October 9-23, 2013

Viking River Cruises

"Grand European Tour"

Danube River, Danube-Main Canal, Main River, Rhine River

Budapest to Amsterdam

On Board the "Viking Odin"


Pictures from this trip can be found at


(Note: we did not take all of these pictures.)


Tuesday, October 8

     At about 11 AM we left the house by shuttle to the San Francisco Airport.  Surprisingly we were the only two people on the shuttle and went directly to the Air France door.  We checked in at Air France and waited quite a while for Sandy's wheel chair.  Meanwhile I busied myself with a display on the history of the America's Cup at the international terminal.  We finally got through security, got takeout lunch from a restaurant near the gate, and eventually boarded the 777-ER.

     Viking was late in making our reservations and we were not able to reserve seats together, either in advance or by phone or at check-in.  On the plane, we were able to convince the woman seated next to me to switch seats with Sandy.  This turned out to be a very "social" row, near a rest room and near where the flight attendants parked a cart with drinks, so it was noisy and we had trouble getting any sleep.


Wednesday, October 9

     We landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, just about on time, and had to get to the Air France flight to Budapest.  It was at another terminal building, and wheelchair transport was completely separate from walking.  I went through passport control (the only border control during the entire trip, due to the Schengen Agreement), went up and down several sets of stairs, and found the gate area for the Budapest flight--very crowded with earlier flights waiting to load.  The planes were not in fact at the gate, but were on the tarmac, and buses were used to transport passengers to the planes.  While I was upstairs from the gates waiting for Sandy to arrive, she got to the gate by some kind of van, and was at the gate when I came back downstairs.  We were not put on buses with the rest of the passengers, but were taken to a truck with a lift gate.  We were brought up to the truck bed level, along with other passengers for the Budapest flight, including a family from the Czech Republic who spoke no English, and Gary and Lauretta Sheetz. (Lauretta had recently had hip surgery and had trouble walking.)  As we grew concerned as flight departure time approached, the truck drove to the aircraft and we were lifted to the level of the rear door of the plane, an Airbus 320.  We entered the plane and went to our seats a few minutes before departure.

     The flight to Budapest was uneventful; the snacks were almost inedible.  15 or 20 passengers for the cruise were on the flight; we were met by Viking representatives and escorted to a bus that took us through town (Pest) to the dock.  The sections of town we went through were not the best, and some of the outdoor advertising was quite surprising.  As we had sat near the front of the bus, we were first to check on to the boat, and our luggage was brought to us (one piece at a time).

     Cabins are fairly small, and in trying to move past Sandy I caught and tore my jeans on the corner of a drawer.  The tear was small and I basically lived with it for the rest of the trip.

     Our cabin had a "French Balcony"--a sliding door with a railing, so we had fresh air and an unobstructed view, but no outdoor seating area.  We had a nice view across the Danube to Castle Hill on the Buda side and to the Chain Bridge, the first bridge across the Danube in that area.  By using a no-flash setting and putting the camera on the railing, I was able to get some good night-time pictures.

     Before dinner, Sandy had a conversation with the Maitre d' and discussed what she should and should not eat.  He understood perfectly and worked with her meal by meal to determine which items she could have, and if they needed to be specially prepared, he arranged for it.  At dinner we sat with four people from Saskatoon, Canada, one of whom was named Zena.  She was born in Ukraine and spent some time in German concentration camps and refugee camps before getting to Canada.


Thursday, October 10--light rain and clouds

     In the morning we took a bus tour of Budapest.  There was extensive construction all over the city--there is an election next year and the incumbent government is looking to expand employment now and improve the city for next year.  We started on Andrassy Ut (Street), (the main drag) in Pest, past the old Secret Police headquarters, to City Park, which includes Heroes Square (built in 1896 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Hungary), a zoo, an amusement park, baths, a fine arts museum, and a hot artificial lake.  Although the Iron Curtain came down over 20 years ago, there are still a number of East German Trabant automobiles on the street.  We drove through the Jewish District and saw the large and beautiful main synagogue.  We saw Margaret Island recreation area and the Chain Bridge with its lions which appear not to have tongues. 

