The Danube is Far From Blue!

My wife and I had always been fascinated by the turbulent history and varied cultures of Eastern European countries which had finally freed themselves in 1989 from the tight control of the once mighty Soviet Union. In the past two decades countries like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic had achieved commendable economic advancement, and their myriad tourist attractions and richly endowed scenic charms are again drawing an ever increasing number of visitors from worldwide. Our desire to visit some of them finally materialised in May this year when we, together with a  group of like-minded friends, embarked upon a 19-day journey there. Our itinerary first took us to Poland and Hungary,  followed by a delightful eight-day cruise down the legendary Danube river, which took us from Hungary’s capital Budapest to Slovakia, Austria and Germany and finally by coach to Prague, the enchanting capital of the Czech Republic. Our trip was personally and efficiently planned and organised by Ms Helena Ow, a general manager of Singapore’s Prime Travel and Cruise, who came with us to Poland and Hungary and then bid us bon voyage when we boarded the brand-new elegant Italian river ship, Amalyra, to begin our Danube adventure.

I will now share with you many of the highlights and my impressions of this our once in a life time memorable holiday and cruise to some of the celebrated towns and cities in Europe. Our first stop was Warsaw, the ancient capital of Poland, the largest country in Eastern Europe whose stable economy has withstood the current world financial crisis. But Its history was a tortuous one. It was time and again invaded by its more powerful neighbours and had its lands partitioned off by them. During and after World War II, it was occupied by both Nazi Germany and later became a client state of the communist Soviet Union. Warsaw was devastated during the last war and most of its historic, cultural and other prominent landmarks destroyed by the German victors. More than six millions Jews in Poland and in other occupied European countries were senselessly massacred by the Nazis in carrying out Hitler’s plan to exterminate the hated Jews from the face of the continent. It was a sombre and poignant moment when our group stood before the war memorial at the former Jewish Ghetto here to commemorate these Polish Jewish victims. Before WWII, almost one-third of the country’s population was Jewish and today only a small fraction are still here. In 1970, the then German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, travelled to Warsaw on a state visit and courageously knelt in front of this memorial to atone the dark deeds of the Nazis to Jews in Poland and Europe. His moving silent gesture had greater impact than spoken words would have  adequately conveyed. This brought the ugliest chapter in the unedifying German history to a close.

Warsaw’s once grand Old Town is a must-see for all visitors. The sprawling area, with its majestic royal palace, many old churches and cathedral, museums, historic and other  significant edifices are the main tourist attractions best seen on foot. Walking leisurely along its main streets and alley ways and taking in their ancient past,  it’s not easy to realize that the entire area was bombed in WWII and were entirely rebuilt not too long ago, based strictly upon the original architectural model of the prototype. The royal palace, with its splendid collection of European paintings, tapestries and other works of art adorning the superbly furnished sumptuous stately rooms and royal chambers were a feast on our senses. The guide told us that many of the rare art objects on display were hidden from the Nazis at the nick of time, otherwise they would have been plundered by them as war booties and removed to Germany.

The truly magnificent  medieval city of Krakow, less than two hours drive from the capital, was the main reason tourists worldwide flock to Poland. Fortunately for posterity, this world-renowned pride of Poland and its numerous historic buildings have largely survived the war unscathed. The Market Square is the oldest in Europe and has a multitude of fascinating side streets and alley ways that would conveniently lead you to the rest of the old quarter. It is quite an awesome sight to behold and has never failed to captivate all visitors. Most of  these ancient buildings are still in good condition and they date back to the European Renaissance era, and some even preceding it. One can easily spend days exploring this city without feeling bored. Many tourists in fact delight in doing just that. A short walk from the Market Square on well-laid cobbled streets brought us to one of the oldest streets in Krakow, with the beautiful church of St Andrew (1086) still in a pristine state of preservation. It was the only structure that had escaped destruction by the Tartar invaders from Asia in 1241. Those farsighted enough to take refuge in the church were spared by these ferocious warriors, while other hapless town folks were being mercilessly slaughtered. Close by this church is the Episcopal Palace where Cardinal Karol Wojtyla resided before becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978. A benign life-size wax figure of him stands prominently behind a large window, bestowing a gesture of  blessings to passersby below. The late Pope is the most revered son of Poland, and Krakow’s international Airport is named in his honour.

