The thing about a good boat, once you’re on it, ensconced in your perfect soundproof stateroom, walls alternating between pristine white lacquer panels and unvarnished light-colored wood, is that you don’t care where it takes you. If I am not careful, this may turn into an ode to Viking River Cruises’ Odin, for such is the name of the newly built longship that took me along the Main-Danube Canal from Nuremberg to Kelheim in Germany, and from there on to the Danube itself, all the way to Budapest, over several hundred miles and through 26 locks. (The locks alone might have kept me riveted—descending to the depths of one, buoyed to the surface of another.) The young crew of 53 was extraordinarily efficient and kind, consisting mostly of Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, and a few Germans and Austrians. There were supplies of excellent tea, plum and apricot jams made on board, fragrant loaves of pumpernickel bread with crunchy crusts and pretty much anything one wished, from a slice of grilled salmon to a goulash so dainty it made me revise my opinion of the dish. And sausages, always, advertising by their size, shape, or color their belonging to one section or another of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
If I had to lodge a complaint, in fact, it would be having to get off the boat too often for my taste. Or rather, let’s say I could take the trip all over again and stay on board the entire time. I caught sight of some creatures slinking about the recesses of the lounge or the terrace of the prow, deciding to skip the going excursion, while the rest of us adjusted our sun hats and waited to descend the brief plank to shore and board a bus. This is not a mode of travel ideally suited to a flaneur—or is it a flaneuse?—such as myself. Not for the ponderer who takes it all in from a chair at a café. No, a river cruise is suited to efficient, diligent, globe-trotting, high-minded travelers ready to learn the history of every country and glen. The invasions. The dates. The conquests. The Huns. The Magyars.
I, the sloth, made monumental adjustments to my usual routine. For instance, I was up every morning, except for one, just before seven to quickly slip on a pair of black harem pants and a T-shirt and head to the lounge for the daily qigong class with a brave, if small, group of women, a group that grew daily. Word spread of the wonders of this calming and energizing practice, which soon had us all chanting “shuuu” in unison, while opening our arms wide and breathing out (to heal the liver) and employing other such magic strategems. This may have shooed away the strudel with a generous dollop of cream one had after the strudel-making demonstration by the chef the day before. (I said “may.”)
I clicked right away with the program director, Marek Snelly, and I was never led astray as to how best to spend a day. There was always a choice between an energetic group, a medium one, and a slowpoke one, though of course they never called it that. Then there was the unmentioned category of the defector—one which Snelly, like certain brilliant concierges of grand European hotels of yore, can smell a mile away—to which I firmly belong. Is everyone walking very slowly across the Chain Bridge in Budapest, listening to an explanation of some bloody deed or another, under a glaring sun? You will find me at the other end of the bridge, in the shade. Is everyone crammed on a picturesque, precarious tram? You will find me gingerly stepping off and repairing to the Gerbeaud café. And so on. I need to know what I think about things and so I must proceed at my own pace. But I never defected from any of the meals, which were announced by a low warbling gong in three tones that must have been modeled after a call to break fast for monks of some medieval order. The sound was followed by the dulcet tones of Snelly saying, “Wonderful-good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Lunch is now being served in the dining room.” Evenings, mornings, and afternoons on the Odin were never just “good”—they were “wonderful-good.”
A friend of my brother’s, Werner, a high official in Nuremberg’s administration, took me around the city on the first day of my trip. He showed me the very moving St. Sebaldus church, where a series of large black-and-white images documented the damage the building incurred during World War II. The edifice lay almost entirely in rubble, though stumps of the columns remained. Nuremberg was where Hitler put on displays of military might and propagandistic pomp, which is why it was the focus of so much destruction. It was also the place, given its then-intact Gothic architecture and ties to the Holy Roman Empire, where Hitler came to be anointed. Since 90 percent of the Old Town was demolished during the war, what you see now, from the Gothic churches to some of the ancient timber-frame houses, was methodically rebuilt not more than 60 years ago. In the gathering gloom, Werner insisted on driving over a part of the Nazi rally grounds. To feel the wheels of his Mercedes rolling gently with only the tiniest of crunch over the square slabs of granite was one of the most sinister experiences I have ever had, though the area is now meant for recreation.
It was with some relief, then, that I boarded the quiet, welcoming universe of the Odin once again, and turned the page resolutely the next day by visiting a house of delights: Nuremberg’s Toy Museum. Among the miniature playthings is “the smallest bathing establishment,” with bathtub, toilet, and sink, all daintily placed in a matchbox.
Almost soundlessly, without fanfare, we left our dock in Nuremberg and entered the first lock. We were flanked by tall walls and ahead was a solid gate. We seemed to have entered a dark dungeon; only the twittering of birds resounded from above. The Odin began to rise, at first slowly, then faster, until the gate ahead of us slipped down, vanishing into the water, and a serene landscape of grassy shores and silvery willows was revealed. The light turned green and we sprang forward smoothly, released from our brief season in hell. I never tired of the locks.
