September/October, 2013, River Cruise Through the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary

We arranged this trip through a former Bucknell classmate of Karen's, who is now arranges travel and works out of Boston. We indicated to Liz, the agent, that we wanted to do a river cruise through eastern Europe. We had watched Downton Abbey on PBS's Masterpiece Theater, and we saw a spectacular advert for Viking River Cruises. Liz told us to look at Uniworld River Cruises. We did and she found for us a cruise on the cruise boat " River Beatrice", leaving Passau, Germany and cruising down the Danube River to Budapest, Hungary. We discussed things, and decided to do a pre-cruise visit to Prague and spend several nights there. Liz worked with Uniworld and booked everything for us, from the air transport on Lufthansa to the side trip to Prague to the cruise, and everything in between.

Why a river cruise? Let me explain that we do a lot of travel and neither Karen nor I had ever traveled on a package plan. We always made our own arrangements and toured on our own. I had done a cruise once, long ago, but that was in the Caribbean on a cruise ship, and Karen had never done a cruise. We experienced several key advantages by doing a river cruise:

  1. The whole trip required one vendor to deal with for all details, including:
    • Air Travel
    • Accommodations
    • Meals
    • Guided Tours
    • Any needed tickets and reservations
    • Local transportation, including bicycles when appropriate
    • Additional entertainment
  2. Luxury hotel in Prague ( The Hotel Boscolo, a five-star hotel in central Prague) for the pre-cruise stop.
  3. Great stateroom on the River Beatrice, a category 1 room, including:
    • Luxurious riverview suite with a French balcony
    • Suite includes a handcrafted Savoir® of England bed, built-in closet, hair dryer, safe, individual thermostat, flat-screen TV with infotainment center and satellite, and bottled water
    • Marble bathroom with L’Occitane en Provence bath and body products, plush towels, towel warmer, waffle bathrobes, and slippers
    Below is the layout of the stateroom and our stateroom:
    River Beatrice Stateroom Layout Our Stateroom on board the River Beatrice
  4. Your room travels with you from place to place... No checking out/in, moving baggage, re-acquainting with surroundings, etc.
  5. All meals are included and are extraordinary in the quality of food and service, and good wine and beer is included. The wait staff was outstanding, and from day one remembered every name and personal preferences. (Of course,we took some meals in the exquisite settings of the places we visited.)
  6. Guided tours were available everywhere we stopped and the tour guides were excellent - informative, very friendly, accomodating, and helpful. We took many half-day tours and then wondered on our own to adventure through our new surroundings.

The Itinerary

  1. Prague, The Czech Republic
  2. Passau, Germany
  3. Linz and Salzburg, Austria
  4. Melk, Austria,the Wachau Valley, and Dürnstein
  5. Vienna, Austria
  6. Bratislava, Slovakia
  7. Budapest, Hungary
1. Prague, The Czech Republic

In late September we flew from Philadelphia through Frankfurt to Prague, Czech Republic. The Czech name for Prague is “Praha”. When we arrived, we were met at the airport by a Uniworld rep, who assisted with our luggage and got us on board a van to take us to The Hotel Boscolo. We walked the neighborhood and had a meal at the Plzeñskâ Restaurant in The Municipal House on Wenceslas Square in Praha (Prague). This was our introduction to several Czech standards, such as Pilsner Urquell, the ubiquitous pilsner and pale lager (the world's first), and the potato dumplings you find everywhere. We loved the beers in the Czech Republic.

Below: The Praha (Prague) Municipal House on Wenceslas Square, and Plzeñskâ Restaurant in the Municipal House.
Praha Municipal House Plzeñskâ Restaurant
Below: Hotel Boscolo front, and what our room looked like.
Hotel Boscolo Boscolo Room

On our second day, after a hearty buffet breakfast in the hotel, we were taken by our lovely and knowledgeable guide, Janna, to Prague Castle in the Castle District, The world's largest castle. It includes the impressive St. Vitas Cathedral. We wondered during the afternoon, stopping at U Zãvoje restaurant for an alfresco lunch. I had chicken livers and, of course, dumplings, with a great Pilsner Urquell. In the evening, we walked over to Old Town Square (Staromestské námestí), watched entertainers, sat for a beer in an outdoor cafe, then went for another luscious dinner. On the walk back, we stopped to peruse a street market and promised ourselves a sausage for tomorrow. We also had a primo position to watch the famous Old Town Tower and Astronomical Clock perform its magic. On the hour, every hour, a small trap door opens and Christ marches out ahead of his disciples, while the skeleton of death tolls the bell to a defiant statue of a Turk. There are twelve signs of the Zodiac that also perform. All mechanical, and all but the zodiacs dating to the 15th century. The zodiacs were added in 1865. We, of course, learned throughout our trip of the importance to the entire region of the Hapsburg Monarchy, and especially of Empress Maria Theresa. Her influence, and the Hapsburg’s, was everywhere.

