Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Budapest to Amsterdam River Cruise I



How does one encapsulate a 16 day river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, a 1,134-mile voyage along the Danube River, the Main-Danube canal, and the Main and Rhine Rivers -- through 68 locks and past an untold number of churches, castles, medieval towns, and a few major cities into one coherent blog article?  As information on the sites we saw is readily available on the web, I decided to truncate my write up, using some (and I do mean some) of the nearly 1,000 photographs I took on the trip to tell the tale with more of a personal, impressionistic view.  I've also borrowed a little from AmaWaterways for some of the summary information.


On Aug 31 we flew from JFK to Frankfurt, connecting to Budapest, on two very nice flights on Lufthansa which served up some edible airline food and provided a decent entertainment selection.  I found John Wilson's Orchestra's Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies there, and played it over and over again as it includes Richard Rodger's original orchestration and my favorite waltz, the Carousel Waltz.  I had never heard Wilson's album before and it was a surprise to find an English orchestra playing R&H so faithfully.  Time passed quickly with the jet stream at our backs and we landed in Frankfurt before we knew it, and smoothly made our connection to Budapest, made it to our hotel in the late morning, so we had the rest of the day to explore the city (more on that later).

The next day we boarded the beautiful AmaCerto, a relatively new and luxurious ship built specifically for river cruising.  As such, it is long -- some 440 feet --  with a beam of just 36 feet, just narrow enough to allow about three inches between the walls of some of the locks we passed through. It is unlike any ship we've been on.  Everything collapses on the deck including the bridge when we are on waterways with low bridge clearance (five days in a row at one point). Our captain, Tom Buining, or the second captain, his 23 year old son (who is about 6'5" and bears some resemblance to Tab Hunter), sticks his head out of a little hatch when passing under low bridges.

The ship is powered by twin 1350hp Cats with plenty of stern and bow thruster power to deal with the swift currents of the rivers when docking or turning. The ship even has to plan where to take on their 320 tons of fuel taking water depths and bridge heights into account. We were running out of water after the last lock on the Danube, with only 6 inches under the ship and the draft of the ship is just 4 feet -- the same as my 40' boat in Connecticut!  My conclusion is that a river ship is a much tougher ship to handle than an ocean vessel.  Imagine having to run most nights and parts of days with the challenges of river traffic (very heavy in parts -- industrial barges galore), the strong current, depth issues, navigating the multitude of locks and trying to clear bridges.  And the Captain and his son do it themselves -- 6 hours on and 6 hours off for 14 plus days!  I have a profound respect for their abilities.

Naturally, the first day on board we met our fellow passengers, one of the more interesting challenges on a river cruise vs. ocean-going vessels.  On the latter, there is always a place to go if you want to be alone, or if a couple wants to eat by themselves.  Not so on a river cruise.  I called it forced socialization, just one sitting for meals, one dining room (except for a very small specialty restaurant, dinner only).  There are pluses and minuses to this, nice to meet some interesting couples but also dreadful to sit with people who are traveling together in groups and you are the third wheel.

There were only about 155 people onboard, nearly half from Canada which I found surprising, nice people of course but many traveling in groups.  However, we found a few couples with whom we were extremely compatible politically & socially so we tended to dine with them. Amazing how fast a group of disparate strangers form into cliques with one another and proceed to ignore everyone else.  It's high school on an upper class, adult scale. 

One couple seemed to have such disdain for the rest of us that they deliberately choose to eat alone at every meal, taking a table clearly set up for four and commandeering it for themselves!  We probably sat, though, with 1/4th of the people, and have found most of the conversations begin with geography.....where are you from?  And then it either continues with some mutual interest or just peters out in a natural course. Both lunch and dinners were lubricated by wine every day, the wine following the particular country we were in.  I defiantly enjoyed my diet Coke or just water, one person asking me why I bothered to book a cruise where the wine flowed freely.  Judging by how inebriated a few became (one person actually fell down a flight of stairs on our first night on board in a drunken stupor and had to be hospitalized in Budapest), I was fine with my choice.  I usually asked for a special vintage of diet Coke which usually confused the waiter.

