THE DANUBE – December 2013

Please Note – I am currently editing the travel journal I started writing in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback and encourage my readers to post comments.

Next Around the Bend – Myanmar

The Nuremberg Christmas Markets

After flying from Sydney to Abu Dhabi to Frankfurt, we finally arrived in Nuremberg late on 22 December 2012.

The final hour’s flight, on a very small plane, was rendered surprisingly enjoyable – despite our travel weariness – by a large American whom we later learned was named Tom. His quips during the flight had both his wife, Pat, and ourselves in hysterics.  We were most pleased when he strolled up to join us on the Uniworld bus bound for the River Duchess. We had made some friends and we were not even onboard yet.

By the time we reached our new floating home it was dark and cold in the German winter. The River Duchess looked warm and inviting as we wheeled our luggage up the ramp. However, after our long journey, we were exhausted and fell into bed at the earliest opportunity.

As we fell asleep, we looked forward to our twelve day cruise down the Danube River; through the Bavarian countryside; into Austria for New Year’s eve in Vienna; and finally to the Hungarian capital, Budapest. It promised to be an engaging journey.

The next morning, we awoke uncomfortably early and prepared ourselves for a city tour of Nuremberg. In addition to our inevitable jet lag, the day was afflicted by steady rain which made it even more difficult to get truly into the spirit of the moment. But we ventured onto the tour bus nonetheless.

Thankfully, our tour guide was most entertaining. He commenced by asking us if we knew the German words for beer, house and mouse. When we responded with bier, haus and maus, he concluded that we all spoke German very well.

Our city tour took us to Nuremberg Castle and the Christmas markets in the square below. Whilst picture postcard perfect, our enthusiasm for the tour was dampened – quite literally – by the persistent rain which continued to fall. We hoped for clear skies in the days ahead. We expected it to be cold – which it certainly was – but we could do without the rain.

Echoes from a Time of Madness

It is difficult – even now – to visit Germany without thinking of the grotesque atrocity of World War II.

For the most part, we observed Basil Fawlty’s sage (and timeless) message of peace.

However, when the opportunity arose in Nuremberg to go on a World War II tour, temptation was difficult to resist.

In truth, when in Nuremberg, reminders of that time of madness are ever present.  The city witnessed both the rise of National Socialism and the final chapter of their terrible story.

Our tour began at the Zepplin Airfield where the Nazis held massive rallies in the 1930’s, before the outbreak of war. The area has been preserved, although hockey and football fields now lie where the immense parade ground once dominated. The raised seating areas still circle the playing fields, albeit overrun with grass and weeds; the past must be remembered, but banished to the past.

The best preserved aspect of the rally grounds is the front stage area which was once reserved for Nazi  officials. The stone seating area still remains, as does the rostrum from which Hitler delivered his rants. There once was a row of columns at the back of the seating area, furnaces at each end and a gold eagle perched atop the centrum at the rear. However, these have been removed. Again, the past must not be forgotten but nor must it be glorified.

Standing to one side of the rostrum, and squinting my eyes, I could readily imagine that the anonymous tourist striding to the speaker’s position was Hitler and I could hear the distant chants of Zeig Heil. It was chilling.

After the rally grounds, we visited the Nazi Congress Building. Modeled after the Coliseum, in Rome, the Congress Building was planned to be immense, standing 50% higher than the original. However, the massive testament to Nazi might – and Hitler’s limitless ego – was never completed. Doubtless, human and capital resources were diverted to the war Hitler craved.

If completed, the Congress Building would have seated 50,000 people who would gather for the sole purpose of listening to Hitler’s self-indulgent ramblings.  A skylight in the roof of the building would have illuminated the stage and cast the speaker in the glow of a messiah.

Today, one corner of the Congress Building is devoted to a museum which chronicles the rise of the Nazis and the war they orchestrated, with special emphasis, of course, on the role which Nuremberg played. We spent some time in the museum. However, after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in 2007, we are a hard couple to impress.

Court Room 600

What did demand our attention, however, was a visit to Court Room 600…

Even before the end of World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill were determined to conduct war trials, in order to bring to justice those responsible for the war and for crimes against humanity. Stalin, we were told, was just as happy to line up anybody with a German name and have them shot.

Roosevelt and Churchill prevailed and the Trials were held in Nuremberg. It was explained to us that Nuremberg was an ideal location – and preferable to Berlin – because the Court House had largely survived the bombing and, moreover, so had the adjacent prison complex which was linked to the Court by tunnels. There was a genuine fear that allowing a high profile Nazi to be brought to Court from a remote location might result in either abduction by a cell of supporters or assassination by a lynch mob. By comparison, a short walk along an underground tunnel was clearly preferred.

The other factor favouring Nuremberg as the venue for the War Crimes Trials was, of course, its past.  Prosecuting the Nazis so close to where they held their pre-war rallies added an extra element of well- deserved humiliation.

We were privileged to sit in the public gallery of Court Room 600 and listen to our very well informed guide describe the events. Back in 1946, the area in which we sat was occupied by the prosecuting team.  The Judges’ Bench was under the window to our right and those accused of some of the most diabolical crimes against all human-kind sat to our left.