Below: The Prague Castle, and the St. Vitas Cathedral:
Prague Castle View St. Vitas Cathedral

We had the moving experience of a side trip to the Terezín Concentration Camp for the afternoon. We took our limo (bus) to Terezín, which is a small Czech town where the Nazi's built the concentration camp. The Hapsburg's built a fortress complex there in the late 1700’s, and it became the basis for the camp. Over the years of Nazi occupation, more than 150,000 Jews, including over 15,000 children were sent to the camp, of which about 33,000 perished at the camp. This tour was a moving reminder of the atrocities that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another, and in particular, of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Our photos below will not depict the worst of what we saw; you have to see it for yourself to gain appreciation of the full horror of the time.

Below: The Terezín camp cemetary, and a typical scene from within the camp:
Terezin Cemetary Terezin Camp Scene

On the third day, we walked through Prague’s Old Town, the Jewish sector, down the ritzy Parížská or Paris Street, where all the high-end designer shops are located. Here you can find Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Bottega Veneta, Fendi, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Ermenegildo Zegna, Salvatore Ferragamo, Prada, and Gucci. It is just off beautiful Old Town Square, and connects to Cechuv Bridge. We fulfilled our sausage promise at a street vendor on the square. Back at the Hotel Boscolo, Janna got us into our limo for the three-hour ride to Passau, Germany, where we were to board the River Beatrice. We were full of anticipation, not knowing what to expect of the river boat. We only knew that our trip had a fantastic first leg.

To view a brief video clip (8:53 duration) of the Prague part of the trip (with a few places out of sequence - sorry), please click here. This clip takes quite a while to load (107 mb), and you must have the ability to view an “mpeg-4” video (.m4v). If you don’t have an m4v viewer or plug-in, Apple offers a free QuickTime plug-in for most browsers at Apple QuickTime download site.

2. Passau, Germany

Passau is located at the confluence of the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz rivers. The limo dropped us off at the boat and we were greeted by the staff and walked onto the boat to the concierge desk to check in. It was the easiest checkin imaginable. And once we checked in, from that point through the whole cruise, the entire staff knew our names and our preferences (more on that later). We went to our cabin, which was top deck (The Rhine Deck), most rear cabin located next to the Captain’s Lounge and Library. Our room, being on a boat, was small by normal standards, but not by boat standards. It was 150 sq ft, and had plenty of storage and a small but nice bathroom, a queen-sized bed, and a French balcony. The room was equipped with everything you could want and was very comfy. We experienced our first dinner, which is a white table cloth affair with magnificent service. The wait staff already knew our names, and we learned that they would know what wines or beers we liked, and so on. You don't want to miss the meals on the cruise.

In the morning, after a spectacular buffet breakfast (which we had every morning thereafter), we took a walking tour through Passau. We toured along the river, which clearly shows the confluence, with each of the three contributing rivers having a clearly defined color. We stopped at the town hall full of paintings and murals and received an interesting history of the town. We toured Dom St. Stephan (St. Stephan's Cathedral), and later were treated to an organ recital there on its magnificent and enormous pipe organ. We can appreciate the work of the imported Italian artists employed after the town burned to the ground in 1662 and again in 1680, working on the mixed Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical cathedral. We wandered through the scenic winding alleyways of the town. We returned to the River Beatrice to begin the trip to the next leg of the journey, and, of course, another gourmet dinner.

