Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
The scenes drift by — castles perched on hills, towns with multi-colored buildings, fields with checkerboard patterns. Then, as if a shade has been drawn, all I see is dark, gray stone. The Viking Njord, a new vessel that’s larger and more environmentally friendly than most riverboats, has entered a lock. A few minutes later, it exits, having been gently raised more than 20 feet. Thus we cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, stair-stepping up and down along three rivers (the Rhine, Main and Danube), two canals (the Amsterdam and the Main-Danube Canal) and 69 locks. It takes us 13 leisurely days to traverse 1200 miles, visit five countries and time-travel through ten centuries of European history.
Our first stop is Kinderdijk, where we’re greeted by 19 windmills, all starkly outlined against a somber sky. The scene is so perfect in its simplicity, so stereotypically Dutch, that it could be the cover of a tourist brochure for the Netherlands. The mills, which were built in the mid-1700s and are still in working condition, are reminiscent of ones used in the Middle Ages, when the Dutch realized that in addition to grinding corn, wind-powered mills also could help drain wetlands and reclaim land from the sea.
Feudal reality again melds with fairytale fantasy as we enter Germany. Because rivers were once the main means of transportation, towns and cities were built on their shores, and we’re never very far from land. I step out on the veranda of my stateroom, and as we sail eastward along the Rhine, I see one castle after another. Each is special in its own way — a tower here, a drawbridge there, ivy-covered walls everywhere — but they are all also startlingly similar. They were homes for feudal lords as well as fortresses that defended their fiefdoms which, I figure, makes them a medieval version of a governor’s mansion surrounded by armed guards.
Many days we wander through small villages filled with cobblestoned streets, half-timbered houses and narrow buildings in rainbow colors. Other times we explore big cities where the buildings are more stately and the ambience more harried. But wherever we are, we overdose on chocolate, pretzels and beer before returning to the ship for a white-tablecloth dinner. The days, as well as our stomachs, are full.
It’s in Nuremberg that we bridge the centuries, moving from the Middle Ages, when the city was the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire, to the 1930s and ‘40s, when it was the unofficial capital of the Nazis’ Third Reich. “Hitler dreamed of an empire that would be as large as the ancient Roman one,” says our guide, as we pass the parade grounds where Hitler staged party rallies. I notice that the nearby building, the massive Kongresshalle, bears a startling resemblance to the Roman Coliseum.
We’re still munching on Lebkuchen, the traditional gingerbread cookies that we bought in Nuremberg, when the ship enters the lock that takes us to a watershed 1,332 feet above sea level, the highest point on any European waterway. From here our trip is literally downhill. but each stop gives us another high.
We cruise through Austria’s wine country before spending a day in Vienna, where we attend a classical concert featuring the music of Mozart and Strauss. Aboard the ship, we learn how to make strudel and listen to rollicking music as we’re served a buffet of Austrian specialties.
After a brief stop in Slovakia, we find it altogether fitting that our river cruise ends in Budapest, a city that is divided physically as well as metaphorically by a river. “Buda,” on the west side of the Danube, is the old part of the city, replete with a castle, fortress and several museums. Eight bridges join it to “Pest,” the more modern area that, although it is still home to sites of historic and cultural significance, is characterized by expansive boulevards, fine restaurants and good shopping.
That night during our last dinner aboard the ship we sit with friends and reflect on our trip. In less than two weeks we’ve traveled from the hip atmosphere of Amsterdam to the more restrained elegance of Budapest, walked through the winding alleys of ancient towns as well as the wide aisles of upscale department stores and learned about events both tragic and heroic.
“It’s been a crash course in European culture and history as well as a relaxing vacation,” says one fellow. Just then the pianist begins playing the familiar Gershwin tune, “Who could ask for anything more?” and we all start laughing. It’s as if the pianist has read our thoughts.