1 Helpful Vote
Sail Date: October 2017
Very pleased with overall performance . The included shore excursions were well planned & executed . The most outstanding comment each day was HOW HARD & DILIGENT the program director was. I saw him from morning to evening at ... Read More
Very pleased with overall performance . The included shore excursions were well planned & executed . The most outstanding comment each day was HOW HARD & DILIGENT the program director was. I saw him from morning to evening at every event - observing, directing & controlling the entire program. His onboard & general knowledge of the entire trip was a amazing. ( without any notes). I only know of him as JOE. He is certainly an asset to this company. I would like to know of any other Viking cruises he is on , as i would definitely consider booking it. Everyone i talked with were completely satisfied with all aspects of the cruise. I will definitely consider another Viking cruise. River cruising has a distinct advantage over ocean cruising in the ability to view more of the country side as you are underway and very important -- the lack of "sea sick "movement of the ship. Read Less
Sail Date: October 2017
Chose this cruise as it was a week long and perhaps a little less expensive due to time of the year. We had done one ocean cruise prior but it (right at the end). Very quiet and extremely clean all week. Staff were very friendly and I ... Read More
Chose this cruise as it was a week long and perhaps a little less expensive due to time of the year. We had done one ocean cruise prior but it (right at the end). Very quiet and extremely clean all week. Staff were very friendly and I think genuine. We put our credit towards tipping instead of full package drinks. We were told after that these tips are shared amongst everyone - even the captain. We began to tip individuals as well as some were so darn sweet. Needless to say - I would opt out of the tipping thing next time and just do on our own. Food was wonderfully prepared and even for a health conscious person I always had lots to choose from. Not a meat eater but there was always fish or vegetarian option. The only thing they need to improve on is the COFFEE ! By the end of the week I couldn’t stand the stuff. Even making my own latte didn’t cut it. We would probably (if and when we do another) not choose a cruise hat hits two ports in one day - time is just to short to see much in 2 or 3 hours. We embarked the ship in Budapest - we had already done 3 days there on our own so the day and a half we spend docked there seemed like a waste of precious time - this was totally OUR FAULT ! Hint: don’t spend too much time in Budapest before embarking the ship... We would do another river cruise but probably not for another five years. Still like to see and do stuff on our own... if you like really being pampered and taken care of this is for you! Read Less
Sail Date: September 2017
Terrific cruise from Passau to Budapest First cruise of any kind. We started in Prague and then joined a couple of friends from college at the ship in Passau. Ship and crew exceeded expectations and went above and beyond to accommodate ... Read More
Terrific cruise from Passau to Budapest First cruise of any kind. We started in Prague and then joined a couple of friends from college at the ship in Passau. Ship and crew exceeded expectations and went above and beyond to accommodate us esp in terms of food and drink. We stayed in very basic state room, 112. Snug bug but very functional and fine for our needs. We purposely spent as little time in our room as possible. The second level rooms seem to sell out first. Strongly recommend the Silver Drink package but also recommend some of the optional tours, as they are popular for a reason. We also extended at the end i Budapest. Support there was not as strong as in Prague but the city and tours were still excellent. we and our companion travel couple bought discount coupons and will use them for a cruise in 2019. Read Less
Sail Date: September 2017
The Danube cruise with Viking was wonderful--modern ship, comfortable cabin, excellent food, great tours, and--best of all--crew members who were pleasant and efficient. On some moorings, we had to walk through other cruise lines' ... Read More
The Danube cruise with Viking was wonderful--modern ship, comfortable cabin, excellent food, great tours, and--best of all--crew members who were pleasant and efficient. On some moorings, we had to walk through other cruise lines' ships--that made us really pleased with Viking--our ship was tastefully, cleanly decorated with lots of light; the others were dark and overly furnished (one with gilded mirrors covering the walls)! Viking's itinerary was interesting, informative, and not overly tiring. We added five days on our own at the beginning of our trip in Vienna--loved it; then we had three days with Viking in Budapest--learned a lot; at the end of our cruise, we had three days with Viking in Prague--fascinating; and then we went on our own to Barcelona--have to return because we couldn't get tickets to enter Sacred Family (had we been with Viking, I'm sure that problem would have been anticipated and solved for us!). And yes, we've signed up for two in France for September 2018! Read Less
Sail Date: August 2017
We have wanted to do a Viking Cruise for a long time, but are not very good at planning things in advance. In March 2017, on a whim, we called a Viking Rep and asked what was available for the summer, with some details of what we would ... Read More
We have wanted to do a Viking Cruise for a long time, but are not very good at planning things in advance. In March 2017, on a whim, we called a Viking Rep and asked what was available for the summer, with some details of what we would like. The Romantic Danube trip was available with the cabin level we wanted, and with the option for upgraded air travel. We also added three days in Prague to our trip. The booking process was painless, an information about the trip abundant...we knew exactly what we would be doing everyday. To our surprise, two weeks before departure, we were advised by Viking that our cabin had been upgraded to the Explorer Suite...the top of the line! While we would probably been very comfortable in our original cabin (a level down from Explorer), the larger suite with all the extra amenities, was unbelievable! The crew, food, tours...everything was awesome. We will definitely be doing another river cruise soon! Read Less
1 Helpful Vote
Sail Date: August 2017
Wanted to do a trip in Europe and knew others who had done this cruise and liked it. The head waiter came and asked me every day what I wanted to eat so they could adapt it to lactose free. I appreciated this. I asked our maid ... Read More
Wanted to do a trip in Europe and knew others who had done this cruise and liked it. The head waiter came and asked me every day what I wanted to eat so they could adapt it to lactose free. I appreciated this. I asked our maid for ice every day and she only remembered when I asked for that particular day. Enjoyed the itinerary and especially liked the concert in Vienna and the organ concert in Passau. Loved Dirnstein since it was a small town with quaint streets and good shopping. Met some nice, interesting people. The staff was very nice but the program director was very informative but wordy. Always seemed rushed and never had time to converse. Loved the cities we saw and took lots of pictures. The guides were good and most were easy to understand. Cheski Krumlov was very interesting. Cobblestones were hard to walk on but I realize that is part of the charm. Read Less
1 Helpful Vote
Sail Date: July 2017
Although we are experienced ocean cruisers, this was our first river cruise. This review includes information on both our July 16, 2017, Danube Waltz cruise with Viking and on our 7-night post-cruise road trip to southern Austria and ... Read More
Although we are experienced ocean cruisers, this was our first river cruise. This review includes information on both our July 16, 2017, Danube Waltz cruise with Viking and on our 7-night post-cruise road trip to southern Austria and Germany. CRUISE ITINERARY: (7 NIGHTS) Budapest, Hungary; Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna, Austria; Dürnstein, Austria; Melk, Austria; Český Krumlov, Czech Republic; Passau, Germany ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: (7 NIGHTS) Berchtesgaden, Germany; Salzburg, Austria; Dachstein, Austria, Hallstatt, Austria; Zell am See, Austria; Pinswang, Austria; Schwangau, Germany; Ettal Austria; Munich, Germany ABOUT US John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our mid-sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I was hoping to acquire flags from Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic. We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. We have cruised to or toured all seven continents, primarily in the Americas and Europe. On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view. In general, we prefer DIY port tours, independent tours with other Cruise Critic roll call members, or shared public tours. However, we will take cruise line tours when the logistics or cost make that a better option. Because Viking includes a tour in each port, we did not need to book any independent excursions for the cruise portion of our trip. We did book two optional excursions with Viking in Vienna and an independent food/walking tour in Budapest. Information on those tours is integrated into my review. We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Celebrity, Costa and Commodore. This was our first cruise with Viking. We traveled with our college friends, Robert and Mary (also native New Orleanians), who live in Virginia. They have taken several ocean cruises; this was the first river cruise for them also. They have a somewhat more relaxed approach to sightseeing and enjoy spending part of their time people-watching instead of climbing every available tower or rock outcrop. Fortunately, none of us has mobility issues. ABOUT THE REVIEW Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, on board activities, etc. Our reviews are generally not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including web links to tourist information sites and maps. However, because this was our first river cruise, we have included our thoughts on the pros and cons of this type of cruise. AIR ARRANGEMENTS We booked this cruise in June, 2016, because Viking was offering a good air promotion from our home airport ($400 pp). Full payment was required within 30 days, although we could cancel up to 121 days before departure with a $100 pp penalty. Because we wanted to spend extra days in Europe, we had to pay a $100 pp air deviation fee; in order to choose our own flights, we also had to pay $50 pp for Viking's Air Plus program. Nevertheless, we felt that $550 pp was quite reasonable for RT air to Europe, given that we were traveling during the high tourist season. We chose to fly to Budapest and back from Munich via Toronto on Air Canada, so that we could sleep more on the longer second leg to Europe. That routing required us to travel from Toronto to Budapest on Air Canada's budget service, Air Canada Rouge. To ensure a more comfortable flight on that leg, we paid an additional 100 CAD pp for Preferred seats. This was the first time we have flown with Air Canda and it was not the best experience. John spent hours on hold trying to submit our Global Entry and frequent flyer numbers and confirm that our passport numbers were correct. When he fortuitiously learned that our flights had been changed so that we would arrive in Toronto well after the flight to Budapest departed, he had to go through that ordeal again. [Note: Neither Air Canada nor Viking ever informed us about this change in the flight schedule.] GENERAL COMMENTS ON THE SHIP John and I felt right at home with the Viking Vihjalm's Scandinavian decor. Space is at a premium on such a small vessel but we did not feel crowded in the public rooms. The Aquavit Terrace, right at the bow, is an especially nice place to relax. We thought that the food was very good but portions were rather small. The two included wines were acceptable albeit a little boring; the beers were good. We did not purchase the "Silver Spirits" drink package, instead ordering drinks à la carte or buying a bottle of wine in port (no corkage fee!). The staff was very welcoming and service was generally excellent. There were often problems, however, at dinner. Almost every night, it appeared that the waitstaff were overwhelmed: orders were not taken, glasses were not refilled, requested items were not brought, etc. Dinner the first night took over two hours, with a long break between the first and main course. An extra server or two could make a big difference here. Each day there is a presentation on the next day's tours activities; this was given just before dinner. We thought it would be less rushed to have this talk after dinner and also have it repeated on the stateroom TV. We were very pleased with the scope of the included tours and the local guides were uniformly excellent. There was a decent amount of free time provided for us to climb towers and hike to obscure sights. STATEROOM Although we usually book a balcony cabin on ocean cruises, this time we booked a cabin in "aquarium class", on the lowest deck. After reading many reviews, we decided that rafting, the large amount of time spent ashore and the desire to take in views from the upper deck made this a good choice for us. Our cabin made an ocean ship cabin seem spacious. The shower and bathroom are much smaller than on an ocean ship; the bathroom is like a small closet. In fact, the only cabin we have ever had that was smaller was on the 96-person Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos Islands, where we had to climb into the bed from the foot of the bed. We did have some noise because we were sleeping below the water level. Our own engines sounded like a freight train. John said that when another boat was moving nearby, it reminded him of a movie about submarine warfare ["Captain! High speed screws! Torpedo in the water!"]. There was also some noise when we passed through locks during the night. However, noise was not a big problem, even for a light sleeper like John, and there was plenty of natural light from the high, narrow window. Robert and Mary were a bit surprised one morning to see a duck peering down through the window at them as it paddled alongside the boat. Additional cabin amenities are a refrigerator, safe, hairdryer, TV, free Wi-Fi and bottled water. There is an ice bucket to get your own ice from a dispenser in the hallway. Bath items included body lotion, shower gel, shampoo and conditioner. USEFUL RESOURCES: Free Self-Guided Walking Tours from Big Boy (www.bigboytravel.com/freewalkingtours/) Rick Steves Germany 2016 (store.ricksteves.com/shop/p/germany-guidebook) Rick Steves Vienna, Salzburg & Tirol (store.ricksteves.com/shop/p/vienna-guidebook) ON WITH THE REVIEW! FRI, JULY 14: RDU to YYZ to BUD (ARRIVE SAT, JULY 15) The changes to our original air itinerary left us with over six hours in Toronto before the flight to Budapest. Our plan was to eat in Toronto and go to sleep as soon as possible after taking off for Budapest. The dining options in the Toronto international concourse are rather limited but we found some pizza and paninis that sufficed. Sharing a bottle of wine with Robert and Mary made the time pass more easily. SAT, JULY 15: Budapest, Hungary The flight to Budapest was uneventful and we actually arrived early. Because we deviated from Viking’s air arrangements, we had to make our own transfer arrangements. We considered using public transportation, but decided to arrange a car with an English-speaking driver from Budapest Airport Taxi (budapestairporttaxi.com/Rates.html) for 28€ total. Our driver, Joseph, was waiting as promised holding a sign with my name. Soon we were on our way to our hotel on the Pest side of the Danube. Because we intend to do little more than sleep and shower in a hotel room, our criteria are: clean, comfortable, inexpensive and in a great location; an included breakfast and Wi-Fi are bonuses. The Hotel SasOne (www.sasone.hu/en/) fit the bill perfectly. It is within a block of St. Stephen’s Basilica, a short walk to the riverfront where cruise ships dock, and about a 15-minute walk to the Parliament buildings. Public transit is also nearby. The hotel is one flight up from the street; Mary and I took the tiny elevator while the boys took the wide marble staircase. It was just after noon and the check-in time is 2 p.m. Robert had not been able to sleep at all during the flights, so he collapsed onto a sofa in the lobby. (I guess the hotel staff felt sorry for him as a room was made ready by 12:45 p.m.) John and I had not only slept well on the flight but also we had advanced our internal clocks half of the six-hour time difference by gradually going to sleep and getting up earlier in the weeks before the trip. We left our friends at the hotel to rest while we went off to explore this fascinating city (www.budapest.com/city_guide.en.html). John developed our walking routes based on the walking tours that he found on these helpful sites: visitbudapest.travel/guide/budapest-pdf-guides/, www.bigboytravel.com/europe/hungary/budapest/, www.budapestbylocals.com/things-to-do-see/tours/, www.frommers.com/destinations/budapest/walking-tours. Although we had printed out some maps from the internet, the hotel had a helpful city map that is worthwhile to take along. First we stopped at a nearby ATM to withdraw 10,000 HUF or forints (about $38) because we knew that not all of the attractions we wanted to visit would accept euros. Next, we headed off in the downriver direction to see one of Budapest’s subway stations. The metro dates to 1896 and is the second-oldest electrically operated underground railway in the world (only London’s is older); it is one of Europe’s innumerable World Heritage Sites. After that we headed over to the Danube Promenade to