day tourist finds a flat area between the first and second gates. There are then 90 steps to the third gate and a final 45 steps to the summit. Many of the stone steps are uneven and there are about 30 metal steps in an almost ladder formation. There are handrails most of the way. There was a lot of huffing and puffing and people turning back. I am pleased to report that I got to the summit without incident or undue resting. I then enjoyed the beautiful views.
The ship was waiting for us at Vidin.
Two thirds of the distance we will travel will be on the Danube, or about 2,100km. It is the second longest river in Europe, after the Volga, with a total length of 2,850km. Its source is in the Black Forest in Germany and its delta is on the Black Sea on the Romanian/Ukrainian border. Once a long-standing frontier of the Roman Empire, the river has been an important part of the history and economy of the ten countries that it flows through or borders. We will sail mainly at night although there will also be several sailing days.
In the afternoon we were visited by two earnest sixteen-year-olds from the Vidin High School. They answered our questions about their lives, interests and ambitions and asked us a few. They appear to take their studies very seriously and will be the first in their families to go to university. Compared to British children their attitudes seem to be a generation behind, which may well be a good thing.
Nine young teenagers from Vidin then gave us a performance of five Bulgarian folk dances which was very pleasant.
After dinner, Niki, told us about the Danube River and the Danube Delta. He was particularly enthusiastic about the wildlife in the Danube Delta.
The clocks went back an hour during the night.
Day 4 – The Iron Gate Gorge, Serbia and Romania
We were up at 05h00 and joined many other passengers to watch our approach to the Iron Gate Dam. It was cold in the early morning but the shone most of the day.
The dam was built as a joint project between Romania and Yugoslavia and was completed in 1972. The dam’s principal objectives were to provide hydroelectric power and to make the Danube River more navigable through the Iron Gate Gorge. At this point in the Danube, the river separates the southern Carpathian Mountains from the north-western foothills of the Balkan Mountains. The two main sections of the gorge are each about 15km long but only 220m and 230m wide respectively. These sections were historically difficult to navigate because of the turbulent water and many ships have foundered here. By damming the river, the water depth in the gorges increased allowing the water to flow without turbulence and the river became comfortably navigable. The excavations for the dam revealed archaeological finds from settlements dating back 13,000 years.
Before we got to the Iron Gate Gorge, we had to pass through the two chambers of the Iron Gate Dam Locks. The dam has two sets of double locks, one on the Serbian side and one on the Romanian side of the river. They are the largest locks on the Danube, each of the four lock chambers is 310m long by 34m wide and lift or lower boats almost 14 meters. We entered the Romanian lock system and tied up to a ring on a bollard inset in the lock wall. This bollard rose with the water and kept the ship against the lock wall. We were delayed in the first chamber as two barges entered the second lock on their way downstream. When our chamber filled (which took about 40 minutes) and the horizontal gate between the two chambers opened, we moved into the second chamber and the two barges moved in the opposite direction into the first chamber.
These are the first of the seventy locks that we will pass through on our journey.
We crossed the dam for about 23km and then saw a carving in the rock of King Decebalus of Romania (r. AD 87–106), the last king of Dacia, who fought against the Roman armies. The sculpture was commissioned by Romanian businessman, Iosif Constantin Drăgan, and it took 10 years for twelve sculptors to complete. The businessman purchased the rock in 1992, after which the Italian sculptor Mario Galeotti assessed the location and made an initial model. The first six years involved dynamiting the rock into the basic shape, and the remaining four years were devoted to completing the detail. It is the tallest rock relief in Europe, at 55m high and 25m wide.
The first of the gorges is a magnificent sight. The cliffs are 500m high in places. The entrance to the gorge is guarded by the Mraconia Monastery which is believed to have been founded at the beginning of the 11th century. It has a horrible history of raids and destruction, particularly by Turkish armies although the Austrian also razed it in 1838. The old church was submerged under water when the dam was built. Today’s monastery was built after 1989, and monastic life there was restored in 2007.
Small tourist boats were entering the Ponicova Cave at the base of the cliff. Niki told us that the cave is 1,660m long, can also be accessed from land and has several galleries including Bat’s Gallery which is a 100m long, 60m wide and 30m high.
After the first gorge the river widened for a while and the narrowed into the second of the magnificent gorges. The area either side of the river through the Iron Gate Gorges are national parks.
At 11h00 eight of us visited the wheelhouse on the top deck. Captain Aleksander Velichkov talked us through the controls of the four rear propellors (which can be turned 180 degrees) and the two side thrusters. He controls the direction of the ship with a small control stick. Screens show him his location, direction, speed, depth under the ship, information about other ships in the area and information about all the systems operating on the ship. He has radios and telephones that keep him in contact with his engineers, other ships and land-based parties. Screens show the views of cameras on different decks, communal areas and in engine rooms. Alarm systems for both the equipment and in passenger cabins stand ready. The ship has a top speed of 20kph. The wheelhouse sits above the top deck giving him a clear view of the way ahead. The wheelhouse is held aloft by a hydraulic lift that will drop the wheelhouse into the deck when the height of the ship needs to be decreased to pass under low bridges.
Our ship is named after the Norse god Vidar who avenged his father Odin’s death. It was built in 2015, is 135m long and accommodates 190 guests and 53 crew. Cabins vary between 14sqm mainly below the water line and 41sqm suites with a lounge and multiple windows. There is a lounge and a dining room that can each accommodate all the passengers at the same time. Big windows in the communal areas provide wide views of the scenery and a top deck open area allows 360⁰ views. An herb garden is cultivated on the top deck to keep us provided throughout the journey.
While I was writing this the head chef, Roland, and his assistant arrived in the lounge to do a demonstration of how to prepare a Poppy Seed Strudel. After a quick demonstration they produced strudels that they had baked earlier. I hate to say it, but I did not enjoy it.
One hundred kilometres after leaving the Iron Gate Dam wall the gorge narrowed to 150m and then opened to a river width of 6km. At this strategic point we berthed near the Golubac Fortress. The Fortress is an amazing sight from the river with high walls, ten towers and multiple levels. Storm clouds had been chasing us for the previous few hours and caught us as we walked to the Fortress. The Fortress authorities immediately closed the upper levels, considering them unsafe in the wet weather. Our guide, Anya, told us that the Fortress has had a tumultuous history. Prior to its construction it was the site of a Roman settlement. During the Middle Ages, it became the object of many battles, especially between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. It changed hands repeatedly, passing between Turks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Serbs, and Austrians. The fortress has successfully repelled over 120 attacks. The Fortress had fallen into disrepair and a five-year project to return it to its former glory, was supported by funds from the EU, and was finished in 2019. It is a wonder to see.
Every evening before dinner, Niki, does a short presentation of the excursions planned for the next day, sometimes also mentioning excursions happening in later days. Viking offers an excursion at every port which is included in the price of the cruise. These included excursions normally give a good orientation of the most interesting town or sight nearby and are attended by most of the passengers. At almost every stop there are additional paid excursions, starting from about Euros 70, which might offer cycling, cooking classes of local cuisine, wine tasting, specialist subjects as well as more expensive and longer excursions to places like Salzburg and Munich, flights over special scenery or privileged visits to places where the public cannot gain entrance. In most cases the optional paid for excursions happen at the same time as the included excursion but sometimes one happens after the other. We have been provided with listening devices which allow the guide to talk into a microphone and for us to hear what is being said through our earphones. This means, unlike other groups, we do not have to cluster around the guide, and I have the freedom to walk at a distance from the guide if I want to take photographs. The guide can also speak at a low level in places like cathedrals. Without exception the standard of English spoken by our guides has been excellent. The ship often drops us at one location and then continues moving, with the coaches then, later, catching the ship up to drop us back. The logistics of organising these excursions and the large number of coaches at every stop must be significant. Except for the Moselle Wine Tasting all our excursions off the ship were included in the price of the trip. Because the port arrival and departure times are not published until the day before, and because the ship continues to move sometimes while we are on excursions, it is difficult to book an alternative excursion with an outside provider. The only time we will do that will be on our second morning in Budapest when we will do the Synagogue Tour through Viator.
