By Joe and Jeanne Kovacs
Groggy from the sleepless night and the jet lag, we were excited as we headed from the airport towards our ship docked along the shore in central Budapest. At last, my wife meets the city of my birth! Will she like it? Can she possibly see it through my eyes? The coming days will give us the answer …
As we arrived for our eight-day journey up the Danube, we have come to realize: this is not just another trip, this is showing to Jeanne the places where I was born, went to school, expected to spend my life back in the 1950s. Even my beloved river and the Austrian landscape brought back images of the flight from my homeland — all the memories I was anxious to share with her.
We were lucky. The weather was near perfect and the city dressed up for the upcoming Mayday festivities. Jeanne was immediately impressed by the panorama awaiting us with the river separating the hilly Buda from the flat, commercial Pest. I assured her that this is the most spectacular cityscape one can find on the river, halfway between the Black Forest and the Black Sea.
After a sumptuous welcome dinner, on the upper deck a night view was equally great. Across the shining river the picture-perfect palace crowned the Castle Hill, while on the Pest side the view of the floodlit Parliament building gave us a memorable welcome. The fireworks overhead added to the sense of excitement. A short walk along the nearby streets showed us crowded cafes and restaurants where the joie de vivre of folks was evident. The emergence of the country from its forced isolation behind the Iron Curtain was a distant memory and a visit to the city is now a must for all river cruises. Our ship, with its 180-plus passengers, excellent lounge and dining facilities was just one of the many craft docked along the shore.
After a good night’s rest and a delicious breakfast on board, the sightseeing bus took us for the discovery of the city. While zigzagging the old city, our boat started its upstream trek towards Vienna. (The river’s strong downstream current slowed the boat’s progress to a mere 8 mph, thus forcing the craft to start its journey ahead of schedule.) We drove by the huge St. Stephen’s cathedral, dedicated to the first Christian king of Hungary in the 11th century, and the neo-renaissance classic Opera House along the impressive Andrassy Street. The spacious Heroes’ Square near the City Park displays statues of national heroes that played key roles in the country’s 1,000 years of history. The square is surrounded by museums and exhibition halls, with the city zoo nearby. As we passed one of the numerous spas of the city, Joe fondly recalled his frequent trips there during his teenage years. Then we found ourselves in the city’s Jewish district with one of Europe’s largest synagogue, near the downtown shopping streets.
After crossing the river to the Buda side, we reached the old fortress on the top of Castle Hill. The royal castle was attacked, destroyed and rebuilt more times in its colorful history than most locals can recall. Some of its fortifications still stand, including the walls of the Fishermen’s Bastion. This wall offers a stunning view of the river below and the Pest side with the Parliament building, arguably the most handsome building along the 1,700-mile-long river.
As our bus was leaving the city, Jeanne pronounced the verdict: The city is beautiful and we must spend more time here when we return. I was relieved! A bit later we were rounding the scenic bend of the river towards our rendezvous point with the ship at Visegrad. This humble village served as a fortified castle to the Hungarian kings in the 15th century.
From a modest border town in Roman times to the capital of the powerful Hapsburg empire, Vienna has a rich and varied history. Over the centuries it has competed with Paris as a center of European culture. In particular it has always been considered the center of music, since Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and other geniuses called it home.
Our expert guide took us by the St. Stephen’s cathedral (Stephansdom to the locals) and the Mozart statue to the magnificent Museum of Fine Arts for a private showing. (It was Monday, and the museum was closed to the general public.) This was a rather unusual experience for us; we were guided through the labyrinthine passages of the giant museum, stopping here and there to admire a Rubens, a Raphael or a Caravaggio with our expert docent. Afterwards came a much needed rest stop at a local kaffehaus, with a light lunch and coffee served Viennese style. Actually, in Vienna you can order a Kleiner Brauer, a Verlangerter, or any of the other dozen types, but never just coffee. Since the Ottoman times, coffee has played a central role in the social lives of the Viennese. It is always served on an oval silver plate with a glass of still water and a small piece of chocolate. Our guide expertly steered us through the menu, avoiding any faux pas.
A pleasant, if rocky, fiaker ride (local name for horse-drawn carriage) through the busy streets took us back to St. Stephen’s. There we did a little souvenir shopping, then a quick subway ride took us back to the ship. But we were not done yet; the highlight still awaited. This evening we were treated to a private concert, feasting on Mozart, Strauss and Lehar operetta music performed by members of the Vienna Opera. The acting, singing and dancing was super and the small venue allowed us to meet and even dance with the actors. (Joe was asked by the leading lady for a quick waltz; she graciously thanked Jeanne afterward for the “honor.”)
Back on the ship a plateful of authentic Hungarian “goulaschsuppe” was greeting us. It was a great end of a perfect day.
After sailing through the Wachau valley, a scenic section of the river surrounded by elegant monasteries and ruins of ancient castles, we reached Passau, our first German city. This town of three rivers (a mouthful, “Dreiflussestadt,” in German) sits on a narrow peninsula, shaped by the rivers that flooded the city numerous times during its history. But its strategic location also made it a prosperous trading center through the ages.
We eagerly left the ship to discover the delightful narrow streets as we crowded into its baroque cathedral for an organ recital. The largest pipe organ in Europe lived up to its reputation by providing us memorable music that seemed to soar and reverberate within its ancient walls. As a revered pilgrimage site large crowds gather in the city on special holidays. As a lighter counterpoint, we passed by the site of former executions which now serves as a night club. (Now they kill you with their jokes, according to the guide.)