see the Vigadó Concert Hall. It was a beautiful sunny day, with a high of 73°F (23°C) and we had great views of Buda Castle across the river. Budapest, along with the Banks of the Danube and the Buda Castle District, is a World Heritage Site. Now that we were on the riverfront, we could check out the location of our river boat, which was overnighting here and would be disembarking and taking on new passengers (us!) tomorrow. Usually the Viking boats dock just above or below the Szechenyi Chain Bridge on the Pest side. However, we had been alerted that the Vilhjalm might be farther downriver, near the Elizabeth Bridge. Actually, it was even farther away, close to the Freedom Bridge. There were at least a dozen river boats, rafted three deep, between those two bridges; the Vilhjalm was on the outside of the raft farthest downriver. We confirmed with a Viking staff member that this is where the Vilhjalm would be boarding passengers tomorrow. This was disappointing news because it would double the walk from our hotel to the boat. The next stop was a visit to the Central Market Hall (www.piaconline.hu/new/index.php), a huge food, handicrafts and souvenir market. On a Saturday afternoon, it was packed with locals and tourists. I quickly spotted a stall with some Hungarian flags. The vendor wanted 300 HUF but she couldn’t break my 10,000 HUF note; she was willing to accept one euro and I was happy to get a flag for little more than a dollar. I noticed that many vendors had prices posted both in forints and euros. We squeezed through the crowds, soaking up local atmosphere, for a while longer before the heat drove us outside. The market is not far from the Liberty Bridge; we crossed it over the river to Gellért Hill on the Buda side, passing a bride and groom who were having photos taken on the bridge. Budapest is renowned for its hot springs, so it is no surprise that the limestone that comprises Gellért Hill is riddled with caves. One of these caves was home to a hermit, St. István, and eventually became a church maintained by Pauline monks. During the Communist era, the monks were ousted and the entrance to the church was blocked with eight feet (2.5 m) of concrete. The church was reopened in 1989 and is used for services as well as being a tourist attraction. The “Cave Church” (www.atlasobscura.com/places/budapest-cave-church) is easy to find: it is across the street from the Gellért Baths and marked by a huge cross. We climbed up to the terrace in front of the church, where there is a statue of St. István and a good view of the Pest side of the river. The entrance fee is only 500 HUF (senior rate) and includes an audioguide. The cashier was able to break my large note and teased us about whether we actually were eligible for the student rate (also 500 HUF). The church consists of only a few rooms and is mostly of interest because of its history and being housed in a cave. While we were touring, the bride and groom came in for more photos. Gellért Hill is crisscrossed with walking paths and stairs. We headed for the top, passing the bride (struggling up in her long white dress and high heels), for panoramic views. Budapest’s “Statue of Liberty”, holding a palm frond, stands atop the hill. Although the monument was originally erected by the Communist government after WWII, it had become a symbol of the city and thus was preserved (with a new inscription) when other Communist-era monuments were removed. Also on top of the hill is the Citadella, a fortress built by the Habsburgs in 1854. We started down the hill to reach the Gellért Monument, a colonnade and huge statue of St. Gellért. St. Gellért was martyred by “converted” Magyars who preferred paganism; they rolled him down the hill inside a barrel pierced by nails. Farther down the hill beneath the monument is an artificial waterfall. Before crossing the Elizabeth Bridge back to Pest, we strolled down to see the Rudas Baths. As we returned to our hotel, we passed the “Little Princess” statue (popular for selfies) perched on the railing of the Danube Promenade; it depicts the artist’s young daughter in a newspaper crown and bathrobe mantle. As we approached the Chain Bridge, we learned why our boat was not able to dock nearby: there was a floating stage where the river boats should be! We never found out why the stage was there, whether for the FINA (water sports) World Championships, the Budapest Summer Festival or some other event. Back at the hotel, we checked into our room, which was quite nice, with a modern bathroom and an air conditioner. The room had a slight smell of cigarette smoke (as did all of Budapest). Other amenities included free Wi-Fi, free bottled water, TV, hand bar soap and shower gel/shampoo. We had time to relax a little before collecting Robert and Mary for our evening food tour. We love to take food and wine tours in a new city; we find that it gives us a feel for the location that goes beyond the food and wine. Our “Budapest Dinner Walk” with Taste Hungary (tastehungary.com/tour/budapest-dinner-walk/) was a perfect way to begin our brief visit to Budapest. We sampled three different Hungarian wines and also had a surprise visit to a neat local bar that served us two outstanding cocktails. The wines were all local and also quite good. The food was unbelievable! The four-hour tour began at the Tasting Table (tastingtablebudapest.com). We arrived early and while waiting for our guide, the manager (Thomas) talked with us about Hungarian wine. Once our guide (Frank) arrived, we began with a nice sparkling wine from the Somló wine region. We sampled a platter of three different salamis, including one from a strange beast that is a local curly-haired pig. We thought Frank was trying to fool the gullible tourists but the Mangalica exists and makes excellent salami. Our platter also had some delicious mountain cheese and hearty bread with a dip of pumpkin seed oil and a pork cracklings spread. A red wine from the Szekszárdi region went well with all this food. The Tasting Table seems well suited to sample flights of wine and certainly provides an excellent platter of local foods. We next moved on to the Bors GasztroBar (www.facebook.com/BorsGasztroBar). We had to trust Frank on this one again since it looked like a tiny dive. In this crowded place decorated with a Star Wars theme, we had two amazing soups. One was nice and meaty (Vörösboros) and the other was a really tasty yellow split-pea soup (Sárgaborsó). As we moved to the main event, Frank led us on an interesting tour of the old Jewish Quarter. He was an engaging and knowledgeable guide. He led us through one of the famous “ruin” bars of Budapest where locals have taken over an abandoned building and set up a variety of bars and cafes. We arrived at Getto Gulyas (www.facebook.com/gettogulyas/) for a selection of Hungarian stews (Pörköltek)—five to be exact. But first we had a selection of pickles and a savory meat-filled pancake (Hortobagyi). Our five stews were chicken paprikash, mushroom, lamb, pork knuckle, and rooster testicle/cockscomb (really—and not bad!). These were shared around our group of four and were thoroughly enjoyed (alas, two wouldn’t taste the rooster private parts). With this delicious repast, we had a couple of bottles of a good Hungarian red from the Eger region. For a palate cleanser, Frank stopped at Bar Pharma (www.facebook.com/barPharma/) for cocktails. The three chemists in our group were delighted with the Periodic Table of liqueurs and cocktail ingredients displayed on the wall of this tiny bar. The two mixologists produced two different wonderful and unusual concoctions (Secret Garden and Indian Summer) that even the non-chemist enjoyed. We now staggered in the direction of the Opera House to find dessert, espresso, and cappuccino at Muvesz Kavehaz (muveszkavehaz.hu). The problem is that you can see all the desserts on display. This is not some dry description on a menu but the real things staring at you and inciting food lust. Needless to say, the desserts yielded themselves tenderly to us and we appreciated them completely. These included Dobos Torte, Eszterházy Torte, and Chestnut Purée. This was a thrilling end to a wonderful tour! Frank set a nice pace; he was the perfect friendly guide and could talk about food, wine, architecture, and history. As another nice touch, our reservation confirmation included a link to a list of additional recommended restaurants, cafes, and bars. We highly recommend this tour as a great introduction to an interesting city with a great local cuisine! At the end of the tour, it was just starting to get dark and many of the buildings were illuminated, including the Opera House and the Ferris wheel in the park across the street from the hotel. We walked over to St. Stephen’s Basilica for a few photos before returning to the hotel for a good night’s rest. Our hiking Garmin said that we had walked almost five miles today; that does not count walking inside buildings, where the Garmin cannot pick up satellite reception. Even though it faced the interior courtyard, the room was slightly noisy from the nearby night scene but it was tolerable. SUN, JULY 16: Budapest, Hungary The included breakfast was this morning was especially nice. Scrambled eggs were made in small batches so they were always fresh. There was also the usual assortment of breads, cold cuts, cheeses, yogurt, etc., that is typical in Europe. Our morning tour of the House of Parliament would last past the 11 a.m. checkout time, so we settled our account and left our luggage at the hotel. Today was another lovely day, with a high of 77°F (25°C). We walked down to the Danube Promenade and upriver toward the Parliament. Along the way, we passed the Shoes on the Danube Bank (www.atlasobscura.com/places/shoes-on-the-danube-promenade). This sculpture, 60 pairs of iron shoes, memorializes the more than 20,000 Hungarian Jews who were forced to remove their shoes before being shot by the fascist Arrow Cross Party, with their bodies falling into the river and washing away. Docked next to the Parliament building was the Lajta Monitor Museum Ship (www.militaria.hu/kiallitasok/kulso-kiallitohelyek/lajta-monitor-muzeumhajo). The SMS Leitha was the first river monitor in Europe and is the oldest and only remaining, fully-restored warship of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Unfortunately, it was not open for viewing while we were there. John had purchased tour tickets for the Houses of Parliament (atogatokozpont.parlament.hu/en/introduction) online. These 50-minute tours (5,800 HUF for non-EU citizens) are extremely popular and, even more than three months on advance, the earliest English-language tour he could reserve was at 9:45 a.m. This place is huge; not only is it the largest building in Budapest, it is also the third largest Parliament building in the world (after the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest and the Reichstag in Berlin). It is 96m high, recalling the height of St. Steven’s Basilica and also the foundation of the Principality of Hungary by Árpád in 896. The tour proceeded through a labyrinth of ornate corridors to many sections of the main floor of the building. The Hungarian National Assembly is now a unicameral body and tourists usually visit the lobby and hall of the former Upper House. Today we were permitted to visit the actual Chamber of Representatives and its lobby. We also saw the Grand Stairway, the main ceremonial entrance that leads to the Dome Hall. The main attraction here is the Dome Hall, which houses the Hungarian Holy Crown and the Royal Scepter. These treasures are guarded 24 hours a day by the Crown Guard of the Hungarian Armed Forces; we were fortunate to witness the 10 o’clock changing of the guard. The Dome Hall was the only part of the tour where we were not allowed to take photos. The Dome Hall is in the center of the building and features a sixteen-rib vaulted ceiling, with statues of Hungarian rulers occupying golden pedestals at the base of each rib. In addition to Árpád and King St. Stephen (namesake of the Basilica), these rulers include Mátyás Corvinus (namesake of the church on Buda Hill) and Maria Theresa (the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions). After the tour, we walked around to the main entrance of the Parliament building on Kossuth Square. This park-like area features a pole with a large Hungarian flag (and honor guard), a reflecting pool and commemorative statues of famous Hungarians. The square is bordered by several government buildings, some of which show bullet holes from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. We headed back to the hotel through Liberty Square, which is bordered on one side by the US Embassy and features a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan (www.atlasobscura.com/places/ronald-reagan-statue-in-budapest). There is also a monument in the square dedicated to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from the Nazis in WWII and a fountain and memorial to the victims of the Nazi Era. We stopped at an Aldi grocery to pick up some wine, then passed by the hotel to pick up our luggage. Even though it was farther than we had planned on schlepping our bags, it was a fairly level walk to the boat along the Danube Promenade. Most of the other boats were now gone and the Vilhjalm was now next to the shore. We dropped off our bags and went aboard to check in, which took about five minutes. Our cabin was ready, so we put everyone’s carry-on bags in there and went up to the Aquavit Terrace for lunch. This is an exceptionally nice place to have a snack and a beer. We teased Robert that he had not noticed the slab of smoked salmon (one of his favorite dishes) on the side buffet. He responded by bringing a healthy slice of it over to the table for all of us to share. Of course that required us to order some cold white wine (Grüner Veltliner) to wash it down. While we were enjoying all of this, a staff member brought Robert and Mary the keys to their cabin, which was now ready. After lunch, Robert and Mary decided to take the included walking tour of the area near the boat. John and I, however, wanted to tour St. Stephen’s Basilica (en.bazilika.biz) and climb to the panoramic lookout in the cupola. Although a senior rate was advertised on the sign, the cashier insisted that it was not available, so we paid the still-modest adult fee (600 HUF pp) to climb the 364 steps. On the climb, one can see the space between the inner and outer domes. The climb was worth the effort for the spectacular 360° views of the city. Next we explored the interior of Budapest’s largest church, named in honor of the first king of Hungary, King St. Stephen. Technically, the church is free to enter but a 1€ pp donation is pointedly expected. The church is relatively new (built 1851-1905) and is an example of Neo-Classical architecture. The most important art work is a group of mosaics based on a painting by the Hungarian artist, Benczúr Gyula, which surround the main altar. Most of the other art is devoted to King St. Stephen, such as a painting by Gyula of Stephen offering the Hungarian crown to the Virgin Mary. However, the Basilica’s main treasure is the mummified right hand of King St. Stephen. The “Holy Right” (www.atlasobscura.com/places/holy-right) is said to have miraculous powers and resides in an ornate reliquary, where it can be viewed in a chapel behind the main altar. The church also holds a modern replica of the “Black Madonna of Częstochowa”, a special object of devotion in Poland. After the Basilica, we walked over to the Chain Bridge, which was the first permanent bridge to connect Buda and Pest. We had some great views of both parts of the city as we crossed the bridge. We walked along the embankment to the Elizabeth Bridge, where we crossed back to Pest and re-boarded the Vilhjalm. According to the Garmin, we had walked just over four miles, again not counting the walking indoors or the step-climbing in the Basilica. We got back to the boat in time to join the complimentary Cheese and Wine Tasting (3:15-5 p.m.), where we could taste some of the wines beyond the two included ones: Blauer Zweigelt and Grüner Veltliner, both from Winery Mörwald (www.weinbau-moerwald.com). There was ample opportunity to sample all the wines; this was a nice way to end the afternoon. At 6:15 p.m., we had our first daily briefing, when the staff introduced themselves and told us what to expect during the cruise. We were informed that there were still places available on some of the optional tours and that we would find a form in our cabin for signing up. I noticed that signing up for the tours on the boat was slightly more expensive than pre-paying because of the exchange rate. For example, the Vienna Concert tour was $79 pp ahead of time, but 79€ pp on the boat. Dinner followed the briefing at 7 p.m., with the choice of dining in the restaurant or the buffet on the Aquavit Terrace. Tonight was the only night we had a deviation in the included wines: the red offered was Blaufränkisch from the Szekszárdi wine region. Each night, there were two choices of starter, main course and dessert, plus a selection of always-available items. There was also a three-course “Regional Specialties Tasting Menu”; we ordered the regional menus most nights. Tonight we chose Roasted Eggplant and Garlic Soup, Grilled Marinated Perch and Tokay Wine Mousse with Caramelized Walnuts. The evening entertainment featured a piano player, Laszlo. SUN, JULY 16 & MON, JULY 17: Budapest, Hungary For breakfast in the restaurant this morning, we tried the Eggs Benedict, which looked pretty but did not have much flavor. We had Smoked Salmon Benedict on other mornings and that was much better. There was an omelet station and eggs could be prepared to order in any style. Other hot items included pancakes, French toast and a variety of sausage and breakfast meats. There were also cereals and the typical items found on a European breakfast buffet. There is a less-extensive buffet offered on the Aquavit Terrace. Viking has an interesting system for keeping track of guests. On ocean