     The tour next went to the Castle area on the Buda side.  We saw most of the castle complex, including the former Ministry of Defense whose walls still feature bullet holes from the 1956 revolution.  We then walked to the Mathias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion with its fine view across the Danube.  Atop the church is a statue of a crow carrying a ring, recalling the crow that, according to legend, brought the ring back to Hungary to show that the king had been captured and was still alive.  The Fisherman's Bastion includes seven towers to represent the tents of the seven tribes that settled Hungary in the ninth century.

     Returning to the boat, we drove past the Parliament Building and the "shoes" memorial to the Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoes_on_the_Danube_Promenade, http://www.jewishbudapest.hu/gallery_shoes.html>.

     We had planned to go back to the Jewish Quarter in the afternoon but due to jet lag and other problems we were not able to do so.  The boat left Budapest at 9 PM and headed upstream on the Danube.


Friday, October 11--clouds and rain

     During the morning we went through the locks at the Gabcikovo Dam.  We found that internet connectivity and the television signal, both satellite-based, tended to disappear while the boat was in any of the many locks along the route.  The river itself is very narrow and shallow at this point so there is a ship channel upstream of the dam.  The locks were damaged during the Spring 2013 floods; it was hoped that they could be kept open until the Fall travel season was over, but we were almost the last boat through as they had to be closed for repairs.  Later cruise passengers were bused between Budapest and Bratislava.

     The life jacket drill and tours of the wheelhouse were conducted during the morning.  In the afternoon we docked at Bratislava and boarded buses for a city tour.  The castle is the most prominent landmark in the city.  Bratislava is the capital of the 20-year-old Slovak Republic; it is a manufacturing center, especially for automobiles, including Peugeot, Citroen, and Kia.  The only heavy rain of the trip occurred as we walked to the castle, but we did get to see the residence of Maria Theresa and the view of the city and the river, including parts of three countries (Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria).  The rain had let up by the time we did our walking tour of the Old City.  We saw some cannonballs from Napoleon's invasion of the area in 1809, still embedded in the walls of buildings--apparently taxes are lower on the buildings that were hit by cannonballs.  One of the squares has a statue of one of Napoleon's soldiers, leaning over a park bench.  Other statues in the area include a well-dressed man tipping his hat and a man peeping out of a sewer.  The President of Slovakia is purely a ceremonial chief of state and seems to be the object of much criticism and humor.

     At dinner on the boat, we met a couple who used to live in San Jose and are good friends of Dick and Leslie Kramer.  Later that evening we had a musical show featuring singers, dancers, and a violinist who played a Guarneri.  Many of the Hungarian songs seemed to be sung in German!


Saturday, October 12--clouds and rain

     We docked in Vienna about 6 AM.  The dock was within sight of the Jubilee Church (St. Francis Church) and across the river from "Danube City," which houses the UN Vienna offices and other offices, parks, and residences.  The original Danube channel is on the other side of Danube City.  I was surprised at the amount of grafitti in the dock area.

     Our morning tour took us past the Prater Park where the famous ferris wheel from "The Third Man" is located.  We crossed the Danube Canal, a former river channel now used for drainage, and drove on a street located on the site of the former city walls.  (There is a street on the sites of both the inner and outer walls.)  We passed the Rathaus (City Hall), Austrian Parliament, Vienna Opera House, the Stadtpark and Urania Observatory, and a Catholic church whose reconstruction is being partially paid for by selling advertising on its exterior.  Many of Vienna's famous coffee houses were visible, as well as the "golden cabbage," the Secession Building, the home of the Vienna Secession art movement.  Our walking tour began at the Albertinaplatz, near the Albertina Museum, the Albrecht Fountain, and the Memorial Against War and Fascism.  We walked to the Spanish Riding School and continued to the Hofburg, the palace of the Hapsburg emperors of Austria, then to the Michaelerplatz (St. Michael's Plaza?), and to the Graben, a pedestrian shopping mall featuring the Plague Monument, and to St. Stephen's Cathedral.  Sandy and I followed the signs to the Jewish Museum but of course it was closed on Saturday.  We had a hot chocolate at the Cafe Konditorei (Aida-Prousek) and met the rest of the tour under the Omega Clock.  We got back on the bus to go back to the boat.  The bus passed the Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Capuchin Church where the Imperial Crypt is located; most of the bodies of almost all the emperors are buried there.  There was no time to go inside.