During the night we will enter Serbia which used to be part of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav Wars will keep being referenced in the next days. In an attempt to provide some understanding of the issue I have relied on the Wikipedia summary (the detail goes on for a lot longer):
‘The Yugoslav Wars were a series of separate but related ethnic conflicts, wars of independence, and insurgencies that took place in the SFR Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001. The conflicts both led up to and resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia, which began in mid-1991, into six independent countries matching the six entities known as republics which previously comprised Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and North Macedonia (previously named Macedonia). Yugoslavia’s constituent republics declared independence due to unresolved tensions between ethnic minorities in the new countries, which fuelled the wars. While most of the conflicts ended through peace accords that involved full international recognition of new states, they resulted in a massive number of deaths as well as severe economic damage to the region.
During the initial stages of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) sought to preserve the unity of the Yugoslav nation by crushing all secessionist governments. However, it increasingly came under the influence of Slobodan Milošević, whose government invoked Serbian nationalism as an ideological replacement for the weakening communist system. As a result, the JNA began to lose Slovenes, Croats, Kosovar Albanians, Bosniaks, and Macedonians, and effectively became a fighting force of only Serbs and Montenegrins. According to a 1994 report by the United Nations (UN), the Serb side did not aim to restore Yugoslavia; instead, it aimed to create a “Greater Serbia” from parts of Croatia and Bosnia. Other irredentist movements have also been brought into connection with the Yugoslav Wars, such as “Greater Albania” (from Kosovo, abandoned following international diplomacy) and “Greater Croatia” (from parts of Herzegovina, abandoned in 1994 with the Washington Agreement).
Often described as one of Europe’s deadliest armed conflicts since World War II, the Yugoslav Wars were marked by many war crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and mass wartime rape. The Bosnian genocide was the first European wartime event to be formally classified as genocidal in character since the military campaigns of Nazi Germany, and many of the key individuals who perpetrated it were subsequently charged with war crimes. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the UN in The Hague, Netherlands, to prosecute all individuals who had committed war crimes during the conflicts. According to the International Centre for Transitional Justice, the Yugoslav Wars resulted in the deaths of 140,000 people, while the Humanitarian Law Centre estimates at least 130,000 casualties. Over their decade-long duration, the conflicts resulted in major refugee and humanitarian crises.’
Day 5 – Belgrade, Serbia
We berthed in Belgrade in the early hours. The sun shone all day with temperatures in the low 20’s degrees C.
Our guide, Srdjan, told us that Belgrade sits on the crossroads of the Danube and Sava Rivers and the Silk Road, making it attractive to conquering parties. The city has been battled over in 115 wars and has been razed forty-four times. Belgrade is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe and the world. The Vinča culture, evolved within the Belgrade area in the 6th millennium BC. It was occupied by the Thraco-Dacians, Celts, Romans, Slavs and changed hands several times between the Byzantine Empire, the Frankish Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Kingdom of Hungary before it became the seat of the Serbian king Stefan Dragutin in 1284. It frequently passed from Ottoman to Habsburg rule. It was occupied by Germany for periods in both World Wars. Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia from its creation in 1918 to its dissolution in 2006.
We walked through Kalemegdan Park which is a huge, beautiful park with many statues. On the edge of the park is the Belgrade Fortress which has featured in all of Belgrade’s wars. Today only the outer and inner walls remain. There are lovely views over the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers across to New Belgrade which was all built since the Second World War.
Srdjan told us that street and shop signs are in both Cyrillic and Roman text which are then pronounced the same. He showed us a Starbucks where the name was also written in Cyrillic, which he said had the same pronunciation.
We walked down the pedestrianised Kneza Mihaila, which was once a Roman road. This environment is very different from the towns we saw in Romania and Bulgaria. Buildings are well maintained with shops and open-air cafes like many in western Europe. That difference persisted as we later drove through the old town and then through New Belgrade. Neon signs advertise buildings of Microsoft and other technology giants, accounting firms and global hotel chains.
We passed by a residential apartment block with a seven-storey picture of the Serbian tennis player, Novak Djokovic. Apparently, his parents have a restaurant in the building which includes a trophy room containing all his trophies.
Early evening our guide from this morning, Srdjan Ristic, did a one hour, deeply researched presentation on the history of the Serbs. He started with the arrival of the Slavs in the area in the sixth century and their dispersal to the different parts of the Baltic peninsula and further east. He took us through the different parties who ruled the Serbs and eventually the creation and collapse of the dream of Yugoslavia. He highlighted the issue of Kosovo whereby Serbia claims that Kosovo is a part of Serbia. The UN has been unable to broker a solution. On 17 February 2008, representatives of the people of Kosovo, acting outside the UNMIK’s PISG framework, issued a declaration of independence establishing the Republic of Kosovo. The International Court of Justice ruled that the declaration did not violate international law and argued that the signatory authors represented the broad will of the People of Kosovo. Serbia has not accepted that ruling. The EU has made it clear that neither Serbia nor Kosovo can join the EU until this issues is resolved.
After dinner eight dancers and three musicians from the Talija Art Company presented folk dances from six regions of Serbia. There was a lot of ‘Hup – Hupping’ from the men and ululating from the women. There were costume changes and lots of enthusiasm. The men did amazing gymnastics including high kicking and clapping hands in very awkward positions. The three musicians did two stints of performances without dances. All very enjoyable.
Day 6 – Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia
We sailed all night and all morning. The sky was blue, and the day was hot.
Niki did a presentation of other Viking river, sea and expedition cruises we could go on.
Three male musicians making up the group Eszeker, presented folk songs from different parts of Croatia. They played the accordion, guitar and bisernica (a very small four stringed instrument). Their voices were not very melodic, but they got top marks for enthusiasm.
We docked at Vukovar, and I popped into a supermarket and bought three bottles of wine to avoid paying the high wine prices on board. The house wine is free at meals but is not great. They do not charge corkage.
Our guide, Biljana, told us that because Vukovar is close to the Serbian border there were skirmishes from April 1991 between Serbs and Croats. Ethnic Serbs in Vukovar were subjected to forced interrogations, kidnappings and summary executions in addition to having their homes and cafes blown up. NGOs in the city state that a total of 86 Serbs were killed or disappeared in the next few months.
The Battle of Vukovar began on 25 August 1991 and lasted until 18 November 1991. During the battle for the town, 1,800 self-organised lightly armed defenders and civilian volunteers (the army of Croatia was still in its infancy at this time) defended the city for 87 days against approximately 36,000 troops of the Serb-dominated JNA equipped with heavy armour and artillery who lost 110 vehicles and tanks and dozens of planes during the battle. The city suffered heavy damage during the siege and was eventually overrun. It is estimated that 1,800 defenders of Vukovar and civilians were killed, 800 went missing and 22,000 civilians were forced into exile. Ninety percent of the town was destroyed. The bombed railway station has been preserved as a memory of that time, but the rest of the town has been rebuilt.
Our coachload of 38 passengers were dropped off at four different houses in the village of Aljmas on the Danube. I am not keen on home visits because I find them somewhat demeaning. I do recognise that the hosts agree to these visits because they get paid. In this case eight of us were accompanied by a tourism student, Josep, who translated. Our host was Rosica, a widow of eighteen years whose mother, two children and two grandchildren live in the village or nearby. The elementary school has been closed for a few years due to a lack of children. She is hoping that the school will reopen this year when one of her grandchildren is due to start school. She served us a welcome drink of plum brandy which was pure firewater. We were offered coffee, tea and juice and two types of cake and answered her questions about our lives.