Few visitors to Krakow would forego the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, the most deadly and infamous German concentration camp complex in Europe, although some might find it too morbid an experience. We were glad that our group went there and learned a valuable first-hand lesson in history. Shortly after the Nazis conquered Poland, close to 1.5 million Jews from Poland and elsewhere, including men, women, children, the old and the infirm, were sent there under the false pretext that from this camp they would later be resettled elsewhere for their own safety and well-being. They believed the German propaganda and brought along with them their portable household items, personal belongings and valuables which they would need in their new homes. Tragically, practically all the inmates at Auschwitz would be gassed, tortured  or laboured to death, with only a few exceptionally lucky ones who were able to make good their escapes in this heavily guarded camp to tell the outside world the horrendous crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime. The well-conducted comprehensive tour of the select components of this vast camp took us to the macabre gas chambers, the hopelessly over crowded living quarters of the inmates, the different categories of cells and torture chambers for those who violated the strict camp rules or were found to be rebellious, including the most feared Death Block. The tour was supported by a variety of photographic and actual exhibits of  the remnants of  the inmates’ personal belongings and other personal effects found on site after the war ended in Europe. The two-hour tour was presented in a factual and unemotional way by the professionally trained guide, who preferred to let the camp conditions before us and the exhibits we saw speak for themselves on man’s inhumanities inflicted on his fellow men. I came away with a heavy heart and it is my fervent hope that such crimes against mankind must never be permitted to happen again in future in any part of the world.

After our most enjoyable five-day stay in Poland, our group travelled by coach for a six-hour journey to Budapest, the cosmopolitan and vibrant capital of Hungary. The roads at many stretches were winding as we passed through the mountainous terrains but we felt relaxed soaking in the predominantly pine-clad pastoral scenery and enjoying each other’s fellowship. Our three-day stay here was also a satisfying one. There were much more foreign visitors here than in Poland, and the city was more tourist-oriented than the more sedate Warsaw, but substantially more expensive than the latter city.  Good food, more international class and budget accommodations and trendy shops and places of entertainment after dark abound and draw both domestic and foreign tourists here. However, compared with the better preserved medieval Krakow, there is a lack of truly ancient monuments and buildings in Budapest for the more culture attuned visitors to savour.  Most of the historic landmarks are located in the Castle District and the Old Town. The most visited places are the Buda Palace, which has a commanding view of the twin cities of Buda and Pest, the 15th century Matthias Church and the imposing St Stephen’s Basilica of the Renaissance era. Three of the nation’s most important museums are located within the cavernous precincts of the Buda Palace. All these three much visited landmarks had been rebuilt during the more recent centuries as the original structures had been largely destroyed by wars and ravages of nature.

Our first sight of the Danube was in Budapest, which was right in front of our hotel. Contrary to its legend, the water was far from blue and resembled the muddy colour of the Singapore river before it was successfully dredged clean by the public works water engineers who took up the challenge of the nation’s then premier, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, to achieve this engineering feat. What then inspired Austria’s world-renowned composer, Johann Strauss, to compose his immortal romantic piece, the Blue Danube, in the 19th century? According to our tour guide, when the redoubtable Napoleon Bonaparte’s navy sailed down the Danube after conquering Austria, their sailors’ sea-blue uniforms as reflected in the water transformed the murky water into a bluish hue, and hence the romantic legend of the Blue Danube was born and passed down to posterity through the musical genius of Johann Strauss!

We started our Danube cruise in Budapest. The ship can carry a maximum of 148 passengers in three classes of comfortable cabins, and most come with a French balcony so that one can truly appreciate the scenic views of the different segments of the Danube. Free Internet access is provided in every cabin. The carefully drawn up itinerary would give us an opportunity to see some of the celebrated historic villages, towns and cities along the routes. The passengers came from various English-speaking countries, especially United States, Canada and Australia. The Singapore and Hong Kong groups were the only Asians onboard. Our fellow passengers are in the 50’s to 70’s age group, well travelled, friendly and easy to communicate with. It was a good thing that the ship’s fare includes all onshore sightseeing. What was the shipboard life like? The captain and his officers, staff and crew were warm, welcoming, efficient and looked after the passengers’ needs excellently. The amenities were more than adequate for such a small ship, with a spacious and well appointed lounge and a more private reading room, a sun deck with a whirlpool, deck chairs, a tiny exercise room and a beauty shop. The food and refreshments were good, but fell short of fine-dinning standard on land. Unlimited complimentary red and white wines came with the dinner.  Fresh fruits were provided throughout the day and evening. On the flip side, all passengers would dine at the same time in the relatively small dinning room. Over crowding was inevitable and caused inconvenience if your table was back to back with another table or if  you were squeezed into an awkward corner table. This also impeded the movements of the serving staff and lengthens the time lapse in between dishes. The solution probably lies in having flexible dinning times, but this may require more staff and the increased cost may be passed on to the passengers. In the afternoon, an in-house pianist would entertain us with popular and light classical pieces. On most evenings when in port,  competent shore artistes would entertain us with musical performances of  good standard, or a guest speaker would give an interesting and informative talk on the history and culture of that country.