     After lunch, Sandy took the afternoon off and I went on a tour of the Schoenbrunn Palace.  This is a smaller-scale Versailles in the Vienna suburbs, used by the Austrian emperors.  Our guide was an American expatriate who has lived in Vienna for 33 years, and speaks excellent German with a Minnesota accent.  Maria Theresa was perhaps the best-known resident of the palace; she was responsible for the beautiful gardens.


Sunday, October 13--cloudy

     Around midnight we left Vienna for Melk, a small town with a beautiful abbey, over 1000 years old (though the current building is "only" about 300 years old).  Along the way we saw many RVs, tents, and other weekend getaway residences on the banks of the Danube.  In the Wachau Valley, many castles and churches were along the river and in the hills alongside.  Leaves were turning and the colors were varied and bright.

     After lunch we left for a tour of the abbey.  While we were there, the weather cleared and the sun came out.  The frescoes and the library are particular highlights; the library contains many medieval manuscripts including music.  After the abbey, I walked through the adjacent gardens, featuring statues and pictures of animals.  Many passengers walked to and from the abbey, but we took a mini-bus.  Those who walked back got caught in a big crowd attending a fair in the village, and barely made it back in time for our 4 PM departure.

     That evening, I was one of four panelists for a game of Liars Club held in the lounge.  The game is somewhat like the old TV program "Oh My Word" except that the panelists are given a list of obscure words and "definitions," one of which is correct and three of which are wrong, but the person who has the right definition doesn't know it.  The panelists have to try to convince the audience that their definition is the right one.  The audience member or group that guesses the most correct definitions is the winner.  I thought that a winning panelist also ought to be selected, based on how many audience members or groups selected his/her definitions.


Monday, October 14--foggy/cloudy

     We docked at Passau early in the morning, in thick fog.  But there was a large number of ducks in the river as we docked, as there were (along with swans) at many of our subsequent stops.  We wondered why there were no ducks apparent in Hungary, Slovakia, or Austria.

     This was our first stop in Germany, so Oliver, the Program Director, gave us a bit of a lesson in German history and language.  Then we began our walking tour.  As we walked, the fog cleared and we had a sunny day.

     Passau is where the Inn and Ilz rivers join the Danube, and is subject to flooding.  Passau had the worst floods on record in May 2013.  Flood levels are marked on some of the buildings and 2013's mark far exceeded any of the others.

     Our tour included the Town Square in front of the Rathuas (Town Hall); a very large glass museum <http://www.glasmuseum.de/ in German; http://www.wilder-mann.com/en/hotel/passau-glass-museum.html> in the Hotel Wilder Mann is next door.  Then we went to the cathedral (St. Stephan's); Sandy stayed for an organ concert and returned to the boat, by taxi with some other passengers.  I walked back to the boat before the concert.  After lunch I walked back to the glass museum and did a very quick tour of its four floors, and bought some souvenir postcards for one of Sandy's friends.  I returned to the ship before it departed at 3:30 (finding an entry for "longest German word" along the way and walking around the dock area a  bit), but some passengers stayed late and met the ship later, at 6:00 during a brief stop at Vilshofen, a short distance upstream.

     Sailing out of Passau, we noticed a hotel in the shape of a man lying down.


Tuesday, October 15--cloudy

     We arrived in Regensburg about 8 AM.  When we came back to our cabin after breakfast, we found that our cabin attendant, Veronika, had taken three or four of our towels and my reading/computer glasses and shaped them into a dog.

     It was cold, cloudy, and windy during our walking tour of Regensburg.  The boat was docked a 10-15 minute walk from town.  We started at the town hall (near the oldest restaurant in Germany, the "Old Sausage Kitchen," and the oldest existing bridge across the Danube, a stone bridge built between 1135 and 1146) and then went to St. Peter's cathedral.  Among the sculptures on the outside of the cathedral was a group of Jews (recognizable by the hats they were forced to wear at the time the cathedral was built, around 1300) worshipping the Golden Calf.