cruises, we are accustomed to having a key card that is scanned when we leave and return to the ship. On Viking, you obtain a boarding pass from the Reception Desk before you leave the boat and return it when you come back aboard. The Reception Desk also provides maps of each port and slips of paper with the docking information to take with you in case you get lost. As you leave the ship, complimentary bottles of cold water are distributed. When you pick up your boarding pass, you are also given a card indicating which tour bus you are on. For the first tour, John and Mary were assigned to a different bus from Robert and me. When we pointed this out at Reception, we were all quickly reassigned to the same bus and this problem did not occur again. Viking uses a wireless headset system (QuietVox); each guest is responsible for keeping his/her unit charged and bringing it along on the tours. The headsets worked fine most of the time but on several occasions people had to try repeatedly to sync their unit with the guide’s. Everyone is also asked to head out to the buses 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled tour time so that the tour can begin promptly. Most people were conscientious about being on time for the tours. This was another nice day, but temperatures were creeping up, with the high today reaching 82°F (28°C). Our included tour was “Panoramic Budapest” (8:30 a.m-12:30 p.m.) and our local guide was Gabriela. The buses made their way to Andrássy Avenue, a part of the Budapest World Heritage Site. Gabriela pointed out how the street becomes wider and the residences bigger and more spread out as Andrássy Avenue proceeds from the city center to the City Park (Varosliget). There is a big plaza, Heroes Square, just before the park. This square features the “Millennium Monument” that commemorates the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hungary. The monument is two huge semi-circular colonnades with statues of important Hungarian historical figures between the columns. There are allegorical figures on top of the colonnades and, between them, a tall column topped by St. Michael the Archangel, who is holding the Hungarian Holy Crown and the apostolic double cross. In front of the column is a statue depicting the chieftains of the seven Magyar tribes who settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. There is also a cenotaph honoring those who died in the defense of their country. The bus did not stop here, but it drove around the square several times so we could take photos. We drove around in the park, with Gabriela pointing out sights such as the Zoo, the Botanical Garden and an abandoned amusement park. We also passed the impressive Széchenyi Medicinal Baths, which are partially fed by hot water from a well under Hero Square. The Baths are the largest therapeutic baths in Budapest and among the largest in the world. The building is impressive—it looks more like a Baroque palace or a museum complex than a spa. As we exited the park, we could see the municipal ice rink, where temporary pools were installed to host the FINA synchronized swimming competitions. We drove back into town and crossed the Elizabeth Bridge to Buda, heading for the Buda Castle District (budavar.btk.mta.hu/en/map.html). We were dropped off behind the Hilton Hotel and climbed up some stairs to the tourist area. The Hilton incorporates the ruins of a 13th century Dominican monastery; the former tower and some ruins of the church can still be seen. The St. Nicholas Tower bears a (reconstructed) carving of a king with the inscription “Mathias Rex”, a reference to King Mátyás Corvinus, considered one of the greatest kings of Hungary. He did so much to expand and enhance the nearby Church of Our Lady that the church is now universally known as the “Matthias Church”. Nearby is the Holy Trinity Column, one of many plague columns that we would see during this trip. These monuments were erected both in supplication to deliver the people from the ravages of plague outbreaks and in thanksgiving when they finally ended. In addition to the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and other saints, there are images of two saints particularly associated with the plague: St. Roch and St. Sebastian. This column replaced an earlier, less elaborate column that presumably was not working too well at preventing the plague. Before taking us into the Matthias Church, Gabriela led us to some of the other sights of the Castle District. There were lots of buildings with colorful façades and monuments, such as the Hungarian Soldiers’ Memorial, and an equestrian statue of Maria Theresa’s favorite soldier, Andras Hadik. Rubbing the testicles of Hadik’s horse is supposed to bring good luck and apparently a lot of people believe this story—that part of the statue is quite shiny. We also walked along the Tóth Árpád Promenade for more great views of the city. There is a slightly phallic fountain on the Promenade that was placed there in 1973 to celebrate the centennial of the founding of Budapest. The fountain is inscribed with a poem, “Ősforrás (Ancient Source)”, by István Pákolitz. We returned to the square between the Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion, where there is a large equestrian statue of King St. Stephen. Now it was time for the obligatory potty break for a large part of our group while Gabriela bought the tickets for the church. This is a good place to point out that public toilets are generally not free in Europe; it is a good idea to hoard 0.50€ coins to pay for them. After the group reassembled, Gabriela reminded everyone when and where to meet to return to the boat. She was not going to do a headcount: if you weren’t there, you would need to make your own way back to the boat. Finally it was time for the tour of the Matthias Church (www.matyas-templom.hu/THE_CHURCH.html). Gabriela herded us into some pews and pointed out the main features of the church before setting us free to explore on our own. As a courtesy, we let her know that John and I would not be returning to the boat with the rest of the group. Robert and Mary chose to return to the boat and do some more sightseeing on their own after having lunch. We went up to the gallery, where the Royal Oratory gives a closer view of the main altar and its carved altarpiece. There is also a copy of the Hungarian Holy Crown and regalia, which we could not photograph at the Dome Hall. After that, we walked around the main floor to see the tomb of King Béla III and various chapels. One of these is the Loreto Chapel, with a Baroque statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. When the Turks lay siege to Buda Castle in 1686, the statue was hidden in a niche. Cannon fire caused the walls to collapse and reveal the statue, which frightened the enemy soldiers. They fled and the Christian army was able to retake the city. That’s the story anyway. We wanted to climb the church tower, so we bought tickets for that (1,000 HUF pp) and the upper section of the Fisherman’s Bastion (400 HUF pp). The cashier seemed concerned about us and emphasized that we would have to climb 197 steps. We were just in time for the 11 a.m. tour, so we hustled over to the small door metal in the tower to await the guides. We were joined by only one other couple on the climb. This tower is on a hill and also considerably taller than the tower at the Basilica; we had spectacular views of the Castle District and of Pest and could really appreciate the Matthias Church’s gorgeous multi-color tiled roof. One spire of the church is topped by a raven with a gold ring in its beak. This image stems from a legend about King Mátyás Corvinus (corvus is Latin for raven) and is seen all over Budapest. Next we went to the upper terrace of the Fisherman’s Bastion (www.fishermansbastion.com/fishermans-bastion-prices). In the Middle Ages, this was an actual defensive bastion. For the celebration of Hungary’s 1,000th anniversary, however, it was renovated to become the current seven-level confection of interconnected white stucco towers. The seven towers represent the seven Hungarian chieftains, who are also memorialized at the Millennium Monument. The highest tower houses a restaurant and it is free to climb up to the terraces there. From this tower, there is a good view of the church ruins that are surrounded by the Hilton. Gabriela had already covered a lot of the sites that John had on his list. We continued our exploration along Táncsics Mihály Street, known for its Baroque houses. Beethoven lived for a time in the former Endrődy palace (#7). The building next door (#9), known as the József Barracks, was actually a prison. Plaques on the exterior commemorate some of the Hungarian and Romanian writers, journalists, lawyers and politicians who were imprisoned here for their political activity against the Habsburgs. We came to the Vienna Gate (Bécsi Kapu) Square. There has been a gate here since Medieval times but the present gate only dates to 1936. There are stairs on both sides of the gate and good views from the top. The gate was rebuilt to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the liberation of Buda from the Turks; a statue of an angel was also erected there at the same time. The pretty, small Lutheran Church faces the square and the Hungarian National Archives are on the southern side. We walked along the Anjou Bastion, a promenade that runs behind the Archives, to Esztergom Rondella and the Tóth Árpád Promenade. We took a side street to the Magdalen Tower on Kapisztrán Square. The 15th-century Church of Maria Magdalena was heavily damaged during WWII; all that remains are a tower and Gothic window (both reconstructed) and the foundations. The square also boasts a bronze casting of the Hungarian coronation mantle; the original silk mantle was used from the late 12th century until 1916. We then strolled down Országház Street, which is known for its many Baroque houses. Since we both like caves, we thought we would take the opportunity to visit the Labyrinth (labirintus.eu/en/), part of the extensive network of caves and cellars under Buda Castle. We almost decided to skip this attraction because of the hyperbolic posters outside touting the fact that Dracula (Vlad Tepes) had been imprisoned here by King Matthias in the 15th century. However, we do like caves and it was a good opportunity to use up the last of our forints (2,000 HUF pp, senior rate). In addition to the hokey Dracula exhibit, there are a number of wax-figure tableaux portraying scenes from “The Masked Ball of the Black Count” and a gallery of photographs of caves from around the world. However, the main reason to visit is a chance to see some of the Gothic and Ottoman stone artifacts found in the tunnels and the tunnels themselves. This was apparently a much more impressive attraction (www.labirintus.com/en/) before the local government shut down most of the Labyrinth in 2011; only 0.6 mile (1 km) of the tunnels are currently open. This is definitely not an attraction for claustrophobics or anyone afraid of the dark; there is one section (which could be skipped) that is completely dark and the other tunnels are dimly lit. The signage is poor: sometimes the “you are here” marker is missing. In fact, we had to retrace our path a couple of times to find the gated exit (near the free toilets). Despite its shortcomings, we enjoyed our visit here. After emerging from the Labyrinth, we continued walking in the direction of the former Royal Palace, past the ruins of the Medieval castle to Szent György Square. The Sándor Palace, official residence of the President of Hungary, faces the square and it is also the terminus of the Castle Hill Funicular. We passed through the Palace gate to the Danube Terrace, on the east side of the Palace. The various parts of the Palace house the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery and the National Széchenyi Library; all of those were closed today. We continued on to the ramparts at the south end of the castle, which are some of the oldest remaining parts of the structure. We descended to explore some courtyards and get a better look at the walls, turrets and guardhouses. There are a number of paths, stairways and even an escalator that take you from this end of Buda Castle back down to the waterfront. This area is the Castle Bazaar and Royal Gardens (www.varkertbazar.hu/en/map), a recently-restored 19th-century complex of gardens, fountains, grottoes and pergolas. We exited via the spiral staircase in the Gloriette and walked through some gardens back to the Elizabeth Bridge and the Vilhjalm. Presumably the Viking tour does not go to this part of Castle Hill because it is too far from the steps by the Hilton where the bus could park. However, we were certainly glad we walked over here because even from the exterior we could see that the Palace was quite interesting. According to the Garmin, we had walked about 4.7 miles on Castle Hill. After getting cleaned up, we went to the Aquavit Lounge for a “Toast to Our Guests” by the Captain and the Hotel Manager; Champagne and Mimosas were served. That was followed by a port talk about tomorrow’s excursions in Bratislava. Tonight was a special “Welcome Dinner.” I chose Smoked Salmon Carpaccio with Salmon Caviar, Roast Sirloin with Hungarian Paprika-Mushroom Sauce and Crisp Dark Valrhona Chocolate Tart. While we were dining, the Vilhjalm cast off for a sunset river cruise before departing for Bratislava. The ship cruised slowly upriver, around Margaret Island, then downriver and under the Liberty Bridge before turning back upriver. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to view the illuminated Parliament, Buda Castle, bridges and other landmarks. While we were enjoying the sights, we were serenaded by Laszlo and treated to a shot of Hungarian Pálinka, a fruit brandy. While we were standing on the upper deck, we mentioned a tourist we had noticed wearing a t-shirt with the puppet master logo from “The Godfather” movies and the inscription “The Grandfather.” Laszlo overheard us and started playing the “Love Theme” from the movie. Robert commented that he would prefer to hear “Unchained Melody,” so Laszlo played that later. JULY 18: Bratislava, Slovakia (2-10:45PM) This morning we passed through a lock at the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Waterworks; this was the only lock we transited during the daytime. This project was started in 1977 by Hungary and Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) to reduce flooding and generate electricity. However, it has never been completed. Due to financial and environmental concerns, Hungary stopped work and tried to withdraw from the agreement, while Slovakia carried on. The fate of the project has been under dispute in the International Court of Justice ever since. While we were in the lock (with three other boats), the Vilhjalm held the passenger safety drill. The three muster stations were on the top deck, with passengers grouped by cabin deck. We were not only told to bring our life jackets to the drill but also to put them on (before being shown how). The muster station personnel took roll but did not seem very concerned about checking off latecomers who straggled in during the drill. Frankly, the whole drill did not inspire me with confidence. It’s good that it’s not too far to swim to shore! After the boat was safely past the lock, passengers could visit the Bridge. We had signed up for a 10:15 a.m. tour and were asked to gather at the Wheelhouse five minutes ahead of time. Captain Milos is not very confident about speaking in English, so he steered the boat while the Guest Services Director, John, explained the navigational controls and fielded questions. Several couples came late for the visit (or early for the next one?) and by the end of the visit, we were packed tightly together in the small, very hot Wheelhouse. Although the visit was interesting, it was a relief to get out into the relatively cool air when it was over! In addition to the Bridge visit, there were three presentations this morning: Navigational Video, Austrian Coffeehouses and Growing Up Under Communism. The included two-hour (2:30-4:30 p.m.) tours for Bratislava (www.visitbratislava.com) were “Panoramic Bratislava” and ““Bratislava Walking Tour.” Although we would normally gravitate to the walking tour, the panoramic tour was going to start at Bratislava Castle and be followed by a shorter walking tour. We decided to take the panoramic tour and explore the Old Town more on our own afterwards. The ship was conveniently docked near the Museum of Natural History (SNM-Prírodovedné múzeum), making it easy to get to and from the Old Town. This was another nice day but temperatures were getting hotter, with the high today reaching 87°F (30°C). Our local guide this afternoon was Eva. The buses made their way up a hill above the Old Town to the Slovak National Council building and Bratislava Castle. There is a controversial statue,”Welcoming”, in front of the parliament building. The artist, Ján Kulich, was an official sculptor of the Communist regime, and there is growing sentiment that this and other of his works should be removed. Locals say the Bratislava Castle (www.bratislava-hrad.sk/hradne-objekty) looks like an upside-down table: a white, squarish building with a turreted tower in each corner. One of the towers is larger and taller than the others; it is the Crown Tower and once held the Hungarian crown jewels that are now in the Parliament Building in Budapest. We stopped just outside the Vienna Gate, the main entrance. Eva led us into the Grand Courtyard and told us about the history of the Castle before giving us a bit of free time. The Castle has been burned down and rebuilt many times over the years, the most recent fire being in the early 19th century. Renovation efforts did not start until the 1950s and have been ongoing ever since: the Castle was rebuilt, surviving sections restored, and exhibition spaces added. It is now home to the Museum of History (www.snm.sk/?visiting-3). The Grand Courtyard contains an equestrian statue of