She told us that in 1991 they were hopeful that their peace would not be disturbed by the Serbs until they got a message that tanks were approaching the village. A group of them ran down to the Danube and flagged down a passing boat and escaped that way, albeit with almost no possessions. Seven hundred of the one thousand village inhabitants left at that time. When they returned in 1998 their house had been destroyed as had most of the village. The government gave them a grant for a very basic rebuild. Rosica and her husband rebuilt a two-bedroom house rather than the four-bedroom house they had before.
Rosica took us into her garden and bemoaned the fact that slugs were eating her vegetables. I have never been attacked by mosquitoes in the middle of the day but here we were attacked by squadrons. We marvelled at the storks in their nest on top of the chimney of the nearby school building.
We carried on to the town of Osijek to the Holy Cross Church where a music student, Martina, sang four hymns, in German, Latin, Croat and English, accompanied by the piano which she also played. She sang the final English hymn acapella. I had tears in my eyes at the beauty of her voice.
As we left the church we saw a display of 30 photographs of men who had died in the Yugoslav Wars.
We walked around the old town of Osijek and saw pretty buildings and the remains of the city wall.
On our return to the ship we were welcomed by George, the barman from Bulgaria, who made us (and many others) feel that we were his special guests.
After dinner, Captain Aleksander, talked to us about technical aspects of the ship and answered questions. He started with a five-minute Viking video that explained the controls of the ship, many of which we had seen on the wheelhouse tour, but also showed us the engine rooms which not only propel the ship but also deal with all the practicalities of having 240 passengers and crew aboard. A notable figure leapt out at me. The ship carries 130,000 litres of fuel and fills up every two weeks in Vienna and Amsterdam.
Day 7 – Kalocsa, Hungary
We woke to another beautiful day and relaxed on board as the ship left Croatia and Serbia and pushed into Hungary.
Today’s excursion presented us with two very different experiences.
We berthed near Kalocsa and were taken into the town by coach, to the Assumption Cathedral which has been destroyed three times and built four times, most recently in 1780. It is a huge church for a small town because it was and remains the seat of the Archdiocese. It is a magnificent building. The organ has 4,655 pipes. We listened with pleasure to an organ recital of five pieces by Bach.
We were then taken to the Bakodpuszta Equestrian Centre for a show of Hungarian horsemanship. There was no doubt that the six horsemen were accomplished but the show they put on was weak compared to others we have seen. The professionalism was further undermined by a clown on a donkey. Our fellow passengers seemed to enjoy the show and the donkey, so perhaps my perspective is wrong.
Day 8 – Budapest, Hungary
We docked at dawn at Pier 5 near the Elisabeth Bridge in Budapest. This appears to be Viking’s pier as five of their river boats were berthed there.
We needed to do laundry but baulked at paying Viking 8 Euros for each shirt. I set off before 08h00 to find a laundry that could both wash and iron shirts and trousers and wash and fold other items. I hailed a cab to take me to the nearest I could find on Google Maps to discover that they were a locksmith who took laundry in and sent it out to be done elsewhere. I doubted that I could get my laundry back in thirty hours. My next alternative, Ocean Ruhatisztito Szalon, was two roads behind the State Opera which was ten minutes’ walk for me. The staff could not speak English, so they set up Google Translate and we communicated, very competently, with me entering my questions in English and she answering in Hungarian.
Our three-hour tour left at 09h30 with Krizstina as our guide. She told us that Budapest has a population of 5.8 million with most people living on the flatter Pest side of the Danube River. The city has been damaged or destroyed several times, most recently in the Second World War. The city is undergoing a huge amount of renovation with many historical buildings being restored. We zigzagged through magnificent boulevards and squares and small streets to see the major buildings and sights of Pest.
We crossed the river to the Buda side, were dropped at the top of the hill and walked through the Castle Quarter to the impressive Matthias Church.
We crossed to the nearby turreted Fisherman’s Bastion and marvelled at the views over the Danube to Pest.
We stopped off at the Havehoz Coffee Shop and had our first apple strudel of the trip.
After lunch we walked up to the pedestrianised Vaci Street which is a pleasant walkway with interesting statues, albeit with too many brands that are found in every major city in the world.
We headed to Nagy Vásárcsarnok Central Market Hall which has an amazing collection of stalls selling a huge range of foodstuffs.
We popped into the Aldi Supermarket in the basement and bought a few bottles of wine and a selection of Paprika.
Back at the ship there was a lot of activity as 68 passengers had left the ship during the day and a slightly larger number were now in the process of joining.
Soon after 18h00 we walked four hundred metres to St Michael’s Church where we listened to a seventy-minute performance by an ensemble of five violins, a cello and a double bass. The programme included St Anthony Chorale (Haydn), A Little Night Music (Mozart), Adagio (Albinoni), Holberg Suite (Grieg), Slavonic Dance (Dvorak) and the finale of The Four Seasons (Vivaldi). We were in the front row so had the added enjoyment of watching the musicians. This was a lovely performance in a beautiful church.
Day 9 – Budapest
Tibby and Mikelle headed to the Gelert Thermal Bath Complex for a massage and time in the baths. They later reported that it was a wonderful experience.
We met our guide Petra at the Dohany Synagogue. Petra took us into the magnificent 3,000 seat temple and explained that this was the biggest synagogue in Europe and second biggest in the world after New York. She explained that King Leopold of Austria relaxed the rules inhibiting the lives of Jews in 1790. With a more tolerant approach in Hungary, compared to most countries in Europe, the Jewish population in Budapest increased significantly over the next decades. The consecration of the synagogue took place on 6 September 1859. The architect, Ludwig Förster, was not Jewish and concluded that there was no discernible Jewish style. His design had four features that were not found in synagogues: there are two towers at the entrance, the bimah (normally the platform in the centre of the synagogue from where the Torah is read) is at the front, there are two pulpits in the middle from which the rabbi can talk and finally, an organ (well established in Christian churches but unknown in synagogues). The management board recognised that these features were unusual but liked them and so allowed them. Some of the seats in the front rows have brass plaques with names on them showing who has paid to reserve this seat. The cost of such a seat reservation was so high that banks would take it as proof that you were a man of honour.
Despite the size of the synagogue the weekly assembly these days is less than 100. It is too expensive to heat the large synagogue in the winter. A smaller synagogue has been built on the premises with a capacity of 150 which is used by the congregation in the winter.
Jewish cemeteries are generally found some distance from the synagogue. The Dohany Synagogue was in the Jewish walled ghetto in the Second World War. When the Russians liberated Budapest on 18 January 1945, they found 8,000 bodies in the ghetto with many of them in the garden of the synagogue. They buried 2,000 in the garden in a mass grave. It was decided to leave the grave in place as an eternal place of memory. In later years DNA was used to identify 1,100 of the bodies. The synagogue was damaged in the Second World War, and it took until 1996 for the damage to be repaired.
In the rear courtyard is the Raoul Wallenberg Emlékpark (memory park) which holds the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs — at least 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Made by Imre Varga, it resembles a weeping willow whose leaves bear inscriptions with the names of victims. There is also a memorial to Wallenberg and other Righteous Among the Nations including Nicholas Winton who organised the transport of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to Britain in November 1938.
We walked down the street to the Rumbach Synagogue. This was destroyed in the Second World War. It was completely rebuilt in the same style with work only finishing in 2021. It is so close to the Dohany Synagogue that it effectively has no congregation. It is therefore used for meetings, concerts and other events. It felt completely characterless to me.
Petra took us into the courtyard of residential block of flats and showed us that the 30m back boundary of the property is the remnants of the 2.5m high wall of the ghetto.