     In 1519, Jews were expelled from Regensburg, and their synagogue, houses, and cemetery were destroyed.  Stones were taken from these structures and used for building materials elsewhere; Hebrew writing can still be seen on some of the stones in the buildings in town.  Some Jews were allowed back for various Imperial conferences in about 1800 and were later given full civil rights.  Jews in Regensburg were deported to concentration camps in 1938-42.  A memorial plaza has been constructed on the site of the original synagogue.  Memorial plaques to emigrants and deportees have been placed in the cobblestones near their homes.

     The Roman Empire extended to the Danube, and the Romans built towers and walls in what is now Regensburg, some of which are still standing.  Medieval walls extended around the entire city.  In the Middle Ages the town was wealthy due to the salt trade and "long-distance trade."  Around 1500 this trade and the resulting prosperity fell off, perhaps due to the Turks blocking the trade routes, and the Jews were blamed, hence their expulsion in 1519.

     The Germans have an expression, "rich as stone."  Stone was an expensive building material; Regensburg being built mostly of stone was spared any big fires.

     Regensburg was a center of aircraft production during World War II and as a result was bombed extensively, but the medieval old city was little damaged.  After the war, Oskar Schindler lived in Regensburg's old town for about five years.

     In the afternoon, I walked, mostly in the rain, to a presentation on cuckoo clocks at the Drubba store across the street from the sausage kitchen.  The clocks used to be made only in the Black Forest in Southwest Germany, but are now also made in Switzerland and China; but these are supposedly poorer quality.  The different types of clocks can be distinguished by the size and number of weights and the length of the chains holding the weights.  I did not buy any cuckoo clocks, but I did buy beer steins for Ryan and Mark and had them shipped; it was almost two months before they were delivered.

     A few miles upstream from Regensburg, at Kelheim, we left the Danube and entered the series of widened and deepened rivers and artificial waterways known as the Danube-Main Canal.  Kelheim is 216 feet above the level of the north end of the canal at Bamberg, and there are 16 locks over 166 km (about 100 miles) with a maximum height of 492 feet above the level of Bamberg.  The locks are "green" in that the hydraulics have been designed to minimize the need to pump water uphill, and solar power is used for the pumps to the extent possible.


Wednesday, October 16--Cloudy and cold

     Our tour of Nuremburg began at the giant, unfinished Nazi Congress Hall in the Southeast part of the city.  Many other Nazi installations were planned, started, or completed in this area and the Documentation Center, a large museum and education facility about the Nazi era, is part of the Congress Hall.  The Nazis selected Nuremburg for so many of their buildings, rallies, and activities because of its history as the "unofficial capital" of the Holy Roman Empire and its good transportation facilities related to its central location in Germany.

     Some of the Nazi-era buildings have been repurposed, including one that now ironically contains a Burger King.  On some of these buildings is an empty circle or half-circle where a swastika used to be; our guide said that these buildings had had a "Swasectomy."  He also described the way the German education system ensures that all students, regardless of how much or what kind of education they get, learn about the Holocaust and related aspects of German history, with the point that it must not be allowed to happen again.

     From there we drove past the main railroad station and the Palace of Justice, including the building where the Nuremberg Trials were held after World War II, and then to the Old City.  The central section of Nuremburg includes a castle and many buildings dating to the Middle Ages; though many were destroyed during the war, most have been rebuilt.  The moats are no longer filled with water, because people who had been celebrating too hard had a tendency to fall in and drown. 

     Some of the passengers, including Sandy, stayed on the bus rather than take the strenuous walk to the castle and around the old town.  They had been told that the bus would take them back to the boat, but in fact they were simply left to sit on the bus until the rest of the passengers completed the tour.

     From the castle we had an excellent view of the Old Town.  We then went to the Albrecht Durer house, the Town Hall, and the main market square with its ancient fountain (Schoener Brunnen).  Tradition says that spinning the "Nuremburg Ring" in the fence around the fountain brings good luck, but I could not reach it.


Thursday, October 17--Cloudy

     In the morning, before docking at Bamberg, there was a quiz game for the boat's passengers.