I will long remember our animated guide walking over and slapping the balustrade before intoning: “Herman Goering sat right here; next to him Rudolph Hess…”.

That’s the moment it became real for me. This is where it all happened; where international law was born.

Our short time inside Court Room 600 was compelling and we enjoyed the visit very much.

There was one funny story though. Our guide told the group that on another tour, an old man had put his hand up and said that he was actually present at the trials. He explained that he had been a young GI and was ordered to attend Court and take photographs. When asked whether he was aware, at the time, that he was a witness to a profound moment in history, he paused and thought for a moment before replying: “Not really; I was 19 and all that interested me was beer and Frauleins“.

Everybody has their own perspective!

Midnight Mass in Regensberg

On the morning of Christmas Eve, River Duchess began her journey to Budapest by wandering down the Nuremberg Channel, towards the Danube.

The purpose of the man-made channel is to link The Rhine with the Danube, in much the same way the Panama Canal links the Pacific and the Atlantic. It allows a boat to travel all the way across Europe from Amsterdam to the Black Sea.

The journey was quite pleasant. By this stage, the sun had come out and the green country scene was tinged with orange and gold. For most of the journey, a dirt and gravel path ran along the side of the river. We could see the occasional cyclist or jogger braving the wintry conditions. The green meadows and hills were punctuated by small towns dominated by church steeples shaped like onions.

I half expected Charles Bronson to scamper down the riverbank and steal an idle row boat or for Steve McQueen to flash by on a motorcycle. It was that kind of Bavarian countryside which floated by.

By evening – which arrives well before 5pm during the northern winter solstice – we were docked in the medium sized German town of Regensberg.

Given that ’twas Christmas Eve, and we were in Germany, we took the option of joining a large number of our fellow passengers in attending Midnight Mass at the Regensberg’s St Peter’s Dom.  Despite the huge number of people packed in the church, it was remarkably cold inside, particularly during the extended wait to the commencement of Mass at 10pm. Ultimately we persevered for as long as we could. However, by around 10.45pm, we felt we had a good a sense of what a German Midnight Mass was all about and decided that the call of our warm air conditioned room and quilted bed had become too loud to ignore.

‘Twas then that a Christmas miracle occurred.

Looking around the large number of people standing in the aisles – many of them probably locals who resented the tourists in ‘their’ Cathedral – we spotted an elderly woman and offered her our seat. She and her husband were grateful to accept.

However, what sticks in my mind is the sight of the woman’s adult son nodding at me and whispering thank you, with tears welling in his Aryan eyes…

All I did was offer his parents a seat! It’s not like I offered to feed the gathered multitude with a bag of chips and half a Mars Bar!

Yet our gesture appeared to be a miracle in the young man’s eyes and if we brought some joy to his Christmas, we are pleased.

“Are We Still in Regensberg?”

Going to sleep on Christmas night in Regensberg, I was a contented traveller…

We had been onboard the River Duchess for three nights and were enjoying the ride. We had already met some fun people, must notably Tom and Pat from Orlando, Florida and Bill and Luisa from Dallas, Texas, although there were others we were getting to know and enjoying. I had gone for a five kilometer run that morning along the river bank and was looking forward to doing the same, most days, particularly given the daily change in scenery.

As I fell asleep, I was contemplating the joys which lay around the next bend in the river…

However, two factors were about to conspire against us!

Firstly, there was the river itself. It turned out that there was too much of it.

Normally, excess water in a river is not a problem unless the banks are threatened. However, further down the river, a series of low bridges lay in wait. With the water so high, the River Duchess could not safely traverse below them without losing her head (and shoulders).

We were stuck in Regensberg until the swell of the river subsided.

Secondly, there was our own health. It transpired that our middle-aged bodies were unable to repel the threat of a European winter. We both succumbed to a rather virulent chest infection, which kept us confined to our rooms for several days, sustained only by the kindness of the River Duchess staff, particularly those kind enough to bring food to our stateroom.

It was very sad because this river cruise had so much to offer. Had the River Duchess continued on her planned journey, with us healthy onboard, I suspect this holiday would have been a classic. We were particularly sad to miss the side trip from Linz to Salzburg. Doubtless, our fellow passengers were probably grateful that our voices did not join in the ‘Sound of Music’ sing-a-long, however, we are sorry we missed it.

Ultimately, River Duchess remained in Regensberg for three additional nights. As far as we know she is still there. ..

On the 29th of December, the passengers and most of the crew were loaded onto buses and driven to Vienna where, after a night at the Intercontinental Hotel, they were welcomed onto their unexpected new home, River Beatrice, which had been called back into service only days after being closed down for the low season.

We found out about the move completely by accident, having banished the evening briefings in favour of more rest. Huckleberry B learned of the upheaval during a casual telephone conversation with the front desk on the previous afternoon. Repacking in our state was rather daunting, but we got the job done.

