eastern europe blog
Day 1-2, September 7-8:  Budapest, Hungary

After an overnight at a downscale Heathrow airport hotel, our flight to Budapest the next evening is short with an easy taxi ride to the upscale Intercontinental Hotel on the Danube in Pest.  First impression:  the city is very beautiful and very clean. We read that the city is the birthplace of such notables as Franz Liszt, Joseph Pulitzer, and Béla Bartók as well as Harry Houdini and—to our surprise—George Soros.

Day 3, September 9:  Budapest

European prices are high for Americans so we take picnics with us—today to the suburbs to see the Bartók Memorial House.  Although the house is not open, we enjoy walking from the bus on a beautiful fall day, up a winding street in a pretty neighborhood to view the gardens and pay homage to the great composer since there is no other Bartók museum in Budapest.  Nearby is a development of 22 houses designed by 22 different architects in the international style—modest but nice.

Budapest is surely one of the most beautiful of all European cities, brimming with handsome buildings at every turn on both sides of the Danube with the green hills of Buda on one side of the river and the plains of Pest on the other.  The Hungarian Parliament, right on the river on the Pest side, is massive, combining Gothic Revival with touches of Renaissance and Baroque styles which one writer dismisses as “no more than a Turkish bath crossed with a Gothic chapel.”  But the effect is impressive nonetheless.  On our first walks we see the Market Hall (1896) and the highly ornamented St. Stephen’s (Svent István) Basilica inaugurated by Emperor Franz Josef that took so long to build (1851-1905) that it became a joke.

Dinner is at a floating restaurant anchored near our hotel called The Spoon. We begin with chilled raspberry soup topped with mascarpone, and enjoy the spectacular view of Buda Palace and the performance of an excellent young jazz pianist.

Day 4, September 10:  Budapest

Setting off by foot, we walk the 2.5 kilometer, tree-lined Andrássy út, (touted as Budapest’s Champs Elysée), past the State Opera House (once directed by Mahler) which sheltered 200 locals— including Kodaly—during the siege of Budapest in WWII.  Not far is the Liszt Museum where we hear distant strains of a Bach violin sonata, a performance that turns out to be by a Szigeti Competition contender.  Down the street is a huge bronze statue of Liszt featuring his enormous hands and the Music Academy under renovation that bears his name.  We also see the House of Terror with its notched roof overhang projecting the word "TERROR" in sunshine on the side wall in both Hungarian and English. Further on is a Korean Museum, the School of Architecture, and finally the Museum of Fine Arts at Heroes’ Square which marks the end of the avenue. 

The park beyond Heroes’ Square contains the Timewheel, the world’s largest hourglass, which rotates once a year and celebrates Hungary's admission into the EU, and the stark and rusted columns of the Monument to the Uprising of 1956. The Hungarian flag has a large hole in it, excising the hated hammer and sickle of the Russians.

After a picnic, we tour the huge Budapest zoo (1856) that contains many Art Nouveau animal houses—like the elephant house that looks like a mosque.  Later we have dinner at an outdoor café where there is a terrific strolling trio (violin, accordion & standup bass) who respond positively when we request Bartók!

Day 5, September 11:  Budapest

Today we take an Avalon-sponsored bus tour of the city to the Matyas Church and Fisherman’s Bastion high in the hills of Buda.  Big tours are not our style so we opt out of other tours and take a train on our own to the artists’ colony known as St. Andrew’s (Sventendre).  The town is still full of galleries and good artists, such as the ceramicist Margit Kovacs (1902-77) whose mythic figures and sculptures of sorrow have much appeal, as well as the kitsch similar to that in our beloved Rockport.  After buying some hot and sweet paprika for gifts, we climb for a stunning view of a Serbian Orthodox church spire silhouetted against trees with the Danube in the distance.  Returning to Budapest, we return to the Dunacorso Cafe because of the strolling musicians and sample their chicken paprika along with a local wine; the river and beautifully illuminated city serve as a backdrop.  Perfect.

Day 6, September 12:  Budapest

For the second time we walk the length of Andrássy út, this time exploring the Jewish quarter where formerly 20% of the city’s people lived.  We see a Moorish synagogue, a plaque to Spinoza, a few scholars with black-brimmed hats, and most touchingly a pair of bronze figures in a tiny park with a wall inscription quoting the Talmud & Bible saying:  “He who saves one life saves the world.”