But AMA generally did it up first class in their culinary choices and execution.  All the bread is baked on board and that is my weakness.  Oh, for another piece of dark multi-grained Pumpernickel!

Getting back to couples, we generally sat with Mark and Edna -- some 10 years younger than we, or Ronnie and Mary -- some 10 years older.  And then, another couple, Susan and Dominick, about our age and with whom we had much in common. 

Mark is a purser for a major airline, a dedicated tennis player (I was too at one time).  Edna was with the airlines, but now is a librarian and so we had much in common with her as well.  They were very upbeat and fun to be with.

Ronnie and Mary, on the other hand, were the mystery couple, Ron never disclosing his last name, joking that he was with the witness protection program.  But we were simpatico politically, enjoying discussions of music, particularly Sondheim, and feelings about Germany and WW II.  Ron was a young boy in London during WW II and remembers his mother throwing herself protectively on him while bombs were dropping and also watched British soldiers getting strafed by German fighter pilots on a beach.  As he said, "I have smelled death."  Therefore, while we toured some of the German cities, he would bristle at any attempt by the guide to whitewash national culpability.  He also took one of our fellow passengers to task for declaring that it was a "shame" that one of the quaint towns we visited was destroyed by allied bombing during the last month of the war.  It was a war!

I gave Ron a reading list as he would like to write his memoirs.  I gather he was a luminary in the fashion industry, not only by the way he dressed (obviously NOT in my Lands End ensemble) and given some of the people he knew well, such as Audrey Hepburn.  He too was fun to be with given his droll sense of humor.  

Actually, if there is one major take away for me with this particular trip it was the elephant in the room of WW II.  Everything has been rebuilt.  Germany is thriving.  And yet, there is that ugly history of not only extreme German nationalism, but genocide (never heard that word mentioned in the tours). As we transited the Rhine, I felt the presence of the War and my father's involvement in it as a Signal Corps photographer. I've included this photo of him in another part of my blog before, but it bears repeating.  It was a photo taken of him -- and published in Stars and Stripes at the time --  as he filmed movements over the banks of the Rhine, with the following caption: Even if he doesn't savvy German, Sgt. Bob Hagelstein, Signal Corps camera-man from Richmond Hill, Queens, for this Nazi sign on the banks of the Rhine at Neuss, forbidding photography in the area.

Neuss is only about 25 miles north of Cologne, from which my great grandparents immigrated in the 19th century.  So, all along the Rhine I wondered where he was active, but when we visited Cologne and went to the massive Cologne Cathedral, I stood on the lower steps and said to Ann that I've seen this before.  When I returned, I looked at my father's scrap book and sure enough there are photos of him at the bombed out Cathedral.  I include the before and after photos here.

Regarding photos, I've attempted to include some of the representative ones, day by day.  They are sometimes labeled only with the place. To identify each and every site, particularly the names of the churches and castles would be an incredible chore.  I found that two weeks is a long time for a river cruise and if we do one again it would be for a shorter period, with perhaps a longer land based stop at either end.  Some of the medieval towns have already merged in my mind.  Luckily I have the photos to tell them apart but if we played a game of pick-up sticks with those pix, I'd be hard pressed to get them in sequence!  So here is some brief information, day by day, with photos below

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Day 1 ARRIVE BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
Mid morning we checked into a hotel overlooking the Danube and the beautiful Parliament House, so we had good part of the day to walk around town, and most sites were reachable by foot.  Perhaps we walked about 4 or 5 miles total, across the magnificent Chain Bridge into the main shopping and pedestrian walking area, stopping for an espresso.  Ann even found a Marks & Spencer where she has bought her nighties for almost 50 years, so the shopping began already. 

