How did the Swedes get here without river locks?
We’re back on board the Avalon Impression river boat on our way west over the Danube River. We signed up for Vicki McKenna’s “Danube Symphony” tour, five days on water, two more nights in Munich. (See Part #1 of this travelogue.)
The greatest pleasure was simply sitting on the sun deck on board the Avalon Impression (the topmost of four levels) soaking in the sun and watching the incredible scenery float by, especially in the Wachau valley, Austria’s prime white wine district. With an adult beverage, of course. The steep hills come right up to the river, at 1,770 miles Europe’s second longest (The Volga in Russia is the longest). The river originates in Germany’s Black Forest and flows through Budapest (that’s another trip), on through Romania to the Black Sea.
In what must have been the labor of centuries, the hills of the Wachau are etched with stone-walled terraces accommodating, at most, three rows of grape vines.
On board during a free wine tasting, one of the vintners bade us “Velcome” and talked about her “Winyards.” Otherwise, her English was perfect, her wines, delightful. We purchased a bottle of Gruner Veltiner. She said Austrian wines had suffered from a poor reputations because their vintners could not source the best corks, which went to France and Italy. She said this by way of explaining why Austrian whites have twist-off camps. I wanted to tell the lady that California whites are almost all twist-offs these days, as well.
The Avalon Impression has a bar, well stocked and oft-visited. Half-price during happy hour. Free bicycle rentals. Whirlpool and exercise room, although your Squire set new records for steps in a day climbing the vertiginous cobblestones of towns like Melk, with its fantastic Benedictine abbey, and Passau, Germany — its church has the largest organ in Europe: 17,388 pipes.
Traveling east to west from Vienna to Passau, Germany, we passed through nine locks in 184 miles and gained 450 feet in elevation. (The river flows east.) Each lock is coupled with a hydro-electric station. (In Germany, with an aggressive zero-carbon agenda, we saw fields of solar panels. Most residences have them, too.) Surprisingly few overhead bridges span the Danube on our trip; saw maybe two (can’t vouch for nighttime). The river cruise ships have retractable wheelhouses; they can hydraulically duck down, out of the way. (Did not witness.)
Instead of bridges, the little towns have ferries. Almost the entire length of the river and in the towns, bicyclists.
Each town had a Maypole, topped by a Christmas tree. Often a monastery, as in Melk. And always churches — in the smaller towns without a castle, they were fortified to defend the citizenry against attacks. Never know who might come sweeping down the Danube.
The churches were mostly baroque and always eye-popping. More marble, gilt, statuary, bas-relief tableaus and paintings in one side altar than in 50 Madison churches. The Catholic Church got something right, anyway. Churches in the old Austrian-Hungarian empire (finis 1918) have distinctive bell-shaped steeples rather than the straight steeples of, say, St. Martin’s in the Fields or the flat-roofed belfries of Notre Dame — models for so many American churches.
In another tiny town, Grein, the Stenbergs of Hartland WI witnessed a Sunday morning procession to the local church. Following the town band were the community’s first Holy Communion children, followed by their proud families. (Reminded me of Michael’s Sicilian wedding in The Godfather.) Austria and Bavaria remain very Roman Catholic.
The towns are a little farther apart and the scenery turns wild. Off to the southwest we can see the snowy peaks of the Alps. Bicyclists and weekend campers dot the shoreline. On the north shore we spot some wildlife. Naked swimmers. Out come the binoculars on our portside dining table. Is that girl bottomless, too. She bends over. Yep, bottomless. For the next several miles (scratch that, kilometers) we spot the occasional nekkid man, then another woman. Usually solitary.
On the way through the lobby of the Avalon Impression, I stop Vlad the tour guide’s desk (he is a native of Transylvania, formerly located in Hungary, now in Romania) to post a compliment: this tour thinks of everything to entertain its guests!
The food aboard ship was consistently four-star, based on the local cuisine; the breakfast buffet an embarrassment of riches. Free wine at meals. Avalon even prints up a small newspaper for breakfasters. Forgot your glasses? A small chest offers non-prescription reading glasses.
The attention to detail was impeccable. A steward restocked one of the many fresh fruit bowls; when an apple fell to the floor, instead of brushing it off, he returned it to the kitchen. Maps and the day’s itinerary are available at the front desk. European electrical adapters to lend for those without. A map for the day’s on-land adventure, whether guided or on your own. Fox Travel’s Rose Gray made sure we got from Madison’s park & ride on the SE side to O’Hare to Vienna and back again.
Our 172-square-foot “stateroom” was down in the hold along with Jack and Rose and the shanty Irish so our windows were smaller, just below the ceiling and barely above water level. Even so, our room had live orchids. When the ship moved — and its movement is so … fluid — we could hear the gurgle of water as we plowed through the river. A delightful sound. Rooms on the second and third decks are 200 square feet with wall-to-wall windows that open. But we figured, rightly, that our room was for sleeping, eyes closed. Views from everyplace else on ship. A full bathroom with shower for every room. Beds made each day by the housekeeping staff. This is a floating hotel.
Some drama on our excursion! Ms. Vicki’s husband, Roger, had to join us in mid-cruise due to an obligation. We spotted Roger on a bench, quay side as we approached Melk on Day 3. Vicki jumped up and down like a love-struck school girl with anticipation. Lo (and behold!) the captain himself helped Roger tote his luggage over the gangway. A nice touch.
Passau was our last stop; a lovely renaissance town just over the border in Germany, where the Inn and Ilz rivers meet the Danube. Overnight the Avalon Impression moved up-river to do a 180-degree turn facing east for a new boatload of passengers. We witnessed another river boat doing the same outside Linz (I believe it was). At 443 feet (two and one-half football fields in length), they take up almost the entire width of the river.
Even the irascible Blaska made new friends and great memories.
Next time, we’ll talk about beer and “the King of Vegetables” in Munich.