When Johann Strauss entitled his famous 1866 waltz “The Blue Danube,” he must have been wearing blue-tinted glasses or simply drunk. This river is no more blue than I can waltz. The Danube is a murky brown, only as charming as the classical song when sunlight hits it at the right angles.
However, the Danube is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga in Russia, and it flows through more countries (10) than any other river in the world. It begins in the Black Forest and ends in the Black Sea, running through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. No surprise, the Danube has been a “watershed” in terms of trade, economic growth and even political evolution. It once divided empires – hence, its banks are lined with castles and fortresses – and now unites western and eastern Europe. It literally connects the capitals of Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary) and Belgrade (Serbia).
In May 2015, my parents, friend Noelle (“Sorella Noella”) and I journeyed down the Danube on a Viking cruise per my mother’s wish. While Noelle and I were among the youngest passengers on the ship, the group was active with walking tours every day. (However, we did get sick of the ship’s singer-keyboardist performing Lionel Ritchie tunes every night!) We passed through the first four countries above, starting in Regensburg, Germany and ending in Budapest. My parents and I preceded the tour in Nuremberg because getting there was an easy train ride from Brussels, where I was already living at the time.
Nuremberg,Bavaria’s second largest city,was once home to several of Germany’s former kings but sadly, it is more recently remembered as the hub of the Nazi party. Hitler held rallies there, launched the boycott of Jewish businesses and created the infamous Nuremberg Laws banning German citizenship for Jews. In 1945, Allied forces bombed the heck out of Nuremberg, which reduced it to rubble. After WWII, Nuremberg aptly hosted the war crimes tribunal known as the Nuremberg Trials. The city was later reconstructed to some of its former glory. We walked through its sordid and glorious pasts, impressed by the honesty of history but horrified by what it was.
Regensburg shares a similar past as the location of a brief concentration camp and thousands of post-WWII refugees. However, it was largely spared bombing so itsmedieval center is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. We meandered through narrow streets, observing modern wares (and “wears” like dirndls) in centuries-old buildings.
Passau, a colorful German village, is known for St. Stephen’s Cathedral with incredible painted ceilings and the second largest organ in the world (after the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles). This cathedral and other buildings in the Old City feature Baroque architecture. Organ concerts are held May through September, so we were fortunate to hear music fill up every inch of the cathedral.
The Danube’s riverbanks are peppered with churches and charming villages like Durnstein and Krems. But the most magnificent place of worship we saw was Melk Abbey in Wachau Valley, Austria. This sprawling, Benedictine monastery is a Baroque masterpiece built on top of a Medieval foundation. Standing out in yellow in the summertime green valley, the abbey is complete with gardens and vineyards. It’s the best place in the world for monks! Non-monks can even rent a room in the abbey’s guest house.
Waltzing down “The Blue Danube” to Vienna, the river is perhaps best viewed from Danube Tower but this spire pales in comparison to what makes Austria’s capital famous: palaces, cafes, dancing horses and gala balls. It is the epitome of Old World charm and elegance, dripping in chandeliers, whipped cream (Viennese coffee), coiffed stallions, jewels and exquisite ball gowns. Vienna hosts about 500 balls a year – more than any city in the world – with the most famous at the Vienna State Opera. As the former seat of the Austrian Empire, Vienna is home to the Imperial Treasury and numerous palaces (you can even rent or buy one). Baroque masterpieces include the Hofburg (Imperial Palace) with its Spanish Riding School featuring dancing Lipizzaner horses recognized by UNESCO; Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Hapsburgs (also honored by UNESCO); Belvedere with the world’s largest collection of paintings by Gustav Klimpt; and Liechtenstein City and Garden Palaces, including many paintings by Old Masters. Everywhere you turn in Vienna, there’s something magnificent. I was awestruck by grand bookcases in the Austrian National Library/State Hall and colorful tiles inside and out of St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
We took in much of it in by horse-drawn carriage. On terraces we enjoyed Austria’s famous boiled meat (Tafilspitz) at Plachutta restaurant as well as apple strudel at elegant coffee houses like Café Gloriette, Café Central and Café Sperl. We even learned how to make strudel on the ship (ironically, by a French pastry chef).
Last but not least on our tour was Budapest, a stunning sight by night on the Danube. Lights of its dueling sides Buda and Pest, split by the river, reflect like a silent magic show. The illuminated parliament on the river’s edge is the “rabbit in the hat” and Buda Castle on the other side the magician. United by name, Budapest is actually three cities rolled into one: Buda, site of the royal residence and thermal baths; Pest, the urban center where parliament stands and UNESCO-recognized Andrássy Avenue lies; and Óbuda on the outskirts.
Paprika is synonymous with Hungary and it characterizes the capital as colorful and mildly spicy. The city’s Great Market Hall is sprinkled with plenty of it and I partook … you could have traced my steps in Budapest in paprika. Of course, almost no savory Hungarian dish is served without it from goulash to chicken paprikash.
My parents and I stayed on in Budapest an extra day to soak up mineral water and spa treatments at Gellért, one of the city’s famous thermal bath houses. The water at Gellért was far more blue than the Danube but far less charming on its “banks” (think families in bathing suits and swim caps). In fact, the banks of the Danube combined with the Buda Castle district are on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. That’s because of structures like the Church of Our Lady and glittering Chain Bridge, not because the river is blue.
But hands down, “The Blue Danube” upstages Ritchie’s “All Night Long.”