Svätopluk I, Prince of Moravia, who expanded his empire to include much of what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary in the 9th century. (This is another controversial statue by Kulich.) From the Courtyard there are great views of the Old Town, the Danube and the “UFO Bridge” (www.atlasobscura.com/places/most-snp). John and I walked over to the Museum to check out the Castle’s inner courtyard, then hurried around to the back of the Castle and the Baroque Garden. That is a very pretty formal garden but we only had time for a brief visit before returning to meet the bus. In my few extra minutes, I was able to buy a small Slovakian flag at the tiny gift shop. The bus dropped us off for our walking tour at Hurbanovo square, right on the edge of the Old Town. We passed the pink-and-white Church of Saints Jana of Matha and Felix of Valois. Heading down Michalská Street, we crossed the remnants of the Medieval moat next to the Michalská Braná (Michael’s Gate). It is possible to climb the 164-ft (50 m) tower for a view over the Old Town, but we did not have time for that now and we never made it back later in the day. Just after we passed under the tower, Eva pointed out a red-hooded bust marking the house where the city executioner once lived. Some of the other buildings had gargoyle-like statues perched on the door lintel. We turned on to Sedlárska Street to reach Hlavné Square (Main Square), location of the Old Town Hall. There is a cannonball from the Napoleonic Wars embedded in the wall of the Old Town Hall’s yellow clock tower. One of Bratislava’s most famous fountains is also here: the Roland (AKA Maximilian) Fountain. Another resident of the square is a Napoleonic soldier statue, leaning on the back of a bench. It is not easy to get a photo of him because of all the people taking selfies. Eva wondered whether any of the young women who were getting selfies knew about the local legend that any woman who sat next to the soldier would soon find herself pregnant. Other popular statues in this area include Schöner Náci (a well-dressed flirt) and Ĉumil (a sewer worker peering up from his manhole). We ended our tour in Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, a long tree-shaded plaza. At one end, the Ganymede Fountain sits in a circular flower garden in front of the Slovak National Theater. There is a glass panel in the sidewalk on one side of the garden that lets you view the foundations of the Fishermen’s Gate, which once stood there. John and I strolled along the plaza, passing more public art (Hans Christian Andersen) and the US Embassy. At the end of the plaza is Bratislava’s plague column, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. From the plague column, we walked over to the Holocaust Memorial. The Memorial stands on the site of the Bratislava’s original synagogue, right next to St. Martin’s Cathedral. During the Ottoman occupation of Buda and Pest in the 16th and 17th centuries, Bratislava was the capital of Hungary. The Cathedral was the coronation site for 11 Hungarian kings and a replica of the Hungarian crown that sits atop the steeple recalls that period. From the Cathedral, we walked back up Hviezdoslavovo Námestie to the National Theater and over to an unusual Hungarian Secessionist (Hungarian Art Nouveau) building, the Church of St. Elizabeth (Kostol svätej Alžbety). St. Elizabeth’s is also known as the Blue Church (www.modrykostol.fara.sk/info/) because the exterior is painted in multiple shades of blue. The roof is made of blue ceramic tiles and blue ceramics decorate the exterior. The church is generally not open to visit, but it is possible to view the interior, with its blue pews, through the grill entry gates. The façade of the church displays a mosaic of the “Miracle of the Roses.” Elizabeth was a pious Hungarian princess married to a German nobleman. She would often carry food in her mantle from the castle to feed the poor in the village below. This activity was considered unseemly for a princess and one day her husband caught her. When he challenged her, she opened the mantle to reveal a bouquet of roses. From the Blue Church, we wended our way back to the boat. Bratislava is so small, we only walked about two miles today. After dinner tonight, we were treated to “An Evening of Hungarian & Slovakian Melodies,” featuring local dancers, singers and musicians. After that pleasant entertainment, we spent some time on the top deck enjoying the lights of Bratislava. WEDS, JULY 19: Vienna, Austria (6AM-10:45PM) Vienna and Passau were the only ports where the Vilhjalm was not docked near the city center. Vienna’s Reichsbrücke Ship Station is technically within walking distance from the city center, but it is not a scenic walk and too time consuming (e.g., the walking distance to the Cathedral is 2.2 miles or 3.5 km). However, the dock is close to the Vorgartenstrasse U-Bahn stop. For those who wanted to explore Vienna (www.wien.info/en) independently, the Reception Desk provided a map of the U-Bahn system with explicit instructions on how to use the U-1 line to travel to and from the boat. The day started nice but hot, with the high eventually reaching 90°F (32°C). Today’s included tour was “Panoramic Vienna” (9:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m.). Of course, “panoramic” means “on the bus” and this was actually a decent way to see the sights along Vienna’s Ringstrasse, which marks the former location of the city walls. For those who might want to explore the Ringstrasse by tram, Rick Steves has a good Audio Tour and map (www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/audio-tours). The boat also offered a walking tour that used public transportation, but we overlooked the notice in the “Viking Daily” last night and could not sign up for it in time. Our local guide this morning was Frederick. The bus drove past the Prater amusement park, with its giant Ferris wheel, to Schwedenplatz. We then followed the Ringstrasse clockwise to the University, with Frederick pointing out the important buildings and monuments along the way. The bus circled back to the Museums Quartier and we started the walking tour near the Kunst Historisches Museum (Art History Museum). We walked through the Maria Tereza Platz and crossed the street to the Äusseres Burgtor, a large gate with five arches. We passed through the Burgtor into Heldenplatz; we were now on the grounds of the Hofburg Palace (www.planetware.com/vienna/imperial-palace-a-w-hofbur.htm). This sprawling and fascinating complex includes 18 groups of buildings, spread over 59 acres. It was the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275 and is the official seat of the Austrian President today. There are a number of museums and special collections in the complex, which require an admission fee; some of our group would return to those during our free time. The Neue Hofburg stands along one side of Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) and the Alte Hofburg stands along another. There are two equestrian statues in the square: the Archduke Charles of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy. Frederick explained that these men were two of Austria’s most prominent military leaders. From there we walked to “In der Burg”, a large courtyard with a statue of Emperor Franz I in the center. Frederick pointed out the red-and-black Swiss Gate, which bears the titles of Emperor Ferdinand I and the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece. We went through the gate into the Schweizerhof. This small courtyard is the entrance to both the Imperial Treasury and the Hofburgkapelle, which is the main venue for the Vienna Boys' Choir. Fredrick took us to an even smaller courtyard where we could see the Gothic statues on the apse of the chapel. From there, we went to Josefsplatz, with its equestrian statue of Emperor Joseph II. This square is the location of the Austrian National Library. We did not go around the corner to see the Augustinerkirche (Augustinian Church), where the hearts of 54 Habsburg royalty are inurned in its Loreto Chapel (Herzgruft). The rest of their bodies (including those of 30 Emperors and Empresses, along with many other aristocrats), are entombed in the Habsburg Imperial Crypt (Kaisergruft); that crypt is in the Kapuzinerkirche (Capuchin Church). Even more Habsburg bodies and innards are kept in the Ducal Crypt (Herzogsgruft) under the Cathedral. King Ferdinand IV of the Romans started this macabre royal custom by instructing that his heart, body and viscera be distributed among those three churches when he died in 1654. The stables of the Spanish Riding School are on another corner of Josefsplatz. We walked through a passage where we could see a few of the famous Lipizzaner Stallions in their stalls. We emerged into Michaelerplatz, and the uber-Baroque façade of the St. Michael Wing of the Palace. This wing was named for one of Vienna’s oldest churches, Michaelerkirche (St. Michael Church), which is just across the square and was formerly the parish church of the Imperial Court. We walked down Kohlmarkt and turned on to the Graben. We passed Josefsbrunnen (fountain with St. Joseph on top) before stopping in Petersplatz for a view of the yellow-and-white Baroque façade of Peterskirche (St. Peter Church). Back on the Graben, we saw Vienna’s Holy Trinity plague column and another fountain, this time with St. Leopold on top. We continued down the Graben to Stephansplatz. Frederick talked about the history of the Stephansdom (St. Stephen Cathedral), site of the weddings and funerals of many royals and famous musicians (e.g., Mozart). He pointed out the bars on the front wall that were once the standard measurements for cloth sold in Vienna. It was disappointing to see that the Cathedral was surrounded by a lot of construction, making it hard to view much of the exterior. However, the interior of the Cathedral was open for visits (www.stephansdom.or.at/index.jsp?menuekeyvalue=11&langid=2). We now had an hour of free time. Naturally, the first order of business for John and me was to climb (4.50€ pp) up the 343 steps of the Alter Steffl (South Tower). This is the highest of the Cathedral’s four towers and has great views of the gorgeous tile roof (added in 1950) and the surrounding city. Before visiting the Cathedral’s interior, John and I returned to St. Peter Church (www.peterskirche.at/fileadmin/pdf/tourismusinfo/englisch.pdf). On the outside is a relief sculpture depicting the legend that Charlemagne founded a church here in 792. There was a service going on, so we could only view some of the interior art from the rear foyer. This is a small and aggressively Baroque church, much more embellished than the Cathedral. We could see the beautiful fresco in the cupola but it was hard to see the other art from our position. We were disappointed that we would not have time to return later. Next we visited the interior of the Cathedral, which seems plain compared to St. Peter’s. The Organ Gallery near the entrance and the north aisle are free to enter but there is a fee to enter the Choir, the Nave and the south aisle. Although you can see a lot from the free areas, we wanted to take a self-guided tour of the rest. However, the ticket agent would not rent us audioguides because he said it was too close to the time for the next Mass. We had to settle for entrance without an audioguide (4.50€ pp) but fortunately we had brought along a description and map of the interior (www.planetware.com/vienna/st-stephens-cathedral-a-w-steph.htm). The Nave is separated from the two side aisles by clustered pillars. One of those clusters supports the 16th-century pulpit, considered to be one of the Cathedral’s most important works of art and a masterpiece of Late Gothic sculpture. The sculptor, Anton Pilgram, carved a self-portrait on the plinth: a man looking out a window, holding a chisel. Pilgram also carved the Organ Case; another self-portrait, a figure with compass and square, is on the wall nearby. Note that this church is dedicated to St. Stephen the Protomartyr (not King St. Stephen); the High Altar depicts the stoning of St. Stephen. To the left of the High Altar is the 15th-century Wiener Neustädter Altar, consisting of two richly-carved triptychs. To the right of the High Altar is the huge tomb of Emperor Frederick III, carved from red marble. There are beautifully carved choir stalls in front of the High Altar. There are altars all along the walls of the side aisles and several formal chapels. St. Katherine’s Chapel holds a 14-sided marble baptismal font dating to the 15th century. The tomb of Prince Eugene of Savoy is in the Tirna Chapel (AKA Chapel of the Cross); Mozart’s funeral was held here. Above the altar in this chapel is a huge crucifix; Jesus’ beard is made of human hair that is said to still be growing. Another miraculous image is the Pötscher Madonna, under a Medieval stone canopy. This icon reputedly shed real tears during the Battle of Zenta, where Habsburg Imperial forces, lead by Prince Eugene, routed the Ottoman army. After visiting the Cathedral, we only had a little time left to wander around, unsuccessfully looking for an Austrian flag, before rejoining the group. We all walked down Rotenturm Street to the Danube Canal and the Schwedenplatz, where we caught the bus back to the boat for lunch. The walking part of our tour was about 2.8 miles (4.5 km) There were three optional excursions on tap for this afternoon; we chose the “Schönbrunn Palace Tour” (2-5:30 p.m.). Our local guide was Andrea and she gave some commentary during the bus ride. When we reached the Palace, it was very hot and the sky looked like it might rain later in the afternoon. Schönbrunn Palace (www.schoenbrunn.at/en/), the imperial summer residence, is styled the “Versailles of Vienna” and that is an appropriate comparison. The Parade Court in front of the Palace has two beautiful fountains: the figures on one represent the Danube, Inn and Enns Rivers and on the other, newly acquired (at the time) territories. The park and gardens behind the Palace contain many more fountains, statues, follies, a maze, etc. The grounds are so impressive that our CruiseCritic friend, DonahCBrown, who had taken this tour in May, said she wished she had skipped the interior of the Palace and spent all her time in the gardens. Probably because of our limited time, Andrea only took us through the central and east wings of the Palace (www.planetware.com/vienna/schonbrunn-palace-a-w-schon.htm). That meant that we missed the Hall of Mirrors but saw the Great Gallery, with its lavish ceiling paintings, and the Small Gallery. Most of the east wing consists of the apartments formerly occupied by Empress Maria Theresa, the only female Habsburg ruler. Her strategy for increasing the size of her empire was to have many children (16, with 10 surviving to adulthood) and to form alliances by marriage. Because she was pregnant for much of her reign, it was hard to sit on a throne. Instead, she had a State Bed in the Rich Bedroom, from which she could conduct imperial business. All of the rooms are over-the-top Baroque. After the tour, we had about 45 minutes to explore the Schönbrunn Park and Gardens on our own. The park is immense (500 acres), so we would only be able to see a small part. Access to the gardens is through the Kammergarten, which has several small pavilions (Kammer). First, we climbed the stairs on the back of the Palace for an elevated view of the park (www.schoenbrunn.