We had seen very little street art in Budapest but suddenly came across a few paintings. One was of a Rubik’s cube. The cube was invented in 1974 by Ernõ Rubik, a Hungarian architecture professor. Another was a huge painting which commemorated the Football Match of the Century when the Hungarian team defeated England 6 -3 at Wembley Stadium in London on 25 November 1953.
Our final stop was at the Kazinczy Street orthodox synagogue. This is far simpler than the others we had seen. It was also destroyed in the Second World War, but was rebuilt sooner, and was rebuilt in a simpler style. I heard one of the woman on our tour say, ‘I am far more comfortable here, despite not being an orthodox Jew’. There was an electric clock in the synagogue which survived and has been mounted on the wall still showing the time of 10h44 when the power to the temple died as it was destroyed.
Doug and I grabbed a sandwich at a nearby restaurant and then walked 600m to collect my laundry. A taxi from the nearby Opera House took us back to the ship.
We sailed at 18h00 and passed through the middle of Budapest with an amazing display of beautiful buildings.
Day 10 – Vienna
We sailed all night and all day.
Late morning, we passed through Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and saw pretty buildings from the river.
Shortly afterwards we entered Austria.
An hour before getting to Vienna we entered a lock. This is very different from the large locks at The Iron Gate Gorge. The ship had been built so that it only had 150mm of space either side, between the ship and the lock wall.
Ocean cruises publish their port arrival and departure times when they first advertise their cruises. This river cruise only published those times the day before. Months before, when looking at the programme I had assumed that we would be spending today in Vienna. On that basis we had booked Opera tickets for tonight. Two days ago, I realized that today was a sailing day. I spoke to Niki who confirmed that the planned arrival time in Vienna was 19h00 which endangered our timely arrival at the 19h30 opera start time. I asked Niki if it was possible for the Captain to increase the speed of the ship by half a kilometre an hour. He doubted that would be possible. During the day I did calculations of how far we had to go and concluded that we were travelling faster than planned. The captain spoilt us by arriving 90 minutes early.
We emerged in our finery from our cabins to the delight of Niki who believes that one should dress smartly for the opera. Guest services called us a cab and we arrived at the Opera House soon after 19h00. We had good central tickets, above the Royal Box, and delighted in the Don Pasquale opera. We were able to understand the opera better because we had iPad type devices on the back of the seat in front of us, which offered surtitles of the lyrics in eight different languages.
Day 11 – Vienna
Our guide, Rainer, pointed out beautiful building after beautiful building as we circled Vienna on the Ring Road.
We left the coach near the Natural History Museum and walked through the original Burgtor gate of the city. The wall had been built as a defence in 1704 but was razed in 1894 to allow the city to grow. The route of the destroyed wall became the Ring Road. The Burgtor gate was preserved.
We now approached the Hofburg Palace. It is the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty. It was built in the 13th century and expanded several times afterwards making it one of the biggest palace complexes in the world. It is a magnificent collection of buildings, squares and statues as the photos show. Today the complex contains several museums, offices of government and international organisations and the Spanish Riding School.
We walked down the Kohlmarkt where every luxury brand in the world seems to have a store and ended our tour in St Stephen’s Square.
Following the advice of Niki, we headed a short way up a side street to the Café Hawelka, which is an old-style coffee shop. I continued my campaign of eating apple strudel while Tibby and Mikelle settled on custard strudels.
Mikelle returned to the ship, and we returned to the Hofburg Palace to the Sisi Museum which tells the life story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (known as Sisi). The story of her life as told in the museum corresponds to the description on Wikipedia, so I leave it to them to tell the story: Elisabeth was born into the royal Bavarian House of Wittelsbach in 1837 but enjoyed an informal upbringing before marrying Emperor Franz Joseph I at the age of sixteen. The marriage thrust her into the much more formal Habsburg court life, for which she was unprepared and which she found uncongenial. Early in the marriage, she was at odds with her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, who took over the rearing of Elisabeth’s daughters, one of whom, Sophie, died in infancy. The birth of a son to the imperial couple, Crown Prince Rudolf, improved Elisabeth’s standing at court, but her health suffered under the strain. As a result, she would often visit Hungary for its more relaxed environment. She came to develop a deep kinship with Hungary and helped to bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867.
The death of Elisabeth’s only son and his mistress Mary Vetsera in a murder–suicide at his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 was a blow from which the Empress never recovered. She withdrew from court duties and travelled widely, unaccompanied by her family. In 1890, she had the palace Achilleion built on the Greek island of Corfu. The palace featured an elaborate mythological motif and served as a refuge, which Elisabeth visited often. She was obsessively concerned with maintaining her youthful figure and beauty. Elisabeth also developed a restrictive diet, and she wore extremely tight-laced corsets to keep her waist very small.
In 1897, her sister, Sophie, died in an accidental fire at the Bazar de la Charité charity event in Paris. While travelling in Geneva in 1898, Elisabeth was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. Her tenure of 44 years was the longest of any Austrian empress.
The museum contains many of her personal items and includes the Imperial Living Quarters giving one a good sense of they lived. Photography is not permitted so the internal images below are from the museum website.
The classic way to ride the streets of central Vienna is in a horse and carriage and there are many of those on offer. An alternative is in a variety of classic and special cars.
Niki had recommended that we have a sausage for lunch, so we bought those from a stall. The attendant has five different types of sausages grilling in front of him. He cuts the head off a baguette and forces it on to a spike which opens a hole almost to the end, through the middle. He then dispenses your chosen addition of mustard, mayo or ketchup in the hole and then pushes your chosen sausage into the hole. The baguette is fresh, and the sausage is wonderfully tasty.
By this time, on a warm, sunny Saturday on a holiday weekend, the centre of town was heaving with people. We entered St Stephen’s Cathedral but did not stay long as the church was a mass of people in the areas where the public were allowed.
Google Maps led us 2.5km to the Belvedere Gardens which is yet another beautiful place in Vienna.
In the Upper Museum we sought paintings by Klimt. Wikipedia says: Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement. Klimt is noted for his paintings, murals, sketches, and other objects d’art. Klimt’s primary subject was the female body, and his works are marked by a frank eroticism. Among his figurative works, which include allegories and portraits, he painted landscapes. Among the artists of the Vienna Secession, Klimt was the most influenced by Japanese art and its methods.
We enjoyed viewing The Kiss, Fritza Riedler and Adam and Eve.
(After the cruise ended, on 27th June, 2023 the Klimt painting, Lady with a Fan, which was found on his easel after he died, was sold at Sotheby’s in London, for £85 million!)
We walked a kilometre to the Sudtiroler Platz metro station, worked out how to buy a ticket, travelled on the U1 line to Praterstern and entered the Prater, a large park with old-time amusements, including the Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel dating from 1897. The queue for the Ferris wheel was long. I noticed a webpage reference, made an online booking and skipped the queue. The Ferris wheel cars look like old train carriages. They have capacity for about sixteen people each, but they only loaded eight, so we had plenty of space to move around to look at the lovely views in all directions.
When I booked the tickets online at 13.50 Euros each, I noticed an option to book Platform 9 at Euros 89.00 each. Wondering if this was a VIP experience, that might be special, I looked at the description which started ‘For visitors looking for a special adrenaline kick’. I decided that I was not looking for an adrenaline kick so booked the standard ride without exploring the rest of what Platform 9 offered. We were in Car 10 so had a perfect view of Platform 9. A guide led a couple on to a glass platform where there would normally be a Ferris wheel car. All three had harnesses which they then hooked on to a ring above their head. Their harness allowed them to get close to the edge of the platform but no further. They then stood on this platform as the wheel went round. I felt ill just watching them.
We got back to the ship having done 13,000 steps. A nap was in order.
When we left Vienna there was not the same view of spectacular buildings that we had seen when departing Budapest. That is because the affect on the City of the Danube flooding, caused the authorities to divert the Danube from passing through the middle of Vienna, and it now effectively passes it on the side.
