- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Going downriver has always been a metaphor for self-discovery, an exploration of the increasingly dense layers of our more ancient, more primitive selves.

In literary terms, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” follows a journey downriver to a primal view of existence that is both primitive and undeniable as part of who we are.

Conrad makes the point that we must make the journey and face the connection between the past and the more ancient ways of life and our own existence.

Europe reflects this in ways we don’t always see, and yet the very basis of Europe for American travelers is the existence of an ancient and historical legacy rich in culture, myth and legendary places and people.

So we go to Europe to view the castles of the Dark Ages and the miracle of modern culture meshing with ancient sites and cities and distant legacies we cover with modern development.

Just below the surface, increasingly evident as we reach older cities less touched by modern life, is a more primitive, more inward-looking perspective that tells a story about all of us as we learn about our present by exploring our past.

That’s the theory. Our journey is a European river cruise, a 14-day expedition on a floating palace from the free-spirited melting pot of Amsterdam, down the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers.

We will sail past the storybook castles of Bavaria, into the bourgeois heart of classical Vienna and on to the even older and very different cities of Bratislava and Budapest, time capsules cut off from the West for much of the 20th century.

We are traveling on Viking River Cruises, which operates a fleet of river-cruise boats in Europe and Asia, on the ship Viking Spirit, which makes regular runs from Amsterdam to Budapest and back every two weeks. In Amsterdam, we are met at the airport and taken directly to the boat.

One of the attractions of a river cruise like this is that you see 16 cities and unpack only once. Our cabin, though somewhat small, is comfortable, with a large window. The ship, which carries 150 passengers, is well-appointed, with a large lounge encased in picture windows, and a sprawling sun deck.

Amsterdam represents the libertine passion of modern society. The city itself, a beautiful gem set on more canals than Venice, encapsulates an open society with few restraints.

It lives up to that promise, with coffeehouses dispensing high-grade marijuana and an expansive red-light district that thrives day and night.

A favorite with the young and the backpacker set, Amsterdam is also a delight for the mature traveler. On day one, we take a canal tour and visit the Rijksmuseum, we see Dam Square with the royal palace, and we sample as much of a great city as you can in one day.

Then the cruise begins.

Our crew is smart and sharp, fairly young and largely German, Slovakian and Hungarian. As the boat disembarks, the energy of the passengers is palpable.

Our captain, Lothar Liedke, is an impressive man with a ready smile who has grown up on and truly knows every inch of the rivers we will travel.

Our cruise manager, Jochen Kargl, is a strapping young Austrian who will lead our excursions for the next two weeks with precision and humor. The float down the large canal toward the Rhine is picturesque and riveting. As we pass through the first two of 68 locks on our journey, the excitement level rises.

These modern miracles of shipping and commerce will lift the ship some 1,300 feet as we transship from the Rhine through the Main and then lower it back down as we move along the Danube toward Budapest.

The next morning, we arrive at our first stop, Cologne. Bombed into near extinction during World War II, Cologne has the tallest cathedral in Europe, a Gothic masterpiece built between the 12th and 19th centuries that contains the relics (bones) of the three Wise Men.

These religious treasures were seized from Italy as spoils of war in the 11th century. Thus, the city connects the 21st century with the first, with stops through the history of Western warfare all the way to the present.

The next morning is the money shot, six hours of medieval castles and storybook scenery as we pass into the middle Rhine. Here one towering stone edifice after another rises into view at each turn in the river. Largely built in the 11th and 12th centuries, sacked by the French in the 17th and restored, where possible, in the 20th, these were built primarily as toll-collection booths by robber barons demanding tribute from passing traffic on the Rhine.

They are throwbacks to the baser instincts of medieval power but leave a rich visual legacy and make up a stunning six-hour cruise highlight. Today, many of the restored castles are hotels, restaurants and even private homes.

Setting out into rolling hills filled with vineyards, we spend the afternoon in Rudesheim, famous for its wines. After a walking tour of the town, we are delighted to sample several bottles of a fine dry Riesling.