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Schoenbrunn/Images/Besucherinformation/Anfahrt/GesamtplanWEGE_15x15.jpg). Then John and I decided to climb up to the Gloriette for a view of the Palace with the gardens in the foreground. Neptune's Fountain is about halfway between the Palace and the Gloriette. It is a good thing that we stopped now to admire and photograph this riot of marble mythological sculptures because it was not flowing when we passed it later. We learned from Andrea that the Fountain only operates between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. As we continued up the west side of the hill to the Gloriette, the sky kept getting darker and we saw flashes of lightening. The middle section of the Gloriette is a triumphal arch, topped by a large imperial eagle; this section now houses a café. There are arcades on either side of the central section and a viewing platform on its roof. Given the approaching thunderstorm, we decided to enjoy the view from the terrace in front on the Gloriette and avoid the roof. We hurried down the east side of the hill, trying to see as many of the fountains and classical statues along the way as possible. We made it back to the bus before the rain started. We walked 2.6 miles (4.2 km) on this tour. Back at the boat, we had to hustle to get cleaned up and have dinner before our optional evening excursion: “Mozart & Strauss Concert” (7:30-10:15 p.m.). In order to accommodate those who were attending the concert or the optional Heurigen evening, there were early (6 p.m) and late (7:30 p.m.) seatings at dinner tonight. The 1.5 hour concert was presented by the Vienna Residence Orchestra (www.wro.at/vienna-classics/index.htm) in the Schubert Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus (konzerthaus.at/en). In addition to the orchestra, some of the pieces included opera singers and ballet dancers. The program consisted of works by Mozart and the Johann Strauss family. Some of the pieces we heard were selections from “The Marriage of Figaro” and other operas (Mozart), the “Blue Danube” and other waltzes (Johann Jr.) and the “Radetzky March” (Johann Sr.). Although this was a mass-marketed event, the artists were very good and we liked the performance. As a bonus, we could enjoy the lights of Vienna as we rode back to the boat. Vienna is definitely worth a return visit! THURS, JULY 20: Dürnstein (8-10:15AM) & Melk (1:30-9:45PM), Austria Today we would be cruising through the Wachau Valley, a picturesque stretch of the Danube between Krems and Melk (www.donau.com/en/wachau-nibelungengau-kremstal/). The hillsides are carpeted with vineyards and the riverbanks are dotted with cute villages, many of which feature pretty churches and romantic castles. This was the hottest day of the cruise, with the high eventually reaching 94°F (34°C). Our first stop this morning was Dürnstein, a textbook Wachau village with an attractive blue Baroque church tower on the riverside and scenic castle ruins above the town. There were two optional tours offered here: a walking tour with an organ concert and a cycling tour. We had hoped there would be an optional tour to a winery, but learned that tour is only operated when the cruise sails in the Passau to Budapest direction. We planned to take our own walking tour to the highlights of Dürnstein, but first we wanted to hike up to the ruins of Dürnstein Castle, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned from 1192-1193. The town has a signposted theme trail up to the ruins (themenweg.duernstein.at/en/the-trail/). Although not officially part of the theme trail, there is another, steeper path down from the ruins to town. The Vilhjalm was rafted a short distance downriver from the edge of town, next to Uniworld’s Maria Theresa. We were anxious to be on our way but had to wait for the Maria Theresa to be ready to let our passengers walk through; nevertheless, we were the first people off the Vilhjalm. We walked to town past vineyards of ripening Grüner Veltliner of the famous Domäne Wachau winery. Anzuggasse, the road to the trail, starts next to the town walls; there is a sign, “Ruine Dürnstein” indicating the way. The road follows the walls to the 15th-century Kremsertor, where it takes a jog right then continues up to the trail. The four-story, square Kremsertor (AKA Stadttor or Steinertor) is the old eastern gate to the town; it is now a private residence. All along the route to the ruins there are gorgeous views of the Wachau Valley; we could even see the Benedictine monastery in Göttweig. Once at the top of the hill (after about 20 minutes), we enjoyed clambering around among the ruins. Rick Steves had warned about nonvenomous Aesculapian snakes but we did not see any. After enjoying the ruins and the terrific views, we headed back to town on the more rustic trail. Near its end, the trail passes some steps up to the gate of the Kunigundenkirche cemetery. This was formerly the site of the oldest church in Dürnstein, which was demolished in 1783; only the tower and the vestry remain. The cemetery is still in use, with a mix of modern and ancient tombstones and crosses. In the middle stands the Karner (charnel house), a 14th-century Romanesque-Gothic building. The upper level is a chapel and the lower level is an ossuary. Some of the bones stored here are thought to be those of casualties from the Battle of Loiben during the Napoleonic Wars. We returned to the main street (Hauptstrasse) to seek out the other historic sights of Dürnstein (www.duernstein.at/en/ueber-duernstein.html). A little east (away from town) of the Kremsertor is a plague cross with the date 1772. Heading back into town, we saw the Hotel Richard Löwenherz, which incorporates the 14th-century monastery of the Poor Clares. The old stone pillory pillar stands in a small square (Prangerplatz) near the hotel. Farther down the road is the Town Hall, with a scenic courtyard. While walking along the main road, I found a souvenir shop that had small Austrian flags. We continued west until we could see the ruins of a watchtower, the Weissenkirchnertor. Three houses built around the tower were formerly the jailer’s house, the hangman’s house and the jail itself. We were not sure whether we correctly identified them but we think the house with a crucifix on one side belonged to the jailer. There is another watchtower higher up the hillside. Instead of returning along the main street, we walked down to the street that runs along the Danube. We walked below the Hotel Schloss Dürnstein, formerly the 17th-century New Castle. This structure and its two towers could be appreciated better when we sailed past it later. We also passed below Stift Dürnstein (www.stiftduernstein.at/en/opening-hours-and-prices/opening-hours-and-prices.html) and decided to visit this former Benedictine monastery. The monastery was established in 1410; 300 years later it was renovated in the new Baroque style. The ticket kiosk (3.50€ pp) is located in the courtyard. The entrance to the choir loft is left of the Baroque entrance to the Collegiate Church; we climbed up there for a great view of the interior. Next we visited the interior of the church, which was not quite as over-the-top Baroque as some of the other churches we had already visited. One unusual item in the church is the gilded wooden tabernacle, which is shaped like a globe and decorated with scenes from the life of Jesus. There are also two decorated skeletons of “catacomb saints” in glass cases (www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-most-beautiful-dead-photographs-of-jeweled-skeletons). There is also an exhibition about the history of the Augustinian monks; it is necessary to go through the exhibition area to reach the Danube terrace. The terrace above the river presents the chance to see some of the tower statues and decorations up close. As we were leaving, we heard the sound of organ music coming from the church and took the opportunity to stop and listen for a while. We walked back down to the river and took that path back to the boat. This region is famous for its apricots and we found several trees full of fruit. Dürnstein is a very small village and we had plenty of time to take in the sights. This morning we walked 3.5 miles (5.6 km). Once everyone was back on board, we spent two hours (10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.) cruising through the Wachau Valley to Melk. While we were enjoying the views and the commentary by our Program Director, Edina, we were served refreshing wine spritzers. Later in the afternoon there was an Apple Strudel Demonstration. Melk lies at the confluence of the Danube and Melk rivers. The Vilhjalm docked on the Danube, near the tip of the peninsula. The area between the Danube and the Melk is heavily wooded, so it is not possible to see the town’s major attraction (the Benedictine Abbey) from the quay. It is about a 0.6 mile (1 km) walk from the boat to the St. Leopold Bridge at the entrance to the town; the boat provided a map. This afternoon, most passengers took the included shore excursion, “Melk Abbey”. We left the boat in two groups: cabins 100-225 (3:35-5:45 p.m.) and cabins 226-341 (4-6:15 p.m.). John, Robert, Mary and I were in the first group. We would have the option of taking the bus back to the boat or walking back through the town. The bus took us across the Ersatzbrücke, a “temporary” bridge to relieve tourist traffic on the St. Leopold Bridge. This brought us to the 11th-century Abbey (www.stiftmelk.at/englisch/index.html) through the countryside instead of through the town. Once we arrived at the parking area, staff from the Vilhjalm directed us through the entrance gate to the Abbey’s forecourt, where we met our local guides (ours was Anita). While we were waiting, we had plenty of time to get photos of the magnificent ochre-and-white east façade. The Abbey tour starts at the Imperial Staircase, lavishly decorated with cherubs and stone saints. The former Imperial Rooms are now the abbey's museum, “The Path from Yesterday to Today”. Anita discussed some of the more important exhibits but the rooms themselves are the real treasure. An interesting item on display is one of Emperor Joseph II’s short-lived and unpopular innovations: a reusable coffin. Another is an antique strongbox with an intricate locking mechanism. The next stop on the tour is the Abbey Church, which is deemed one of the finest Baroque churches in the world. The artists and sculptors who decorated the church were recognized as masters of the period. The main point of all this Baroque splendor is to express the glory of the Holy Cross as the instrument of salvation. Another theme is a monk’s struggle for virtue and his eventual victory, as exemplified by St. Benedict. These themes are expressed in the frescoes above the High Altar. One side altar is dedicated to St. Benedict and the other holds the remains of St. Coloman, an Irish saint who was once the patron saint of Austria. The church also has its own two catacomb saints. We continued the tour through the Marble Hall with its gorgeous ceiling paintings of mythological scenes glorifying the Habsburgs. We emerged onto an outside balcony that curves around the west end of the Abbey. There are good views from here: it overlooks the Danube, St. Coloman’s Courtyard and the facade of the Abbey Church (which was naturally obscured by scaffolding). The balcony leads to the Library (no photos allowed), another masterpiece of Baroque ostentation. Its invaluable collection consists of over 100,000 ancient manuscripts and books. Most of the Library is not open to the public; the room we saw contains about 16,000 volumes. In contrast to the Imperial Rooms, the ceiling paintings here personify theological and philosophical concepts. After the tour, the four of us went over to the Northern Bastion (included in our ticket) and took the elevator to the Panoramic Terrace. From here we had views of the Abbey buildings and park and of the town of Melk. We took the stair down from the back of the bastion to the park. We wandered a bit through the park, which would have been a lot more pleasant if the day had been cooler. Robert and Mary decided to return to the boat on the bus, while John and I chose to walk back through Melk. There were staff from the boat directing people back to the buses or to the stairs down to town. The Town of Melk has developed several self-guided theme walks through town (www.melk.gv.at/en/Themenwege). We had planned to follow the “Red Thread” down to the St. Leopold Bridge. However, the heat discouraged us from attempting the entire route. We simply strolled down the main street (Hauptstrasse) of the picturesque Old Town and saw the sights along that path. Those included the Rathaus, many Late Medieval shops and the Hauptplatz (Main Square). There was a fountain honoring St. Coloman in the Rathausplatz. In the Hauptplatz there is a statue of St. John Nepomuk with two cherubs; this saint is invoked for protection of bridges and against floods and drowning. He was the confessor to the Queen of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). When he refused to tell King Wenceslaus IV (definitely NOT "Good King Wenceslas") what she had confessed, the King ordered him tortured and drowned in the Vltava River. We would be seeing many more statues and images of St. John in Český Krumlov tomorrow. When we reached the St. Leopold Bridge, we turned right to continue along the bank of the Melk River toward the Abbey. I had read a cruise review that said this gave some good views of the west side of the Abbey and that is correct. We crossed over the Ersatzbrücke and easily found the track through the woods back to the boat. This afternoon we walked 2.3 miles (3.7 km). Tonight was a special “Taste of Austria” dinner. We were all encouraged to have the “Chef’s Tasting Menu” before going to the buffet, which in my opinion was a bad idea. The Chef’s platter included Viennese schnitzel with potato salad and cranberry sauce, sauerbraten with bread dumplings and red cabbage, and käsekrainer with sauerkraut. Although the food on the platter was good, there was a much better selection of sausages and other dishes on the buffet. It was also disappointing that the Austrian beer on tap ran out so quickly and that there were pretzels, spreads and cheese on the table but not enough for everyone to have some. Bad planning! For entertainment during dinner, we had an accordion player and guitarist performing melodies from Vienna and the Wachau Valley. After dinner, we had a chance to tour the galley. FRI, JULY 21: Linz, Austria (7:30AM-10PM) Today we docked in Linz. The heat wave was finally breaking; the high today would only reach 85°F (29°C) but there was a chance of thundershowers. The boat provides umbrellas for rainy days, but we decided to take the risk and did not bring one of those or our own folding umbrellas or plastic ponchos. The boat offered an included 1.5 hour mini-train and walking tour of Linz. However, most of the passengers took the opportunity to add another country to their life-list by taking the included, all-day (8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) excursion to Český Krumlov (www.ckrumlov.info/php/turista/?lang=en, www.visitceskykrumlov.cz/en/cesky-krumlov-town-sightseeing-latran/25/) in the Czech Republic. Český Krumlov is (surprise!) a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the top tourist attractions in the Czech Republic; it is sometimes described as a “miniature Prague.” It took about 1.5 hours to drive through the pastoral countryside to get to Český Krumlov. We stopped just across the Austrian border at a gas station for a potty break. A little farther up the road are the American Chance Casino, Casino Admiral and Casino Caesar (right next to Sin City night club). Our local guide (Wanda) mentioned that gambling is much more strictly regulated and there are far fewer casinos in Austria than in the Czech Republic, so Austrians come here to gamble. The bus dropped us off at the P4 parking area next to the Castle Gardens. There is no charge to walk through the gardens or courtyards of the Castle (www.castle.ckrumlov.cz/docs/en/zamek_oinf_pruvod.xml), only to tour the interior. Wanda first led us over to the Cascade Fountain, a beautiful large fountain with four levels. The figures on the fountain represent various sea gods and goddesses and mythical sea creatures. Wanda pointed up the slope to the unusual Revolving Auditorium. That is an open-air theater where the seating area rotates so that the audience sees a new stage set for each act. As we walked through the lower gardens, Wanda pointed out the Connecting Corridor, an enclosed bridge that nobility could use to go from the gardens to the Castle. We walked down a path that passed under this corridor to a terrace (Vth Courtyard) next to the Castle Theater. There were good views here of Český Krumlov and of rafters in the Vltava River, which almost completely encircles the Old Town. Then we crossed the three-level Cloak Bridge; its two upper levels are enclosed bridges that lead to different parts of the Castle. The Castle complex has a number of these bridges, which allowed the nobles to move from building to building without being seen. The Castle is a hodgepodge of architectural styles. The original 13th-century Gothic Castle was enlarged in 14th century and rebuilt in the Renaissance style in 16th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Castle was modified in the Baroque and the Rococo styles. The buildings surrounding the IVth and IIIrd Courtyard, our next stops, exemplify the Renaissance style and some of the frescoes of mythological scenes can still be seen on the façades. In the IIIrd Courtyard, Wanda pointed out the coats-of-arms of three of the former owners of the Castle: the Rosenbergs, the Eggenbergs and the Brandenburgs. The IInd Courtyard is part of the Lower Castle; this is the older part of the complex. The oldest part is the 13th-century Little Castle, which surrounds the Gothic Castle Tower (which can be climbed!). The tower is beautifully painted (as it was in the 16th-century) and decorated with frescoes and plaster figures. The Castle Fountain is in the center of the courtyard. The ticket office for tours of the interior of the Castle is also in this courtyard. From here we crossed into the town over the Bear Moat (www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-bear-moat-at-cesky-krumlov-castle), where brown bears have been kept for over 300 years. Why bears? Because the Rosenbergs fancied themselves related to the noble Italian family, the Orsinis (“orsi” means bears in Italian). Wanda also pointed out the bear keeper, who was driving to work as we exited the Castle. Unfortunately, times have been hard on the bears and there is currently only one in residence. We were fortunate to see it now; it was hiding later in the day. We crossed over the Vltava River on Lazebnicky Most (Barber's Bridge), protected by a statue of St. John Nepomuk, into the Old Town. While Wanda was giving some commentary at the bridge, I was able to duck into a nearby souvenir shop (the Texaco (!) Center) and purchase a Czech flag. I now had a complete collection! We ended up in the main Square (Nám. Svornosti), where we would all meet at 3 p.m. to return to the bus. Český Krumlov’s plague column is in this square. It is a little different from the others we had seen so far: it is surrounded by a fountain. Although this was the formal end of the tour, Wanda took those who were interested to a terrace for excellent views of the Castle complex with the former church of St. Jost in the foreground. We swung by St. Vitus Church before arriving at the viewpoint, which is next to the Český Krumlov Regional Museum on Horní Street. There was an arts and crafts market going on across the street in the courtyard of the Hotel Růže, so we briefly checked that out. The building was formerly a 16th-century Jesuit college and there are some frescoes in the courtyard. Now that we were on our own, it was time to do some climbing (not the Castle Tower—yet). I had read that there were excellent views of Český Krumlov from across the river on Krizovy Vrch (Hill of the Cross). The hike is only 0.8 mile (1.3 km) from the Horní Bridge to the pilgrimage Chapel (www.encyklopedie.ckrumlov.cz/docs/en/mesto_histor_kapkrh.xml) at the top of the hill. Pilgrims followed the Křížová Cesta (Way of the Cross) up the hill to the Chapel to venerate a crucifix holding pieces of the True Cross, stopping to pray at each Station. The Stations look like miniature chapels and were decorated with now-faded paintings illustrating Jesus’ journey to Calvary. According to the history of the Chapel, six Stations were installed from 