After dinner, Alexander Kugler, came on board to give us a 45-minute information packed lecture on the history of Austria and how it went in a thousand years from being a small country to being a huge empire with 58 million people, back to a small country with 8 million people. This was a fascinating presentation.
Day 12 – Melk, Austria
We woke to another beautiful day.
I arrived on the top deck as we went under the low bridge at Krems. The wheelhouse had been lowered, although I was amazed to see that the ship was still being steered from the lowered wheelhouse, which must have had very restricted sight.
For the next 60km we passed through the area known as Wachau, through delightful village after delightful village, all with beautiful churches and many with interesting forts. Niki provided a narrative explaining the history and legends of the places we were passing. He explained that the 250 wineries in the Wachau produce outstanding wine from Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. We saw many vineyards terraced all the way up mountains.
At lunch the house wine was a Domaine Wachau Gruner Veltliner, from the local area. It was very much enjoyed.
We docked at Melk and were taken up to Melk Abbey. This Benedictine Abbey has been located at Melk for 950 years and has been added to and rebuilt a number of times. The Abbey currently has 23 monks who are supported by many lay employees. There is a mixed gender secondary day school for 900 on site. Before Covid the Abbey had 550,000 visitors a year. It was busy today and our guided trip was timed very precisely. Our guide, Inago, took us through the seven Imperial Rooms, which are now home to a museum chronicling the abbey’s history from its inception to modern times.
We entered the first of two libraries open to the public (six more are only for scholars) which in total holds more than 100,000 books, globes, and medieval texts, including a famed collection of musical manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts date from the early 9th century.
We made our way down to the Abbey Church which is the most ornate church of the many ornate churches we have seen so far on this trip. A real splendour. Photography was not permitted indoors so all the internal photos here came from the internet. It is very clear that this Abbey is incredibly wealthy.
We walked down the hill to the village of Melk which is a pretty place.
The ship progressed up the river while we were at the Abbey. Coaches took us to meet the ship at a place with the curious name of Ybbs. I chuckled when I saw that it was paired with a place called Bobbio, near Genoa in Italy.
Research told me that Bobbio is famous for being an important cultural centre since the early Middle Ages and it was called “the northern Montecasino” for the renowned fame of Saint Columbanus’s Abbey and its Scriptorium. I notice that the mayor is Roberto Pasquali. Do you think that it is a requirement for the mayor to have the name of Robert or Roberto?
Day 13 – Passau, Germany
We berthed in Passau just before breakfast. We had just entered Germany. Passau is in Germany, but Austria is over the river and the Czech Republic is 55km away. It is on a peninsula and lies at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. This important strategic position made this small town of 60,000 rich particularly from the trade of salt.
Our guide Evalina, was born, attended primary and secondary school and university in the town but now lives in Austria five minutes away, over the river. She walked us past her schools and talked about life in the town. The town is exposed to the flooding of the rivers, and she showed us the flood levels high on many houses. The most recent flood was in 2013 when the level seems to have reached 2.5m above street level. Passau is notable for its gothic and baroque architecture which makes it very pretty.
The highlight is St. Stephen’s Cathedral. With 17,774 pipes and 233 registers, the organ at St. Stephen’s is the largest in the world outside of the USA (which has several larger). We had hoped to attend the normal midday 30-minute organ recital but as yesterday was Pentecost (Whitsun) today is a religious holiday and there is a service and no recital. We were in time to go into the church just before the service ended with a resounding organ tune. After the service ended, we were able to return and take photographs. The cathedral is having works done so large parts of the cathedral and the organ were not visible.
Day 14 – Regensburg, Germany
Our guide, Sylvia, told us that Regensburg had benefited from being at the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers with both the salt trade and other longer distance trading being important. From its foundation as an imperial Roman river fort, the city has been the political, economic and cultural centre of the surrounding region. Later, under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire, it housed the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg (a type of advisory parliament to the Emperor based in Vienna) for 150 years. Between 1135 and 1146, the Stone Bridge across the Danube was built at Regensburg. This bridge opened major international trade routes between northern Europe and Venice, and this began Regensburg’s golden age as a residence of wealthy trading families. Regensburg became the cultural centre of southern Germany and was celebrated for its gold work and fabrics. The medieval centre of the city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 because of its well-preserved architecture, being the biggest medieval city site north of the alps. It has a population of 160,000, so it is a lot bigger than Passau.
The Dom (Cathedral) is regarded as the main work of Gothic architecture in Bavaria. It was founded in 1275 and completed in 1634, except for the towers, which were finished in 1869. The interior contains numerous interesting monuments and many beautiful stained-glass windows.
Records show that Regensburg was the oldest Jewish settlement in Bavaria. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Christians were prohibited from paying interest to each other. Jews were kept out of many professions and so took up the business of lending to Christians. The trading advantages that Regensburg had became less important late in the 15th century and Jews were seen as an easy group to blames, especially as many in the community owed them money. The persecution of Jews became widespread from 1475, culminating in them being expelled from the city in 1519. At that time the Jewish quarter and synagogue were razed and the Jewish cemetery of 5,000 graves was destroyed. Some gravestones were used as building material. Sylvia showed us a gravestone in a wall of a house. In recent years the city fathers offered to remove such gravestones, but the Jewish leaders decided that they should remain in place as a reminder to generations that follow, of the persecution that they had experienced.
In 1669 Jews were again permitted to reside in Regensburg, but it was not until 1841 that the community was able to dedicate its new synagogue. That synagogue was destroyed in 1907.
The third synagogue was completed in 1912. On November 9, 1938, during the Kristallnacht, the Regensburg Synagogue and several Jewish homes and stores were destroyed, and around 220 Jews were arrested, some were also deported to the Dachau concentration camp. During World War Two, many Jews emigrated to various countries, and in 1942, over 200 Jews were deported either to Piaski in German-occupied Poland or the Theresienstadt Ghetto in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
The artist, Gunter Demnig, created the ‘Stumbling Stones’ project whereby plaques are laid in the pavements outside houses of Jews who lived there before immigrating or being taken away by the Nazis. Sylvia showed us five such stumbling stones outside a house. Joseph Lilienfeld died of a heart attack just before being deported. His wife was deported to Auschwitz and his son and two employees, Erich and Alma Herscherr, were deported to Piaski. All four were killed at their destinations.
The city administration offered the Jewish community an opportunity for a place of remembrance in the area where the synagogue had stood in Neupfarrplatz. An Israeli sculptor, Dani Karavan, designed a memorial which was finished in 2005, which marks out the walls of the main part of the synagogue, the pillars and the bimah. All these items have been kept to a low level as it was the intention that this should be a place where people gathered, and children played. As we listened to Sylvia, a young child played on the memorial.
The fourth synagogue was consecrated in February 2019. It was unfortunately closed today so we could not visit it.
The stone bridge over the Danube, has arches which are too low and narrow to permit modern ships to pass through. As a result, a canal has been built that goes around the city. Soon after we returned to the ship it used the canal to sail around the city.
I did more research on the Stumbling Stones or Stolpersteine project. The Stumbling Stones are a project by artist Gunter Demnig that began in 1992. Small commemorative plaques laid in the ground, so-called stumbling blocks, are intended to commemorate the fate of the people who were persecuted, murdered , deported , expelled or committed suicide during the National Socialist era.
In Nazi Germany, an antisemitic saying, when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone, was: “A Jew must be buried here”. The term “to stumble across something”, in German and English, can also mean “to find out (by chance)”. Thus, the term provocatively invokes an antisemitic remark of the past, but at the same time intends to provoke thoughts about a serious issue.