At the Fine Arts Museum we tour a Bruegel exhibit along with a vast collection of everything from Egyptian to Impressionist art, including a wonderful Rembrandt and a small marble Rodin (Eternal Spring).  After a picnic beside the park lake, we take the metro home to make the transfer to our ship, the Tapestry.  There we meet an Australian couple and Aussie mother and daughter with whom we dine.  A chilly walk on the sundeck convinces us to retire to our stateroom with its sliding glass doors through which we can see the river banks slide by.

Day 7, September 13:  On the Danube

Our first day on board is a rainy one so we socialize in the lounge, chatting with new acquaintances, watching the Tapestry navigate the locks, and eating too much.  We skip the waltz evening tour—no Strauss or "Blue Danube" for us—and dine late with a delightful couple from Ottawa.

We read that the Danube is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga, all of 1,776 miles from the Black Sea and Romania through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. It is described as uniting, defining and dividing Central Europe. The river has brought art and music but also atrocity and war, and it provides the boundaries separating Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, borders drawn after WWI. The cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade have dumped waste into the river that finds its way to the delta, but today is a biosphere reserve. Slovakia built a 40-mile water management system along the river and Hungary was supposed to participate but pulled out after the fall of communism. Today water levels on the Hungarian side have dropped over two yards. We know that during dry periods the river cruises have to resort to bus transport to avoid shallow waters so the water levels are important for tourism as well as for commercial navigation.

Day 8, September 14:  Vienna, Austria

It is lovely to be docked overnight and avoid the engine noise of our ship.  First thing in the morning, we have a bus tour of Vienna with a visit to St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  Then we travel on our own to the beautifully organized exhibit of Klimt and his contemporaries at the spectacular Schloss Belvedere.   Afterwards we take the metro back to the ship in time for an excellent meal and a concert by the concertmaster of the Bratislava Symphony and his accompanist who is also a conductor.  But what schlock these fine musicians have to play to make a living!

Day 9, September 15:  Dürnstein

Arriving in the Wachau Valley, a small but important wine-growing district with stepped vineyards on the hills, we take a walking tour of Dürnstein with its narrow streets and carefully tended graveyard.  Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned here by Duke Leopold of Austria until a huge ransom was paid.  Along the river is a blue tower belonging to a convent, a fortress in ruins, a lovely small hotel, and beautiful vistas.

Back on the ship we sit on the Sky Deck to see fortified churches pass by: the White Church and Spitz, and the picturesque 19th century Schönbühel Castle.  Next is a bus trip to the handsome Benedictine Abbey of Melk with its 100,000-volume library, ornately gilded chapel and formal gardens.  Finally we have a wine-tasting, dinner and a silly but rather entertaining staff variety show.

Day 10, September 16:  Linz, Salzburg & Passau

After docking at Linz, we board a bus to Salzburg, stopping at Mondsee, a beautiful lake town in the alps, to see a church where the Sound of Music wedding was filmed—a rather silly idea although the town is lovely.  Finally in Salzburg we walk through the spectacular Mirabelle gardens, across a pedestrian bridge, and into the quaint old city where we browse the shopping area with its handsome wrought-iron signs.  We spend an interesting hour or so in the house where Mozart was born, checking out his clavichords and some wonderful models of opera sets including one by Walter Gropius for the Magic Flute

Finally we meet our ship in Passau, a handsome town on the confluence of three rivers (the Inn, Iltz, and Danube) and feast on a multi-course dinner (melon with prosciutto, cream of onion soup, lamb, and apricot pastry with free-flowing wine) with companions from New Hampshire and Michigan.  Afterwards, a Czech violinist plays his electric violin accompanied by recorded sounds, beginning with “Spring” from the Seasons and degenerating thereafter.

Day 11, September 17:  Danube Gorge, Weltenberg Abbey, & Regensburg, Germany

We dock long enough to board buses to the Danube Gorge where we have a gentle cruise on a small boat through a little gorge to Weltenberg Abbey that was founded in 620 and is one of the oldest in Bavaria.  High water marks on a building indicate flood levels, a serious problem all along the Danube.  The abbey is in a highly ornamented baroque style with hidden windows providing natural light to the ceiling and altar.  Since the monks produce beer, we taste beer and pretzels.

After lunch we have a walking tour of Regensburg, a UNESCO Heritage site in honor of its many medieval buildings, only 13% of which were destroyed in the war.  Our day concludes with the Captain’s dinner with baked Alaska for dessert.