As it was Sunday we were able to observe the local Budapestians at leisure.  We strolled around like locals.  At night we ate at a neighborhood restaurant where Ann enjoyed a Hungarian beer served in its traditional wooden holder.  In some respects, Budapest reminded us of St. Petersburg because the buildings on the river and their architectural shroud of Socialist realism.  It seems that Hungry has never fully recovered from the Soviet occupation.












Day 2      EMBARKATION Most of this day was spent exploring the ship, unpacking in our stateroom, and then in the evening meeting our fellow travelers at a welcome dinner.

Day 3     BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
In the morning, we slept in, missing the ship's very early sightseeing tour -- most of which we had seen the day before.  I wanted to go to the market, see the people, which I find more interesting than endless churches and some historical sites.  The highlight of the day was actually in the evening when the ship departed for Bratislava -- a special “Illuminations Cruise” past the city’s stunning river front.








Day 4     BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA
We enjoyed a scenic cruise to Bratislava, arriving early afternoon and there we took a walking tour with a very funny, engaging Bratislavian of the Old Town Hall, Mirbach Palace and St. Martin's Cathedral. Later in the day we had some free time for espresso at one of the pretty cafes.












Day 5     VIENNA, AUSTRIA
video
Here we had a guided bus tour in the morning, including the Vienna Opera House, the Ringstrasse, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. With some free time on our own, we went to a well-known Viennese cafe for espresso on one of the city's squares, watching, what else, the people strolling by.  A high point of the visit was an evening Strauss and Mozart concert at the breathtaking Imperial Schönbrunn Palace. I include just a brief video "sample" of the concert.  Sorry about the fellow in front scratching his ear.









Day 6     DÜRNSTEIN - MELK
We reached the Wachau Valley early in the morning, stopping in Durnstein, a charming town, taking a walking tour down medieval cobblestone streets past 16th-century town houses and wine taverns. High above the town, were the ruins of a castle where Richard the Lionhearted was once imprisoned. After lunch, the ship cruised to Melk for a guided tour of the town’s Benedictine Abbey, one of Europe's largest baroque monasteries and the inspiration for the Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose. Photography was strictly forbidden in the library, even without a flash, but our tour guide whispered in my ear, seeing my particular interest in the library, "take a few pictures without the flash quickly as the guard just left the room." I did.  One photograph shows the flood levels over the centuries in Melk, on the Danube.  Note the level on left from last April





















Day 7     PASSAU, GERMANY
The ship continued its cruise through scenic Upper Austria to Passau, a 2,000-year-old city noted for its Gothic and Italian Baroque architecture. Passau is known as the "City of Three Rivers," because the Danube is joined at Passau by the Inn from the south and the Ilz from the north. A late afternoon walking tour of Passau took us along the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, where the old city fortifications could be seen and St. Stephan’s Cathedral, home to the largest pipe organ in the world.  This is yet another town my father was in during the war, going there at the end of the war and then to Berchtesgaden where he toured Hitler's "Eagle's Nest." (I'll have to write a separate entry for that one of these days.)





Day 8     REGENSBURG
Early in the afternoon we arrived in Regensburg, one of Germany's best-preserved medieval cities. The guided tour revealed the city's architectural highlights, including the Old Town Hall and the Porta Praetoria - gates to a Roman fort built in 179 AD. Next to the old stone bridge there is the Wurstkuchl -- a sausage kitchen -- dating back to 1135.  Here is an endless battle as to which town has the best and oldest sausage restaurant, Regensberg or Nuremberg.  As can be easily seen, the women working here practically kill themselves in the heat to cook these special wursts and so I waited patiently in a very long line to purchase this local specialty.  By the way, the sandwich Ann and I shared was delicious, especially slathered with their secret recipe mustard! Back to more serious matters, the Regensburg David and Goliath Mural, which has been lightly re-touched, dates back to the 16th century. Remarkable.











