Budapest is one of those places that I hadn’t gotten enough of the first time around, so I was delighted that my Viking River Cruises Grand European Tour would end in the city that is often described as the Paris of the East. There was much I hadn’t seen two years earlier, but my most glaring omission had been not visiting any of the famous thermal baths in Budapest, and I was determined to rectify that situation.
Time would not allow me to visit all seven of the facilities in the city, so I focused on the three most famous: Rudas, Széchenyi, and Gellért, all of which have thermal baths and swimming pools. Thousands of articles have been written on Budapest’s thermal spas, so there is little I can add to the conversation, except to describe my personal experience at each and provide my opinion as to which is best.
For my visit to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, I joined friends Agi and Dessy. Initially I had suggested we just meet at the bath, but Agi, who used to live in Budapest, advised otherwise. “I tried that once with other friends and spent the entire day looking for them.” Instead, we met at the Metro station and went as a group. Once inside, I understood what Agi meant. The facility is immense. After hours of snooping around, I still hadn’t seen everything Széchenyi had to offer. Read More
The English historian, Edward Gibbon, once remarked that, “According to the law of custom, and perhaps of reason, foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman.” Gibbon might well be considered an authority on the issue. In 1763, he embarked on a tour of continental Europe. A year later, while sitting amid the ruins of Rome, he conceived the idea for a book which later became The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: 1776–1788. Gibbon was following in the footsteps of aristocratic young European men, for whom education was not complete without a Grand Tour of the capitols and cultural centers of Europe. Though the Grand Tour ceased to be an element of the educational landscape in the mid-1800’s, the tradition is still alive and well, as I discovered on my recent Viking River Grand European Tour.
My cruise began at the waterfront in Amsterdam, where Viking Skadi was docked. We sailed just before midnight, heading south to Kinderdijk, the largest remaining collection of windmills in Holland. By morning, we were anchored on the shores of the Lek River, looking down upon a landscape where 19 historic windmills stood more than 20 feet below water level. It was easy to imagine that this area had once been an uninhabitable swamp. The ingenious Dutch, however, made these low-lying lands safe for human habitation through the use of windmills. Read More
The phrase “last but not least” comes to mind when I think of Passau. My Viking River ship had sailed down the Rhine, turned left onto the Main River near Frankfort, and finally, merged with the Danube just west of Regensburg. Just three miles from the border with Austria, we docked for one last stop in Germany, at the tiny town of Passau, which squats on a narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Danube, Inn, and Ilz Rivers.
From the waterfront, we climbed to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the cultural and geographic center of the village. Even with twin towers topped by onion domes, the church’s unadorned white exterior was uninspiring. The interior, however, was a much different story. Corinthian columns soared to a ceiling where superb frescoes were surrounded by lavish baroque decorations. Above the main door stood the great organ, which, along with four other organs positioned around the nave, forms largest cathedral organ in the world. Featuring 17,774 pipes and 233 registers, it is played from one central console. This is the reason I had come, to listen to the famous organ concert in Passau, conducted Monday through Saturday at high noon.
Cruises are not a great way to get to know places in any depth. At most, guests have a few hours in each destination. But they are a good way to sample a variety of destinations, in order to know which places might be worth a return visit, and this is exactly what happened in Germany during my Grand European Tour with Viking River. I liked Miltenberg, Rothenburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, and Passau, but I loved Regensburg.
It’s hard to say exactly why Regensburg made such an impression on me. The woman who conducted our walking tour was an impressive guide – among the best so far on our cruise. Certainly, the extra free time we had in this town had a lot to do with my experience. But I think the fact that the new Auxiliary Bishop for the region, Josef Graf, was being installed at the St. Peter Cathedral that very morning, had much to do with my experience in Regensburg.
The cathedral was off limits to tourists during the ceremony, so I used the extra free time to wander around town, poking into narrow cobblestone alleyways and wandering through archways that framed colorful streetscapes. I concentrated on the Old Town area, which UNESCO describes as “the only authentically preserved large medieval city in Germany.” Since it escaped unscathed during World War II, its medieval structures are original rather than reproductions, including numerous square towers built by wealthy merchants who competed to see who could build the tallest. Several of them punctuated the city landscape: a serious looking gray tower, the lavish banana-colored Town Hall, the peach-toned tower that tops the city’s entrance arch, and my particular favorite, a salmon tower tucked into the corner of an L-shaped cobblestone lane. Read More
Sometime during the night my Viking River cruise ship left the castles of the Middle Rhine behind and turned left onto the Main River. Just east of Frankfurt we crossed over into Bavaria, an area of Germany that most associate with snow-capped alps, giant mugs of beer, alpine meadows, and Lederhosen. I was quickly disavowed of any such notions, however, upon arrival in Miltenberg, which is located in the Lower Franconia district of Bavaria.
“We are Franconians, not Bavarians,” our tour guide said emphatically and with a little laugh.
Although Upper Franconia, Lower Franconia, and Middle Franconia constitute the three northernmost districts of Bavaria, they have a much different history than the rest of the State. They take their name from the Franks, a Germanic tribe that had conquered most of western Europe by the mid-8th century. After Napoleon defeated the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Bavaria became a kingdom and the Franconian districts were subsequently annexed to Bavaria in 1815.
Our tour guide’s comment was partly tongue-in-cheek, but also underscored the cultural differences between the two regions. Straddling the serpentine Main River, the landscape of Franconia is predominantly rolling hills. While never rising to the height of what might be called mountains, the hillsides are the perfect climate for vineyards which produce high quality dry red wines, rather than the beers for which Bavaria is known. Weißwurst, a white sausage made from minced veal and pork back bacon, may be haute cuisine in Bavaria, but Franconians prefer Bratwurst and Sauerbraten. Though Bavaria is overwhelmingly Catholic, the population of Franconia is a mixture of Protestant and Catholic. Even the German dialect is different; Franconians speak East Franconian German, rather than the Austro-Bavarian dialect spoken in the rest of Bavaria.
I threw open the drapes of my stateroom and gasped. Gone were the gray skies of Amsterdam and Cologne. Brilliant sunshine promised a perfect day of sailing through the Middle Rhine Valley, a fairy tale landscape of glittering green hillsides, where near-vertical vineyards tumbled down toward the emerald river.
Since prehistoric times, the Rhine has been one of the world’s most important trade routes, and the 40 castles and forts found in the UNESCO World Heritage area between Koblenz and Bingen are testament to how much these lands have always been coveted. The castles, mostly constructed between the 12th century and the first half of the 14th century, were built by the princes of the empire to protect their land holdings and mineral rights from political rivals. Toward the end of the 13th century, however, they seized upon an even more important source of revenue: collecting tolls from ships using the Rhine to transport goods. Chains were strung across the river and lowered only when the toll had been paid. Read More