After less than a day’s sailing, we disembarked at Bratislava in Slovakia, our first port of call. This nation’s economy has been booming, due largely to the substantial foreign investments pouring in to take advantage of the cheap labour and operating costs here. It has now become one of the biggest producers of cars in Europe, a commendable achievement. It also has a well preserved and lively old town whose major sights include the charming Old Town Hall, the attractive 13th century Mirbach Palace, with breathtaking views of Slovakia and neighbouring Austria and Hungary and a stately opera house. We enjoyed the walking tour of its charming old town areas.

The next stop Vienna was one of the high points of this cruise. It is one of the most elegant, glamorous and civilised ancient capitals in Europe and lives up to its reputation. Its historic buildings and monuments are in abundance and impossible to savour in a short time. Within the time constraint of a day, we were able to savour the awe-inspiring Schonbrunn Palace, the most beautiful and extravagant in Vienna and one of the most famous in Europe. It was the summer palace of the Habsburgs who had reigned over most of this continent for more than six centuries. Its superb art treasures would wow even the most discerning visitors. The grand National Library, which was previously the private domain of the Habsburg family, is an important attraction, and so is the stupendous St Stephen’s Cathedral, which is the premier church in this city. Not to see another world-renowned landmark, the Vienna Opera House, will be a regret for life in this city of the arts and music and the land of Mozart and Strauss. We spent the rest of the time available simply strolling through the major shopping and entertainment districts, soaking in the romantic Baroque atmosphere of this stunningly beautiful city and relishing its famed pastry until its time to return to the ship.

Early the next morning, the river scenery suddenly changed drastically, from the mundane and repetitive wooded pine trees  to a much more picturesque and tranquil landscape as our ship was approaching the picture postcard-like charming Austrian town of Durnstein. Clearly visible on a hilltop stood the ruined castle where King Richard the Lion heart of England was held for ransom in 1192, and a little further on several ancient churches and other architecturally striking buildings came into view on the hill slopes. The walking tour of this historic town ensued, and we were most impressed by the many 16th century town houses, inns, wine taverns and quality souvenir shops that lined the main streets of this well-known town. Many tourists of different nationalities  were there that morning. We sailed again and disembarked in Melk, the last Austrian town before we entered the first German romantic town of Passau the next morning. The highlight in Melk was a conducted tour of the magnificent Benedictine Abbey. There was much to see and explore here, from the valuable art treasures and antiquated artifacts to the well presented exhibits in the abbey’s museum showcasing the history and life of the monks through the centuries. It was a very informative and spiritual experience.

The scenic charm of the Danube continued all the way into Passau. Most of  the passengers preferred to take a whole day optional tour to Salzburg, the birth place of Mozart, but we chose to explore the ancient atmosphere of Passau. It was a joy to view the numerous old buildings, churches, inns, beer houses and interesting arts and crafts shops that dotted this dreamy town’s old quarter. It is also famed for its beer, which is reputed to be the cheapest in Germany. However, the crown jewel of one of the best preserved German medieval cities, Regensburg, a World Heritage site, awaited to enchant us with its magnetic attractions. What a delightful experience and aesthetic assault on our senses the two-hour long walking tour of this sprawling ancient wonder turned out to be. Mercifully and thankfully, its sparkling Old Town was spared by the allied bombing during WWII. I had never seen so many splendid ancient edifices in one place as in this city, and I felt as if I had been transported back in time to the Renaissance era of Europe when Regensburg was at the peak of its glory due to its economic and political superiority over other comparable German cities. We marvelled at the majestically beautiful architectures of its cathedrals and churches, the grand Old Town Hall and other civic buildings, the grandeur of the palaces, the sumptuous homes of the rich and powerful and the elegant centuries old shops and art galleries that have all conspired to awe and delight even the most fussy of visitors. Not satisfied with what we had seen during our afternoon walking tour, after dinner we walked back to the Old Town again to savour some of the landmarks that we had to forego earlier.

