European cruise: History passing you by

By Catherine Masters

Catherine Masters enjoys a kaleidoscope of European sights from her floating hotel.

Cafe Per Lei in Prague. Photo / Catherine Masters
Cafe Per Lei in Prague. Photo / Catherine Masters

In Prague, we drank too-sweet Georgian wine at a little bar tucked under an historic building in an alleyway I can't identify, served by a gruff Georgian bar-tender who softened at the sight of my New Zealand credit card.

"Ah, Kiwis," he said grinning and nodding, before explaining he has a Kiwi friend who moved here after falling in love with a Czech girl.

My jaw first dropped in Prague, in the Czech Republic. Oh yes, I could live here, I thought, clapping eyes for the first time on the golden spires, buildings of muted yellows and blues with red rooftops and the labyrinths of alleyways darting in all directions.

But then we toured Vienna, city of opera houses and concert halls, of Mozart, Strauss and Beethoven. Vienna has a more uniform grandeur all of its own - hmmm, a posting here wouldn't be so bad.

By the time we passed through Slovakia and its capital city of Bratislava, arriving in Hungary's magnificent Budapest - two cities become one with the Danube snaking between - my jaw seemed permanently ajar.

Each of the big cities on this river cruise of central European capitals via the Danube seemed more intoxicating than the one before, but there were smaller towns and villages to indulge in along the way, all steeped in ancient history, splendid churches, bloodshed, culture and communism, war and rebirth and ever-changing architecture.

Prague alone boasts Romanesque, gothic, baroque, art nouveau, classicist, cubist, functionalist and communist styles.

We crossed five countries in 10 days on this trip on the MS Vista, one of the floating hotels in the Avalon Waterways fleet of river boats.

What a way to travel.

Though it might seem a rush to visit so many countries in such a short time, there was no sense of hurriedness or of missing out.

The beauty of travelling this way is there are no suitcases to lug from airport to bus to hotel to train. You just put on your walking shoes and step ashore to discover yet another cobblestoned street of wonder.

On board, you can slide the windows in your cabin right back and lie in bed or sit on the couch and watch the moving scenery as the Danube sparkles and cute villages pass by interspersed by forests bathed in autumn colours, with European ducks and swans as constant visitors.

Be prepared to eat round the clock, drink far too much local wine and put on a few unwanted pounds while taking in the company of other passengers, many of them older Americans.

At night over dinner you can get the low-down on Obama's healthcare plan, or drink in the compliments of two partly deaf old dears who just might drawl, "are you gals still in college?" My college days are long gone, but thank you ladies!

Each morning, walk off some of that food during a tour with a local guide, getting a ton of little insights and a sense of the history of the place.

I may never otherwise have known that Beethoven visited Linz in Austria to hit his brother up for money he never paid back, or that Hitler, who went to school here, didn't like nearby Vienna.

As a young man, Hitler had wanted to be a painter and applied to art school in Vienna but they didn't take him. This was probably the biggest mistake Vienna ever made, said the Linz guide.

From Prague, at the start of the trip, there was a short drive through the countryside to Passau in Germany, a picturesque town at the confluence of three rivers, the Inn, Ilz and the Danube, where we boarded the Vista.

In Passau we spent a misty morning with laughing Eva, a guide who cracked non-stop jokes and could still be heard laughing at them around the next corner.

Passau still had nuns who wore the habit: "You could say we haven't kicked the habit," she hooted.

Eva told how St Stephen's Church, which dates back 700 years, houses the remains of Gisela of Hungary - well, most of her. At age 11 she married King Stephen, Hungary's first Christian king, but when he died she was forced to leave. She became a nun at Passau and was buried here. No one much cared for 1000 years but when the Communists took over in Hungary they wanted her back. In the end, a compromise was made. An arm of Gisela, who was made a saint, was exhumed and is back in Hungary where it has been reunited with some of her husband's remains.

Eva pulled out a photo of the arm as proof and laughed like a maniac before cracking this one: "What do you get to be a saint? You don't get to rest in peace, you get to rest in pieces!" She was still laughing two blocks away.

That afternoon we arrived in Austria and meandered along the Danube, toured the towns of Linz, then Grein and Melk. Grein was founded 2000-odd years ago and has a big yellow castle and cute little village. First came the Celts, then the Romans, said the guide, and this early history became a mantra for most of the towns we visited.

Melk boasts an imposing yellow and white striped Benedictine abbey up on a hill, offering commanding views, and which has a small piece of wood said to come from the cross of Jesus.

From Melk we sailed the Wachau Valley, a Unesco world heritage site, past castles and ruined fortresses with vineyards set high into steep hills and villages which grew out of hamlets from medieval times.

At Durnstein there is a craggy, ruined castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in the 1100s during the Crusades.

It was then to the small town of Krems, followed by Vienna. Ah, Vienna, home of the powerful Habsburg Empire. The old city walls, over which the Turks would regularly attempt to invade, are converted now into the Ringstrasse, a ring of boulevards around the old town.

There are palaces, concert halls and massive, beautiful buildings galore. Beethoven lived here and was kicked out of many a flat for making too much noise at night. Mozart died here, Schubert was born here and Johann Strauss composed waltz after waltz.

From Vienna, I awoke in a new country, Slovakia, with a castle outside my window. Castle aside, at first glance the capital city Bratislava looked a bit greyer with drab, Communist-style buildings (the guide says under Communism everyone was equal "but some were definitely more equal than others") but a visit to that fantastic ancient castle set high on a hill and a little time spent drinking local beer in the old town soon fixed that.

The last stop was Budapest, a city like no other. On one side of the Danube is Pest, the flat modern side, though the buildings still date back 150 years. Pest is known as the Paris of the East with its sprawling boulevards, galleries, great shopping and famous cafes modelled on Paris.

On the other side is the hilly city of Buda, the old town, and here you find the famous Castle District which goes back to the 1250s and gives breathtaking views across the river.

This trip offers included guided tours and optional excursions, such as medieval Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, or to Salzburg in Austria where The Sound of Music was filmed. There are two sobering optional extras, too: a visit to Terezin ghetto outside Prague, or to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria.

These visits are just as jaw-dropping, in the grimmest of ways. But as the guides at each said, these places are part of the history of their countries - the darkest part of their histories.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to European cities via its hub in Hong Kong.

Details: Avalon Waterways is Europe's youngest river cruise fleet with 13 ships. The company also cruises in China, Southeast Asia, North and South America and Egypt. There are more than 26 itineraries throughout Europe ranging from five to 24 days. Prices for the Capitals of Central Europe cruise, 10 days from Prague to Budapest, start from $3778 a person twin share, with an additional $983 a person twin share to upgrade to a Panorama Suite.

Catherine Masters travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways.

- NZ Herald

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