By Renée S. Gordon
By the 11th century, Vienna was the second largest town north of the Alps and an important port. In 1192, Richard the Lion-hearted was shipwrecked near Vienna and was captured while drinking in a tavern. The English king was held for ransom and upon payment of 12-tons of silver he was released and a portion of the money was used to build the city’s walls. The best place to see a remaining section of the wall is at the Stubentor subway station. Vienna received a charter in 1221 that granted it city status and gave it the right to broker trade with the cities that lined the Danube and made it the largest trading center in Northern Europe during the crusades.
Just as crusaders, merchants and world travelers set out for adventure from Vienna’s shores throughout the centuries, we’ll set out on our cruise from the port. www.austriatourism.com
The fabled 333,592-acre Vienna Woods, a lush forest in the foothills of the Alps, are situated 19-miles north of the city. Officially designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2005, its inscription is based upon its unique natural terrain and culture. The area is home to 2,000 plant species, 150 bird species, four parks and fifteen reserves.
Our first shore excursion takes us to the Vienna Woods, through the Helenental Valley and into the ancient Roman city of Baden. For more than 400-years, Baden was a Roman province known as Thermae Pannonicae. From the beginning, it was renowned for its hot sulphur springs of which fourteen still exist. The health spa Romertherme Baden, the largest in Europe, is located here and Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Strauss and several Habsburg emperors all lived here at various times.
Four miles from Baden sits a small chapel on the site of Mayerling, a former hunting lodge. It was here that the bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf, son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth, “Sissi,” and his lover Baroness Maria Vetsera were discovered in January of 1889. It is believed they were victims of a murder/suicide pact
The chapel was built shortly after his death in memoriam and the altar is on the spot where their bed was. Highlights of the displays are family portraits, original furniture, Baroness Vetsera’s original coffin and the farewell letter Rudolf wrote on January 28th.
The 49-acre Cistercian Abbey complex of Heiligenkreuz is a hidden jewel. The cloister dates from the 11th-century and the abbey was constructed in 1133. The main nave is 59-ft. high and was completed in 1150. Fourteen Baroque, hand carved choir stalls continue to be used five times a day for the singing of Gregorian Chants. Inside the Chapter House are the tombs of the Babenburg Family, the ruling line that preceded the Habsburgs.
Seegrotte, Europe’s largest subterranean lake, is accessed via a 1,320-ft. corridor through a huge underground cave that contains St. Barbara’s Chapel, a stable for the horses used by the workers and a diorama of miners at work. During WWII the Germans made airplane parts in this cave system in secret and this tour takes you through the factory area. Thirty-minute boat rides on the lake are offered at the conclusion of the walking tour.
Wachau Valley, the 21-mile section of the Danube Valley between Melk and Krems, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 for its architecture, riverine landscape and particularly notable hillside vineyards. There are no bridges on the Danube River in this area so that the view is unobstructed. Wachau wine has been produced since Roman times and its 200 varieties are considered some of the best Austria produces.
The optimum way to enjoy the valley’s panoramic views is with a glass of Wachau wine atop the Sun Deck. The ride is narrated so that you are not only aware of what to see and its historic significance but also when to take photographs.
The valley’s first settlers were fishermen who arrived 1600 years ago. The name means “fish” and interestingly Wachovia Bank was founded by a family from the valley.
In the 1st century, the Romans established a citadel on the Danube called Namare. Today, it is the site of the city of Melk. In 1089, a group of monks founded a Benedictine Abbey there, the largest north of the Alps. The Baroque abbey is one of the initial sites visitors are treated to traveling east to west in the Wachau Valley. From 1805-09, Napoleon I located his general headquarters in the town.
Daily abbey tours are available that highlight the effect of the church and religious practices on history. The galleries are state-of-the-art and displays contain models, dioramas, relics and artifacts. I found the most interesting artifact to be a “service coffin.” Once it was lowered into the grave the bottom opened, the body was dropped into the grave and the coffin was removed. The abbey has 1365 windows, 500 rooms, 12 libraries and an Imperial Wing reserved for the emperor. Marie Antoinette was once a guest.
There are only two castles remaining in the valley because Napoleon blew them up because he did not have enough men to hold them. More than 20,000 of his men were killed in the Wachau and their bodies thrown into the Danube. Legend has it that it is known as the “Blue Danube” because of their blue uniforms.
As you enter Durnstein, at the end of the Wachau Valley, a statue of King Richard and his faithful servant Blondell greets you. The ruins of the castle in which Richard was imprisoned loom over the city and travelers can visit the site.
Nestled at the base of the Carpathian Mountains is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, considered a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. Bratislava straddles the Danube and five bridges connect the neighborhoods. The historic area is absolutely charming and totally walkable. Walking tours begin in the cobblestone streets of the city center, built by Maria Theresa to resemble other European capitals.
A fortress constructed circa 1430, erected on the site of one built in 907, is currently undergoing restoration and may be viewed from the exterior only. Views from the parapet take in three countries, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia.
Remnants of the 14th century walls remain and can be seen in the former Jewish Quarter. The Soviets tore down the synagogue but a commemorative statue and granite wall stand on the site.
The Gothic Cathedral of St. Martin was the location of the crowning of Hungarian kings for 370-years. The interior features a statue of St. Martin, catacombs, a 15th century baptismal and a replica of the Hungarian crown. Once on the exterior of the church you can follow the Coronation Route, a series of brass crowns imbedded in the pavement that duplicate the path the king rode throughout the town after being crowned.
Bratislava’s most unique attractions are the four unusual modern art statues on the streets of the Old City. A brass life-sized “Napoleon” leans on a bench in the Main Square, the “Taunter” squats on the front of a house and a “Paparazzi” leans around a corner to snap a photo on Laurinska Street. My personal favorite is “Rubberneck,” a statue peering at the crowd with his head and shoulders sticking out of a manhole. Twice motorists have decapitated him. www.slovakia.org/bratislava
We disembark in Budapest, but that’s a visit for another column.
I can’t recommend a Danube cruise highly enough and Avalon Waterways has created an outstanding itinerary with all the side trips I mentioned included in the price. It is an ideal and cost-effective way to see Europe’s great cities. If you don’t believe me, check it out. www.avalonwaterways.com
I wish you smooth and regal travels!