Cruising Through Europe in Style

Bäckerei Fritz Frischmuth in Wertheim, Germany. Photos by Carla Waldemar
Bäckerei Fritz Frischmuth in Wertheim, Germany. Photos by Carla Waldemar

Covid did its best to curtail travel. But the instant the lockdown eased, visitors ventured back to Europe—at first, hesitant and masked, then in record-setting throngs.

All it took were the two most alluring words in the English language—free airfare—to convince me to set off when they popped up in a Viking River Cruise ad. The fact that the voyage would lead from one of my favorite European cities to yet another—Budapest to Amsterdam made my heart flutter as I raced for my credit card.

Viking reps met us at the Budapest airport and whisked us to our ship, anchored at the city’s iconic Chain Bridge, where a dinner of local favorites awaited: goulash, chicken paprikash, spaetzle (or choose from a menu that rivals that of any tony restaurant), rendered even tastier by the free wine that flows aboard ship every lunch and dinner.

After a quick shower in the morning (bathroom benefits include endless towels, heated floors and elite products), we made our way to the dining room (tables of six, no assigned seating) and the only hard choices of the day: a made-to-order omelet or eggs Benedict? Cold cuts, sausages, cheeses, yogurt, fruit, smoked salmon and more promised to gird us for a bus tour of city highlights, beginning in Pest, anchored by its iconic Parliament Building and site of its former ghetto with its synagogue of 1859, the largest in all Europe. Then on across the Danube to hilly Buda, crowned by the frothy marble of St. Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion, where we pause to tour and photograph.

The afternoon offered free time to ramble at leisure (warning: enticing antiques shops) or to sign up for an optional paid tour: Choose among many each day, from biking and hiking to beer tasting and trips to nearby villages.

The Danube River

We upped for the expedition called Life Under Soviet Occupation, which transported us in an authentically wobbly Trabant auto from 1988 (constructed, joked our guide, of cardboard, glue and masking tape). Off we rattled to Memorial Park, a huge collection of larger-than-life statues of Russian heroes including Father Stalin, collected here in remembrance (and ridicule) after Soviet troops pulled out in 1989. Next, a peep into the Budapest Retro Museum, depicting life under those occupiers, with replicas of dreary apartment blocs, TV shows of the times and a ’70s living room.

Our ship pushed quietly through the night into Slovakia, offering a glimpse of its postcard-perfect capitol, Bratislava, as we sailed by during breakfast. It’s a relaxing day on the water today, as we make our way to Vienna. From the sundeck, lush with lounge chairs and a running path for the masochists onboard (I’m one of them) we count the stately swans paddling serenely along the waterway as we slink past dense forests and small towns born of a former era. Too tired tonight for the nightly entertainment in the lounge, we climb under our comforting duvets to dream of Vienna in the morning.

Vienna! Is this the most opulent, uber-Baroque and ultra-musical city (boasting homeboys Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Mahler) on the planet? I vote yes. We end our panoramic city tour at ground zero, St. Stephen’s Square with its marvelous cathedral, then strike out on our own to bear witness at the city’s somber Holocaust memorial. Famished, we make our way to Café Central, in business since 1876, where waiters in formal black deliver fancy coffees and crispy schnitzels to customers perusing newspapers attached to long, don’t-sneak-out-with-them sticks.

We’re spoiled for choices on our free afternoon: the Opera House tour? The famous Lipizzaner riding school? We settle on the Secessionist Art Museum, noted for works of then-risque painters like Gustav (“The Kiss”) Klimt and its Beethoven frieze, circling the gallery with earphones to listen to the master’s symphonies while gazing.

Sailing off to Melk the next morning, we hit the sundeck enroute to its famous abbey of 1289—nine swans a-swimming, church bells a-ringing, as we glide through the Wachau Valley. It’s won fame as the most scenic stretch of the Danube, thanks to the scores of medieval castles dotting the lush, green coastline. Yes, that’s the tower in which Richard the Lion Hearted was imprisoned, narrates Tessa, our tour director, as cameras go into overtime. Then we spy the beyond-ornate abbey itself, where we’ll roam from its opulent Treasury Room to the 100,000-book library to its sweet, gold-and-white church.

Salmon, Caesar salad, a cheese plate and chocolate mousse are my choices this evening, before we anchor in Passau—already a notable city 2,000 years ago. We ramble its cobblestone streets, from one artist’s gallery to another, passing its famous Glass Museum and the Executioner’s House (these days, a comedy club) and another St. Stephen’s Cathedral—this one flaunting a brilliant white-and-green dome.

Up next: Regensburg, whose 1,200 UNESCO-protected buildings from the Middle Ages still stand to welcome us, thanks to the town’s lack of importance during WW II (thus, no destructive bombing). One of these houses belonged to Otto Schindler of “list” fame. (Nonetheless, of the town’s 500 Jews, 15 survived.) Under a stone bridge of 1135, we discover a sausage stand and devour our first bratwurst.

Windmills in the rain at Kinderdijk, Netherlands.

