Johann Strauss II wrote his famed "Blue Danube" waltz in 1867, and ever since people have been trying to come up with a reason behind the name. Even on bright days, the river barely conjures up a mild blueish-gray.
There are various theories: Maybe it was bluer in those days; maybe he was drunk. Most people, however, figure that "Green Danube" or "Brown Danube" simply doesn't have the same cachet.
But whatever Strauss thought about the color, he did get one thing right: The river has its own pulse and rhythm, even rhapsody. And nowhere do you get a sense of that any better than on a Danube River cruise.
River Cruises are popular these days, especially in Europe, where the dollar is struggling against the euro. Having accommodations and meals taken care of on the boat makes for an efficient and rather economical way to see this part of the world.
So, when my niece, Kate, wanted to celebrate her graduation from high school and pending entrance into college, and wanted to see, but had never been to, Europe, we figured this would be a great way to go. It was.
The Danube is the second-largest river in Europe (after the Volga) and the only one that flows west to east. Its 1,771-mile course takes it through or by some 10 countries, past storied landscapes, Old World capitals, medieval towns, fascinating architecture and diverse cultural heritage that connects Western and Eastern Europe.
Our particular 10-day itinerary on the Danube Odyssey, a ship of the Vantage Travel line, took us up-river starting in Budapest, Hungary; through Slovakia and Austria to Kelheim, Germany; then by switching to the Main-Danube Canal, on to Nuremberg, which gave us a wide cross-section of both history and geography.
Life along this majestic river goes far back into the reaches of time. Along the banks of the beautiful Wachau Valley, the so-called "Venus of Willendorf" was discovered and dated back to approximately 24,000 B.C. This limestone carving of a lush and lumpy female figure is one of the oldest sculptures of the human form that has been uncovered.
As we sailed by this stretch, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the most beautiful lengths of the Danube, we could almost imagine Stone Age people living there. The neatly tended vineyards and the tiny red-roofed villages made us think more readily of the Middle Ages, but there certainly was a timeless quality to the area.
We also learned that the Danube was once the border of the Roman Empire. There are still Roman ruins that can be seen in many places along its banks, including in Budapest and other cities.
No surprise that given their location along this central waterway, these lands have been coveted and dominated by almost everyone from the Romans, the Celts, the Huns, the Mongols, the Magyars, the Slavs, the Turks and the Hapsburg Empire to, in more modern times, the Nazis and communists. This mix of cultures and the traces they left add to the fascination.We wandered through charming towns; we explored vibrant cities. We learned history lessons and enjoyed modern contrasts. We totally fell in love with the Danube and its environs.
Budapest has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The Danube flows through its center, with the old city of Pest on one side and Buda on the other. The two started out as rivals of a sort, but were finally united in 1872. Some nine bridges connect the two sides, each distinct, each a different style of architecture and each rebuilt after they were blown up by the fleeing Nazis in World War II. The Chain Bridge is the oldest, originally built between 1839-49. The Liberty Bridge, now painted green, and the Elizabeth Bridge, once the largest single-span bridge in the world, are also favorites.
World War II is still a defining presence in most of these European countries. In Budapest they talk of before and after and now talk openly and disparagingly of their communist period following the war and the invasion of Russian troops in 1956.
That period has actually only been one in a long history of turmoil for this country. Budapest owes its eclectic looks and varied styles of architecture to the fact that it has been partially destroyed and rebuilt many times. So you can find Gothic side-by-side with Neorenaissance or Baroque next to Art Nouveau.
On the riverfront on the Pest side is the elegant Parliament building, the third-largest Parliament building in the world. It was built in the late 1800s in neo-Gothic style. The Buda side is hilly, rising up to the Gothic Matthias Church and the neo-Romanesque Fisherman's Bastion. The lookout towers there provide breathtaking panoramas.
One of our favorite views of the city however, came as we sailed away at night, past the brightly illuminated historic buildings and bridges. Definitely a sight to remember.
We barely had time to tuck that memory away, however, before we were on to new adventures. Next up was Bratislava, capital of Slovakia and a place of equal charm.
The Old Town was within walking distance of our docking spot, and well-worth the walk. It, too, offers an eclectic mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. The square Bratislava Castle, more than 1,000 years old, overlooks the town. St. Martin's Cathedral is where some 15 Hungarian kings were crowned; during the Turkish occupation of Budapest for nearly three centuries until the end of World War I in 1918 Bratislava was the capital of Hungary.
Bratislava, too, suffered from communist occupation after World War II, when it was still part of Czechoslovakia. That was a gray and dreary time, our local guide told us. "No good buildings were built, and nothing could be repainted or fixed up," she said. But the gray is slowly being replaced by color. "It takes time because we don't have enough money."Bratislava shows its sense of humor with several monuments and statues: A large, drab gray boulder is the monument to communism. A Napoleon leans over a park bench to remind of his presence here. One of the most famous statues, however, is at ground level, that of a worker sticking his head out of a manhole.
