POSTCARD FROM THE DANUBE
“Travel is more than a series of sights. It is a change that goes on…deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” Following St. Augustine’s advice, Miki and I have been doing our best to experience as much of the world as time permits, and these postcards record some of our experiences to serve as reminders when time blurs our memories. Maps represent a landscape, but writing about a place re-represents it as it was experienced, the feel of it as it registered in one’s muscles and bones. If we experience space as an idea, we experience places through sensory impressions – the seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted.
We can’t go to Europe without visiting son Peter, daughter-in-law Stephanie, and precious granddaughter, Tessa, who turned two in February. We were received like royalty, with delicious meals presented with restaurant élan, and all of Tessa’s charms, which are considerable. We were quite happy to see Cecile, Steph’s sister, who we hadn’t seen since Peter’s wedding nine years ago. We also had a chance to have dinner with Nil, Miki’s wonderful and generous friend from her Harvard days. I’ll pass over the glories of Paris in the spring, when the whole city is in bloom, as I’ve written of them in prior Postcards. (You can find these on my website, https://gferenczi.wordpress.com/ ) For the first time, we used Airbnb to find a place close to Peter’s apartment. (He actually found it for us, just a few blocks away.) It turned out to be very nice, airy, overlooking a park. The only problems were that when we arrived, the entry code we were sent didn’t work, and we had no response to our text messages; we were told that phone contact was not possible. Fortunately, Steph pressed different combinations, and we eventually got in. The bathroom was interesting – a toilet in a closet so tiny that they had to carve out a part of the door in order to close it, and a shower in a corner of a space about the size of an airplane toilet. The shower head, located in the center of the ceiling overhead, was great if you wanted to wash your hair. If you didn’t, yoga and flexibility was required. Due to space limitations, it was best to soap the walls, then move your body to the tempo of a disco tune. I also discovered that one of the shower knobs weighing several kilos had a disconcerting manner of flying off the wall and potentially maiming a leg, so it was best left removed once the water was running, then re-attached once you safely escaped the shower stall. These are the details that give fodder for our travel tales. Fortunately, Peter and family will be visiting with us in July, so we were able to tear ourselves away to begin our Danube journey, knowing we would see them again soon.
Having spent the first nine and a half years of my life in Budapest under the Communist regime, and having left under dramatic circumstances, returning after a twenty year hiatus since my last visit was a bittersweet experience. The Castle, the Danube, the bridges, the landscape is much the same; alas, a landslide has taken place in me. For those of you on the ship, I shared part of my story with you, which was cathartic, and I appreciate you listening. I hope all of you appreciated the Formula-1 race through the city streets, the Red Bull air show extravaganza, as well as the fireworks display during our night cruise on the Danube we had arranged for you. Sadly, we can’t promise the same for our next tour, though we’ll do our best.
Strangers are just friends waiting to happen. While walking down Vaci Utca, the main shopping street in Budapest, Miki bumped into an elegantly dressed lady, which resulted in a conversation, wherein we learned that: despite her appearance of being in her 60’s, she was 88, that she lived for ten years in Rome, having left Budapest in 1956, and another ten in South Africa; that she moved back to Budapest in the late 90’s and loved the city, that she had a son who went to school at the Sorbonne, and was now the Hungarian ambassador to France, living in Paris. We could have conversed for hours, but we had to get back to board our ship so we could meet our group of 21 who we convinced to have this adventure with us, along with some delightful folks we got to know and whom we hope to see again. Andrew and Stephanie are a warm, inviting pastor couple from Adelaide, Australia who taught us quite a bit about life down under, as well as about the challenges of life in a ministry. Lincoln and his wife Myra live in Chicago, which was my home town for ten years. Articulate, interested in literature and music, teacher, attorney, athlete, and having been given a challenging relationship with a father whose life could be turned into several Hollywood movies, Lincoln shared a lot of personal stories that lend life vibrancy, and for which I remain grateful. Attraction to people such as these teaches me again that sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.