1740-1755. These either replaced or supplemented earlier sculpted Stations; it is not clear whether the path ever had all 14 of the Stations that are now standard. The route (thewanderingwanderluster.com/hill-of-the-cross-hike-in-cesky-krumlov/) to the Chapel is not completely obvious. This is the path we followed: Cross the Horní Bridge. At the “Y” in the road, turn right onto Rooseveltova and follow that street until it ends at Objížďková/Route 160. There is a traffic light and crosswalk here; cross the street and continue along Křížová. As you continue along Křížová, you will see a Station in a traffic triangle at the intersection with Stinná. Turn right onto Stinná and continue to the five-way intersection. Turn right onto Pod Vyhlídkou, then immediately left on U Sáňkařské dráhy; there is another Station just a short distance ahead on the left. Just as U Sáňkařské dráhy curves to the right, there is a gravel path leading up the hill through a field. There is another Station near the start of the path and a sign: “Kaple Povýšení sv. Kříže na Křížové hoře” (Chapel of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the Hill of the Cross). After, this the path to the Chapel is obvious; three more Stations mark the way. Everything we had read about the Chapel said that it had been closed since 1991 and was only open on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14). We were very surprised to find it open and it appeared to be under restoration. It was lunchtime and I “asked” (with gestures—I don’t speak Czech) one of the workers whether we could walk through the Chapel. The area where Mass is held is in a small building encircled by a narrow courtyard and an eight-sided gallery; that part of the Chapel is currently off-limits. However, we could walk around the gallery. It appeared that the building is being used regularly for parish activities, so maybe it will be open more often after the restoration is completed. We also walked around the outside of the Chapel but the views from here are not very good. The best views were from the open fields as we walked up and down the hill. Now we were all warmed up and ready to climb the 162 steps of the Castle Tower (40 Kč pp, senior rate). When we returned to the IInd Courtyard, we encountered Robert and Mary, who had tried unsuccessfully to take a tour of the Castle. Unfortunately, the schedule of tours in English did not mesh with the time available. They went off to continue exploring the Old Town while we went up the Tower. The views are indeed excellent and worth the effort. The Old Town is so compact that it is easy simply to stroll the cobbled streets and enjoy the ambiance. Wanda had bragged about how delicious the zmrzlina (ice cream) was in Český Krumlov, so we had to try a cone. Zmrzlina is like a richer version of soft-serve and flavored with fruit purée; we had vanilla swirled with mango and it was delicious! After our snack, we visited another Český Krumlov landmark, St. Vitus Church (www.encyklopedie.ckrumlov.cz/docs/en/mesto_histor_kosvit.xml). The High Altar is typically Baroque; the lower section of the altarpiece depicts the coronation of the Virgin Mary and the upper section shows the coronation of St. Vitus. However, the tower and interior are Neo-Gothic. The ceiling is not painted but the vaulting has decorative ribs forming patterns. One off the chapels is devoted to St. John Nepomuk; a silver reliquary holds his elbow. After strolling around some more, we decided it was time to relax with a beer. We tried a place on the Main Square but were never served. We finally left and went to the bar at the Hotel Dvořák (www.hoteldvorak.com/en/index.php?p=the-bridge-bar-amp-cafe), which is next to the Barber's Bridge. We each had a liter of Pilsner Urquell, a Czech lager. We relaxed here until it was time to rejoin the group for the ride back to the boat. With all of our walking back and forth to the Castle, we racked up 5.7 miles (9.2 km) today. We only had a little time to freshen up before attending the talk about the Passau excursions and the disembarkation details. After that was the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party. The dinner this evening was a special Farewell Dinner, which starred Châteaubriand. After dinner, the entertainment was “Sound of Europe: Salzburg’” with music by Mozart, Stolz and Lehár plus tunes from “The Sound of Music.” This featured a troupe of performers from Salzburg, who dressed in traditional period costumes. Part of the act included audience participation; Robert was picked to dance the polka. We got lots of photos of that! After the show, we went out on deck to see the lights of Linz, including the color-changing Ars-Electronica Center. SAT, JULY 22: Passau, Germany (8AM-7:30PM) This morning we docked in Lindau, upriver from Passau. Normally, the boat would dock next to the Old Town and move to Lindau for disembarkation tomorrow. However, the Hängebrücke bridge over the Danube was under repair and a number of docks are out of service. We would not only have to take a shuttle to and from Passau but we would also have to wind our way through another boat just to reach land. The shuttle left at 9 a.m. and took us to the bus parking at the i-Site on the riverfront, about halfway between the two Danube bridges, where we met our local guide (Josepha). Passau (tourism.passau.de/Home.aspx) is situated near the confluence of three rivers. The compact Old Town occupies a rocky spur of land between the Danube and the Inn; the Ilz joins the Danube only a little ways upstream. The three rivers carry different sediments and so have different colors: peat-brown (Ilz), cloudy brown (Danube) and pale green (Inn). This “meeting of the waters” can be seen on satellite views of the area, although it is not very evident from ground level. You need to get above the town to really see the effect. All these rivers also mean that Passau is subject to periodic flooding; the flood of 2013 was the worst since 1501. Josepha led us down Rindermarkt Street, pointing out the different styles of buildings. She took us into St. Paul’s Church (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Paul_(Passau)), the oldest parish church in Passau, which has a pink-and white façade. She described St. Paul’s as the church of the everyday people because the Baroque decorations are not as extensive and the materials used not as expensive as we would see in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The interior of the church is dramatic, with white walls and black altarpieces, pulpit and organ. We exited the church near the altar, passing an antique statue of the Madonna and Child. Once outside, we turned right on Luragogasse and walked to a large parking lot in front of St. Stephen's Cathedral (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom_St._Stephan_(Passau)), which is dedicated to St. Stephen the Protomartyr. A construction crane obscured part of the façade, which is a mixture of Gothic and Baroque styles, and the two towers, which are topped with onion domes. The Cathedral dome is also onion-shaped. Josepha took us into the Cathedral, which is definitely more opulent than St. Paul’s, offering an abundance of gold leaf and plaster figures. However, the sculpture group, “The Stoning of St. Stephan”, is quite modern (1953). There is a huge octagonal dome over the intersection of the nave and the transept. The columns that separate the nave from the two side aisles are connected by arches. That divides the ceiling of the nave into six sections, each decorated with frescoes expressing a different religious theme. One of those sections has an opening to allow the sound of the organ to resonate inside the church. The organ is the pride of the Cathedral: it is the largest cathedral organ in the world, with 17,774 pipes. It is actually a collection of organs, all of which can be played from a single console; some of the organs have their own consoles as well. We would be attending an organ concert at noon. Next we went to the New Bishop’s Residence (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neue_Residenz_Passau); this building also holds the Cathedral Museum and Treasury. Our tour took us to the free sections; Josepha said our organ concert ticket would give us a discount if we wanted to return here later. First we went to the Residence’s famous Baroque staircase, with tons of stucco work and a ceiling fresco depicting the Gods of Olympus. Next we went to the library, whose ceiling featured many bare-breasted women. Josepha claimed that they were displaying their healthy status because plague sores show up first on a woman’s breast; that sounds bogus to me but the men in the group paid close attention. The doors to the Residence are topped with statues of more Greek gods. The Wittelsbach Fountain stands in the square outside the New Bishop’s Residence. It was very hard to see the fountain because it was surrounded by the tables and umbrellas of a restaurant. Its column is topped by a seated figure of the Virgin Mary; three angels around the column symbolize the Passau’s three rivers. The crown of each angel symbolizes one of the rivers: the Inn wears a Tyrolean hat, the Danube wears a garland of corn (evoking its fertile valleys) and the Ilz wears a diadem of pearls (because of the freshwater pearls found there). Now Josepha took us back to the Cathedral to give us our concert tickets. She told us to find seats as soon as the Cathedral opened for the concert at 11:30 a.m. After that, we could either stay in Passau or return to the boat for lunch. We would have a little free time to explore before the concert. John and I took this opportunity to acquire more euros; ATMs were conveniently marked on the tourist map that the boat gave us. We did not have any problems with the ATM but Robert and Mary had to try three before finding one that worked with their debit card. Now flush with euros, we walked back to the Danube promenade and passed the Rathaus on our way to the Dreiflusseck, the point where the three rivers meet. The waterfront at this end of the Old Town was so congested with boats rafting that it looked like a riverboat convention. It was almost impossible to see the water, let alone see the bands of color before the waters mix. We continued around the point and along the Inn promenade to the picturesque Schaiblingsturm, a tower that was once part of the town’s defenses. We could also see some remains of the old city walls along the promenade. Across the Inn, we could see the Mariahilf pilgrimage church (www.mariahilf-passau.de/rundgang/rundgang_e.htm) and the covered staircase (321 steps) that leads from the Kapuzinerplatz up to the church. Pilgrims would climb this “heavenly ladder,” kneeling and praying at each step. Their objective was to venerate a painting of Mariahilf (Our Lady of Mercy) in the church. We had strongly considered climbing the steps with a more secular objective: the car park next to the church is said to have outstanding views of Passau with the Veste Oberhaus in the background. However, we also planned to visit the Veste Oberhaus this afternoon and decided that one climb would be enough for today. Now we returned to the Cathedral for the half-hour organ concert. While we were there at 11:30 a.m., there were still plenty of places at 11:45 a.m.; after that the Cathedral filled up completely. This was a nice enough performance of classical music; I guess the organ is not my favorite instrument but the setting made it special. Recording the concert is verboten but a person a few pews ahead was blatantly videoing it with his camera. He was sternly reprimanded by one of the ushers, who watched diligently until he put the video camera away. I’d bet she kept an eagle-eye on him for the entire performance! After the concert, we stopped by the Alte Rathaus for the obligatory photo of the painting on its side that shows the high-water marks back to 1501. The tourist map shows a public toilet nearby but we couldn’t spot it. The i-Site in the Alte Rathaus directed me to a WC right around the corner in the Neuen Rathaus; I was surprised to find that it was actually free! The Veste Oberhaus towers above Passau on a hill across the Danube. During the Middle Ages, the prince-bishop exercised both religious and secular power. The fortress was built in 1217 not only for defense against external threats but also to protect the prince-bishop from the rebellious citizens of Passau, who wanted to rule themselves. Despite several rebellions, the fortress never fell. In the 19th century, the fortress was taken over by the Bavarian government; today it is a museum. [Note: The prominent date on side of the fortress refers to a renovation in 1499; the numeral “4” is represented by a “half 8”—an “8” with part of the bottom missing.] Although there is a shuttle bus from the Rathausplatz (www.oberhausmuseum.de/Information/English.aspx) to the castle grounds, why ride (1.80€ pp, one-way) when you can climb? Despite the bridge construction, the Hängebrücke is still open to foot traffic. After crossing the bridge, there is a traffic light and a crosswalk that leads to a stairway up the hill. This is the beginning of the Ludwigsteig footpath, a tree-shaded walk with several switchbacks. There is an excellent view of the Old Town from an overlook just before the path climbs directly up to the bus parking area. We continued walking toward the restaurant, where there is another good viewpoint. We liked strolling the castle grounds and walking on the ramparts but we were not really interested in paying to go into the museum. What we wanted to do was climb the 130 steps of the tower (0.50€ pp, senior rate). This is absolutely the best place to see the “meeting of the waters”. There are also good views of the Veste Niederhaus, a smaller fortress connected to the Veste Oberhau by a battlement; the Veste Niederhaus is now a hotel. From the wooden bridge at the museum, we took the Wehrgang footpath down through various gateways and guard houses to the river. We walked through the tunnel (there is a sidewalk for pedestrians) to the Ilz side of the hill and as far as we could on the point between the Ilz and the Danube. That did not give us any better views of the rivers’ merging point. Then we walked back over the Hängebücke to the Rathausplatz. The Alte Rathaus has some attractive murals depicting the history of the town; there is a glockenspiel in the clock tower. This glockenspiel is just a carillon; it does not have moving figures like the one in Munich. However, it was nice to take a break (we had walked 5.6 miles or 9 km) and listen to the short concert. The glockenspiel plays daily at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. After listening to most of the music, we decided to amble back to the meeting point and return to the ship, doing a little window shopping along the way. This was the only time that there was a serious problem with Viking’s transportation arrangements. The shuttle was supposed to leave the boat hourly from 2-6 p.m. and return from the meeting point hourly from 2:30-6:30 p.m. However, as I was browsing in a shop at about 2:15 p.m., John called for me to hurry because the bus was coming. We were close enough to see that there were only a few people on the bus; they were dropped off and the bus immediately drove away! There were quite a number of us waiting at 2:30 p.m. for the bus, which did not return. Even though today was a touch cooler than yesterday (a high of 80°F or 27°C), it was still not pleasant to stand around in the heat waiting for a bus; one person finally called the Program Director to complain. People were quite aggravated when the bus finally returned at 3:15 p.m. and the driver claimed to have been there at 2:30 p.m. We all piled onto the bus and drove off, leaving anyone who came at 3:30 p.m. stranded. When we got back to the boat, the Program Director had to hustle us through the other boat because it was about to depart. We were luckier than the next group to return: they had to wait on the dock quite some time while the other boat left the dock and the Vilhjalm took her place. Although the Program Director apologized profusely, I’m sure that a number of scathing comments were made about this incident on the passenger satisfaction survey. Later in the afternoon there was an enrichment lecture about the Danube River. We skipped that to clean up, relax and finish packing. We had asked the Reception Desk to schedule a taxi for us for tomorrow morning, so we received black luggage tags with our chosen departure time marked on them. We would leave the bags in the hall after breakfast tomorrow morning and wait in the public areas until the taxi arrived. Just before dinner, there was a special farewell from the Program Director. After that was the “Chef’s Dinner”; the regional specialty was Herb Provençal Rack of Lamb. SUN, JULY 23: Lindau, Germany, to Salzburg, Austria This morning we had to vacate our staterooms by 9 a.m. We had settled our on board account after dinner last night at the Reception Desk. I had thought we would need to tip the Program Director in cash but we were able to include that in the amount we paid by credit card. Today started out rainy but had cleared a little by the time we left the boat. It was also cooler: the high would only reach 75°F (24°C). The taxi came right on time and the four of us were off to the Europcar (www.europcar.com) office; the taxi fare for our trip was 22.20€. Europcar had only a limited selection of cars and not the one we had requested. Fortunately, we were able to get our luggage in the vehicle they provided. It was a good thing we got there early because we were not so sure that the people after us received a suitable vehicle. Also, the rental procedures were quite different from in the US. They just handed us the keys—no credit card, driver’s license, signature required. We had handled all the arrangements via email and they were satisfied with that. It turned out that dropping off the car was similarly casual: just pull into the drop-off lane, leave the keys in the car, and depart! We had also obtained