Cruising the grand rivers of Europe – Vienna, through Germany to Amsterdam, 2014 (part 1of 2)

Historic church on the Danube, with ruins of ancient fortress in hills behind.

Above, top to bottom: Historic church, with fortress ruins behind on the hill, along the Danube; our ship, the River Harmony, passing through massive lock at night on the Main-Danube Canal, and, view through fortifications of the Veste Oberhaus, overlooking the town of Passau, Germany, below.

Melk Abbey church interior is a wonder of wood and gold highlights.

Melk Abbey Church is only a small part of the abbey, almost 1,000 years old.

Horses await customers for their buggies outside Vienna’s St. Stephan’s Cathedral.

Have you always wanted to visit Europe?  Or, taken a short trip and felt lost in the immensity of Europe’s history and diversity? My spouse, Susan, and I have been retired for about a year and a half, and have discussed how to best tour Europe, and our world beyond the US and Canada, for far longer. Until now, our only foreign travel has been to Paris for eight days, 15 years earlier.

It took a visit to Susan’s hometown of Spokane to turn us onto river cruising in Europe. We spent several summer days with good friends who raved about the four river cruise voyages they had taken on Grand Circle Cruise Lines. Hence, this fall, we got busy checking out the options.

From photos and guidebooks, we knew that Austria, Germany and the Netherlands were scenic countries, rich in history and culture. So, we checked out Grand Circle’s website and discovered methods to save – booking late season and last minute – and booked a 16 day cruise from Vienna, Austria to Amsterdam, Netherlands.

So, on Halloween, off we went, flying to New York City – long a favorite, we spent a day and night, and continued on to Vienna on KLM airways, the Dutch airline. We were met at the airport by Grand Circle reps, and bussed to the River Harmony, our 340 foot, three-deck luxury river cruiser, a floating hotel.

With 70 suites, a massive lounge and dining room, the ship offered a comfy home for 16 days of cruising and day-touring a dozen old river cities along the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers.

Among the 34 crew members were our tour guides; Michaela, Barbara and Elena. Each day, groups of 40 passengers would tour historic towns under the informed guidance of these escorts.

We overnighted in Vienna, long home to the Habsburg Alliance, Strauss, music and majesty! We walked around and through the St. Stefan’s Cathedral, enjoyed the city, a marvel of old medieval structures, baroque classics, the Imperial Palace and many other mansions of colossal proportions. Our tour took us past the Neue Berg, where, in March, 1938, Hitler announced the Anschluss, annexing Austria into Germany.

That night we cruised up the Danube, crossing into Germany on the Main – Danube Canal (opened in 1992), cresting the “European continental divide”, at 1332 feet, where water flows north in the Main River to the North Sea, or south in the Danube into the Black Sea. Our German captain explained that our cruise followed “Route 66”, with 66 locks ranging from six to 80 feet elevation gain or loss, on our voyage to Amsterdam, some 800 miles away.

The Danube was a major trade and military highway from Emperor Charlemagne until the end of the Crusades. It is Europe’s second longest river at almost 1800 km, beginning in Germany’s Black Forest and emptying into the Black Sea (Russia’s Volga is longest). Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz would be more aptly titled the Gray Danube Waltz!

By the next day we had cruised to Melk, Germany, famed for the Melk Abbey and Monastery; the first monks begin the monastery in 1089!
On our tour we saw the Rules of St. Benedict – a copy on display was 900 years old, explaining the rules monks lived by. The massive monastery offers the Hall of the Saints, 196 meters in length, deifying dozens, and contains 497 rooms and 365 windows!

Joseph II, in his Cyclical of 1794, noted that wood delayed the decay of the body and its return to the earth; hence he had crafted a “service coffin”. With a trap door in the bottom, the coffin was lowered into the grave, a trap door in the bottom was sprung, the body would remain – and the coffin was pulled up for reuse!

Our next stop was Passau; across the river high on the bluff was a huge fortress dating to 1499 – the Vesta Oberhaus, overlooking the three rivers that merge here (the Danube, Ilz and Inn Rivers), making it Germany’s Pittsburgh! In town, the old Town Hall has the high water markings of the flood-prone Danube, dating back to the 1400s, including second-highest in 2013 when second stories of buildings along the mighty river were flooded.

At St. Stephan’s Cathedral, we toured another huge church, testimony to the wealth of the Catholic Church, with the largest pipe organ in the world, 17,774 pipes. Under the main altar are the crypts of a dozen bishops, signifying the reverence they felt towards their leaders.

Overnight, our ship cruised to Regensburg; with Roman and Italian influence it is Germany’s largest medieval city. At the confluence of the Danube and Regen’s rivers, here buildings date back 1,000 years to Roman times. We hiked the hill to tour the Castra Regina fort’s remains, containing a stone inscribed in 179 A.D. during Marcus Aurelius’ reign. The old city hosts St. Peter’s Cathedral, with outstanding features of beautiful stained-glass windows and towering spires. The town also sports the old Stone Bridge, built in 1146.

Outside of Regensburg, we were treated to a home visit with Christina Schon in the little town of Biberbach. Christina, 40-something, works as a nurse; her husband is a contractor, her son works for Audi and daughter is apprenticing with the state government. She noted she pays about half her salary to state and church taxes and healthcare (universal for all Germans).

She is happy with Germany and it’s European leadership and delighted by the reunification 25 years ago of East and West Germany. Christina added they still face the challenge of assimilation of former East Germans, (“they were not used to working very hard”).

Next week, we share our second installment, including visits to Nuremberg, Bamberg, Wurzburg, Heidelberg, Cologne and onto our final destination in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

When to go: for best deals in river cruises, going early or late in the season (I.e., January – March or October – November) and booking “last-minute” saves big bucks. We booked our November 1–15 cruise six weeks out, got airfare to Europe included in the tour price and saved about 45%.

What to take: good walking shoes, clothing for change of the weather, your passport, camera and binoculars.

Where to eat, where to stay: the nice thing about these River cruises is that a gourmet breakfast, lunch and dinner is included on board your floating hotel; and several “off-ship dinners” are also included in historic restaurants.

For more info: Grand Circle Cruises, go to www.gct.com, or (800) 221–2610. For best prices, search “Ways to Save” on the website.  For ninety more pictures of the Austria and Germany portion of our trip, see my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/j.timothy.viall/media_set?set=a.10152856084579106.1073741831.824324105&type=3

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valleytravel; or contact me, tviall@msn.com.

Happy travels in your world!

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