Most of our group spent several days in Budapest, so they had a chance to appreciate the beauty and richness of the city (as well as its food and pastries.) Miki and I flew just the day prior to our ship’s departure, having chosen to spend family time in Paris. On a clear, sunny Sunday, the Emerald Sky set sail up the Danube to arrive in Bratislava the next morning. During the journey, I was able to given our group an abbreviated history of Hungary from its days as the Roman city Aquincium, through its Turkish occupation, the years of the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its eventual fate through two World Wars and the Communist occupation, along with my personal experiences through 1956. I’m gratified to say most present managed to stay awake, and afterward, I allowed the numerous excellent tour guides handle the history of each area we visited. Bratislava is a bit of a Cinderella amongst Europe’s capitals, having been overshadowed by Budapest and Vienna during the times of the Hapsburg dynasty, and not gaining much recognition until 1993, when Slovakia became an independent state from the Czech Republic. Having suffered little damage during WW II, the city boasts well preserved Baroque and Rococo buildings and castles along with a wine industry that is mostly locally consumed, but produces some good bottles. Katerina, our local guide, proved to be excellent, with a sharp, dry sense of humor and a deep understanding of her nation’s history. In addition to showing off the local sights, she took a small group of us for a visit in the country with a local family. We had a chance to meet Marika, the mom, as well as her 18 year old daughter, along with their Chihuahua dog, and learn about their life and plans for the future. We were served excellent apple strudel made by her, as well as taste the wine made from the grapes on their land. What made it especially nice was its totally non-commercial nature. No one asked us to buy anything, nor did we feel that they were putting on a show for us. Marika spoke no English, so our guide translated, and her daughter spoke limited English, though probably understood a great deal more. The family received a very small stipend for doing this, but wanted to experience and learn about us just as much as we hoped to learn from them. I hope this program continues.
The Danube begins to narrow as you approach Vienna. The sides of the river are dotted with small towns and innumerable onion domed churches, interspersed with golden yellow fields of canola, popping up like mushrooms all throughout Europe as governments offer subsidies for the growth of this bio-fuel. Bike paths line both sides of the river, as people pedal by, waving at us in our indolence, as we sit on deck sipping our cappuccinos or afternoon drinks. Food on the ship is excellent, and certainly plentiful. It will be a long time before I dare to step on a scale to see how those calories translated into pounds.
We are given a half day bus and walking tour around the city, while some members of our group opt for the optional tour of Schonbrunn Palace. I’m glad Miki and I had spent time here before, as one day in a city with as many riches as Vienna is almost as cruel as being offered a whole tray of delicious pastries and not being allowed to sample any. At least the group had a chance to take photos of many of the impressive buildings and churches, and hopefully have their appetites whetted for a more extensive visit. Miki and I chose to spend most of our afternoon on a bench near St. Stephen’s cathedral, only a few blocks from where I lived with the Austrian family who temporarily took me in after I escaped from Hungary. It was a great place to people watch. We listened to a man (hard not to to) who sat and played a bagpipe. He wasn’t getting much attention until a young couple came by, sat down their backpacks, and did a very professional Irish jig for about ten minutes. A crowd gathered, but they picked up their packs, smiled and walked off. We also saw something I hoped never to see again – a young man sporting a large Nazi swastika on his arm. No one seemed particularly perturbed besides me. Sadly, while in Budapest, I heard people speaking on the street the kind of vile comments for which Fascism was infamous, and which appears to be again taking hold with the rise of right wing extremism in a number of European countries.
In the evening Emerald offered us a private concert of classical music by the Imperial Concert Orchestra, which turned out to be excellent. It wasn’t the Vienna Philharmonic, but it was in a small covert hall of one of the many palaces in the city, and with very good acoustics. We had a chance to see the city lit up at night as we made our way back to the ship, and set sail for our next port of call.
If you have to have one day of rain on a trip, having it on the day going through the Wachau Valley would be not be a bad choice. Home to numerous apricot orchards producing apricot products from jams to liqueurs, apricots helped saved the area from financial ruin when the local vineyards were wiped out by a virulent fungus. We made a brief stop in Durnstein, a picturesque small town where Richard the Lion Hearted was held captive after the Crusades, and around whose captivity several fanciful legends exist. Given the rain, none of us chose to trek up to the castle ruins, which by all accounts was built after Richard’s death. Thanks to a young lady who brought samples of local apricot products on board, we had a chance to sample the wares, and I must say, some were excellent. It was only the thought of lugging jars of jam or bottles booze around with us that kept me from buying some.