a vignette for the Austrian highways ahead of time via the Internet. Austria requires all vehicles to pay a toll for use of its main highways; that toll is paid by acquiring a vignette sticker to be displayed on the left edge of the windshield. You can obtain vignettes at local gas stations near the border but we wanted to be sure we had one when we entered the country. Europcar in Germany said they did not offer them. We found a web site (www.tolltickets.com/default.aspx?lang=en-GB&mnu=c) that explained the laws, sold them for a modest surcharge—a vignette good for 10 days cost 8.90€ with 2.40€ for shipping and handling, and provided amazingly rapid delivery (a few days). We actually saw a couple of police check points near Salzburg pulling cars over that lacked the vignette. [Note: The fine for not having a valid vignette is up to 240€, which must be paid on the spot in cash.] Our plan for today was to drive to Berchtesgaden and then on to Salzburg. John had made reservations well in advance for the 1 p.m. tour with Eagle’s Nest Historical Tours (www.eagles-nest-tours.com). The Eagle’s Nest is a tea house that was built for Adolf Hitler on Kehlstein Mountain; it is now a restaurant. To get there, you must first take a special shuttle bus (or hike) and then ride an elevator to the summit. On the day before our visit, the Eagle’s Nest was struck by lightening (ironically, something Hitler always feared). That wiped out power to the facility and the elevator. Historical Tours both emailed and called us about this problem but we did not receive the messages until we had arrived in Berchtesgaden. We still took the rest of their fascinating tour but at a reduced price of 38€ pp instead of the usual 53€ pp (50€ pp, senior rate). Note that the tour is normally four hours long but, without the visit to the Eagle’s Nest, ours was about 2.5 hours. The tour started at the Tourist Information office in Berchtesgaden (www.berchtesgadener-land.com/en/home), where we boarded a bus for the ride up the mountain to Obersalzberg. Along the way, our guide pointed out the remaining Third Reich buildings and the location of others that have been demolished (such as Hitler’s former home, the Berghof). Our guide was very thorough and gave a complete picture of the area and its history. This is a well-run operation that knows its stuff. We got off at the site of the Platterhof, a large multi-wing hotel for high-ranking Nazi dignitaries and other important visitors. After WWII, it was derelict for several years before being renovated by the US Army as the Hotel General Walker, part of the Armed Forces Recreation Center. It was finally torn down in 2000 and most of the site turned into a parking lot and a restaurant. This is also where you can catch the special shuttle up to the elevator. Just below the parking lot is the Documentation Center (www.obersalzberg.de/ort-der-zeitgeschichte.html?&L=1); it was built on the foundations of the former Gasthaus Hoher Göll, more lodging for Nazi VIPs. Our guide took us through the museum exhibits, which cover the history of both the Obersalzberg and the Nazi Party. There is a scale model of the mountain showing the locations of the wartime buildings and a terrace from which we could view the Eagle’s Nest (www.kehlsteinhaus.de/english/). The Center also gives access to the bunker system (www.obersalzberg.de/bunkeranlage.html?&L=1) that lies under the buildings of Obersalzberg. The bunkers were intended to provide amenities similar to the buildings above them. The complex was centered around the Berghof and was where Hitler could govern and wage war, if necessary. The tunnels were never used to shelter military leaders; however, they saved the lives of over 1,000 construction workers during a 1945 air raid. After the tour, we drove on to Salzburg, where we would spend the next three nights at Haus Steiner (www.haussteiner.com/?lang=en). Frau Steiner has a nearly perfect guesthouse. The rooms are actually fairly large and definitely comfortable, with free Wi-Fi and a TV. If you get a room with a balcony, the mountain views are unbelievable! The included breakfast was always simple but you could construct a nice meal. Like many guest houses, you’ll need to provide your own bar soap but shampoo and shower gel were provided. There is no air conditioning but fans and plug-in mosquito repellents are supplied. The location could not be better: it is away from the crowded city center yet there is a bus (#21) that leads directly to the center of Old Salzburg, about a 15-minute trip. The bus stop is about 200 yards from Haus Steiner. If you have a car, the Untersberg cable car is a few minutes away; Hellbrunn Palace is likewise a 10-minute drive with no need to brave Salzburg traffic. Berchtesgaden and the sites to the south are also accessible without driving through the main part of town. Frau Steiner is quite helpful with advice and responded to emails very quickly. She also is an agent for the Salzburg Card, which includes public transportation and also saved us a considerable amount of money on admissions to sights. We loved our stay with her! Many of the reviews for Haus Steiner mentioned that there were three excellent restaurants within walking distance. For tonight, Frau Steiner recommended Reiterhof Moos (members.aon.at/wwalkner/index.html) because it was the only one of the three open on Sunday. Even though it was so close, the weather was problematic, so we drove there. Outdoor seating was available but, when the downpour started later, we were really glad that we chose to be seated inside. We enjoyed their beer and their food was delicious. Our server suggested we start with an Austrian-style mixed salad and we enjoyed it split four ways. For main courses we ordered pork medallions with mushrooms (Pfandl) and a beef and mushroom stew with spatzle. You might notice that chanterelles were in season. We were convinced to split a dessert and the obvious choice was the local specialty of small blueberry pancakes covered with powered sugar and whipped cream. No guilt because we split it! MON, JULY 24: Salzburg, Austria The weather was forecast to be rainy on and off all day, with the high only reaching 66°F (19°C). We decided to hope for better weather tomorrow for our mountain adventure and tour Old Salzburg today. We bought a 24-hour Salzurg Card (www.salzburg.info/en/hotels-offers/salzburg-card) from Frau Steiner (27€ pp, cash only). That would cover all our public transportation and admission costs today. Before using our Salzburg Card to take the bus into the Old Town, we drove to Hellbrunn Palace (www.hellbrunn.at/en/) and used it there. Unlike most of the other castles and palaces that we visited on this trip, this was not a place where royalty lived or governed. Rather, this was a “pleasure palace” where the prince-archbishop of Salzburg could party hearty and enjoy the beautiful park and trick fountains with his guests. The Hellbrunn was only used in the daytime during the summer, so there are no bedrooms in the Palace. We arrived at the ticket office shortly before it opened and were able to join the first English tour of the trick fountains. [The regular price is 12.50€ pp, which includes an audioguide tour of the Palace, guided tour of the trick fountains and the Folk Museum.] We had extra time before the fountain tour, so we toured the Palace. There is a big exhibit about Markus Sittikus, the prince-archbishop who commissioned the Palace 400 years ago. A small section of the exhibit deals with the mechanics of the Wasserspiele (trick fountains) and includes a working replica of the Germaul automaton, a symbol of Hellbrunn. The Germaul has a face that rolls its eyes and sticks out its tongue; it is said to be Sittikus’ answer to his critics. Gardens like this, filled with fountains and water-powered automata were quite popular with the rich in the 17th century. The Hellbrunn is unique in that all of its automata are intact; only scattered examples are extant in other places. It is incredible that all this plumbing still works after 400 years! The Palace is small and plain compared to the others we had seen and would see later on this trip. The main attractions at Hellbrunn are the trick fountains. Sittikus liked to play jokes on his guests, so the fountains unexpectedly spray water in all directions—you can expect to get wet! Of course, the Prince-Archbishop did not want to get wet himself, so there is always a safe spot: that is where the guide stands and turns on each water feature. The tour started at the rear of the Palace, where we passed a spring-fed pond; it holds statues of sea deities and some live sturgeon. At one end of the pond is a tiny Roman theater, with classical statues and sumptuous mosaics. Most of us sat or stood on the seats of the theater but the guide induced some to sit on the stone chairs surrounding a stone banquet table. Once they were all seated, the guide turned on the “trick”—water squirted up from each seat (except the one where the Prince-Archbishop would have sat). A line of water jets formed behind each row of seats, wetting anyone who tied to leave the table. People became more distrustful of the guide after that! We continued around the pond, passing the Orpheus Grotto, the first of several grottoes with mythological motifs. The Neptune Grotto, the largest, is on the ground floor of the Palace; the Germaul is in the wall under the statue of Neptune. This grotto leads to two other grottoes; all of the ceilings are decorated with beautiful paintings and mosaics. There is a cute fountain in the Mirror Grotto where a merman, followed by a dolphin and a sea serpent, endlessly chases a mermaid. As we left the Neptune Grotto, we were sprayed by water from the ceiling and then from the antlers of two stags’ heads that flank the entrance. There is a stream along the rear of the Palace that is lined with five small automated scenes. Some are of traditional artisans, such as a grinder sharpening a knife, and others portray mythological scenes. On the opposite side of the path is the Venus Grotto, where two turtles squirt water into each other’s mouth. There are other fountains and grottoes along the way, but perhaps the most impressive feature is a newer (mid-18th century) addition to the garden, the Mechanical Theater. The setting for the Mechanical Theater is a tower surrounded by a semicircular, three-level building with cutaway sides. This set is populated by nearly 200 figures, of which almost three-quarters move by water-driven wheels or levers. All sorts of activities are enacted: craftsmen working, soldiers marching, cleaning women mopping, etc.; it is fascinating to try to take in all the things that are going on. Far too little time was allowed here before the guide sprayed us to keep us moving along to the final attraction, the Crown Grotto. Here a golden crown dances up and down on a column of water. As we left this grotto, we were sprayed by jets in the ceiling and had to brave a tunnel of water along the exit path. It would have been nice to explore more of the park (we forgot all about the gazebo from “The Sound of Music”) and perhaps tour the Folk Museum but we were anxious to start touring Old Salzburg. We left the car at Haus Steiner and caught the #21 bus (en.albus.at/public-transport/schedule/salzburg/line-21/) at the Hammerauerstrasse stop in the Begheim direction to the F. Hanusch Platz (Sigrist or town side) stop. Rick Steves had noted that, “Mozart didn’t drive in Salzburg and neither should you.” When we saw the congestion, construction and detours along the way, we were glad we took that advice. Old Salzburg (www.salzburg.info/en) is fairly compact but the sights are on both sides of the Salzach River. When we arrived in the Zentrum, we crossed to the east bank of the river on the pedestrian Makartsteg, which is becoming covered in “love locks.” We skipped the Mozart Residence for now and headed to the Mirabell Palace. Like the Hellbrunn Palace, the Mirabell Palace was a pleasure palace built by the prince-archbishop of Salzburg. I presume this one did have bedrooms because it was built for the prince-archbishop’s mistress. Its Marble Hall is now a popular wedding venue. We were mainly here to see the beautiful Mirabell Garden. The edges of this colorfully-planted formal garden are lined with large statues with themes from Greek mythology. From the garden there are outstanding views of the Hohensalzburg Fortress towering over Old Salzburg. Today the garden is one of the most popular sights in Salzburg, especially for fans of “The Sound of Music”: many scenes of the “Do-Re-Mi” segment were filmed here. We stopped first at the Pegasus Fountain, which is next the steps up to the terrace rose garden. While we were there a tour group came hopping down the steps singing the tune, imitating the Von Trapp children in the movie. We also took the footbridge to the Gnome Park (Zwerglgarten), which was used in the movie. Although many other scenes from the movie were filmed here and all over the Salzburg area, we did not make a special effort to seek out more of them. At this point we split off from Robert and Mary to follow our own eccentric route. The first stop was St. Sebastian Cemetery (www.atlasobscura.com/places/st-sebastian-s-cemetery). We got a little confused at first because St. Sebastian Church is on Linder Gasse, which is also the name of the alley next to the church; there is a plague cross on the side of the church facing the alley. The actual entrance to the cemetery is through an arch behind the apse of the church. We were looking for the monument to Paracelsus, the father of modern medicine, which is up some stairs leading into the church. Two other interesting graves are out in the churchyard: those of Mozart’s wife, Constanze, and his father, Leopold. We walked towards the river on Linder Gasse and then took narrow Kapuzinerberg Street to the Kapuzinerkloster (Capuchin Monastery). Even though the monastery is only a quarter of the way up the Kapuzinerberg (the highest point in Salzburg) there are outstanding views of Old Salzburg from its terraces. We had hoped to hike to the top of the Kapuzinerberg for even better views but concluded that we just did not have the time today. Before we left the monastery, we checked out its small church. Behind the monastery is a monument to Mozart; at one time the Magic Flute Summer House, where Mozart is thought to have composed that opera, was also located there. In Mozart’s time, the Summer House was in Vienna. It was moved to various places around Salzburg and is now in the garden of the International Mozarteum Foundation. We descended from the monastery via the Imbergstiege stairway to Steingasse (stone street), which runs along the old city walls. It’s hard to believe that this narrow, cobbled lane was once the main point of entry for the daily shipments from the salt mines south of Salzburg and the main trade route to Italy in Medieval times. There is a plaque at #9 marking the birthplace of Joseph Mohr, who wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night.” Across the street, a large chunk is missing from the corner of another house; supposedly that happened during WWII when a drunken American solider tried to drive his tank down the narrow street on his way to a brothel. We crossed the Mozartsteg footbridge back to the west side of the river. Old Salzburg is basically a series of squares or plazas. First we came to Mozartplatz, where there is a statue of Mozart; then the Residenzplatz, with the large Horse Fountain; and finally to the Domplatz (Cathedral Square). Right in the center of the square is the Immaculate Mary column. We could hardly see her at first because she was surrounded on three sides by metal bleachers; those are for the audience at the Jedermann play during the Salzburg Festival. However, it was still possible to view the column, with the Cathedral behind it, from the center of the arcades at the rear of Domplatz. Two angels on the front of the Cathedral are holding a golden crown; as you approach the statue, it appears that they are placing the crown on Mary’s head. Like most other cathedrals, this magnificent Baroque Cathedral (www.salzburger-dom.at/en/information/) is the result of a sequence of fires or other catastrophes, followed by rebuilding; the current Cathedral was completed in 1657. The front of the Cathedral has large statues of four saints alternating with three towering bronze gates. It wasn’t hard to recognize St. Peter (holding keys) and St. Paul (holding a sword); the other two are St. Rupert (holding a salt barrel), considered the founder of Salzburg in 696, and St. Virgil (with a church), who consecrated the first cathedral in 774. There are statues of other apostles, evangelists and prophets higher on the façade. The Cathedral's simple white interior walls focus attention on the elaborate frescoes in the vaulting. The dome is painted with scenes from the Old Testament; murals of Passion of the Christ line the nave. The altarpiece over the High Altar depicts the Resurrection of Christ. Above the painting are statues of St. Rupert and St. Virgil. Other sights include a working organ that Mozart played while he was the Cathedral’s organist from 1779 to 1781. Inside the entrance is a Romanesque bronze baptismal font with lion statues where Mozart was baptized. We also went down into the crypt, where we could see traces of the old Romanesque foundations from both 774 and 1167, After touring the Cathedral, we walked from Domplatz to Kapitelplatz. We crossed the square, with its huge golden sphere, and took Festungsgasse to the lower station of the FestungsBahn (funicular). It takes less than a minute to reach the Hohensalzburg Fortress (www.salzburg-burgen.at/en/hohensalzburg-castle/) atop the Festungberg. The Salzburg Card includes a round trip on the funicular and entrance to various parts of the Fortress (but not the State Rooms); normally this would cost 12€ pp, which includes an audioguide. After seeing the long line, we decided to forgo the State Rooms and wander the Fortress on our own, taking in the fantastic views from the