Below: Karen in front of St. Stephans, and a partial view of the pipe organ:
St. Stephens Cathedral St. Stephans Pipe Organ
Below: A typical Medieval Street scene in Passau, and Chuck standing in front of a hotel apparently named for him:
Medieval Street Scene in Passau Chuck in front of a hotel

To view a brief video clip (7:07 duration) of the Passau part of the trip (with a few places out of sequence - sorry), please click here. This clip takes quite a while to load (86 mb), and you must have the ability to view an “mpeg-4” video (.m4v). If you don’t have an m4v viewer or plug-in, Apple offers a free QuickTime plug-in for most browsers at Apple QuickTime download site.

3. Linz and Salzburg, Austria

We sailed at night and landed in Linz, Austria. After another sumptuous breakfast we were limo’d to Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salzburg has many features to boast about, including a well-preserved Medieval town center. We toured the town, visiting the Mirabellgarten, which you’ll remember from The Sound of Music (Karen’s favorite movie). We saw, but did not tour, Mirabell Castle and Mozart House. I must admit that this was the only place on the entire trip where our tour guide was not very helpful... she was new, young, inexperienced, and walked us and spoke too quickly. Otherwise, a great place to visit. After the tour, we walked through Alter Market (old market), the Residenz (a large Baroque home of the archbishops), and sat for lunch in a small restaurant.

Below: We passed through quite a number of locks. First, entering a lock, and then, exiting the lock:
Exiting the lock

We met quite a number of people on the trip, both on the boat, associated with the tour, and along the way in the cities and village that we toured. Onboard the River Beatrice, we began to "hang" with a small group of couples with like interests, and to sit with them for dinner, and walk with them during tours. These included two couples from Long Island, Tony & Julia, and Gene & Donna, and a couple from the Northwest, Steve and Mary.

Below: Karen and me on deck with our friends from Long Island, and Steve and Mary with Tony and Julia at dinner:
Our group from Long Island Steve & Mary and Tony and Julia

To view a brief video clip (3:59 duration) of the Linz part of the trip (with a few places out of sequence - sorry), please click here. This clip takes quite a while to load (47 mb), and you must have the ability to view an “mpeg-4” video (.m4v). If you don’t have an m4v viewer or plug-in, Apple offers a free QuickTime plug-in for most browsers at Apple QuickTime download site.

4. Melk, Austria,the Wachau Valley, and Dürnstein

Melk, once a fortified Roman outpost, is “a charming jumble of old towers and cobblestone streets” (description from our boat's Daily Program). It is so true. We walked the town, visited the Benedictine Abbey, and wondered at the history, given to the monks by King Leopold III int he 11th century.

Below, a couple of street scenes in Melk:
Melk Street Melk Street
Below, a walkway to the Abbey, and just the charm of Melk:
Walk to the Abbey Melk

You cannot believe just how beautiful the Wachau Valley is until you’ve sailed the Danube through to Vienna. During the entire trip, we did not pass a single unsightly area, just one beautiful scene after another. There were too many hilltop castles to count, and tiny pastorial villages. A strange effect is that many of the village rooftops sported solar panels. The sail through the valley was one of the most enjoyable and relaxing viewing experiences I’ve had. Simply wonderful.

Below: Posing in front of a Wachau Valley castle, and one more castle:
Chuck and Karen in Wachau Valley Wachau Valley Castle
Below: A Wachau Valley village, and another village with its cathedral:
Wachau Valley Village Wachau Valley Village and Church

We stopped at Dürnstein, in the heart of the Austrian wine country with lush vineyards clinging dramatically to the steep hillsides, all terraced by ancient stone walls. We were invited into the Nikolaihof Wachau Vineyard to tour their winery. As we walked through their Nikolaihof courtyard, we knew we were in for something special. Part of the tour included walking down ancient stairs into the wine cellar where the grapes are crushed, wine made and stored in ancient casks with meticulous carved barrel heads. The rooms were built originally by the Roman occupiers nearly 2,000 years ago, who sealed the riverside facility using clay from nearby mountains. There has never been a leak in its entire history, and the rooms are naturally kept to a perfect temperature and humidity for the wine-making process. Winemaking began here in the year 985 AD, and the Saahs have owned the winery since 1894.

Below: Approaching the village of Dürnstein, and a view of the Dürnstein Castle:
Approaching Dürnstein Dürnstein Castle
Below:The Nikolaihof Winery courtyard, and the ancient wine press (still in use today):
The Nikolaihof courtyard The ancient Nikolaihof wine press

The owners of the winery, Christine Saahs and her son Nikolaus, the winemaker, were our hosts.