     Bamberg is a well-preserved medieval city. We had a walking tour including the old town hall, a cathedral, the Bishop's residence across the street, and the Bishop's rose garden (with a spectacular view of the Old City).  We also saw what had been the Jewish district.  There was a plaque indicating that Hegel had lived there from 1807 to 1808, and for some reason a picture of a lobster.  The tour began and ended at the Gruener Markt (Green Market), a pedestrian mall surrounded by St. Martin's Church and many shops and including a fountain topped by a statue of Neptune.  The "Hotel Messerschmidt" was an easily-remembered landmark near the start and end of our tour.

     Here again I found a sign with a long German word and I photographed it for an entry to the contest.

     To keep schedule, the boat left Bamberg at 1:30 PM, and after our tour the buses took us to meet the boat at Hassfurt, 15 miles or so to the Northwest.  A short distance past Bamberg, the Main-Danube canal ends, and the journey continued on the Main River; while Bamberg is on the canal, Hassfurt is on the Main River.  Ten miles or so further down the Main, we passed Schweinfurt, the location of major ball bearing production during World War II and therefore the target of several very large bombing raids (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schweinfurt-Regensburg_mission, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Raid_on_Schweinfurt).  Today there is nothing left of the factories, and the town has been completely rebuilt and is in fact the site of a large US Army facility (scheduled to close in 2014).


Friday, October 18--Partly cloudy

     We docked at Wuerzburg.  Swans surrounded the boat all the time we were docked at Wuerzburg.  Some of the passengers took an all-day excursion to the exceptionally well-preserved medieval town of Rothenburg.  Sandy and I toured the "Bishop's Residence," an impressive palace built during the early 18th century for the prince-bishop of Wuerzburg.  Among its many spectacular works of art are frescoes by Tiepolo.  There was a walking tour back to the boat but Sandy and I took the bus.  There is a Jewish museum in town but it is only open Monday to Thursday.  In the afternoon I walked around the town and saw a park, the downtown area, and the riverfront.

     Wuerzburg is in the Franconia area and Franconian wines are often put in round, flattened bottles known as Bocksbeutel.  I was able to rescue one from the dinner service and bring it home.

     In the evening we had a glass-blowing demonstration in anticipation of our arrival next morning at Wertheim, a town well-known for decorative and scientific glass.  The Ittig family runs the Bon-Apart Glass Works and the glass museum in town; Hans Ittig did the demonstration, aided by a passenger who had been stationed at the large US Army base that was outside of town during the Cold War and came to know the family.  The demonstration included making many spectacular and/or useful glass items.


Saturday, October 19--Foggy then clear.  Fairly warm and very nice in the afternoon

     We docked at Wertheim within walking distance of the compact Old Town.  On a hillside above the town are the buildings that once were barracks for US Army troops stationed here, but have been reconditioned and are now primarily occupied by refugees from the former East Germany and Eastern Europe.  Our tour started at the Pointed Tower which has been used for many purposes over the centuries, including as a "drunk tank."  We walked around the Market Square, where the glass museum and glass works are located.  Our guide had lots of gossip for us, a lot of it about the mayor and mostly invented.

     We bought some souvenirs and gifts, including scarves, a necklace, a glass turtle, a belt (for me) and a picture.  Many of these items were bought at a "dollar store" type of establishment, which the guide pointed the tour group to as we were about to buy things at much higher prices at other stores.

     After the Nazis took power, the government of Wertheim apparently understood what was happening and urged Jews to leave Germany.  Most did, but a few stayed, and there are plaques in the sidewalk commemorating those who stayed and were deported and killed.  The people who left were invited to change their family names to "Wertheim" or "Wertheimer," which are now fairly common names.


Sunday, October 20--Cloudy

     During the night we passed through Frankfurt and the end of the Main River, entering the Rhine near Mainz.

     By daylight we were on the "Middle Rhine," a very busy river with busy roads and railroads on both sides.  On the hills bordering the river are many castles in various stages of repair or disrepair.

     Many passengers went up to the sun deck to watch the castles and other scenery, including the Lorelei rock and statue. 