Day 12, September 18:  Nuremburg

Our last full day onboard is a day of locks on the Donau Canal, 80’ drops described in detail in lectures on board.  All equipment, including the cockpit, has to be folded flat because of low bridges.   We are amazed to cruise on a water bridge that crosses the road below! 

After docking in Nuremburg, we take a tour of the city and then, on our own, explore the City Hall and Church of St. Lawrence, a moving experience as we read of its near destruction in WWII along with 75% of cultural buildings in the city. The people were determed to rebuild the church, and the Nail Cross from Coventry Cathedral represents a process of reconciliation and forgiveness between the two churches and two formerly warring countries.

Our final event on board the Tapestry is a champagne dinner. It is a delight with good food and lively conversation with our new Canadian and Aussie friends with whom we have spent many pleasant hours.

Day 13, September:  Prague

Today we leave the Tapestry for Prague, a three-hour bus trip.  On arrival, we leave our bags at the Old Town Hilton and discover the 13th century St. Agnes Convent founded, we read, by a powerful woman diplomat.  Prague was not bombed during the war so the city retains its many art nouveau buildings, although many are in need of restoration. 

Tosca at the exquisite Prague State Opera House (1850) is our entertainment for the evening and we relish the fine performance and magical acoustics of this small but elegant hall though we wish we had caught Smetana's Bartered Bride the night before.

Day 14, September 20:  Prague

While the Hilton is an 800-room anonymous sort of place, its breakfast buffet is spectacular with chef-made omelets, meats, cheeses, yogurt, fruits, breads, pastries, hot muffins, pancakes and more.  After our feast, we tour Prague with an excellent and amusing guide through the palace and cathedral across the Moldau set high on a hill overlooking the city.  St. Vitus Cathedral is beautiful, with its brilliantly-colored modern stained glass windows inside and its handsome mosaics outside.  The view, too, is lovely with the gardens of the U.S. Embassy on the hillside below the cathedral and the river still further down. 

Next we arrive in Old Town at noon, just in time to see the 16th century astronomical clock perform its magic, glimpse the early home of Franz Kafka, the Stone Bell Church, and dozens of elaborate buildings in the area.  Then we make a pilgrimage to Terezin, a concentration camp about an hour from Prague, that includes a walk through the cemetery, through the original fortress, into small rooms with wooden bunks housing dozens of people, and into windowless cells for solitary confinement.   A propaganda film made by the Nazis and retrofitted with a voice-over reveals the horrific deportation and survival numbers, and the museum further documents tales of torture and deprivation, some with videos of survivors.

Our guide suggests we all find a way to shift gears so we can sleep that night.  So we invite our Aussie friends to our room for a glass of wine and then walk to the famous Imperial Café where we dine and talk about the day’s experience.  On our way there, we ask directions of an elderly gentleman who spoke perfect English and talked for some time about his lost years under Communism.

Day 15, September 21:  Prague

After another sumptuous breakfast with our Canadian friends, we head to Old Town to view the buildings we missed yesterday, including the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, the bizarre Church of St. James where the arm of a thief hangs over the door, and the Storch House that features an elaborate equestrian wall-painting.  From there, we walk through the Jewish quarter and see the Spanish Synagogue, an odd statue for Franz Kafka, and the Jewish Cemetery with its tumble of stones for some 200,000 graves—a ghetto in death as well as life.

Hopping a tram, we stop at the Charles Bridge, jammed with tourists, and find a lovely little café overlooking the Moldau and the bridge. We discuss politics with a Norwegian psychiatrist while sampling the local beer and cheese and goulash soup.  Then we take the Metro across the river to the National Gallery which houses an amazing and immense modern art collection:  Kokoschkas( painted while he lived in exile in Prague), many Rodins, Picassos, Bracques, a Warhol, Munch, and a beautiful peaceful late Van Gogh of green fields.  For our final dinner in this beautiful city, we return to the opulent Imperial Café.

Day 16, September 22:  Prague

Our plane home is late afternoon, so we hop another trolley to visit Wenceslas Square which is teeming with pedestrians and bicyclists prior to some sort of race which we enjoy watching as there are kids and parents and serious bikers all together.  Jack’s knee is bothering him from a misstep the previous day, so we head back to the hotel and pack up for the journey home. We change planes in London, manage to get our apricot preserves past airport security, and are promptly met at Logan Airport by Lighthouse Taxi for the ride to Rockport and home.