Our memorable cruise reached its final lap when we crossed the Continental Divide, with an elevation of more than 1300 ft, as we entered the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal and steamed ahead to the final port of call, the industrial city of Nuremberg. We went on a half day sightseeing tour of its major sights. To me and many others, it was a let down especially when the earlier places that we had visited were so much more exciting and unforgettable. Most of the ancient landmarks, including the old city, were destroyed by the allied planes in the last war and were subsequently reconstructed. The city became famous because it was in a huge stadium here that Hitler held many of his rabble-rousing political rallies. It was also here that some of the principal Nazi war criminals were tried and convicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1946. Unfortunately for us we did not get to see the interior of either of these landmarks as they were closed for visitors because the stadium was reserved exclusively for a jazz festival and the court house was closed for the weekend.

From Nuremberg we journeyed by road to Prague, arriving in the late afternoon. The disappointment of Nuremberg was more than made up by our glorious three-day stay in the capital of the Czech Republic, the industrial heartland of Eastern Europe. What an appropriately fitting finale it was. The city is commonly referred to as the Paris of the East because it is the most glamorous and vibrant metropolis in this part of Europe. In terms of the bountiful harvest of historical structures, other legacies of the past and cultural attractions it is in the same league as Krakow and Regensburg, and even exceeding them in sheer numbers and varieties because it is a much larger city. Besides these, it also has numerous international and budget hotels, excellent restaurants and entertainment outlets and specialty shops and malls to cater to the whims and fancies of visitors and tourists from all over the world. It is therefore hardly surprising that it is the foremost tourist destination in Eastern Europe. To get the most out of our sightseeing, we had to be selective in our choices that best suited our preferences and limited time. We therefore opted to go mainly for the historical and cultural relics of this exciting city.

Our first stop was the most popular Castle District, whose top draw is the famed Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world and dating back to the 10th century. Within its gigantic precincts, which includes the palaces of the successive Czech kings and their families, churches and chapels, the most dominant is the St Vitus Cathedral, and a museum with a large collection of  valuable old European paintings and sculptures. Some of the former royal residential quarters had been converted for state purposes. The seat of the Czech government is in this castle, and the office and official residence of the president is also here. Some of the state rooms are open to the public on special occasions. To take an in depth look of the castle, including the museum, will take at least half a day. Our second destination, the Old Town area, is the third most visited tourist spot. Just like the old towns in Krakow and Regensburg but bigger in area, the Prague Old Town too has many ubiquitous churches and cathedrals,  an old town hall and various other municipal buildings, old town houses, inns and taverns, museums, theatres as well as an  assortment of shops, restaurants and entertainment outlets to cater to the growing needs of tourists and residents. We spent a good part of a morning taking in the sights, and discovering its numerous side streets and alleys in order to get a better feel of  this ancient heartland of the city. A short walk from the centre of the Old Town is the Jewish Quarter, which has several medieval synagogues as a testimony to the large and prosperous Jewish population that was once an integral part of the country. Sadly, the majority had been murdered by Hitler’s men, just like in Poland. Most of those who survived the war had long ago emigrated to Israel and America. Today less than 10,000 of them have continued to live here. We gained an insight into Judaism by visiting the Old-New Synagogue (1270). It is the oldest still active Jewish synagogue in Europe and it is housed in one of Prague’s oldest Gothic buildings. We also visited the Old Jewish Cemetery (1478), the oldest extant such cemetery in this continent. Some 100,000 Jewish people are believed to be buried here. The final stop of our exploration of Prague was the Charles Bridge and its historic vicinity, which makes it the number two most visited tourist destination. It spans over the very busy Vitava river, which is easily the most ornate and impressive of bridges in Prague. Built between the 14th and 15th centuries, it has 16 stone pillars and is lined with statues and lamps, supported by a Gothic watch tower at each end of the bridge. The surrounding scenery from the bridge is truly breathtaking, especially when viewed at night. it is an ideal place to take a leisurely evening stroll after a satisfying meal in one of the cafes or taverns with a good view of the river and this famous bridge.

To round up our short but excitement filled stay in Prague, several friends joined my wife and I for an enjoyable Czech dinner in a restaurant at a quieter end of the busy Old Town square. We did our fair share of people-watching here. All of us unanimously settled for a representative dish of the nation’s renowned pig’s leg. We had to wait  for close to an hour for it to be slowly roasted over a charcoal fire. When the four king-size pig’s legs were eventually placed in front of us, complete with toasted bread dumplings and pickled side dishes, each couple could not manage to consume their entire delicious pig’s leg of plentiful lean meat and crackling skin, even though we were famished by then. It can in fact easily feed three adults adequately!

Having seen most parts of  continental Europe over a period of  about 50 years, my wife and I hope to see the vast land of Russia in the not too distant future.

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