The square brass plaques with rounded corners and edges are inscribed with letters hammered in by hand using hammers and punches and are supported by a cast concrete cube with an edge length of 96mm × 96mm and a height of 100mm. They are usually embedded in the pavement or pavement of the respective pavement in front of the last freely chosen residential buildings of the Nazi victims. On 26 May 2023 (just a four days ago) Demnig laid the 100,000 Stumbling Stone in Nuremberg. Stumbling stones have been laid in Germany as well as in 30 other European countries. They are considered the largest decentralized memorial in the world.
(After the trip, my cousin Denise told me that she had seen solpersteine in Amsterdam recently. My thirteen cousins and I have decided to have solpersteine fitted outside the house of my great grandfather, Mozes Stodel, for him and two Jewish women who were taken from there in 1943 or 1944. Although he was born Jewish the Nazis allowed him to stay in Amsterdam because he had married (and later, divorced) a gentile. He was taken away because he hid the Jewish women in his house. We do not know the date he was taken away but do know that he was first sent to the transit camp Westerbork, 170km NE of Amsterdam, and then transported, on 3rd September 1944 to Auschwitz, where he died on 31st December 1944. The current waiting time for a solperstein to be fitted in Amsterdam is five years.)
After dinner Niki gave a talk about the Main-Danube Canal which links those two rivers and which we had entered at Kelheim, a few hours earlier.
Between 1836 and 1846 the Ludwig Canal, named for King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was built between Bamberg and Kelheim. This canal had a narrow channel, with over 100 locks, and a shortage of water in the peak section, so the operation of the waterway soon became uneconomic—especially given the rapidly advancing construction of the railway network in the southern German countryside. The canal finally was abandoned in 1950, after a decision was made to not repair damage it had suffered from Allied bombing during World War II.
The construction of the current canal from Kelheim to Bamberg, took 32 years and was completed in 1992. The canal is 171km long, has sixteen locks and has 115 bridges over it. The canal is just wide enough to allow two leisure cruisers, like ours, to pass each other while most of the locks leave only 150mm either side of the ship. During the night we will pass the Continental Divide (also known as the watershed) at an altitude of 406m. Up to now we have been ascending each lock while from tomorrow, we will be descending. The three deepest locks, at 24.6m each, will be passed early tomorrow morning.
While the building of this canal allowed leisure cruise companies to offer a cruise like ours, the main use of the both the rivers and this canal is for commercial purposes. There was never the expectation that this would happen, but cargoes from Ukraine are now being shipped along this route during the war.
Over the next four days we will passing under many bridges that only have only a 6.3m clearance. Our ship is 6.2m above the water when we have taken on 52 tons of ballast water. Earlier today the crew folded down the railings, sun covers and anything else they could to leave nothing protruding from the roof except the wheelhouse. Niki told me that the captain can take the wheelhouse all the way down and steer from inside using radar and GPS. Apparently, they prefer to take the wheelhouse almost all the way down, slide the roof off and then look over the edge, ducking down as the ship passes beneath the bridge.
Day 15 – Nuremberg, Germany
We woke to find ourselves in a lock, and for the first time, the ship was descending. We had passed the Continental Divide. For the last two weeks we have been sailing against the current. From now on we will be sailing with the current.
We had a relaxed morning and after lunch disembarked in the south of Nuremberg. Our guide, Christopher, addressed the Second World War immediately. He told us that the city was a favoured point of attack for allied bombers in World War II even though it was only later included into the radius of action due to its location in the south of Germany. Because Nuremberg was a strong economic and infrastructural hub and had symbolic importance as the “City of the Nuremberg Rally” it was singled out by the Allies as an important target. The greatest damages occurred from the attack on 2 January 1945 in which 521 British Bombers dropped 6,000 high-explosive bombs and one million incendiary devices on the city. The population suffered more than 1,800 deaths and 100,000 people lost their homes in this attack. Nuremberg’s old town was almost destroyed, and the city was badly damaged. Nuremberg was among the most destroyed cities in Germany as a whole.
We drove past the stadium where many Nazi Rallies were held.
He showed us the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials of senior Nazis were held and the high security prison behind the courthouse. Nuremberg was apparently chosen for the Trials because the high security prison was adjacent to the courthouse, thus saving the risk of transporting the prisoners every day. Between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946, the International Military Tribunal tried 22 of the most important surviving leaders of Nazi Germany. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death. Seven defendants were sent to Spandau Prison to serve sentences and three were acquitted. The US subsequently held twelve further trials in the same location where 177 were tried.
We explored the Imperial Castle which was built to withstand all invaders. It is a magnificent structure and was never overcome.
We wandered down to the town and saw beautiful buildings, statues, engravings, coffee houses and a cathedral.
The local artistic hero is Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), the painter, print maker, and theorist of the German Renaissance who was born and died in the town. We saw his house, statute and a plaque.
We ended our tour of the city by a visit to Café Celona on the canal, where another apple strudel was consumed.
After dinner three musicians entertained us with Roma Gypsy Music and Klezmer music from Ashkenazi Jews played on the guitar, clarinet and double bass. It was fun and pleasant.
Day 16 – Bamberg, Germany
We left the Danube – Main Canal and joined the Main River.
Our guide, Hanna, told us that Bamberg is laid out over seven hills where the Regnitz and Main rivers meet. Thirteen thousand students are part of the population of 78,000. Its old town preserves structures from the 11th to 19th centuries including the muralled Altes Rathaus, which occupies an island in the Regnitz reached by arched bridges.
Yet another beautiful German town with beautiful buildings and engravings.
The Romanesque Bamberg Cathedral, begun in the 11th century, features four towers and numerous stone carvings.
After our formal tour we bought bratwurst in rolls and ate them round the city centre fountain.
Another beautiful day ended with dinner in the Aquavit dining area at the front of the ship. After dinner Tibby and I sat in the rocking chairs at the very front of the ship, sipping our wine and enjoying the magnificent views, many of which included vineyards. The moon will be full in two nights and was very visibly on our left. An hour later the moon was on our right! Google Maps told us that we were sailing in an oxbow. The moon had not moved. We were travelling in the opposite direction for a short while!
These long days are wonderful. Sunrise today was at 05h13 and sunset at 21h15.
Just before 22h00 we passed a cruising ship sailing the other way quietly. There was not a lot of space to spare in the river.
Day 17 – Wurzburg, Germany
The day started cooler than previous days but within a few hours it was another hot, blue day.
Wurzburg is another university town with 35,000 students out of a population of 127,000. It is smaller than Nuremberg and Regensburg.
Our guide, Andre, told us that The Würzburg Residence is a baroque palace that was begun in 1720 and completed in 1781. It served as the seat of the prince bishops of Würzburg. The palace is one of the main works of southern German baroque and is regarded as one of the most important residential buildings of the late baroque period, with other comparable buildings being Schönbrunn in Vienna and the Palace of Versailles near Paris.
As we climbed the main internal staircase, we marvelled at the grandeur of the largest continuous ceiling fresco in the world (approx. 580 m²), painted in 1752 and 1753. The four continents (as known then) of Europe, Asia, Africa and America are represented in the paintings on each side of the ceiling. I am sure that many dissertations have been written about the meaning of the images.
The main rooms on the first floor are the Audience Chamber, White Hall and Imperial Hall each with the most incredible decorations.
Each wing of the Residence then has a run of interleading rooms, much like Versailles, which were once Royal Apartments, but are now mainly a place to display amazing art.
There is also a display of photos of the damage done during the war. On 16 March 1945, in 27 minutes, from 21h15 to 21h42, the main Allied bombing raid on Würzburg and Heidingsfeld destroyed 80 percent of the city centre . At least 4,500 people died that night. The Residence was hugely damaged although the fresco above the staircase largely survived. It does mean that most of what is on display today is a replica of what was once there. The cost of the work must have been eye watering.
There is a beautiful garden behind the Residence.
