Past and present meet at the confluence of three of Europe's greatest rivers. Simon Wilson explores their banks.

Our Danube/Rhine river cruise offered a side-trip to Salzburg, city of music, the birthplace of Mozart and the scene of Julie Andrews' triumph. Salzburg is where they made The Sound of Music and I'll confess it now, we were singing on the bus.

It's fascinating the way they tell you about it. You might remember the movie for Climb Every Mountain and I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen, but for Austrians The Sound of Music is a national redemption story about a singing teacher and her husband, a famous naval commander who hated fascism. They turned down an invitation to sing for Hitler's birthday; they chose to flee rather than do propaganda concerts for the Nazis.

They'll tell you, with mock regret, that Maria wasn't like Julie Andrews. She had a terrible temper. And they didn't climb every mountain, especially not that one over there, the one the von Trapps escape over in the movie, because behind that mountain is Germany. They rode to freedom on a train going in the other direction.

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The guide stops you on an ordinary-looking street. "You see the date painted on the top of the building?" he says. "1347. That is when the house was built." There are lots of them. You feel so insignificant.

He says, "You see this little plaque set in the pavement here?"

Julie Andrews as Maria. Photo / Supplied
Julie Andrews as Maria. Photo / Supplied

He reads it out: the name of a woman who had been a piano teacher, her date of birth and the date she was sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. You feel even more insignificant.

Not counting the buskers, you might not get to hear any Mozart — I saw opera advertised with tickets for $1150. But you can eat strudel in the very house where he was born. It's painted a most optimistic yellow.

Cruising upriver on the Danube, the first town you come to in Germany is Passau, in a valley where three impossibly picturesque rivers meet and there's gorgeous medieval and gothic architecture and forests on the steep slopes all about. All the tides of human hope and fear have washed down those rivers: war, pestilence, books, trade, leaving their mark on the town, and right now it's nature's turn.

The river levels were at record lows last summer, because of climate change; yet one year earlier they had the worst floods in 500 years, also because of climate change. When I was there, during the Bavarian elections, hoardings for the Far Right warned of the dangers of women in burqas. The sun shone on a pedestrianised city centre; Catholic churches proclaimed the richness of the faith and Lutheran churches presented their own humble charms. It was beautiful and in crisis.

At nearby Regensburg they'll sell you bratwurst from the oldest sausage shop in Europe, although they're no different from any other bratwurst they sell to tourists in those parts. Still, it's a nice spot under the trees and the medieval eaves, down by the river.

This was a great city of the Roman age, and again in medieval times, because it had the only bridge in the region, and it is once more today: the giant BMW factory has made Regensburg the fastest-growing town in Germany.

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Regensburghers have a delightful story, about the rivalry between two master builders, one responsible for the bridge and the other for the cathedral. In 1135 they made a wager about who would finish first, and the bridge builder, deciding God would never favour him against a church, made a side bet with the Devil — promising him the first three souls to cross the bridge when it was complete.

But the masterbuilder tricked the Devil by sending over a rooster, a hen and a dog. Enraged, the Devil tried to push up the bridge from underground, which explains its unusual kink in the middle.

They love that story, although they confess it has a dubious provenance: the bridge took 11 years to build and the cathedral 600, because the bishops kept running out of money.

In Nuremberg, the scene of Hitler's great rallies is being left to rot. A sports arena of broken concrete and graffiti, weeds everywhere, small bunches of kids hanging out. You can stand where Hitler stood, ranting, and look out at the dereliction.

The war crimes court is a wood-panelled room up a few flights of stairs, where Nazi leaders were tried. It doesn't feel big enough for the history it contains, but it does feel, well, civilised, with no invitation to pomp.

Outside, the medieval city walls remain, the city coursing all around them. There's a terrific new city gallery just inside those walls, but the old guard towers, still intact, are not used for anything. You expect a museum of the old city; instead, clothing retailers store their wares in them, or so the guide said.

It's very beautiful, the old heart of Europe, but they want you to know it's more than that. Nothing is easier than it ever was.

The medieval city of Regensburg on the Danube in Germany. Photo / Getty Images
The medieval city of Regensburg on the Danube in Germany. Photo / Getty Images

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APT's 15-day 'Magnificent Europe River Cruise

' sails both ways between Budapest and Amsterdam on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers. Prices start from $7695pp, twin share in a window suite, for departures between April-December 2020.