However, rather than join our cruise mates on a day long bus drip from Regensberg to Vienna, via several arduous tourist sites along the way, we opted for a much simpler option. We headed to the train station and caught a train direct to Vienna. Whilst still a four hour journey – in strangely uncomfortable seats and with passengers of questionable consideration – it was a better option than the joining the never ending bus journey.

Once onboard River Beatrice, we spent another day in bed, before finally emerging on New Year’s Eve.

Remarkably, we were missed during our hibernation. It turns out that Tom – who entertained us during the short flight from Frankfurt to Nuremberg – did a lap of the restaurant each night to see if a confirmed sighting could be achieved.  He was sufficiently concerned to eventually secure our room number from the front desk staff and call to enquire after our well-being.

We later asked Tom what fun we had missed during our confinement. His response was: “Not much really. Here’s a summary: bus, church, church, bus. Another bus, church, bus.  Loooooong bus, church…

Too funny!

Whenever I emerged from our room to get some more water or to head to the chemist, I would field enquiries – sometimes from people I did not recall ever seeing before – about my wife’s well being. I eventually concluded she was the ship’s answer to Ferris Bueller!

New Year’s Eve Dinner with the Griswalds

We were standing in a room where Beethoven and Salieri once stood!

It was New Year’s Eve in Vienna and Uniworld had arranged for dinner in a (small) palace in the centre of the elegant city. As we enjoyed our canapés in the front room of the venue, our portly Austrian host regaled the gathered throng with a story about Beethoven and Salieri meeting in this very room for a contest involving impromptu composing. Somehow, Salieri reputedly cheated and Beethoven stormed from the room only to return, after his temper had cooled, and vanquishing Salieri with his superior genius.

It was a good story and set the scene for a night of food, drink, string quartets, ballet, waltzing and general joyous carousing.

Controversy, however, lurked in the shadows…

Huckleberry B and I had put our names down to dine at the same table as Tom and Pat – at Tom’s insistence – and their friends, Larry and Chris. However, when the time came to commence dining, we found we had been seated elsewhere. Worst still, it emerged we had been placed with a family of four who had been causing management and guests some trouble during the cruise and were considered “a little strange”. This is not an appropriate forum to provide particulars of their behavior, however, suffice to say that the Captain of the River Beatrice threatened, at one point, to have them removed from his vessel.

When Tom discovered the calamity which had befallen us, the otherwise amiable and remarkably humorous gentleman transformed into an angry old man who berated those responsible.

To her enormous credit, however, Huckleberry B decided to make the most of a dismal situation and engaged “the Griswalds” in conversation. It took me some time to warm to the idea, but eventually followed her lead. We managed to make a reasonable evening of it.

We have since rationalized that when the seating arrangements were concluded the River Beatrice management had a dilemma because nobody wanted to sit with the strange family who had been causing problems, but somebody had to.  We probably presented a good option (for them) because there was a reasonable chance that we’d not show up, having missed dinner the previous six nights.

Still, it wasn’t much of a reward for us. Whilst resting and trying to shake the constant coughing and spluttering in our room, our focus was on being sufficiently well to make it to the New Year’s Eve dinner in Vienna, which promised to be one of the highlights of the trip. We managed to make it to the event, only to be relegated to the weirdo’s table!

In any event, the festivities concluded with the waltzing in the Beethoven / Salieri room, followed by an uplifting ballet demonstration by two dancers whilst the string quartet played ‘the Blue Danube’.

It was a memorable way to welcome in 2013!

The New Year’s Day Concert

The other highlight we were keen not to miss was attending a New Year’s day concert in Vienna.

Unfortunately, the main concert – held in the Opera House and televised worldwide – was both exclusive and expensive. The concert we attended was more reasonably priced and held in one of the sumptuous concert halls around the corner from the Opera House. It was a remarkable event and we felt privileged to attend.

The concert featured a series of arias from Operas. I had heard many of the tunes before, but readily confess not being able to name them, although I did recognize that one was from “the Magic Flute”; the one about Papageno.

The concert culminated with a sublime rendition of ‘the Blue Danube’ and the rousing ‘Radetzki March’, which brought tears to Huckleberry B’s eyes. It was an uplifting event which left us feeling warm despite the freezing weather outside.

Budapest

Our twelve day long rive cruise – divided by illness and only involving two days of actual propulsion down the Danube – ended in Budapest.

As we were constantly reminded by both crew and passengers, Budapest is actually two cities. The city of Buda lies on one bank of the Danube and is dominated by a sharp escarpment and a majestic hill, whereas the city of Pest lies on the open plains on the other bank.

I suppose – but for an accident of history – we might know the Hungarian capital as “Pestbuda”.  Evidently “Budapest” was preferred.

(My apologies for the lame joke in the previous paragraph!)

In any event, Budapest is an attractive city.  We enjoyed a half day city tour in the freezing winter morning. Whilst many of the buildings had been renovated since the ravages of World War II and the degradation of the Cold War, there were some buildings which remained run down and very tired looking. Some even had bullet holes in their grey facades; a reminder of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets.

We were amused to hear, however, that those buildings which awaited the funds for renovation were in high demand by movie makers. They constituted an ideal representation of Cold War Moscow.

Moonriver