Oh-oh! Summer’s lack of rain means the water’s too low to sail onward. Turning on a dime, Viking readies another ship, on call for just such an emergency, to meet us an hour or two later at the point where the river rises again. Yes, we are required to pack up (ugh!) and transfer by bus to the waiting ship, but smiles break out when we’re greeted with flutes of champagne by another lovely crew.

Our morning’s tour of Nurnberg doesn’t spare the decade of the town’s blackest moment in history. We drive by the barracks of the Nazis’ dreaded SS, then set foot in the stadium where Hitler delivered his tirades to the masses. We pass the courtrooms where WWII’s Nurnberg trials took place as we head to the city’s Old Town—overseen by a thousand-year-old castle and its (today, waterless) moat. Descending to the lively market square, we seize a chance to shop for the city’s famous gingerbread and gawk at the glockenspiel atop its church, where figures prance as the clock strikes the hour.

Bamberg, with its scores of half-timbered houses, is the next medieval beauty awaiting our discovery. We drop our jaws when confronted with the cheeky mural enrobing city hall, erected on a tiny island amid the river that divides the town. Valiantly we climb upward toward its iconic cathedral, which boasts a life-size statue of a horse and rider within its walls. (Why, you ask? So did we. But nobody knows.) As we make our way downward again, whoops: Rain! Not ordinary rain, but a Noah’s Ark experience. We dodge into a coffeehouse as the streets become rivers. Back on board and dripping, we’re greeted with fresh macarons to raise our spirits–along with lunchtime’s cheeseburgers vying with spaghetti carbonara and Cobb salad. And did I mention…. free wine and beer?

Vineyards cloak the hills as we sail to Wurzburg, where the Residenz of the Prince-Bishop awaits.

His home is reminiscent of Versailles, but with one difference: It’s one window bigger (the show-off!). Atop its grand staircase, a mural by Italian bold-name artist Tiepolo showcases the world’s continents, depicting North America with crocodiles, cannibals and hot chocolate (go figure). The day turns not only rainy but cold—so I purchase the wooliest sweater still on the racks in July.

It cozies me as we next tour Wurzburg, with deadpan-comic Ursula to guide us. (Q, she asks: What do you call a beautiful woman in Wurzburg? A: a tourist.) After the wartime bombing of the town, she pronounces, “only 40 roofs were left.” She points to a butcher’s shop of 1583 and a prison tower called the “hole of fear,” then pulls out a photo of Hitler’s SS troops marching right through the half-timbered Market Square where we stand. As a bonus, Ursula invites those who are interested to linger in St. Mary’s Chapel—a former synagogue— to hear her recollections of the war and its aftermath.

“I knew nothing of the war year while growing up: They were never mentioned. It was only in 1978 when the truth came out, but now it’s part of every school’s curriculum. Starting in 1215 here, Jews were made to wear a yellow star. Today the town has 80 stumbling stones” embedded in the pavement where Jews were dragged from their houses. “But back then, nobody talked about it.”

If any passengers yearned for old-time German cuisine, tonight their dreams came true. Lederhosen-and-dirndl clad waiters delivered platters of braised beef, potato salad, red cabbage, bread dumplings and sauerkraut, served with a side of oom-pah music. Tessa’s ongoing contest to find the longest Grman word spotted on signs as we travelled had reached 43 letters by now.

Would there be lengthier tongue-twisters in Koblenz? It boasted one of the land’s largest statues, for sure. Kaiser Wilhelm on his horse anchors the city’s inviting riverside promenade. We were free to wander, and St. Kasimer’s Church beckoned. Slender pink ribs gave a delightful feminine cast to its graceful ceiling—simple and serene. Beyond it, a vast plaza lined with open-air cafes echoed with locals enjoying a summer Saturday. While other Viking passengers climbed to the hilltop castle, I stuck with people-watching as my sport of choice.

Cologne greeted us on Sunday. We docked a quarter-mile from its famous cathedral, whose twin spires leapt skyward in the distance. Emperor Nero ruled the city back in Roman times, and left many a trace behind—a Roman wall here, a villa’s mosaic floor there—followed by a dozen Romanesque churches and, finally, that wondrous cathedral itself—the most-visited site in all Germany. It holds, legend has it, the chains of St. Peter and the heads of the Biblical Three Kings secured in a golden casket.

Mere steps away, the city’s Ludwig Museum contains treasures of a different sort—works of contemporary bold-name artists—Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and more American Pop painting than anywhere else on earth. We strolled to the nearby Market Square, then the former Jewish ghetto before hitting the flea market stalls that stretched from the Old Town to our vessel.

During the night they receded into the distance as we floated toward Amsterdam, stopping along the way at Kinderdijk to stroll along a dike through Holland’s ever-present rain to investigate the land’s most celebrated symbol:  windmills. Nineteen of them, all in a row.

And then the moment had arrived: the captain’s farewell dinner. We bid goodbye to the many friends we’d made—folks from Ukraine and Iran and Australia, from the Carolinas to Iowa’s Quad Cities to Bloomington, Minnesota. We all agreed on one thing: We’d sign on for another Viking cruise in a heartbeat. To do so yourself, consult Viking River Cruises and start packing.

5100 Eden Ave, Suite 107 • Edina, MN 55436
©2023 Lavender Media, Inc.