We stopped in Melk in the early afternoon, and took another tour of the monastery, arguable the most famous Benedictine monastery outside of Monte Casino. It’s justly famous for its extensive library, still in use today by research scholars, as well as its incredibly ornate and impressive church. We had taken a tour of the place some 20 years ago, but I’m glad we went again, both for our excellent tour guide, Christina, as well as for a chance to see all the audio-visual exhibits that had been added since our prior visit. The rain came to a stop at the end of our tour, allowing the heartier members of our group to walk back through town to the ship.
Having spent time in Salzburg on prior trips, Miki and I opted out of this visit, and chose instead to be in Passau, Germany, close to the Austrian and Czech border. Sitting at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, the interplay of the sights and the baroque historical center with its narrow and winding little streets and alley-ways creates an ambience making the city extraordinarily beautiful. Rich from the salt trade passing through it, Italian Baroque masters created a city with an Italian flair. St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the home of the world’s largest cathedral organ, and the city’s university, although founded only in the 1970’s, is considered one of the best in Germany. The tensions between the city and the university dissipated after the tragic record high flood of 2013 buried the town in silt and debris, to which university students responded by the thousands, helping the town and its people dig out of the muck. Tobias, our guide, showed us photos of streets on which we were standing filled with water past the second floor of the buildings.
There are 24 locks the ship has to pass to go from Budapest to Nuremberg, and watching the operation of these is impressive navigation. The biggest lock we go through raises/lowers ships by 23 meters, and takes an hour to get through. Our ship, the largest on the river, has a clearance of only inches on either side. The captain has a coke bottle on the bow of the ship. If it gets knocked over, the ship won’t make it through the lock, and he has to make the ship ride lower by pumping water into its ballast tanks.
Before we reach Regensburg, I see what looks like the Parthenon on the port side of the ship. This the Valhalla, the mythical hall of the palace of the Norse gods, built in the early 1800’s by Ludwig I during the rise of nationalism to honor those persons who made the greatest contribution to German history and culture.
Regensburg, located at the northernmost point of the Danube River, had been an important Roman city (Castra Regina) and has been a commercial and religious center since. It was the seat of the German parliament (Reichstag) and is unusual among major German cities in never suffering serious destruction throughout its long history. Encompassing every style imaginable of European architecture, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with numerous open air cafes and traditional taverns, offering something for each visitor. The cathedral of St. Peter is arguably the finest Gothic cathedral in Bavaria, and certainly impressive. It’s a great place to sample Wurst, the local fried sausages, and wash it down with some of the excellent beers produced here. The ship has a traditional German oompah-pah band on board for our entertainment. My bright and effervescent friend Betsy from Seattle who couldn’t persuade her husband to join her on this trip brought along Lisa from San Diego, whose husband is also travel averse. Lisa was not only a delightful addition to our troop, but had also purchased a genuine Dirndl, a traditional folk dress, and surprised all of us (and the band) by getting up, singing, and dancing with the band! Needless to say, she brought down the house, as well as winning my eternal admiration J Every person is a new door to a different world.
From here, we enter the Main-Danube canal, which brings us to our final river destination, Nuremberg. We don’t have time to spend here, as we are transferred by coach to Prague, about a three hour journey, led by Pavel, our Czech guide, who will remain with us for the rest of our trip. As we cross from Germany to the Czech Republic, Pavel points out the unpopulated and forested zone surrounding the border that represents what was not long ago the Iron Curtain, with listening posts, barbed wire, mines, and other restrictions to keep its citizens away from the freedom of the Western countries. Ironically, our first stop inside the Czech Republic is a McDonalds, as it provides free restrooms to our group, who by now are in need of such relief. The place is a lot more upscale than any McDonalds I’ve been in, and in addition to the standard fare, offers a bakery/pastry counter with tantalizing goodies.