Bratislava is only 35 miles from Vienna, and even though the two cities share a lot of history, there are also marked differences. Larger, more modern, more rebuilt after the war, Vienna is also harder to get acquainted with in a short time. Still, there were cathedrals, town squares, cobblestones lanes, Baroque houses and shopping streets to explore, carriage rides to enjoy, and sacher torte and apple strudel to sample in the sidewalk cafes.
And there's the Schonbrunn Palace, the once-summer home of the Hapsburgs, who ruled this area for some 600 years. It provides as good a look into their heart and soul as anything. Here, it was also easy to conjure up visions of Viennese waltzes.
Durnstein, a tiny medieval town up the river, provides another look at Austria's past and one we thoroughly enjoyed. This town of around a thousand people is famous for its vineyards, its blue-towered baroque church and the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held captive during the crusades. Kate also loved practicing her German with the friendly shopkeepers along the winding row of shops.
We discovered yet one more side of Austria in Salzburg. The boat actually stopped at Linz, and we went by bus into Salzburg. (There's a river in the center of town, but it's the Salzach, not the Danube.)In mountainous country, Salzburg gets a lot of rain, so it was no surprise to be there on a rainy day. But we could still enjoy the beautiful setting, with the castle perched high on the hill, notice the many examples of music and culture the city offers, and see some of the places where "The Sound of Music" was filmed. (Kate was especially excited about that something closer to her time frame.)
We learned more of what rain means to the Danube as it continued to fall as we reached Passau, just over the German border.
Passau has a lot of Old-World charm, even in the rain. The ornate City Hall, the narrow cobblestone streets, a glass museum, baroque fountains decked with putti (small angels). But the most famous site in town is St. Stephan's cathedral, built between the 15th and 16th centuries and home of the world's largest church organ 17,773 pipes, 233 steps and four carillons. We got to hear for ourselves the "thunderous listening experience" of a concert.
But just as we were about to set off to explore Passau on our own, word came down that the boat was leaving early. Rains raise the level of the Danube quickly, and we had a very low bridge to pass under while we still could. It's just too bad, everyone said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that with all the bridges that were blown up in the war, somehow the very low railroad bridge at Deggendorf was missed.
But we made it under (although our sun deck was dismantled, and even the captain's cabin had to be lowered; the top half is on hydraulics, so apparently this happens quite often).
That was one example of how the river is still in control. All along the way, we saw others. For all its beauty and serenity, flooding can be a problem on the Danube; we saw various high-water markers that told of the worst floods. The Danube has also needed some taming. In the stretch from Budapest to Nuremberg, we passed through 20 locks. There are 69 locks, in all, between Amsterdam and the Black Sea.
The locks were a fun experience. We sailed in; the back gate closed; water was pumped in raising our boat; the front gate went down and we sailed out at the new elevation. Sometimes it took less than 20-30 minutes to complete the transfer.
Another example of adapting to the river came as we moved onto the Ludwig-Main-Danube Canal.
This canal was built to bypass a section of the river that becomes narrow and unnavigable for larger ships. Charlemagne was the first to come up with the idea of a canal, but King Ludwig of Bavaria was the one who finally started it. However, only a small section was completed in 1846; the technology of the times was not up to the need. Not until 1992 was the Main canal finally completed.We sailed through the narrow section of the river lined with steep limestone walls, known as the Danube Gorge, on a small sight-seeing boat when we visited Weltenburg, the oldest monastery in Bavaria, now housed in a beautiful baroque building.
Nuremberg, our last stop, is another place of both medieval and modern interest. From its start in the 11th century, it flourished as a focal point on several medieval trade routes. It was where the first emperors of the Holy Roman Empire met.
Artist, printmaker and Renaissance man Albrecht Durer lived here his four-story 16th-century home was one of the few to escape destruction during World War II, and a tour of it tells much about life back in the day.
It was in Nuremberg that Hitler staged some of his grandiose rallies in the days before the war. His huge Hall of Congress, built to evoke images of the Roman Coliseum, has been turned into a multimedia "Documentation Center" that tells the story of the rise and fall of Naziism in stark detail.
The huge Zeppelin Field, the only part of Hitler's grand building scheme that actually got finished, is still there, as well. The outdoor arena where Hitler spoke to his followers is now used for motorcycle races and such, but it's a vivid reminder of those times.
We loved the famous Rostbratwuerste (small sausages) and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) that Nuremberg is also famous for. We loved the town square, with its storied fountain and fun little shops.
And, somehow, it seemed like a nice place to leave the Danube. Not that we were anxious to do so but we would have more adventures in Prague before we turned homeward.
American writer Stephen Trimble has talked about how "floating the rivers takes you through the land, not merely over its surface ... this particular form of intimacy ... can only be had on the rivers. It flows through your memory and leaves behind a ripple of emotion: reverence."That's exactly what we felt for the Danube: amazed and awed at all that has transpired along its banks and the beauty it still offers. And, for sure, we will never hear the "Blue Danube" waltz in quite the same way again.