We walked a short way into the City and marvelled at the Wurzburg Cathedral dedicated to Saint Kilian. At noon, when we were near, the bells were rung for five minutes, drowning out our guide. The cathedral today has 20 bells, with a total combined weight of 26 tons.
One hundred metres from the cathedral is the Neumunster Collegiate Church dating back to 1065. Two hundred metres further is the Marienkapelle. It is amazing that three such big churches can be so close to each other.
The city is full of pretty buildings, statues and other street art. The city market has many inviting food stores.
We ended our tour on the bridge decorated with statues and with beautiful views over the river to vineyards. Many people were sipping wine on the bridge in the sun.
I did not get to the Fortress Marienberg, but it was very visible from the river.
After dinner we had a talk and demonstration by Hans Ittig of the glass shop in Wertheim called Wertheim Glaskunst. We have seen many glass blowing demonstrations and were not enthusiastic about staying up (we go to bed very early on most nights) but we got chatting to others after dinner and so it was easy to stay and listen and watch. We were so pleased that we did. Hans told us, in excellent English, about his grandfather, a glass maker, who escaped in 1950 from East Germany to Wertheim. Hans followed in the family tradition and after being trained by his grandfather in glass blowing, furthered his training at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State co-founded by Dale Chihuly. He told humorous stories of his experiences and the lessons he learned and taught us the basic steps of glass blowing. Unexpectedly, this was an enchanting hour.
Day 18 – Wertheim, Germany
A toy road train took us the kilometre to the village of Wertheim. Our guide, Volker, had worked as the town clerk for many years. He told us that Wertheim has a population of only 23,000, is located on the confluence of the rivers Tauber and Main and is best known for its landmark castle and medieval town centre. We had a delightful hour as he walked us through the town.
We marvelled at the glass in Hans Ittig’ s shop and finished with a coffee in the town square.
The schedule for today is an example of how it is difficult to organise an independent tour. The schedule of excursions, which has been available for many months, shows the walk-through Wertheim in the morning and an optional cycling excursion in the afternoon. That might lead one to suppose that one could organise an independent tour in the afternoon. In fact, the ship sailed immediately after the cyclists disembarked. They followed the river and waved to us from time to time.
I keep marvelling at the river traffic. Two huge coal barges, tied together, came from the other direction. Many barges have cars on their back decks which they must offload using their crane.
We were able to relax as we were spoilt by the service of George and Demi.
Before dinner Niki gave a talk about the Netherlands. Having lived there for four years we did not learn anything new.
Day 19 – Koblenz, Germany
During the early hours of the morning, we passed through Frankfurt.
At 08h30 we came to the confluence of the Main and Rhine Rivers and joined the Rhine. We had sailed for fourteen days on the Danube, two days on the Danube-Main Canal, three days on the Main River and will sail on the Rhine for two days before using canals to get us to Amsterdam. The distance marker at the confluence showed 0.0 on the Main and 497 on the Rhine (the latter is the kilometre distance from the source of the Rhine).
As we had no further low bridges ahead of us, the crew had been busy before dawn to raise the railings on the top deck so that we could again view our journey from there.
We entered the Middle Rhine Valley at Bingen and for the next 54km sailed through a heavenly scene of small villages, ancient castles and mountainous vineyards. In that stretch we saw eighteen identified castles. Sunday church bells welcomed us. Viking gave us a map of the castles in the valley. Almost all the castles were built more than seven hundred years ago. Those castles that are inhabited today, are normally hotels. We also saw a statue of Loreley, who, according to legend, was a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River in despair over a faithless lover and was transformed into a siren who lured fishermen to destruction. The day was blue but a cool wind blowing down the valley had most of us on the top deck wrapped up.
There are surprisingly few webcams along the river. I had hoped to get a photo of the ship from the webcam on the Bellevue Hotel in Boppard, but it did not seem to be working as we passed by.
We docked in Koblenz at 15h00 and soon thereafter departed on our Moselle Wine Tasting Tour. Our guide, Laurel, is an American who met a German winemaker soon after her arrival in Koblenz 42 years ago. In due course they married, had two children, ran and later sold the wine business. As we drove from the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers, up the Moselle Valley she showed us vineyards climbing the sides of mountains, sometimes with a gradient of 70%. Most of the work in the vineyards is by hand although she showed us toy like trains that transport items to and from the high terraces.
Ninety percent of the grapes grown in the area are Riesling. We stopped at a high point above the Moselle River and marvelled at the view.
We then made our way back to the village of Winningen to the winery of Krober Weingut. The third-generation wine maker and recent owner, Florian Krober, explained that they owned parcels of land totalling 10 hectares on four mountain slopes in the area. He and his wife and two employees are joined by ten other seasonal workers at harvest time. He explained that they rely on the terroir for most of the taste and that one mountain slope can have three different types of soil resulting in very different tasting wine. We tasted a Riesling Uhlen Semi Dry (12.50E) which is a blend of grapes from three different soil types on the Uhlen Mountain; a Riesling Uhlen Laubach Dry (18.50E) which is from one of the soil types on the Uhlen Mountain; a Riesling Bruckstuck Kabinett Half Dry (9.00E) which was slightly sweeter and finally a Riesling Rottgen alte Reben Sweet (12.80E) which was not a dessert wine but will be lovely with cheese. We liked the Laubach the best. Florian answered our questions and was a charming and well-informed host. We were pleased that we had chosen to do this excursion.
In Koblenz we passed by pretty buildings near to our ship.
We did a return trip on the cable car over the Rhine and saw the world from above.
After dinner Elisabeth and Akim came on board and performed extracts from operas for us which was a delight.
The ship sailed at 22h30.
Day 20 – Cologne, Germany
During the night we passed through Bonn.
Our guide in Cologne, Marion, had a difficult gig. The city was almost destroyed by Allied Bombing in the Second World War. Unlike other towns there was no serious attempt to rebuild buildings in the same style so almost all the buildings have been built since then with few attempts to create special buildings. Marion milked the Romans as much as she could in her descriptions. Without much to show us she tried to make the 1,500 years since then sound interesting. She told us that Eau de Cologne and No. 4711 perfumes originated in the city.
The rest of the time she told us about the cathedral which is the most significant building that emerged with no significant damage from the bombing. It is a renowned monument of German Catholicism and Gothic architecture and is Germany’s most visited landmark, attracting an average of 20,000 people a day. At 157 m, the cathedral is the tallest twin-spired church in the world, the second tallest church in Europe after Ulm Minster, and the third tallest church of any kind in the world. The towers for its two huge spires give the cathedral the largest façade of any church in the world. The choir has the largest height-to-width ratio, 3.6:1, of any medieval church. It took over 600 years for it to be built. Marion told us that it was built using one hundred types of stone and thus there is a reluctance to clean the black of soot and pollution off the cathedral for fear that the outcome will be a hodge podge of different stone colours.
After the tour we walked through the cathedral which has the most amazing collection of stained-glass windows.
We sat down in Café Reichard, near the cathedral, for coffee and cake. We battled to find someone to give an order to and when we did, she was most unimpressed that we did not know the name of the cake we had seen in the window. We then battled to get her to give us a bill and then battled further to pay. No joy in this frustrating experience.
As far as I am concerned Cologne was our least exciting stop of our cruise. I do not understand why we are stopping here for fourteen hours. Niki has been clear that Dusseldorf, 50km further down the Rhine is a more attractive city. Why are we not there instead?
