by Mary Jo
Years ago, I read an article about riverboat cruises in Europe, and the idea immediately appealed to me. As a friend says, rivers were the interstates of the past, and so much of European civilization developed along the waterways. How better to explore than in a boat holding maybe 150 friendly, intelligent passengers and serving lots of really good food?
Like a plot element, the idea of a riverboat cruise simmered in my lizard brain for years, and in 2006, I thought it was time to do a cruise in Southern France. Except that all the French cruises were booked for the time slot we had, and we ended up cruising the Douro River in Northern Portugal. It was great.
This year, I decided it was time to book that French cruise. Urp. Once again, Southern France along the Rhone was sold out. Which is how we ended up cruising the Danube. Again, it was great—the Mayhem Consultant and I are easily amused, and any interesting new place will be fun.
We started with a three day pre-cruise extension in Prague, which isn’t on the Danube, but really, how could we go to Eastern Europe and not see Prague? The city has been an intellectual and creative center for centuries, and under the blighting hand of five decades of Soviet rule, it was spared rapacious developers tearing down beautiful old buildings.
Prague lived up to its reputation, and the old city is truly spectacular, including the famous and incredibly complex astronomical clock, which dates to 1410 (!!!) and which performs its traffic stopping dance every hour on the hour.
A high point of Prague was our tour of the Lobkowicz Palace, part of the Prague castle complex on a hill overlooking the city. The Lobkowicz family had been Eastern European aristocrats for centuries, and they were collectors and patrons of the arts. Then the family was forced to flee twice—first when the Nazis came, then in 1948 when the Russians came.
And here the story becomes even more interesting. After the fall of Communism in 1989, former owners could go to the courts to reclaim the family properties, and that’s exactly what William Lobkowicz did. Born in Boston and educated at Harvard, he reclaimed the family estates and sold off several to raise the money to restore the others.
The Viking cruise line had a video about the palace tour, and I started salivating when they showed the family art treasures. Original Breughels and Canalettos. Hand written manuscripts by Beethoven, with his own scratch outs and annotations!
The tour included a lovely lunch in a gorgeous high ceilinged chamber, amazing views over the city, and a half hour chamber music concert featuring works by composers associated with Prague. People like Mozart and Beethoven and Dvorak.
That was the first of several concerts of classic music on our journey, and reflects how much music is a part of eastern European culture. Another concert was by the organ in cathedral of Passau, in Germany. It’s the largest cathedral organ in Europe with almost 18K pipes, and when it played the double bass notes, the reverberations were so powerful that I half expected the plaster cherubs to be shaken off the walls. <G> (Note: half an hour seems about right for a classical music concert for an audience of tourists.)
On a riverboat cruise, you tend to stop at a city a day and get guided walking tours of the old city in the morning, with free time or optional tours in the afternoon. So we got an overview of great cities of Eastern Europe. Regensburg in Bavaria has a stone bridge (called, logically enough,
the Stone Bridge, Steinerne Brücke) which was built in the 12th century and for centuries was the only really reliable crossing of the Danube for a very long stretch.
I loved medieval Passau, also in Bavaria, with its cathedral and twisting streets. The tour their illustrated something else about Eastern Europe: the presence of war. As the guide said matter of factly, there were no war industries in the city so the only thing the Allies bombed in WWII was the railroad station. Hence, the medieval city survived. (The other omnipresent topic in Bavaria was beer, which was referred to often and enthusiastically.)
I have to say I wasn’t too taken by Vienna, though that surely is because we were shown lots of oppressive imperial grandeur from the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nor was I very impressed by the famous Sacher tortes, though the tea room at the Sacher hotel was very lovely, and full of tourists like us who were there for the iconic experience. (And the chocolate. <G>)
I like Budapest a great deal more—it was attractive and idiosyncratic and invited further exploration. In the afternoon, we went to a horse show at the farm of the two Lazar brothers, who are world champion carriage drivers, and which underlined Hungary heritage of riding and horsemanship. (Some of the riding tricks, like this one, must be like what Regency spectators saw at Astley's Amphitheater back in the day.)
I’m a born tourist and could say lots more, but what struck me most about the trip was the different feel of the region from Western Europe, which I know a great deal better. Central Europe is sometimes called Mitteleuropa—Middle Europe, a term that is political and cultural as well as geographic.
The history felt very close as city guides described the Roman origins of their cities, the bombing damage of World War II, and empty Jewish quarters. Even more present was the history in the Czech Republic and Hungary, countries which were under Communist domination until 1989. Guides talked about how statues of Lenin and Stalin used to be in particular squares, how a particular square was popular for demonstrations "because there was more room for Russian tanks," and pointed out the stark, boxy Soviet buildings that were all about cheap practicality rather than aesthetics.
This part of the world has often been fought over—Hungary is largely a level plain, perfect for raiding horsemen or oncoming tanks. Maybe that accounts for the underlying fatalism of the culture: great music, world weary intellectuals, and brilliant scientists fleeing to the west. In the long history of the Central Europe, Communism was a blip that is already receding into the past.
Not that I should be drawing many conclusions based on a mere ten days in Mitteleuropa! But it’s a fascinating part of the world, and I’m glad we had a chance to see some of it.
Have you ever been to Central Europe? What did you think of it? And if you haven’t visited, would you like to? What dreams and fantasies come to mind when you think of the romantic Danube and Viennese coffee houses?
Mary Jo, adding a picture of a band of Prague musicians playing horns unlike any I've ever seen. But they sure were enjoying themselves!