Day 9     NUREMBERG
In the morning we entered the Main-Danube Canal and had a leisurely cruise through the beautiful Altmühl Valley. The Main-Danube Canal traverses the Franconian Alps via 16 locks, a marvel of modern engineering as at one point the locks lifted us to 1,332 feet above sea level and the following lock is the largest in terms of depth, dropping us 81 feet. We also went past the Continental Divide after the 11th lock in this particular system  In Nuremberg we opted to take the “Medieval Nuremberg” tour and later regretted not joining the “WWII” tour that visited the Zeppelin field where Hitler held his Nazi rallies and the Justice Palace where the War Crimes Tribunal sat in 1946. My former psychology professor, Gustav Gilbert was the leading psychiatrist there, writing the Nuremberg Diary. We felt that we'd never get back to this town, so thought the city tour would be best, but that was a mistake.






Suddenly, while we were in the middle of the Main-Danube canal, the German lockmasters announced a strike and all river boats had to tie off at a dock. But our Captain was clever, hearing a rumor that the strike would be lifted at midnight, so he decided to get in queue at the next lock before then, and there we sat until sometime in the middle of the night when we finally made it through. We were on the move again, although a little behind schedule, but not seriously at least. He made up time each day.

Day 10     BAMBERG
Here we had a morning walking tour of Bamberg, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, seeing the Cathedral, the Old Town Hall that straddles the river, and the serpentine streets lined with charming houses. Somehow Bamberg was mostly untouched by WW II bombing raids so most of the city's buildings are originals.   











Day 11     KITZINGEN - WÜRZBURG  Shame on us.  We arrived in Kitzingen for an early morning tour, one that involved busing, the ship meeting the bus at Wurzburg for more bus tours, so we decided to enjoy the leisurely cruise on board and take a break.  It seemed that we never had a moment for ourselves until then, so finally we got some reading done as the scenery passed by, including a nudist colony, not a pretty sight.



Day 12     WERTHEIM - MILTENBERG  Early in the morning I heard jets, as we passed the Frankfurt Airport, into which I had flown dozens of times to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair.  Never in my dreams did I think I'd be cruising by the airport on the Main river in the distant future. In the morning we enjoyed a walking tour of Wertheim, a town that has retained much of its medieval charm and character at the confluence of the Main and Tauber Rivers.

I'm certain my father was there during WW II during the closing weeks of the war and this warrants a brief aside, a few selected passages from his letter of April 11, 1945 to his brother, my Uncle Phil:

The future looks very bright in this theater of operations, the final collapse of Germany can very well be by the end of this month -- definitely I think, by the end of May.  When that joyful day comes, all our hopes and desires about coming home will be greater.  I only hope that if I must go to the Pacific Theatre of Operations I will at least get a furlough to home....Now that spring is here this little town we are quartered in has an atmosphere of peace and quiet -- like some little village out in Long Island if it wasn't for firing of weapons less than eight miles to the front, I'd feel all's well again.  This town is one of the few that has been spared of destruction,   The civilians that are here aren't hostile and they move freely about during the day.  Next door to our house is a blacksmith -- who seems to be busy shoeing horses and oxen.  The farmers are back on their land tilling and plowing, growing the needs of their conquered people.  The little children roam about some staring at GI's and have already learned to ask for candy and gum.  I'm a sentimental guy when it comes to the children and I hate to pass them up....With the on rush of the Allies into Germany, hordes of people are without homes.  The Germans can shift for themselves in this respect but the forces -- laborers of Russia, Poland, Belgium and other lands are a different problem for us -- they are so overjoyed at being freed, but it's our problem to house and clothe and feed them...Due to the particular sector of operations, I can't disclose to anyone, as yet, just exactly what I'm doing or what is going on.  Between the limited amount of time for letter writing and censorship my letters are vague and few.  The picture of me in the Stars and Stripes I see was received home with joy.  I didn't even know it was published.  It would have been a much better photograph if the Rhine River, which was less than twenty five yards in front of me, could have been included -- but at that particular time the surroundings were very hot with fire of all sorts....So, Phil, until my next letter, so long for awhile.  My love to Mom and Pop and of course my darling wife and son.  Love, Robert




BLOGSPOT cut off my entry at this point and I had to post the rest as Part II which can be viewed here.