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Christmas Markets Virtual
Day 1: Embarkation at Nuremberg
Day 2: Nuremberg and Danube cruising
Day 3: Regensburg
Day 4: Passau
Day 5: Salzburg
Day 6: Melk, Durnstein and Danube cruising
Day 7: Vienna
Day 8: Disembarkation
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Day 6: Sunday, Melk, Durnstein and Danube cruising
Melk, Durnstein and Danube cruisingWeather Report: Overcast and nippy...the fur hat returns.

Today was the first real day of scenic cruising. While the Danube is widely considered one of Europe's most beautiful rivers, along many stretches -- particularly those we have traveled thus far -- it's actually a series of manmade canals that border a lot of less-than-picturesque urban areas. But this stretch of the river, which bounds Austria's gorgeous wine region (with terraced vineyards that rise high on hills) is absolutely gorgeous.

Our first stop was the town of Melk, whose highlight is its magnificent 900-year-old Baroque Benedictine abbey is perched on the cliffs high above the Danube. Our guide led us on a tour of the museum, grand corridor, marble room and library, as well as the pretty church where every statue is covered in gold!

Stunning frescos cover the marble room's ceiling and upper walls -- I can't even begin to describe how beautiful they are, and photographs don't do them justice. The artist used light in such a fashion that the paintings appear three-dimensional and illuminated in a manner that feels like you are looking up into the glorious heavens. Lions' faces and the eyes and feet of people on several of the paintings follow you as you move about the room.

The exquisite library houses 12,000 books from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries that were re-bound in leather with gold leaf during the Baroque period, and the room itself is a beautiful example of Baroque design.

The terrace in front of the church overlooks the quaint town of Melk at the base of the cliff, which we walked through on our way back to the ship after the tour. As today is Sunday, all of the shops were closed and there were no Christmas markets today on our itinerary, which was just as well -- I needed a break from shopping.

We returned to the ship for lunch as it continued to make its way along the Wachau Valley toward Durnstein. It made for great scenery from the dining room, where we dined on hot turkey with potatoes and an excellent creamy garlic soup. Desserts today included local specialties of Linz walnut cake and a delicious Wachau ice cream sundae similar to peach melba. After lunch we all retired to the observation lounge to enjoy the scenery and occasionally ventured outside in the bracing cold to take advantage of the many photo opportunities of charming small villages, castles and churches along the way. That's the first time we've even visited the ship's outdoor observation deck -- it's much more useful during warm-weather river cruises.

Durnstein, where we docked about 2 p.m., is a storybook-style medieval town. It's got a lovely Wedgwood-like blue baroque church, but its biggest claim to fame is that Richard I (aka "The Lionheart") of Robin hood fame -- and the King of England in latter part of the 12th century -- was imprisoned in the old castle here until a ransom of 30 tons of silver and gold was paid, according to local legend. In warmer weather, the climb is a fun way to work off some of that cruise food, and the view is awesome.

Located in the heart of Austria's wine country and surrounded by terraced vineyards, Durnstein is the smallest port on this cruise, with all of 400 inhabitants. We had a wonderful local guide who showed us around town, entertaining us with stories about both the history and present-day life of Durnstein, where little has changed over hundreds of years.

There are no Christmas markets today, and I have to say I enjoyed the change of pace. Today felt much more relaxing, even though we spent pretty much the whole day on sightseeing tours. Because it was Sunday most shops were closed -- but, spying our crowd (in a town of only 400 folks we most definitely constituted a crowd), two tiny gift shops in Durnstein opened up just for us. The funny thing is that we must all have been suffering from Christmas market withdrawal, as the shops sold quite a bit in a very short period of time.

Afterward we enjoyed an informative and delicious wine tasting at one of the old stone wine cellars that had to be several hundred years old. Of course we had to buy some wine to take home (the area is famous for Gruner Veltliner, a lovely, crisp white wine). By now it was dark and the church, old town wall and castle ruins were illuminated. Christmas lights glowed on the main street, giving the town a very special feeling. This is the kind of place that gets you fantasizing: "What would it be like to give up everything and move here?" We stopped at the Gluhwein stand in the town square where the locals had gathered, and had a cup of the best Gluhwein we've tasted, made with high-quality local white wine rather than the usual red.

Back onboard, tonight was set aside for our farewell dinner, held a day early since we'll be off the ship tomorrow night for a concert in Vienna. It was the most delicious yet with excellent beef tenderloin and baked Alaska for dessert. After dinner the cruise staff entertained us with some silly skits, and I cut out a bit early to prepare for tomorrow in Vienna, our last stop on the cruise.
Day 5: Salzburg red arrow Day 7: Vienna

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