Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Additional photos courtesy Austria National Tourist Office

Christmas Market Town Hall

Danube Delights On A River Cruise

It was love at first bite on my Danube River cruise in every respect... the  sights, the food, the brief but intoxicating experiences in each port of call. Combining the “Sound of Music”€ with a real-life experience in  Budapest, Vienna, and small towns beyond, was a lovely way to celebrate  autumn.

The river wasn’t blue, and neither was I. Surprisingly restful, AMA  Waterways’ Danube River Cruise was like a great cocktail party. The  trip comprised appetizing small portions, introducing this part of the  world. It was a good way to sample four different countries in Europe  in one week. We got tastes of Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Czech  Republic -- all abut the Danube.

We had started off with what could have been a calamity, but were saved by the clever design of AMA’s ships. They can float in less water than  many other carriers. A drought kept the Danube River too low for ships  to embark from charming Budapest. AMA arranged for us all to spend the  first night at the 5-star Corinthia, a historic hotel. Later, cruise  passengers said they saw us pass stranded ships that needed deeper water than AMA did.

Melk Abbey sunset

Ours trip was full of highlights. My favorite: With as much drama and  excitement as in a feature film, we experienced Melk Abbey, in Linz,  Austria, functioning for over 1,000 years. (The Benedictine monks sold  one of their Gutenberg Bibles to cover restoration expenses!)

Church bells pealed full blast, as a luminous sliver of moon glowed in a navy  blue sky. We felt a supernatural shiver. We had just roamed through a millennium of treasures portraits, miters, reliquaries, ornate  crosses of gold and emeralds, and myriad priceless objects. But the item that touched me most was an 800-year-old wooden Jesus that inhabits its own small room. Primitively carved, the sad slack body was enough to  make one weep.

Melk Abbey view

We came to the famous Melk Abbey Library and its ancient globes, ornate  gold, and spiral staircases to yet more books, some hand-written. If  you read a book a day there, it would take 300 years to finish them  all! The Dalai Lama, Isabel Allende, and other luminaries came to this  room to discuss the future; a cylinder there preserves their speeches.

The library was surpassed only by the most impressive chapel we saw on the  trip. Its altar’s full- size gilded figures, rich wood pillars, and  marble floors were baroque at its best... all harmony and symmetry.  More drama came from the 180- foot high dome and frescoed ceiling. It was, in fact, created by a theater designer.

Vienna Johann Strauss Monument

And there was a bit of theater on the trip. At Vienna’s Auersperg Palace,  we heard a concert of popular classical pieces by Mozart and Johann  Strauss. Amidst glittering chandeliers and marble, 10 musicians and  their concert master on a 1726 violin offered crowd-pleasing favorites. Dancers and opera performers joined in for polkas and waltzes like the Blue Danube.

Vienna Hofburg Palace

The next day’s “Hidden Vienna” tour walked us around key spots in the  center of town... the Hofburg Palace, the Spanish Riding School with its  Lipizzaner horses, imperial buildings of the Habsburgs.   It ended at the High Market, the oldest part of the city.

We seemed to go from one jaw-dropping experience to another, the last few  days of the trip. We chose among Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, Czech  Republic’s fairytale city, Cesky Krumlov, and the Austrian Lake  District. Tough choices. We went with Austrian Lakes, partly because  this was the 50th anniversary of “The Sound of Music”  that musical theater phenomenon, so loved by Americans.

Rural Austria Alps

Over half of Austria is rural. From our bus, we saw the Alps rising in the  distance. Its base had a ghostly light, the rest was in darkness. Amidst golden slim sticks of trees, dappled cows grazed, down from the  hills where they had spent the summer, just as recounted in the book of my childhood, “Heidi.”€ We passed Lake Attersee and reached Mondsee, our  first stop.

St. Michael’s Church looms over this little village, population 3,024. Elaborately gilded, yet feeling intimate, this is where the wedding  scene where the Sound of Music€ was filmed, not in Salzburg, as depicted. At  the altar are huge full-color figures, like life-size colorful dolls.  Church bells rang. The weather was a balmy 65 in mid-November in this  valley that felt close and protected. It created a lovely farewell to  fall.

Austria Wolfgangsee

As our “Sound of Music” journey took us to Lake Wolfgangsee, we passed  lone Alpine-style houses in fields, still green. Wolfgangsee is a  charming little place with stores clustered around one another.  Shopkeepers were preparing for the Christmas markets. Many sell  trinkets, sweets, and rocks of salt. Nearby Salzburg, literally “salt  fortress,” didn’t get its name out of the blue.

A medieval place of pilgrimage, Wolfgangsee’s church has a winged altar that dates from 1481; the building itself started in the 10th century, and was added to over the years. After trouping around town,  quaffing hot chocolates and cappuccinos, we took off for Trauenkirch. We clamber out of the bus under a night sky punctuated by a slim crescent  moon. We came to learn about the Jesuits, who thrived here, and to  admire the town’s imposing stark, white church high on the hill --- like a sentinel -- illuminated, glowing in the night. What a romantic sight our guide has led us to! That guide had found something special as a  coda to our tour. Actually, all our guides were clear, articulate,  witty, engaging, and informative.

 

That night was our Chaine des Rotisserie dinner. AMA is the only river  cruise ship to have the Chaine’s imprimatur. The rack of lamb was  perfect; the crème brulee, creamy and rich, combined well with a sweet  red dessert wine. It was a super meal, but all the meals were excellent  with abundant choices graciously served.

The crew went out of its way to meet people’s special dietary needs.  Speaking of service, AMA employs 49-50 people per trip for 164  passengers. In fact, at our departure point, an AMA person personally  escorted us to where we would take our train.

German oompah band

But back to that special “Sound of Music” Austrian Lakes tour. That  evening it was topped off by entertainers singing selections from that  very production plus a sing along. Another night saw three musicians  performing music by Rossini, Shostakovich, Chopin, Romanian dances and  opera on stringed instruments. Not all was classical. Our last night  was a late Octoberfest, dancing to a German oompah band. Another night  offered a wine evening and wine quiz. And there was always a pianist and dancing.  Something for everyone.

Active types went on bike trips, pedaling to our next port or just touring.  Even walking tours were at different levels of difficulty, so that no  one was left out. According to travel agents on board, AMA’s river ships have fewer cabins, so they are more spacious than others. And that  thoughtful energetic crew! They seemed to know each of us almost  instantly, and went all out to make it an enjoyable trip.

Wachau Valley

AMA gives passengers a guide book, “Landmarks At A Glance.”  Its maps  enabled us to follow our journey down the Danube. It even had street  maps of most of the towns we visited, except for tiny charming medieval  World Heritage site, Durnstein, so small it has just one street. No  need for a map! And maps don’t show the beauty of the Wachau Valley with its thousands of apricot trees. Apricot brandy anyone? Schnapps?

Lying on my comfortable bed, looking out the window, gazing at the riverbank  with apricot trees, dots of houses and fields, was a quietly mesmerizing relaxation. That, along with walks and touring, en plein air, amidst golden trees and russet roofs, the air pure and clear, churches  gleaming in late autumn sun, was being in fall and then saying goodbye  to fall.

I can envision being along this stretch of the Danube in summer, hanging  out in the pool on the top deck, watching the scenery go by on our way  to ports of call. And why not spring, with buds on the trees,  wildflowers on the banks of the river, and passengers moving the giant  chess pieces on the upper deck? And winter? Well, the ships don’t sail  then.  Perhaps that’s a good time to dream about the next cruise.

 

 

 

© January 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.

 

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