This is the first time we have travelled with Viking and did so because Mikelle and Doug persuaded us. The company was established by Torstein Hagen from Norway in 1997. It remains a private company principally owned by the Hagen family. My research tells me that the company has three divisions, Viking River Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises, and Viking Expeditions. In 2018, Viking Cruises had reached $3 billion in revenue, carried 440,000 passengers annually and employed more than 8,000 employees. Before COVID, it operated a fleet of 76 river vessels and six ocean ships, offering cruises along the rivers and oceans of North and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Russia, Egypt, China, and Southeast Asia. It is now the largest river cruise company in the world. It operates about sixty ships on the main European rivers with almost all the ships having an identical layout. The company revamped the ships, aiming for its target demographic of older travellers. The lack of frills, like gyms and pools, and the fleet’s standardization also maximized the number of people the ships could accommodate. It focuses on English language speakers over 55, especially Americans. On our cruise from Budapest, with 181 passengers, there were 130 from the USA, 20 Canadians, 27 Australians, 2 New Zealanders and 2 Britons.
I have been impressed by Viking. Interface with the company during the booking and pre-cruise phase was good. The ship is well appointed and is very comfortable to live and travel in. The crew are well trained and focused on maximising the enjoyment of the customers. Our itinerary (except for Cologne, mentioned above) has been well planned with an appropriate time in each port. The inclusion of an excursion in every port in the price is a big plus. We were impressed by the content and guiding of all the excursions we attended and heard similar views of other excursions. The standard of English of all guides was excellent. The standard of entertainers brought on board was good.
My complaints are:
The smallest complaint is that the playlist of recorded music in the lounge is too short and goes round too often.
One can buy a Premium Drinks Package that provides as many premium drinks as you can drink. Otherwise drinks at meals are included in the price. My complaint is that the included house wines at meals were limited to one white and one red, often poor quality and changed infrequently.
One has no need to go hungry as there is plenty of food at each meal with cookies and pastries available all the time and afternoon tea and cakes from time to time. My complaint was that the food was not very good. Pasta dishes were offered every day, but we stopped eating them because they were too sloppy and wet. Too often the salads felt that the lettuce had not been spun and dried but arrived wet. Unless one was specific, steak, burgers, chicken and salmon were over cooked. Lamb on the final lunch was the worst lamb I have tasted for decades. Dishes were too often bland, and I was twice served food that should have been hot but was cool. I craved a simple sandwich at lunch but when sandwiches were on the menu there was too much bread involved. The food improved marginally when Head Chef Roland went on leave and was replaced by Head Chef Job. I was told that I couldn’t expect the standard of food on ocean cruises because the kitchen is so much smaller. My experience of Uniworld is that they manage far better food on river cruises.
The WIFI is appalling. It is included in the price, but I had to spend a lot using my phone mobile data instead. We were told that the WIFI is provided by Starlink. If that is true, then they do a poor job. My suspicion is that Viking have not purchased a big enough package. Of course, 181 passengers all on the internet is a huge demand, but ocean cruise lines, like Azamara, with many more passengers, manage to get it right. (Niki later told me that the package was sufficient but there is a mismatch between the Starlink hardware and the ship’s modems, which was supposed to be fixed during the cruise but wasn’t. Hopefully It is as simple as that and the next cruise will have the excellent WIFI we were deprived of.)
We saw many ships during our trip operated by a wide variety of companies. Unsurprisingly we saw many Viking ships. They are running a huge number of different itineraries and different length trips.
On our Moselle Wine Tasting tour yesterday, we were joined by passengers of another Viking ship who were doing a seven-day itinerary from Basle to Amsterdam. We have seen many docking positions, with the Viking brand, in villages where we have not stopped. That probably means that there are Viking cruises that stop at these intermediate places. This variety of itineraries of Viking is a big plus. Of course, it does mean that, at times, there are multiple Viking ships in port at the same time. We were warned not to get confused and to remember that our ship was no. 37. Guides are given Viking branded lollipops that they hold aloft for us to follow. The Viking Vidar lollipops were branded with 37A, 37B, 37C and so on. For each excursion we would be assigned to one such group. The square in front of the Cologne Cathedral was busy with Viking passengers this morning as there were lollipops in the air for ship numbers 13, 37, 45 and 51.
Day 21 – Kinderdijk, Netherlands
We passed through Dusseldorf during the night without experiencing its loveliness.
I opened our curtains when I woke, and I knew that we had crossed the border into the Netherlands. The countryside was flat.
We sailed all morning and at 14h30, about 15km east of Rotterdam we walked over the dyke to Kinderdijk. Our guide, Joop, told us that to drain the polder, a system of 19 windmills was built around 1740. This group of mills is the largest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands. Joop took us to a working mill and explained how a system of wooden gears and spindles uses the power of the sails to move a mill, which lifts water. The top part of the windmill can be moved 180 degrees so that the sails face the wind. We were amazed by the force of the sails as they circled. The work of moving water is these days done by electric pumps. It is a good thing that this historical equipment has been preserved.
As we walked through Kinderdijk we sidestepped goose droppings. Joop asked if there were any Canadians in the group. A few eagerly identified themselves. Joop asked them to please take their geese back home with them!
We sailed into Rotterdam Harbour to pick up a group that had done a different excursion. The Harbour is big with many canals, bridges, cranes and interesting buildings.
Day 22 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
We arrived in Amsterdam during the night and docked behind the Central Station.
And so, our cruise came to an end. At 07h00 we were transferred to Schiphol Airport for our flight home to London.
A cruise on this route had been on our bucket list for many years. We are very pleased that we did it. The route provided us with a great combination and variety of cultures, cities, views and experiences. A huge positive was that, except for the first two days, we had glorious spring weather with blue skies and warm (but not uncomfortably hot) days. We were pleased that we travelled with Viking as their ship, crew, itinerary, excursions and arrangements were very good. Our highlights were:
- The views when sailing on the Danube through the Iron Gates Gorge between Romania and Serbia
- The views when sailing on the Danube through the Wachau Valley in Austria
- The views when sailing on the Rhine through the Middle Rhine Valley in Germany
- The views when sailing through Budapest and Bratislava
- The Belogradchik Rocks in Bulgaria
- We visited the interior of thirteen Christian churches and cathedrals. Of those the most magnificent was Melk Abbey, although the huge organ in St. Stephen’s Cathedral was amazing.
- The library at Melk Abbey
- The Wurzburg Residence and Garden, especially the ceiling paintings
- The Sisi Museum in Vienna
- The three paintings by Klimt in the Upper Museum in the Belvedere Gardens in Vienna.
- The Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum in Bucharest
- The story and sight of the windmills at Kinderdijk
- The buildings, statues and engravings of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna
- The old-style buildings, statues and engravings in Passau, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Bamberg and Wurzburg
- The Budapest Jewish Heritage Tour and the visit to the four synagogues
- The Moselle Wine Tasting Tour
- The opera, Don Pasquale, in the Vienna Opera House
- The concert of Four Seasons and other pieces in St Michael’s Church in Budapest
- The organ recital in the Assumption Cathedral in Kalocsa
- The singing of Martina in the Holy Cross Church in Osijek
- The Talija Art Company folk dances in Belgrade
- The home visit with Rosica in Aljmas in Serbia
- The lecture by the glassblower, Hans Ittig, of the glass shop Wertheim Glaskunst
- The lecture by Srdjan Ristic in Belgrade about Serbia
- The lecture by Alexander Kugler on Austria
- The lecture by Niki about the Main-Danube Canal
- Learning about the Yugoslav Wars
- Learning about ‘solpersteine’ or Stumbling Stones which remember victims of the Holocaust
A disappointment was that there were few food related high points. The food was a disappointment on the ship, even when they did meals focused on the country we were travelling through. We enjoyed a few apple strudels and some sausages off the ship and perhaps should have more actively sought interesting meals ashore.
Thinking about the trip as a whole the one item that could be added to make it more fulfilling would be an enrichment lecture on the Yugoslav Wars. This was significant and was addressed by guides from their perspective. It may be difficult to present a balanced view of the major issues but it would be very helpful to passengers from countries far away.Back to the Travels index