Austria: Danube Cruise and Currents of History

The Prinz Eugen, our ride down one of the world's great rivers

The Prinz Eugen, ready to take us down one of the world’s great rivers

We found a shady seat. There was no air conditioning; Austrians wisely don’t see the point in installing it when heat waves such as this one are still so rare. We were just glad to be on the boat and out of the sun.

Joseph was excited and ran topside with the camera to view the Danube’s Wachau Valley from the busy deck full of schoolchildren. I did my beer-getting duties, then slumped down in my chair, put my feet up on the rail, and watched the river go by. As I always do in places such as this, I tried to imagine the overlay of centuries of history on what I was seeing.

The Mississippi, the Nile, the Ganges, the Rhine…any conversation about the world’s great rivers has to include the Danube, the Donau in German. Running through southeastern Europe like an aorta, it has borne the great, the small, the evil and the good on its aggressive current for eons. The river begins in the Black Forest of southern Germany and runs 1,785 miles to the Black Sea. In Europe, only the Volga is longer. Turks more than once pushed against the Donau’s flow to besiege Vienna; the Habsburgs pushed just as hard to get the royal family to Linz ahead of the Turkish horde that swarmed toward Vienna in 1683. In calmer times, the Danube has been a major trade route that allowed cultures to merge, learn and thrive.

Contrary to what the Strauss family would have you believe, the Danube is not blue, at least not most of the time. Austrians seem to get a wry boost from pointing this out to visitors who expect to find a placid, serene river. But it is beautiful, and it’s the river’s rustic, barely constrained wildness that fires the imagination.

Dad knows what to do on a rare 90-degree day in the Wachau Valley.

Dad knows what to do on a rare 90-degree day in the Wachau Valley.

That happens easily. Taking a pull on my large Heineken (that’s all they had on tap on the Prinz Eugen, I swear), I watched the current that was gliding us downstream splash insistently against an orange-painted oil drum. Joseph had returned; unused to river lore, he asked why the drum wasn’t moving.

“Navigation buoy, I think. Anchored to the river bottom,” I said. “So all these tourist boats can know where to steer.”

“Well, they must be able to see each other,” he said.

“Certainly, in good weather. But this keeps the traffic orderly, especially if there are freight barges too.”

His thing-learned-for-the-day. I suspected there was more. The water level was not terribly low, but I did see some differences in color. There may have been shallows, if not shoals, and preferred channels for deeper-drafting craft.

In the heat of the hazy sunshine, we contemplated the abundant history on the hilly riverbanks. In one ruined castle above the town of Dürnstein, King Richard I of England (the Lionheart) was imprisoned from December 1192 until March 1193 for having offended the Duke Leopold V while on the way home from the Third Crusade. The abbey at Dürnstein, hard by the river, was a pleasant surprise, with its sky-blue accent coloring reminiscent of the robes of the Virgin Mary. The Prinz Eugen made a stop there; I was only sad that we didn’t have time to get off and look around.

Above Dürnstein, the castle were Duke Leopold imprisoned Richard I

Above Dürnstein, the castle were Duke Leopold V imprisoned Richard the Lionheart

No worries; there was plenty more to see. Rows and rows of terraced vineyards along the sloped north bank put us in mind of the taste of the new wine to come, the Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings of clean taste and varying sweetness, delectable summer sips even for confirmed Cabernet lovers like us. There were so many chalets, castles and fortified churches that the tour guide couldn’t keep up, and we were left to ponder what might have gone on in, or near, some of them. Deep woods on unoccupied hillsides may have once been cover for scouts and bowmen seeking to infiltrate, or defend, the heartland of the Habsburgs and their Holy Roman Empire.

The boat ride was part of an excursion from Vienna to Melk Abbey that also involves trains; a “Kombiticket” sold by ÖBB, the Austrian national rail system, covers everything (see yesterday’s post). At Krems, the boat docks and you can get a train back to central Vienna. But the walk through the town to the station is long; you may want to step into the Julius Meinl restaurant at the dock and see if you can call a cab. And as you enter Vienna, consider getting off at Spittelau station rather than going all the way into Franz-Josefs-Bahnhof; the former has better subway connections. (This last tip, plus a great deal of other useful information, comes from Rick Steves’ Vienna/Salzburg/Tirol guidebook. It was an invaluable resource during out trip, and it’s printed on paper that makes the book light to carry. That matters more than you might think.)♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photographs by Adam Barr and Joseph Barr

Coming into Dürnstein...

Coming into Dürnstein…

...and a closer look at its lovely abbey.

…and a closer look at its lovely abbey.

Missed the name of this enchanting manse, just a few kilometers downstream from Melk

Missed the name of this enchanting manse, just a few kilometers downstream from Melk

A shot across our bow. The Danube is rarely blue, but it flows through centuries of history and imagination.

A shot across our bow. The Danube is rarely blue, but it flows through centuries of history and imagination.

On the hill, grapes for the neue wein, sweetening in the sun

On the hill, grapes for the neue wein, sweetening in the sun

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