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A Refreshing Cruise Down Europe's Danube River 

By Rita Cook (ritacook@wwwiz.com)

 Not all European vacations are alike, but for a truly unique way to experience Eastern Europe treat yourself to a carefree week of cruising on the Danube.

Aboard the River Cloudyou willbe pampered in luxury; since the bottle of champagne was broken against her bow in May 1996, she's been a five-star cruiser on the Danube, Rhine, Main and Moselle rivers.

On a trip down the Danube, the scenery changes with the countries you're visiting.  Gentle mountain ridges defended by castles give way to busy metropolises and bustling shipping routes as the ship makes her way around each bend.

The River Cloud has 49 cabins with a capacity for 98 passengers and 33 crewmembers.  The maximum speed is 12 knots and the overall length of the vessel is 360 feet.  There was plenty of time to spend on board, but daily excursions kept me busy and well fed (dinner was served at 7:30 each evening followed by cocktails in the piano bar).

We departed from Nuremberg, Germany, where I spent a few days getting to know the city and touring the area. Nuremberg was the location of the Nuremberg trials and I spent several hours one morning at the courthouse.  After some coaxing our guide was able to convince the guard to let us take a peek into Courtroom 600, where 24 Nazi leaders were indicted and tried as war criminals. Today the city feels far removed from those days in the 1940s.

Grab a city map and don't fear the subway (I took it from the airport to my hotel) and don't miss the Imperial Castle.  The City Wall was built in the 14th and 15th centuries and the churches in Nuremberg date back to the 1200s. After I found my way to the River Cloud, I gave myself a quick Danube River lesson.  The river is the second longest in Europe, after the Volga, with a length of 1,771 miles.  The Danube runs through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, but my trip was only taking me as far as Budapest, Hungary.  The Nuremberg to Budapest cruise is 563.3 miles and costs about $3,000.

The weather was unseasonably warm while I was there in the early summer; it's a good idea to check out http://weather.yahoo.com/regional/Germany.html and make sure you pack for any eventuality. The locals continued to tell us how lucky we were that it wasn't raining.

Our second day into the trip put us in Regensburg, Germany, where we visited the castle belonging to the Thurn and Taxis family.  Structures in this town have been standing for 2,000 years and remarkably, World War II did not destroy this hidden jewel.  The stone bridge, built on 16 arches in 1146 is still standing, as are many of Regensburg's churches. Regensburg was settled by Celtics in 500 BC, now it's a bustling community with a university and shops. Passau, Germany, is another old city. It's home to the largest pipe organ (more than 17,000 pipes) in the world.  The town contains old Baroque churches and patrician houses; however the highlight is the stroll between the narrow alleys–up and down steep stone steps. While I was visiting Passau, I spent time in the cathedral and had the opportunity to hear the organ concert, something you shouldn't miss when you visit the city.

After a bit of Germany, it was time for Austria.  As you might have noticed this area of Europe is ancient and steeped in religion. At almost every stop we made, there were churches to see.  It was no different in Melk, Austria, where we visited the Melk Abbey.  Melk straddles a rocky bluff 150 feet above the Danube and it's where the Babenberg family established their rule for 270 years. Heinrich I from this family founded the monastery during his lifetime (994-1018) and gave it to the Benedictines. Ceiling frescoes in the abbey by Johann Michael Rottmayer illustrate the life of St. Benedict and the library is known for its rare books and handwritten manuscripts.

After our visit to Melk, we headed for the wine country and Durnstein, Austria.  At one amazing point, one I'll never forget, the River Cloud was cruising down the Danube with a gorgeous blue sky above and lush green hills and vineyards on both sides.  Suddenly ruins of castles began dotting the landscape as classical Mozart played over the ship speakers. It was one of those moments when passengers looked at one another and said, ``This has got to be a movie." It was as if we were lost in time and seeing life as it should be–full of peace and tranquility.

In Durnstein, the tranquility continued as we sipped wine at a winery and heard stories about how Richard the Lionheart of England was kept prisoner in this town more than 800 years ago.

And then came the city everyone on the ship had been waiting for–Vienna, the home of Johann Strauss, Schonbrunn Palace and the tree-lined Ringstrasse. 

Johann Strauss was born in Vienna in 1825 and his presence is still felt today.  His most famous waltz, written in 1867, is the ``The Blue Danube," practically Vienna's anthem.  Vienna is also famous for coffeehouses such as ``Sacher" and ``Hawelka." 

Vienna is a buzzing city with something to do at every turn. The Spanish Riding School at the Imperial Stalls is also a must see.  At the Spanish Riding School tourists are able to witness the rehearsal of the white horses from the gallery.  Sometimes the horses are even trained to background music.

          We spent several nights on the ship docked in Vienna, so one afternoon we decided to visit the Prater Amusement Park, home to the Giant Ferris Wheel.  English engineer Walter B. Basset built the Ferris wheel in 1896-97.  It was destroyed by bombs and fire in 1945, but was quickly rebuilt in 1947 and it has 15 large cabins that slowly whisk you up and over the rooftops of the city. Visit http://www.virtualvienna.net and get a virtual experience of the city and a useful directory of services and tourist information.

While all the cities had special personalities, my favorite stop along the Danube was Bratislava, Slovakia. It seemed the most real and untouched.  Slovakia only recently gained its independence, after the fall of communism.  Only since 1993 has this city been the capital of the Slovak Republic. Remains of communism still exist in Bratislava, yet the history and people have a luster that shines from the inside.  During one excursion through old streets and alleys, I was amazed at the feeling of being taken back to 1940, perhaps weeks before the war.  It seems very little has changed in Bratislava and that is surely what gives the town such charm and beauty.

Our river cruise ended in Budapest, Hungary.  Budapest is actually made up of two cities separated by the Danube–Buda and Pest. The Buda side is more tranquil with the Buda Castle, Fisherman's Bastion and the old center.  Pest is bustling and it's where I stayed for several nights after I was off the boat.  When you visit Budapest look into purchasing a Budapest Card, which offers discounts on transportation, museums, food and more.  Budapest is also the home to the popular thermal baths, so if you have extra time, spend some of it there.  When it was time to leave Budapest, I felt like I was really just getting started.

          There's no way a person can see all the sights in a week, but it was certainly a good start for me and I know where my European vacation will be next year–Eastern Europe, of course, there are so many things I still need to see and do.

 

Rita Cook is a freelance travel and entertainment writer, as well as the freelance editorial director of ``Insider" magazine. She lives in Los Angeles and her most recent project, besides traveling, was producing a feature-length mockumentary called ``Marty & Virginia."

 

 

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