In Regensburg, an intact little town that was mostly spared wartime bombing, our guide, Uli, vividly summarized the history of this enclave of merchants on the Danube who built themselves a splendid stone bridge—very important to connect goods with their prospective markets—and how the Yiddish language took root on the banks of the river thanks to the traders and money lenders who settled here, all the way to today, when the authentic old buildings’ tiny interiors have been turned over for reasonable sums to Regensburg’s ever-changing and, at night, boisterous student population. Then Uli led us past a shop called Gebhard Trachten and I simply had to drop out of the tour, for here was a veritable emporium of the conservative Bavarian uniform known as Tracht. Jackets with decorated stiff collars, a dizzying variety of dirndls and lederhosen for men, women, children, and the Habsburg line of slightly updated Tracht-wear, modeled in a catalogue by authentic bluebloods—Katharina von Garzuly-Hohenlohe harnessing a stone horse, and Baron Lukas Pius von Geusau (just pronouncing their names made me feel Bavarian), in a charcoal and green traditional Stehbrust jacket, looking pensive on the coachman’s seat of a chaise.
In the afternoon we were taken by bus to Weltenburg Abbey, then to see the Danube Gorge on a small-boat cruise. The willows may account for some of the Danube’s famous “blueness,” and I noticed them especially in Weltenburg, by the abbey. Not that I didn’t appreciate the abbey itself, with its profusion of Baroque gilt and florid, cupid-like putti hugging what appear to be dollops of whipped cream but are actually meant to be clouds. It’s just that to sit on a cornerstone by the entrance to the abbey, watching the water speed by, was irresistible. And that evening, in the Viking Lounge, Snelly morphed into Mozart, powdered wig and all, to re-enact the composer’s life, with the ghost of Constanze, his wife, convincingly played by Svenja, the assistant concierge. The captive audience was amused, indulgent.
The next morning in Passau, after visiting the very impressive Glass Museum, I walked over to St. Stephan’s Cathedral for a concert; the thunderous tones of more than 17,974 pipes and five different organs may have caused the heavens to burst into rain. All who had come to the concert stood at the exit, umbrella-less, wondering what to do. So it was a relief to see members of the crew appear bearing red Viking Cruises umbrellas. Rain fell hard again the next morning at the abbey in Melk. The church was all gold and russet marble, with putti flitting about in ample terra-cotta sashes. Wide balconies looked like opera boxes. On the path to the city, beneath a stone arch, was an unmoving monk, arms crossed, head lowered, hood pulled down to cover his face.
The Odin sailed on and there were sights to see while cruising along, having dinner: the towns of Dürnstein, then Krems, with their proliferation of spires. The broad, implacable Danube seemed to mock man-made boundaries, along with every successive phase of their history—all the former empires, occupations, conquests, and re-conquests of every inch of land in this part of the world.
In Vienna, I didn’t have enough time. It was either the Schönbrunn Palace or a partial visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I chose the latter and decided to see Titian and Caravaggio and the room full of Brueghels. In the morning I had gone on a Modernist’s pilgrimage to the interior of Loos Haus, now a bank, gleaming with wooden panels, brass, and glass blocks, an elegant central staircase theatrically branching to the left and to the right. Then an excellent lunch: trout with asparagus at the Palmenhaus, a vast Jugendstil greenhouse turned café and brasserie on the grounds of the Hapsburg imperial palace.
The trip came to an end, seven days after it had begun, and all too suddenly. Beneath the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the city was all lit up, Matthias Church’s madly patterned tiled roof looking festive. I visited the Ethnography Museum, which has stunning displays, including one of a wedding scene in a country house with a woman’s trousseau stacked in painted wooden chests. I caught the tail end of a Gypsy dance in the ship’s lounge. Then it was time to pack my bags, out of sight all week long beneath my bed. I retired to the welcoming walnut interior of my stateroom and plotted my next river voyage. Another stretch of Danube, perhaps?
Three More River Cruises
African River Safari: Five days on Botswana’s wildlife-rich Chobe River are the centerpiece of AmaWaterways’ Golden Trails of Africa trip. The Zambezi Queen’s 14 staterooms—each with a private balcony—make a luxurious home base. 19 days from $11,995 per person.
Imperial Russia: Live like the czars in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and beyond during a Volga River cruise aboard the 206-passenger River Victoria. Overnights in the old and new capitals allow more time to see the sights. 13 nights from $4,299 per person.
Along the Mekong: Learn about silk weaving and rice-wine making on an immersive cruise from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Siem Reap, Cambodia, on the colonial-inspired, 16-cabin Avalon Angkor. Seven days from $3,899 per person. —Jane Wooldridge