Fascinating history, high culture, beautiful scenery, great food and drink. That’s our idea of a vacation.
We have just returned from a bucket list vacation, five days on the Danube River aboard the Avalon Impression river boat from Vienna 184 miles west to Passau, in Germany. No better way to travel. No changing hotels, you keep your room on the boat between excursions on land. You eat and drink like a medieval king. You meet people and make friends.
Forty-three of us accompanied Vicki McKenna’s “Danube Symphony” tour, organized by Fox Travel. We were among the 118 passengers on board a 443-foot-long ship built just five years ago. Watching the captain negotiate the many locks upstream was a treat. Our Dutch-born captain could park the thing in a church parking lot. This riverboat cruise ship is a five-star hotel gliding on water that brings the sights to you rather than you to them.
Our cruise began in Vienna, elegant and old school, imbued with over one-thousand years of history. Statues and fountains attest to the past glory of a lost empire of the House of Habsburg. We toured a portion of their sprawling Hofburg Palace (the current president of Austria is in there somewhere), saw the ancient crown jewels, and happened to catch the famed Lippizaner stallions out for a canter. Another side trip to Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, summer home of the 640-year-old dynasty.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s only son lived here until dying prematurely at age 21. (Was he poisoned by his father’s enemies?) There is his cradle, the gift of the people of Paris. His mother was a Habsburg, as was Marie Antoinette. (The Habsburgs married well.) The cruise provides knowledgable guides speaking into our ear pieces for these optional side trips.
The Kunsthistorisches museum has a wonderful collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s genre works, including Hunters in the Snow and The Peasant Wedding (a copy of which graces the Stately Manor), all amassed by the acquisitive Habsburgs. It has one fresco by Gustav Klimt, but his more familiar gilted “Kiss” is in the nearby Leopold Museum.
We did see (but did not ride) the 1896 ferris wheel, wherein Joseph Cotton confronted Orson Welles in the classic post-war movie, The Third Man. It’s located on the Prater, a former royal hunting grounds.
(The native German speakers call their city “Wien” and pronounce it “Veen.” Residents are Wieners just as the people in America’s largest city are New Yorkers. Which is why the city’s signature dish, weiner schnitzel, has no weiners. It’s breaded veal and it is delightful.)
We took most our meals aboard ship but thankfully dined at a picturesque local eatery Austria where old man in bow ties and jackets devoured the newspaper along with their meals. Austria remains a newspaper-reading country; the restaurant made local papers (German-language, of course) free to read, bound in rods on racks like the local library. Red cabbage and kraut! Oh my! Another notice: cigarette machines are fairly common here.
Franz Joseph, the penultimate Habsburg on the throne, took over in 1848 (the year of Wisconsin’s statehood) in a period of revolution throughout Europe. In 1852, he signed the emigration papers for my great-great grandparents to leave German-speaking Bohemia (part of their empire, along with Hungary and other countries) for the United States, a result of those freedoms gained four years earlier.
The emperor with outrageous sideburns served until 1916 in the middle of the World War that would dissolve the Austro-Hungarian empire. (Queen Elizabeth will match his record for longevity on the throne next year.) His brother Maximilian was given a cigarette and a blindfold in 1867 after trying to take over Mexico. His son committed suicide along with his 17-year-old lover. His beautiful wife Elizabeth was stabbed to death in 1897 while vacating in Geneva. It was his nephew (and heir apparent) Franz Ferdinand’sassassination in Sarajevo that triggered the first world war.
Gertie our effervescent native guide credited the old guy with making Vienna what it is today. Nevertheless, when the Republic of Austria emerged from the ashes of WW1 it prohibited any Habsburg (over 300 are scattered throughout Europe) from holding government office. As if to prove the city’s modern-day relevance, our Gertie talked up the United Nations complex; suffice to say that no one visits that modern skyscraper section of town unless they work there. There does not seem to be any street presence. Cold and impersonal, as seen from afar.
We’re big on statues, murals, cupolas, and chintz here at the Policy Werkes. Make no more boring buildings. (I’m still aggrieved that we didn’t shoot for the moon when we built the Dane County Courthouse.) Even the contemporary private homes we saw on the way and busing through the larger cities are distinctively European; almost always stuccoed and at least two stories. No ranch homes, which makes sense, I guess.
Vicki’s Roger pointed out something we had not noticed: no pickup trucks in Germany or Austria. No beaters, either. They’re very strict on safety; seat belts buckled even in the shuttle buses.
Vienna being the city of Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, the Strausses and so many more, we took in an evening concert as one of the cruise’s off-boat excursions. Well, they had to include Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music, did they not?! (We passed up the side trip to Salzburg.)
History? Down the Danube (they call it the “Donau”) came the Swedes in the 1645 during the Thirty Years War to lay waste to the castle atop Durnstein, where a local power broker imprisoned England’s King Richard the Lionhearted, returning from the first crusade in 1192 for, what else? A king’s ransom. The Russians fought Napoleon here in 1805 on his march to Vienna.
We’ll board the ship in the next installment.