We arrive in Prague on a Saturday, so we don’t encounter much traffic coming into the city. Our hotel the K&K, is on a small side street off Wenceslaus Square, and the bus driver has some difficulty navigating the narrow street with cars sticking out, so he has to drop us off at the main thoroughfare, which is crowded with thousands of people. Television vans are also about as it turns out we arrived just in time for a demonstration against a Russian motorcycle gang riding through Europe in support of Putin and his policies. Next door to our hotel is a sex club with posters of some their “stars.” In front of the place are men wearing red suits and silver ties, trying to steer customers in from the main drag. Judging by the number of people we see coming and going from the place during our stay, sex is still a growth business.
The good weather gods continue to smile upon us throughout our stay. Miki and I found several great restaurants in the city just by following my nose, which hasn’t failed us yet. Throughout our trip, Miki has ordered Wiener schnitzel in every place that had it on their menu, and found the best one here. I, on the other hand, am in 7th heaven with mushrooms, roast duck, cabbage and dumplings. Not a light fare, I admit, but how often does one have a chance to eat food like this?
Sunday morning we get up early, for Pavel wants to get an early start, as the Marathon is being run in the city starting at 9AM, and he wants to get us up to the Castle to beat all the road closings coming up. The hotel serves an incredible breakfast buffet, perhaps even better than the ship’s. Stuffed to the gills, we manage to make it up to the Castle by 8 AM, and find we have the place almost to ourselves. Pavel keeps commenting on how he had never seen the place so devoid of tourists. We find that not even the guards are there in the sentry boxes. Turns out, they don’t arrive until 9 AM, and we get to watch their arrival. It’s not nearly as impressive as Buckingham Palace, but hey…
At 10AM, we are taken to one of the palaces on the Castle compound, and served flaky, warm strudel on a terrace providing the best views of the city. I didn’t think I could eat again so soon, but duty calls! Washed down with coffee, enveloped in pastry high, siting in the sun looking over one of the most beautiful cities in the world – I can see why it was good to be a king. Eventually, we make our way down from the castle hill, through a charming, tiny vineyard, past the Kafka Museum, and on to the Charles Bridge with its statues and now throngs of tourists, circled by pick-pockets (thankfully, having been warned numerous times, no one in the group suffered a loss) and past the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square, past the Tyne Towers, along the Danube, and into the Jewish Quarter. This city has something for everyone. Meanwhile, the Marathon is winding down, long after the elite runners have taken their medals, and still people crowd the course, yelling their encouragement and blowing horns for those whose victory will consist of finishing without dying (unlike the first runner of Marathon, who died at the end – I always thought there was a moral in that.)
Monday, we have a day to ourselves. Time to do more people watching, get some last minute souvenirs for friends back home, and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to travel like this. It’s great to have a day when the biggest task is finding the next place to have a good meal, and where the choices are so plentiful. Our last evening in Prague we decided to attend a guitar concert along with Judy, one of our group from home. The concert is held in a small hall inside an art gallery, and far exceeds my expectations in terms of musicality as well as my personal enjoyment. Performed by a local couple, he a professor of music at the University, and she an artist, the program of Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, and flamenco classics was a winner. Though the only words spoken were “thank you” in several languages at the end of the concert, the music spoke for itself. Other members of our group went to hear Don Giovanni at the Opera House, a 3 ½ hour production. We tried to reassure them that while the libretto was in Italian, they no doubt would have subtitles in Czech. The rest of the crew went to the Philharmonic for a “Best of Classical” concert, similar to the one we heard in Vienna. Hopefully, they all had a good experience.
Our flight home was fortunately uneventful, as we slowly readjust to the realities of our everyday lives. Slipping into the interstices of the world, spurred along by the winds, our travels seem tailor made to add depth to reality’s flat surface. It’s all delightfully fun, an incandescent interlocking of people and places. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting and spending time with all our fellow travelers, many of whom are old friends, and none should feel slighted if not mentioned here by name. We look forward to doing this with you again. Best wishes to all,
George & Miki