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Part 3 of our Viking River Cruise: The Blue Danube, Austria, and Hungary

September 7, 2016

 

bishops palace.jpgJust to set things straight, the Danube is not really blue: it’s just your typical brown river, albeit through some of the world’s most gorgeous landscapes, towns and cities. It came to be called “Blue” because when Napoleon attacked with his blue-uniformed army, the Austrians handily defeated them, forcing them en masse into the river. On that fateful day, the water looked blue because of all the floating dead soldiers. Every town we visited in Austria made the claim to be the town that whooped Napoleon, but they all agreed that’s how the name came about.

Both Austria and Hungary have interesting histories that are intertwined, having enjoyed the reign of the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful Hapsburg family, who not only ruled the Holy Roman Empire between 1438 and 1740, but also ruled Spain and most of central Europe up through the 19th century. The Hapsburgs were unique among the royals of Europe because they figured out that the best way for the dynasty to increase their holdings and power was not by waging war, but by systematically marrying their children into other royal households. Their motto was, “Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers  to you.”

They were so successful in inserting themselves into the ruling elite of all of Europe that the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa became known as the “Great-Grandmother of Europe.” There was an eventual drawback to this marrying and breeding strategy, however, for by the late 19th century, Hapsburg blood ran through the veins of so many of Europe’s rulers that there was nobody but their own left to marry. “The best spouse for a Hapsburg is another Hapsburg.” became the new family motto, and excessive inbreeding resulted in the eventual extinction of the family.

By the early 20th century, Austria had shrunk from being a major European power to the tiny nation it is today. But thanks to the reign of the Hapsburgs, their money, power, and their artistic sensibilities, Austria’s cities remain among of the most glorious of Europe. Our first stop, Melk, boasts Melk Abbey, which is even more beautiful than the Bishop’s Palace of Wurzburg. It has a library I could live in forever.

melk-abbey

Melk Abbey

spiral ceiling

Melk Abbey interior stairwell

 

 

melk-abbey-library

My future home, the Library at Melk Abbey

From Melk, we sailed on to Vienna, home of Strauss and Mozart, mouth-watering chocolate, and architecture that was designed to be jaw dropping. Forget the expression, “less is more.” In Vienna, MORE is more! Driving around the Ringstrasse, the wide boulevard encircling the inner City, is like driving around in a wedding cake competition. Each building is a work of art, and graceful statues cavort on every corner.

vienna-statue2

vienna-downtown

 

 

The main market is a wonder. It looked and smelled so good, all I wanted to do was walk up and down the place, sniffing, gazing and smiling.

vienna market.jpg

After Vienna, continuing along the Danube, we crossed over into Hungary, and immediately we noticed a difference, not so much in the architecture, but in the people. In Austria, everyone is blonde, blue-eyed, and large. In Hungary, they are all small, brunette, and brown-eyed. Amazing, especially since Hungary and Austria were once all a part of the same empire, and one would think, all a part of the same extended family. However, the small, dark strains of the original Celts are still dominant.

Vienna intended itself to be a lavish confection, but it seems that Budapest decided to pile it on even more. I believe that surely Walt Disney used Budapest as the inspiration for his theme parks. The place is a wonderland of whimsy. We had been to Budapest about 15 years ago, and at that time, it was barely out from under Soviet rule. Then, the people had a hard edge to them, nobody smiled, and the city seemed unkempt and noisy. We enjoyed it, but we did not fully appreciate its splendor. Now, it feels as if it is breathing again, the people are happy, the city is clean and vibrant.

budapest-marvel

budapest-disneyland

The people seem almost giddy, and for good reason. It has been an independent, free county only for about 25 years, for throughout its history, it has always been under the thumb of another occupying power. Because Hungary is smack in the middle of Europe, everybody wanted it for their own, and everybody invaded it. It was founded by the Celts,  but it did not stay in their hands for long. Rome took it over in the first century; they were followed by the Huns, the Bulgarians, the French and Germans, the Mongols, and the Turks. Finally, in the 18th century, the Hapsburgs grabbed it, controlling it from Vienna. Under their rule, Budapest became one of the most beautiful and important cultural city in Europe, even through the various occupations after the First World War

Germany took Hungary again during their invasion of Europe, then decimated the cities as they fled the advancing Soviet Army at the end of World War II. By the time the Soviets laid claim to it in 1945, it was devastated, poor, hungry, and demoralized. Hungarians never stopped hoping for their independence, however, and kept a steady spirit of hope and resistance until at last the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Now, finally, they are free and independent, and very, very happy about it. As I mentioned earlier in this post, they are gradually beginning to understand the joys of freedom, and as they do, they look back, remember, and honor their slain.

Prior to WWII, Hungary was a safe haven for Jews, but the Nazis decimated the Jewish population during the years between 1939 and 1945. One of the most moving and meaningful places I saw was the memorial of the shoes. One night in December, 1944, the Nazi army captured several Jews and anyone they could find who had sheltered. They marched them to the banks of the Danube, forced them to take off their shoes, and then they shot them. The bodies fell into the river, but their shoes remained for some days afterward. The memorial, made of iron reproductions of the shoes left along the riverbank, is a solemn reminder of only one of many tragic incidents in Hungary’s history.

shoes The shoe memorial.

Now, the city is beautiful and happy. Our strolls around during the day were breathtaking, but in the evening, our last night on the boat, we were treated to nighttime views as we sailed up and down the Danube, under the magnificent bridges. Oh my! As we stood up on the sundeck in the cool night, every bridge and building was lit up. Statues leaped out from the shadows. Hillsides bloomed with beautiful hidden alcoves, and the water shimmered with sparkling lights. Pomp combined with whimsy was everywhere! It was a night to remember—bittersweet, as we gazed in wonder and said our goodbyes to the friends we had made along the way.

budapest-parlaimant-at-night

Budapest Parliament

 

We were sad to part company with our fellow passangers, but Budapest was our last stop, and the end of the day meant the end of our trip. The ship left the next morning to continue its journey to the Black Sea. Some of our lucky shipmates were continuing on, but we sadly had to say goodbye to one of the best vacations we have ever had. You can bet that if we are ever in a position to do this again, we will jump on it. I hope someday to sail thriough Russia and the Scandanavian countries. Fingers are crossed!

greg-and-deb-farewell

A farewell serenade from our friends who were lucky enough to continue to the Black Sea

 

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