By Renée S. Gordon
The Danube River, the second longest in Europe, flows more than 1,700-miles from Germany to the Black Sea. It is documented that the Greeks traded along the river they called the Ister, as early as the 7th-century BC. The Romans later renamed the watercourse the Danuvius, founded a series of trading colonies along its length and established it as the empire’s northernmost boundary.
Steeped in Roman, Medieval and Austro-Hungarian history, a number of Europe’s most significant cities line the shores of the modern-day Danube.
While a sail along its course is akin to a trip through time, it is also a tranquil journey with ever-changing scenery and innumerable photographic opportunities. A river cruise on the Danube is very special and the optimum way to experience it is aboard a ship that is part of the Avalon Waterways cruise fleet.
Avalon Waterways is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades including the well-deserved distinction of being one of the Top 10 Small-Ship Cruise Lines for the past few years. Avalon offers cruises on the great rivers of the world in ships that are designed for comfort, spaciousness and to maximize guests’ ability to obtain unimpeded panoramic views from staterooms, the lounge, restaurant and the Sky Deck.
Renowned for hospitality and service the ship’s staff maintains a standard of excellence in all areas. In addition to the sumptuous breakfast and lunch buffets and a more formal dinner, a 6 AM early-riser service and afternoon tea are provided. Sessions are held each evening to familiarize guests with the history of scheduled ports of call and available activities. A nightly newsletter restates important information and, one of Avalon’s special touches, a bedtime story in the form of a regional legend.
I highly recommend Avalon for all of the stated reasons and even more significantly for its sensitivity to the handicapped and the elderly. Provisions are made at each port for those with mobility issues so that everyone can participate. Wireless headsets are distributed at check in that attach to individual receivers to be used during land excursions so that participants don’t miss a word. www.avalonwaterways.com
A wonderful introduction to both the world of small-ship cruising and the great cities of Europe is “A Taste of the Danube,” a six-day sail that travels from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary with visits to Melk and Durnstein in Austria, Bratislavia, Slovakia and a 25-mile glide through the Wachau Valley. The journey begins in Austria’s Imperial City, Vienna. www.wien.info/en
An archeologist discovered one of the earliest images of the female form in 1908 in the Danube Valley. The Venus of Willendorf dates from 25,000 BC and firmly establishes a date for early settlement. Current day Vienna was the scene of Celtic settlements by 4 BC but the best historic documentation stems from 12 AD when the Romans set up Vindobona, a military encampment, in what is now the city’s historic First District. In 213 AD, Vindobona was officially recognized as a Roman city and it thrived for more than 200-years until the empire collapsed. The Historic Center of Vienna was designated a UNESCO site in 2001.
In 1273, Count Rudolf von der Habichtsburg was elected German Emperor and five years later he ruled unopposed and he had added Austria to his holdings. He would establish the Habsburg dynasty with its royal seat in Vienna that would rule with only minor disruptions until 1918. Modern Vienna is the capital of the Republic of Austria.
Vienna is a cosmopolitan city with 250 dining establishments, accommodations, 110 museums, palaces, entertainment venues and historic sites. While this makes the city an outstanding tourist destination, it also makes it a virtual impossibility to see it all in a single visit so travelers must make some decisions regarding those sites that they feel are most important. www.vienna.info
There are two services, Red Bus City Tours and Hop-On Hop-Off Buses that provide an overview of the city. If you prefer more individualized exploration, there are nearly 800-miles of cycling paths or you can rent an iGuide, a 35-stop three-hour walking tour pocket computer from Tourist Information. A good use of your travel dollars is a Vienna Card that offers 72-hours of free transit around the city, a map and guide as well as a coupon book with several hundred discounts. www.wienkarte.at
One can succumb to sensory overload and become overwhelmed by the sheer number of places and activities available. I decided to explore Vienna thematically, following in the footsteps of three people whose lives affected Austria and the world.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was born in Salzburg, Austria. He performed his first piece at the age of 4. In October of 1762, he sailed the Danube and landed in Vienna where he performed in the Schönbrunn Palace. In 1781, he moved to Vienna to compose, perform and teach and these are considered his most productive years.
He moved to an apartment at Domgasse 5 in 1784, it was here that he lived the longest and it is his only existing residence. He lived on the first floor and composed great works including “The Marriage of Figaro.” Initial displays focus on his private life, the second floor gallery highlights his music and the third floor exhibition is dedicated to his life in Vienna. A one-hour tour is offered that includes a free audio guide. www.mozarthausvienna.at/en
The Germans occupied Austria in March of 1938 and shortly thereafter Sigmund Freud?s family was arrested. Three months later they were allowed to leave the country and settle in London where he died in 1939. Freud, though born in Moravia, lived in the Jewish neighborhood of Vienna from the age of three for the next 78 years.
His impact as the founder of psychoanalysis cannot be overstated and much of his work was carried on in the house where he resided from 1891-1938. A tour of the house museum includes his apartment and office and features original furnishings, personal items and memorabilia, films and recordings. www.freud-museum.at/e
Elisabeth of Wittelsbach, “Sisi,” (1837-1898) was born in Bavaria but would go on to become Empress of Austria at age 16 and an iconic figure of Viennese history. Emperor Franz Joseph married her for love, he was to have wed her sister, but she could not adjust to court life and maintain her independent spirit. She was much loved by the Austrian people because of her liberal politics and her life story has been the plot of several movies.
Sisi was always extremely beautiful and fashionable and her desire to attain perfection led to her becoming anorexic. She was 5’8″ tall, weighed 110-lbs and her waist measured a mere 21.6-inches. Her son committed suicide after killing his mistress and she was assassinated by an anarchist while walking on a street in Geneva. In short, Elizabeth was the original Princess Di.
A walking trail of Imperial Vienna has been designed to follow her footsteps and the ideal place to begin is in the Sisi Museum inside the Amalienburg section of the Imperial Palace. The Habsburgs ruled from here for 600-years and erected a castle with 18 wings, 19 courtyards and 2600 rooms.
The museum was redesigned in 2009 to reflect not only her life but also her personality. The galleries lead you through her life, displaying more than 300 items featured in a series of rooms inscribed with lines from her personal diaries. The highlights of the collection are replicas of her coronation gown and rail car, her baby shoes, clothing she wore on the day she was assassinated, her death mask and the file used in her murder. The Imperial Apartments are part of the tour and visitors can’t help but be intrigued by Sisi’s exercise equipment.
On the floor below the museum is the Silver Collection. The sheer number of items and their opulence is astonishing. A highlight of the collection is a duck press made for Sisi because she did rarely eat but drank duck’s blood. www.hofburg-wien.at/en/things-to-know/sisi-museum
Sisi’s favorite sweets, candied violets, were made by Demels the Imperial Bakery and Confectioner. Located near the palace, Mr. Demel would personally deliver them. Visitors can visit the shop and watch the bakers and purchase a tin of the violets at a cost of $100 per pound.
Sisi was proud of her hair. It fell below her knees and she had the Royal Jewelers craft 27 diamond stars for her to wear in it. Only two of the originals remain but Koechert has continued to reproduce a limited edition for purchase. You can view the collection on their website. www.koechert.at
Vienna is only our first port on our Danube cruise and the Avalon Waterways itinerary is created so that you have an opportunity to have a taste of everything. Please join me next week when we follow the trail of the crusaders.
I wish you smooth and regal travels!