Rudesheim is a classic small German village, and despite its touristy pretensions, it is an effective evocation of the uncomplicated mythology of village existence.

In Mainz, a beautiful college town, we visit the Gutenberg Museum, see several copies of the Gutenberg Bible and learn more about the man who bridged the Dark Ages and brought the development of printed books to Western civilization. Colorful and pretty, Mainz is a symbol of knowledge and hope on a continent ravaged by war and conquest over the millennium.

At sunrise, we arrive in Wertheim, a charming, very small restored medieval village set below a large castle. Here, for centuries, life played out for the common glass blower (a specialty of the village) as the winds of war swirled around it.

Indeed, where the Tauber River meets the Main is an authentic look into the village of the past, with all its charms and foibles, where the brewmeister was burned at the stake in the 1600s for witchcraft — but the brewery and the brew remain.

The following day, in Wurzburg, we tour the archbishops’ palace, the center of a town destroyed in a firestorm of bombs late in World War II. We then take a bus excursion to Rothenburg, a perfectly preserved medieval village with a fully intact fortress wall surrounding the entire town.

One of the rare German towns to escape devastation in the war, Rothenburg allows a direct journey into the Germany that is the folk song’s dream, full of half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets, beer gardens and quaint shops.

Then there is Nuremberg. This city, of course, is remembered for Nazi party rallies and war-crimes trials. Bombed into rubble, it is an impressive, beautiful city with a significant medieval wall surviving in the city center under the gaze of the imperial castle.

The startling thing is that the icon of Nazism, the Zeppelin field immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s epic Nazi propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will,” is a beautiful park in an idyllic setting, masking with its tranquillity the monstrous iconic nature for which it is known. Oh, and try the sausage. Whether the specialty of boiled Bavarian white sausage or the six-pack of smaller Nuremberg delicacies, it is a joy to behold and consume.

Perhaps the gem on this journey is Regensburg, one of the oldest cities on the Danube and the hometown of Pope Benedict XVI. Regensburg connects civilization with the Romans who settled it in the third century and remains intact, offering a view of antiquity in the modern era.

The stone bridge, dating to the 1100s, is one of Europe’s oldest. It boasts more family towers, symbols of wealth and influence in the 1600s, than San Gimignano in Italy, which is famed for its towers.

Regensburg is a busy college town with excellent shopping and a sophisticated air. For centuries, it was the center of the imperial court and had the consultative assembly or “permanent diet” as a governing presence for more than 200 years.

We pass out of Germany through Passau at the joining of three rivers — the Danube, Inn and Ilz. It is an ancient town with a stunning cathedral housing the largest pipe organ in Europe.

A staunch Catholic holdout with a powerful prince-bishop who kept an iron grip on the Reformation, Passau is a link to the older, more extended traditions of the Holy Roman Empire.

Leaving Germany, we proceed to Linz, Austria’s third-largest city and the gateway to Eastern Europe. In Linz, we find a beautiful old town with numerous bars and a rowdy atmosphere — modern times on a small scale clashing with a charmingly beautiful warren of cobblestone streets.

We push onward into the heart of Austria, a step into the past in terms of attitude, proximity and history. We visit a Benedictine monastery in Melk dating from the 10th century, and we see a relic of the cross of Christ and understand the influence of the medieval church.

Then it’s the money shot again. We cruise for two hours through one of the most beautiful stretches of the Danube, even more spectacular than the middle Rhine, and pass castle after castle of the medieval barons until the jewel in the crown comes into view around the bend.

It is the very castle where Richard the Lion-Hearted was held captive in the Middle Ages. Its ruins tower over Durnstein, a perfect image of a medieval town in the most glorious spot on the entire trip.

We disembark, and a small group of us make our way to a phenomenal dinner at the Relais & Chateau chestnut the Hotel Schloss Durnstein. We devour saddle of venison and stuffed fowl as the sun falls across the gleaming golden Danube.

From our perch along a castle wall overlooking the river, we are suspended in a dazzling moment of time in a truly special place.