     We docked at Braubach and those who wanted to tour the very well preserved Marksburg castle got off to board buses to the castle.  The buses took us 2/3 of the way up and we hiked the rest.  There were great views of the river and a tour of the restored features of the castle including gardens, a blacksmith shop, a chapel, the great dining hall, the armory, fortifications, and of course a restaurant and gift shop.  We walked back to the buses, which took us to meet the boat at Koblenz.  We docked across the river from the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress (linked to the city by a cable car) and next to the Deutsches Eck (German Corner) with its memorial to Kasier Wilhelm I.  The statue of the Kaiser was destroyed in World War II but was restored after German reunification.

     That evening was the Captain's Farewell Dinner and introduction of the boat's crew.


Monday, October 21--Cool and drizzly

     During the night we passed more of the Rhine Valley including Bonn, capital of West Germany during the Cold War and home of Beethoven.  In the morning we docked at Cologne (Koeln), in sight of the famous cathedral and the Hohenzollern railroad bridge, the busiest rail bridge in Germany.

     We had an extensive walking tour, including the cathedral (which seems to need a good cleaning), the nearby old market square, the original and new (1950s-style) town halls, the former Jewish ghetto (currently being excavated), and the original location where eau de cologne was made.  Our guide, who looked rather like an elf himself, told us about the legends of the Elves of Cologne, who did all the work for the city's tradesmen until they were discovered by the tailor's wife; after that, the men again had to do the work.

     In the afternoon I took the shuttle bus back to town to do a bit more sightseeing, to go to the Visitors Center to buy some books about the elves for the grandchildren, and to go to a pharmacy near the railroad station to get some medicine for Sandy.  I intended to walk back to the boat but, despite having a map, got lost and wound up completely on the other side of town.  I took a taxi back to the boat.

     By this time, many of the passengers on the boat, and some of the crew, had caught colds.  Sandy was among the earlier victims; my turn came a day or two later.


Tuesday, October 22--Clear and warm

     I tried to check in on line for our flight home but was not able to get confirmed checkin.

     We sailed down the Rhine into Holland, where the river sort of merges into a mass of streams from many sources.  One of the highlights of this day’s sightseeing was a replica of Noah’s Ark.  We heard a presentation about the Dutch Masters painters, followed by cheese and jenever (Dutch gin) tasting.  We docked at Kinderdijk in the early afternoon.  After an on-board presentation about windmills and polders, we toured the Kinderdijk Windmills UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Windmills were used throughout the Netherlands to pump water out of the polders, which are below the level of the streams around them.  At Kinderdijk, Archimedes screws do the actual pumping, powered by windmills at the heritage site and electrically elsewhere.

     The technology for windmills was brought back to Europe from the Crusades.  Originally and at Kinderdijk, all the gears in the windmills were made of wood.  The gears of course wear with time and need to be repaired or replaced; there is a shop at Kinderdijk where this is done.  Exceptionally hard wood is needed; it was originally taken from the Dutch colonies in South America but it now has to be purchased.

     Only the caps of the windmills turn, when the wind direction changes, to face the blades into the wind.  The turning is manually powered, using cranks attached to pegs in the ground around the windmill.  When the wind is strong, the amount of canvas on the blades can be reduced to reduce the possibility of wind damage.

     At 7 PM we left Kinderdijk for Amsterdam.  We were disappointed that there was no tour of Amsterdam on the itinerary--the boat docked very early Wednesday morning and there was only time to get the passengers to the airport for their flights.  (Extra days in Amsterdam were available at extra cost but those who took this option had to arrange their own tours.)


Wednesday, October 23--Dark

     We woke up very early to finish packing our bags and get on the airport bus.  Airport staff was very helpful in getting us checked in and to our gate, Sandy in a wheelchair.  We boarded on time and went to our seats--we had paid extra for a two-seat row towards the back of the aircraft.  The plane was not full, and the two-seat rows behind us were empty for weight and balance reasons.  We were very disappointed that, after takeoff, the flight attendants allowed people to move, at no cost, into the empty two-seat rows.  Our mood was not improved by our colds.

     Our flight gave us great views of the Greenland coast and Western Canada (possibly including Saskatoon!).

     We landed on time in San Francisco and the shuttle van, although it made two stops to drop passengers before we reached home, got us home just about as fast as if we had parked our car at the airport.  We spent several days recovering from the colds we had caught towards the end of the cruise, and except for the colds and the problem with seating on the flight home, our memories of the journey are very pleasant.