Below: The intricate carvings on the casks, and grapes being transported as we walk to the village:
The cask Dürnstein grapes being hauled
Below: A wine tasting scene, and Karen and me at the Nikoliahof wine tasting:

We enjoyed a wine tasting, hosted by Christine Saahs. Karen and I learned to especially enjoy the Grüner Veltliner wines, and brought some back to the boat, which we enjoyed later on the deck with our new friends as we sailed. Since the trip, I have looked for and bought Grüner Veltliner from the limited selection available at the Pennsylvania State Stores, the only venue for the purchase of wine or liquor in the state, except for bars and restaurants. The surprising thing is that while Austria produces predominantly white wines, including Reislings, they make and drink mostly drier wines (which I prefer). They ship the sweeter stuff to the US, I guess.

Nikolaihof wine tasting Nikolaihof wine tasting

After the tasting, we toured Dürnstein, visited a few shops, and sat for a Pilsner Urquell. What a heavenly day.

Below: A wine shop in Dürnstein that we visited (and purchased wine), and a typical village street:
Dürnstein wine shop Dürnstein street

To view a brief video clip (11:28 duration) of the Melk part of the trip (with a few places out of sequence - sorry), please click here. This clip takes quite a while to load (138 mb), and you must have the ability to view an “mpeg-4” video (.m4v). If you don’t have an m4v viewer or plug-in, Apple offers a free QuickTime plug-in for most browsers at Apple QuickTime download site.

5. Vienna, Austria

What do you think of when you hear “Vienna”? It is all that and much more. First, as you approach the city, you can see some modern buildings, but it is very clearly a city of historic beauty. The streets and everything in the city is absolutely clean and pristine... we did not see a single piece of litter the whole time in the city. This is a high-end city, with upscale shopping and restaurants, and it also is approachable, walkable, and tourable. Everything is beautiful and is perfectly kept, and that which is not, is being refurbished. We toured the national library, which is awe-inspiring in its majesty and collection.

Below: A scene from our bus as we drove through Vienna from the pier, and a typical street:
Vienna from the bus Vienna street
Below: I can’t resist showing another typical Vienna street, and a look up within the National Library:
Another street National Library

What is Vienna without the music? Of course, we went to a Vienna Concert at the Hofburg Palace, Director Gert Hofbauer conducted J. Strauss, and W. A. Mozart selections. It would be easy to spend weeks in Vienna, or even longer, and never tire of it. We visited the famed Spanish Riding School, home of the Lipizzaner horses, Mozart House, where he wrote "The Marriage of Figaro" and many others, Belvedere Palace, and the Sacher Hotel, home of the Cafe Sacher. The Cafe is the source of the Sachertorte, and was featured in films like Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, & Trevor Howard... a true classic file), and many international TV shows. We went for lunch at the Naschmarkt, the biggest of Vienna’s 22 markets. It offered a fascinating blend of local and international markets, including places to eat, buy meats, seafood, vegetables and spices of all kinds. Of course, Tony & Julia and Karen & I had lunch of local cuisine sitting al fresco at a small cafe. It was a another great time!

Below: The room in the Hofburg Palace complex where we enjoyed the concert, and Andrea Olah, one of the Sopranos, performing a solo:
Hofburg Palace Soprano
Below: Famous Vienna Cafe Sacher, and Tony & Julia (and me in the back) perusing the Vienna Market:
Cafe Sacher Market

To view a brief video clip (6:25 duration) of the Vienna part of the trip (with a few places out of sequence - sorry), please click here. This clip takes quite a while to load (76 mb), and you must have the ability to view an “mpeg-4” video (.m4v). If you don’t have an m4v viewer or plug-in, Apple offers a free QuickTime plug-in for most browsers at Apple QuickTime download site.

6. Bratislava, Slovakia

We stopped on the way from Vienna to Budapest to hop on a bus for a ride to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we spent an afternoon. Our tour gave us a perspective of the town and its history, and an appreciation of its shops and market squares, but we only saw the most beautiful parts of the city when we toured on our own. Bratislava is an interesting mix of old and new. The old city is a delight to explore for an afternoon, and the new is represented by the spectacular Tower Bridge (not pictured here). Throughout the old city, one finds a series of very querky statues, like the one pictured below. It is impossible to not be mesmerized by and and at the same time to laugh at this artwork. It was worth the one-hour drive through Slovakia to see Bratislava, which is a little clean-up away from being a very charming tourist destination.