It is Vienna, though, that is the heart of old Europe, and it is our next stop, where a modern city of 2 million sits on top of the glory of the Habsburg empire and Mozart reigns supreme.

Vienna is large and congested, very touristy, expensive for shopping and, on first impression, overstimulating and underwhelming.

All that changes with an evening concert of Mozart and Strauss in the very hall where Mozart premiered some of his most famous works. It is the epitome of what Vienna means to us, in the recesses of our mind, and it delivers with impact.

The contrast with the heart of darkest Europe is apparent the next day in Bratislava, Slovakia, as we emerge behind the former Iron Curtain and encounter a nation still emerging into modern times. Bratislava is rustic and somewhat run down, the European city equivalent of a fixer-upper.

For now it is a charming, if somewhat dilapidated, reminder of the Cold War and the struggle of Eastern Europe to emerge from 50 years of stagnation. As such, it encapsulates a Europe we haven’t seen yet on this trip.

Now, a word about the nature of our travels.

This particular cruise is an amazing way to see the Continent, traveling down the most ancient of roads, the river, through the most ancient of towns and seeing them at a pace that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Then there is the encapsulation factor. As you leave one town and go on to the next, you have a rhythm to your travel. Indeed, some of the great days are those when we merely drift downriver, watching the shore and the castles above and the changing scenery from a civilized environment.

Good friends are made on deck and in the lounge as the days flow by. Spending 14 days on a river ship allows for plenty of downtime, and yet the calm is never boring, always changing. It is a special and exclusive manner of travel that produces a unique experience.

It all comes to a thundering climax as we sail into Budapest, possibly the most beautiful city I have ever seen. While Vienna was somewhat underwhelming, Budapest is an overwhelming sight as we arrive on a Friday evening with all its monuments and palaces ablaze in light, towering over the city.

Budapest is as pretty as Rome, with buildings and avenues that evoke Paris but with a rumbling undercurrent of stored-up energy as it continues to emerge from the all-too-apparent shadow of Nazi occupation and Soviet domination. It is a city at the fulcrum of Central Europe, thriving, alive with commerce, bars and a pastoral beauty that surpasses anything else on the trip.

Indeed, Budapest is the perfect climax to a journey through the ages. It is here that we find a Shangri-La that masks its darker side.

With castles, monuments and a lively bar district, Budapest is the fitting contrast of antiquity and history clashing with the darker chapters of the modern era. It is a hopeful note that here, at journey’s end, the heart of darkness is giving way to something positive and stirring in a setting that is nothing short of glorious.

Reflecting on the course of our river cruise — the open invitation of Amsterdam, the castles on the Rhine, the villages of Germany, the serenity of upper Austria and the ancient contrast of Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest (three cities separated by several hundred miles but worlds apart in their tone and development) — we live the metaphor of man’s journey downriver as an exploration of self reflected through the monuments the past has left to the present.

Our river ship, following the ancient flow of the original highway, is a unique cocoon as we look back on the stunning journey we have taken. Moreover, the cruise is a special experience that has allowed two weeks’ time, the means and the environment to travel into a past that is a startling evocation of the present.

This is a journey that will be hard, if not impossible, to forget.

River as road from Amsterdam to Budapest

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Viking River Cruises offers 14-day trips from Amsterdam to Budapest or Budapest to Amsterdam aboard the Viking Spirit or two other vessels from April through October.

Prices for peak season range from $4,800 to $6,400 per person all-inclusive (including round-trip airfare) or $4,000 to $5,400 per person without prepaid airfare, based on two people per cabin and depending on cabin location.

Off-peak rates range from $4,000 to $5,600 all-inclusive (including round-trip airfare) or $3,200 to $4,800 per person without prepaid airfare, again based on two people per cabin and cabin location.

Arrangements for extended stays at either destination can be made at the time of booking.

For complete itineraries and pricing for all Viking River Cruises, visit vikingrivercruises.com; for reservations and additional information, call 877/668-4546.


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