Below: St. Michaels Gate and Tower as seen from an Old Town street, and a park meandering through the new town:
St. Michaels Bratislava park
Below: Cumil “The Watcher” statue (which has a “Man at Work” sign), and a street scene:
Cumil the Watcher Bratislava Street

To view a brief video clip (3:49 duration) of the Bratislava part of the trip (with a few places out of sequence - sorry), please click here. This clip takes quite a while to load (46 mb), and you must have the ability to view an “mpeg-4” video (.m4v). If you don’t have an m4v viewer or plug-in, Apple offers a free QuickTime plug-in for most browsers at Apple QuickTime download site.

7. Budapest, Hungary

Someday we will return to Budapest. Does that help to describe what we thought of our time there? Though we toured with a guide and then explored on our own and with our friends, we simply did not have time to begin to see all that Budapest offers.

The charm started as we sailed into the heart of Budapest and docked on the Pest side (the flat side of the city, toward the East). The Buda side is on the west, and is the hilly portion of the city, which began as two cities (Buda and Pest, of course!), and which came together in 1873 as the capital of Hungary. Remember that earlier I mentioned Maria Theresa, the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Her predacessors in the Hapsburg Empire, 100 years earlier, took what is Hungary from the Turks in 1686, in battles that leveled both towns. Budapest has a long and interesting history.

One of the stunning experiences we had was a tour of the Országház, the Parliament Building. We got to see the Deputy Council Chambers (the legislative chambers), and everything else in a very intimate tour. The Parliament is the largest building in Hungary and the largest parliamentary building in Europe. It was finished in 1904. It is Neo-Gothic, with more than 200 statues on the outer walls.

Below: The Parliament building, and a view of the spectacular entering staircase, which is a preamble to the magnificense of the building:
Parliament Building Parliament staircase
Below: The majestic interior hallways of the Parliament, and an example of the many exterior statues on the building:
Parliament Majestic Interior Parliament exterior statues
Below: The Deputy Council Chambers (legislature), and the desks in the chamber with voting buttons:
Parliament chamber Chamber desks

Our “Budapest Walking Discovery of National Treasures and Delights” was just as advertised. We toured the Nagycsarnok (Central Market Hall), with its unending stalls of fresh veggies and meats, and got free samples along the way. Karen and I stopped at a spice shop and bought both mild and hot paprika to bring home. As an aside, I have made the classic Hungarian dish, Chicken Paprikash, several times using that paprika. Yumm! It brings back the memories of the food in Budapest every time, and it reminds us of Julia, who we met on the River Beatrice and became friends with, and who is of Hungarian descent.

Below: Two street scenes demonstrating the beauty and charm of Budapest:
Charming street shopping scene
Below: Budapest Central Market Hall (where we bought Paprika), and an old Soviet Skoda still driven:
Central Market Hall Soviet Skoda

We walked from the boat to Széchenyi Chain Bridge and crossed it and walked through Adam Clark Square to the Castle Hill Funicular, which is locally called “Budavári Sikló”. At the top of the funicular, we toured Budavári Palota (Buda Castle), an enormous and spectacular castle that was built originally in the thirteenth century, destroyed when the Christians battled the Turks, and then rebuilt by Maria Theresa in about 1760. We then watched the changing of the guards, and toured the Baroque homes and shops found in the Castle District.

Below: Castle Hill from the boat, and the funicular which we took:
Castle Hill from the boat Funicular to Castle Hill
Below: Chuck on Castle Hill, overlooking the Pest side, and Karen from that view:
Chuck on Castle Hill Karen with a view of Pest side
Below: Changing of the guard, and a Castle Hill street:
Changing of the guard Castle Hill street

All in all, Budapest is a wonderful place to visit, and it requires more time to do it right. So, we will come back.

To view a brief video clip (10:31 duration) of the Budapest part of the trip (with a few places out of sequence - sorry), please click here. This clip takes quite a while to load (126 mb), and you must have the ability to view an “mpeg-4” video (.m4v). If you don’t have an m4v viewer or plug-in, Apple offers a free QuickTime plug-in for most browsers at Apple QuickTime download site.

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