ramparts and terraces and visiting St. George's Chapel and the remains of a Romanesque chapel. After taking the funicular back down to Old Salzburg, we visited St. Peter’s Abbey (www.stift-stpeter.at). This is a large complex with numerous buildings and a beautiful flower-filled cemetery. This cemetery is enclosed on three sides by Baroque porticoes with elegant wrought-iron grilles; these are burial chapels belonging to Salzburg's old wealthy families. The 15th-century St Margaret's Chapel stands in the center of the cemetery. Perhaps the most unusual part of the cemetery is the “catacombs”, which are not underground but caves in the rock of the Mönchsberg that were later enlarged. The entrance (2€ pp or free with the Salzburg Card) to the caves is through the communal crypt, where Haydn’s brother and Mozart’s sister Nannerl are interred, and up a staircase. In the catacombs there are two chapels. The Gertrude Chapel is dedicated to St. Gertrude of Nivelles, St. Thomas Becket (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and St. Patrick (!); a Baroque painting of the three saints is above the altar. Next there is a viewing platform with a small bell tower, then the Maximus Chapel, which is said to have been the hermitage of St. Maximus. According to legend, he and his companions were martyred by being thrown from the cave. There are three altars and an inscription telling the story of St. Maximus. Now we visited the Abbey Church of St. Peter (www.kirchen-fuehrer.info/stiftskirche-st-peter.html), the oldest church in Salzburg. The church was originally built in the Romanesque style by Abbot Balderich; during the Baroque period it was renovated in opulent Rococo style. There are rows of Romanesque arches separating the three aisles. In the central nave there is a large expanse of space between the tops of the arches and the ceiling; that entire space is filled with huge frescoes. There is a fountain with a statue of St. Peter in the courtyard in front of the church. Also in the square is the Stiftskeller Restaurant which is widely considered Europe’s oldest restaurant; supposedly Charlemagne dined here in 803. From here we went to the Franciscan Church. There is a striking contrast between the dark 13th-century Romanesque nave and high, bright 15th-century Gothic choir. The choir is ringed by Baroque chapels; in the middle is the High Altar, an ornate creation of red marble and gold. The ceiling over the altar is intricately vaulted and supported by several thin columns. We returned to the Residenzplatz to tour the Dom Grabungs Museum (www.salzburgmuseum.at/index.php?id=1835). Excavations under the Residenzplatz and Domplatz have uncovered a late 2nd/early 3rd century Roman villa built in the over the remains of an older house. The ruins include a columned interior courtyard, corridors, drainage and warm air-heating systems, and rooms with gorgeous mosaic floors. In addition, the Medieval foundations of the Late Romanesque Cathedral are visible. This was a nice complement to our visit of the Cathedral Crypt. The admission to this museum is 3€ pp or free with the Salzburg Card. We walked down narrow Goldgasse alleyway, named for the goldsmith shops found here in Medieval times, crossed the Old Market (Alter Markt) and passed the Old City Hall on our way to the bright ocher Mozarts Geburtshaus (www.mozarteum.at/en/museums/mozarts-birthplace.html). This museum admission is 9€ pp (senior rate) or 15€ pp (senior rate) for a combo ticket with the Mozart Residence; both are free with the Salzburg Card. This is an extremely popular attraction and there is no separate queue for those with the Salzburg Card. We had to join the long queue that snaked up the narrow staircase up to the ticket window. We were almost to the ticket window before we came to a staff member who was directing those with the Card to the museum entrance. That could be handled better. Mozart was born in 1756 and lived with his family in a third-floor apartment until 1773. The museum occupies three floors of the building. The third floor deals with the members of Mozart’s family and includes the room where he was born. The second floor deals with Mozart’s operas: set models, costumes and musical excerpts. This floor was the most interesting, with period musical instruments, including a violin and clavichord that were played by Mozart. The first floor describes the everyday life of the family and has some period furniture. There is a lot of information to take in and the rooms were rather crowded. Nevertheless, even a short visit here is a must for any lover of Mozart’s music. Mozart’s birthplace is on Getreidegasse (Grain Lane), which has been the main shopping street in Salzburg since Medieval times. We followed this street, then turned right on Münzgasse and left on Gstättengasse. We passed under the Gstättentor, once one of the city’s three most important gates. Finally we came to Anton Neumayr Platz and the Marienbrunnen, a historic fountain with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Our goal was right across the street from the fountain: a building with a big “MdM” on the front, which stands for Museum der Moderne (Modern Art Museum). This is the lobby for the Mönchsbergaufzug, or Mönchsberg lift (www.salzburg-ag.at/verkehr/moenchsbergaufzug/), up to the Museum. A return lift ticket is 3.60€ pp or 7.70€ pp (senior rate) for a combo ticket with the Museum; both are free with the Salzburg Card. The lift takes you up to the breath-taking Winkler Terrace, perched on a steep cliff ledge overlooking the west side of Old Salzburg. We did not have enough time to visit the Museum today, so we took the lift back down after enjoying the fantastic views. Once again, we crossed the Makartsteg to the east bank. Our final stop today was at Mozart’s Residence (www.mozarteum.at/en/museums/mozarts-residence.html), where he lived with his family from 1773 until he left for Vienna in 1781 (at age 25). The building was largely destroyed during WWII but was restored using the original plans. The museum occupies the Mozart family’s spacious eight-room apartment (the Wohnhaus) on the first floor. The exhibition provides copious information about the history of the house, Mozart’s Salzburg years and the life of the Mozart family. More interesting are the many original documents and portraits and especially Mozart’s fortepiano (an early version of the pianoforte or modern piano) and the famous family portrait in the Dance-Master’s Salon. Again, there is too much information to absorb during a short visit. Salzburg is a fascinating city and there was much more to see. However, it was getting late and we had walked over 6.6 miles (10.6 km), so we decided to call it a day. To return to Haus Steiner, we should have take the #21 bus at the F. Hanusch Platz (Schiff or river side by the tour boats) stop in the Fürstenbrunn direction to the Hammerauerstrasse stop. That was what Robert and Mary did. We got turned around and ended up on the wrong bus but managed to get directions to the correct bus stop and make it back to the guesthouse. Although we really enjoyed the food at Reiterhof Moos last night, it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We decided to try another of Frau Steiner's recommendations, Gasthaus Schachlwirt (www.schachlwirt.at/english/). This was definitely not a tourist place since we seemed to be the only non-locals. We knew the food might be interesting when we walked up and saw a drum of Gulasch cooking over a fire in front of the place. The owners are an Austrian wife and a Hungarian husband (who is also the chef) so the food is split between the two cuisines. The chef did both hearty food and delicate food nicely. We sampled both Hungarian (Debreceni, Bratwurst) and Austrian (Frankfurter) sausages and salamis for appetizers. The Gulasch was wonderful and the Cordon Bleu Schnitzerl was outstanding. For dessert, we had strawberry roulade. The wine list was short but had interesting local selections that were reasonably priced for the quality. TUES, JULY 25: Salzburg, Dachstein and Hallein, Austria We had planned a multi-site adventure for today: tour an ice cave, see views from a mountain overlook, walk through a delightful lakeside village and explore a salt mine. We got an early start for the 1:20 minute drive through the gorgeous Austrian Alps to the Dachstein Visitor Center (www.dachstein-salzkammergut.com/en/dachstein/dachstein/). Along the way we passed the lovely Hallstätter See and the quiet picturesque village of Hallstatt. As we would discover on our return, Hallstatt seems quiet only in the early morning hours. When we arrived at the Dachstein Visitor Center, there were plenty of parking spaces available and we were just in time for the second cable car of the day. There are several ticket combinations available and we bought the Dachstein Salzkammergut Ticket (www.dachstein-salzkammergut.com/en/dachstein/service/tickets-and-prices/), priced at 39.50€ for seniors. That ticket includes two legs of the three-leg cable car ride and one of the two cave tours available. The first leg takes visitors up to the trail for the Dachstein Ice Cave and the second leg continues up to the trail to the Five Fingers Lookout. The large gondola deposits you at the first stop, where you pass through a building with a cafe and gift shop. You have to check in at the ticket office and be assigned to a specific tour (they write the tour number to your Ice Cave Ticket); you must be at the cave entrance when your assigned tour begins. The cave entrance is about 20 minutes uphill from the cable car stop on a nice paved pathway. On the way, you must walk past an open-air museum (www.dachstein-salzkammergut.com/en/dachstein/above-ground/schoenbergalm/). This museum includes bones from a cave bear found inside the cave. Once at the cave entrance (www.dachstein-salzkammergut.com/en/dachstein/below-ground/dachstein-ice-cave/), we had to wait for our scheduled entrance time and guide. There are outstanding views of the surrounding mountains and the lake below. The cave itself is rather ordinary until you come to the ice. Then it’s one “wow” after another! Water enters the cave via cracks and joints in the limestone (the Alps are composed of limestone). In the winter cold air moves down into the cave and is trapped there, freezing the water as it drips down. There is some melting in summer but the loss is not greater than the amount deposited in winter. The net result is giant formations of ice reminiscent of limestone formations in other caves. We saw (literally) frozen waterfalls, columns, stalagmites and stalactites—all of ice. After exiting via a different portal, we made our way back down to the cable car station. Robert and Mary decided to wait there for us here as we forged ahead on ahead to the next cable car stop up the mountain on the Dachstein Plateau. After passing above some particularly rugged and exfoliated terrain, we emerged at Bergstation at 6900 feet (2100 meters) altitude. There is a lodge up here as well as trails and several viewing points. And clouds. This was a little worrisome as viewpoints are best when not viewing the inside of a cloud. Nevertheless, we persevered and walked out to the Five-Fingers viewing platform (www.dachstein-salzkammergut.com/en/dachstein/above-ground/5fingers/). This was an easy walk of no more than 15 minutes each way, passing snow patches here and there and offering sporadic views of the Hallstadt Glacier. To our great pleasure the clouds parted for us, revealing the 1300 foot (400 meter) vertical drop below the platform and the fantastic sights all around! The platform is as described: it has five fingers, each protruding out 13 ft (4 m) over the cliff edge in a different direction. Hallstätter See and Hallstadt were tiny below us and the surrounding mountains were as advertised—gorgeous—some green, some bare limestone, some ice and snow covered. On the way back, we took a quick side trip (five minutes or so) to the true summit of Krippernstein Peak and the Welterbespirale Lookout (www.dachstein-salzkammergut.com/en/dachstein/above-ground/welterbespirale/). This is a low curving metal tower but the views are not as good as from Five Fingers. Clouds made a reappearance at this point but soon became intermittent. There is also a nearby chapel, built as a memorial to 10 pupils and 3 teachers from Heilbronn who died here in 1954 during a sudden storm. We descended to the previous cable car stop through more clouds and found Robert and Mary enjoying coffee at the cafe. We all trundled on to the bottom stop and found the parking lot now crammed with vehicles; this should have served as a warning. We drove back the short distance to Hallstatt where we had planned to do a city walking tour (www.bigboytravel.com/europe/austria/hallstatt/freewalkingtour/) and take the funicular to the salt mine. Those plans were nullified when it became apparent that there were no parking places within Hallstatt and cars were parked along the highway for over a mile past town. There was even a tour bus sitting patiently in the middle of the highway, waiting for some nonexistent parking spot to become open, while honking cars backed up behind it. Thankfully, we were traveling in the opposite direction! Hallstatt is lovely, picturesque, popular and extremely crowded. Needing to get our salt mine fix (after all salt was why Salzburg was important in early days), we checked our local brochures as we drove in the direction of Salzburg, passing lovely flower-bedecked Alpine houses. The most promising one seemed to be near Berchtesgaden. Our Garmin directed us along a questionable tiny road but eventually we located SalzWelten (www.salzwelten.at/en/hallein/) near Hallein. This was also crowded but we managed to find a parking spot and secured tickets (seniors 19€) to the salt mine. This location also has other attractions but we were salt mine focused. This mine had been worked for over 7000 years and the original users were the Celtic tribes who lived in this region. Before entering we were provided with white hooded jackets and drawstring trousers to wear over our clothes because mines are not always clean and we would be sliding down long banister-looking things. Really. Entry was done by straddling a long seat on a rail car pushed by a small train engine. You had to hold onto the person in front of you. Really. Once deep in the mine (about 1300 feet or 400 meters), you walk through the tunnels and later ride a boat across a brine lake. We were told some early tunnels had been dug by hand but later ones were dissolved away using water. We walked a total of about two-thirds of a mile (~1000 meters) in the tunnels and to change levels we slid down two different sets of wooden rails (about 140 feet (~50 meters) each time). This was actually how the workers did it. While underground we passed across the border into Germany and later back again into Austria. This must have been interesting before the Schengen Agreement. Upon exiting they gave us a little souvenir—a small box of salt of course! A few minutes later we were sitting on a balcony at Haus Steiner enjoying a local brew and the magnificent view in preparation for dinner. We were so impressed with the restaurant at Gasthaus Schachlwirt that we walked over for a return visit. This time we ordered off the specials menu on the blackboard and enjoyed dishes with veal, pork and beef. Desserts were a tasty bread pudding with vanilla-poppy seed sauce and one “berg” of Salzburger Nockerl with raspberries. We even got to meet the chef on our way out. This place was a wonderful discovery! WED, JULY 26: Salzburg, Austria to Pinswang, Austria We originally had made overly-ambitious plans for the trip to our next destination: the famed King’s Castles near Fussen in Germany. We had planned to get there via a grand tour through the Austrian Alps. The initial part of the trip was to be the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (www.grossglockner.at/gg/en/thehighalpineroad/adventureworld), which is world famous for its curves and scenery. If the weather had cooperated, this route would be on the outer edge of what we could possibly drive in one day. Fortunately, a more realistic assessment of how exhausted we wanted to be at day’s end eliminated that route. And the weather did not cooperate anyway. The day began cloudy, cold and rainy and really never got too much better. Our first stop was the lovely lakeside village of Zell am See, where we had a walking tour planned (www.gpsmycity.com/tours/city-orientation-walk-5848.html). The rain was a little irritating but it kept other tourists out of our way. We managed to park in the Rathaus parking garage and walked towards the lake. Along the way we stopped for some exterior views of the parish church of St. Hyppolitus and a visit to the inside of the pretty chapel next door. We crossed the train tracks and wandered the Elisabeth-Promenade along the shore of the beautiful lake admiring the ducks and swans. The Grand Hotel is an impressive Belle Epoque era structure jutting into the lake and had an odd but interesting fountain in the back: the Hundertwasser Österreich-Brunnen installed in 2003. We wandered up and down the pretty and wet streets of this little gem of a town for a bit longer then headed back to the car. While we couldn’t do the Grossglockner road, we could at least do another, shorter scenic road by the same road designer, Franz Wallack, through the High Tauern National Park. This is the 7.5 mile (12 km) Gerlos Alpine Road (www.grossglockner.at/gs/en/index) between Krimml and Gerlos across the Gerlospass, the so-called Pinzgauerhöhe. This toll road (9€ per car) follows a route completed in 1631 that was built to move gold to Salzburg (for the prince-archbishop of course) from the Zillertal Alps (also controlled by the prince-archbishop) to Salzburg, avoiding both Tyrolean and Bavarian soil (which were not controlled by the prince-archbishop). The toll portion begins just after the impressive Krimml waterfalls (www.wasserfaelle-krimml.at/en/) and passes through the Salzach Valley and the Zillertal Alps. We stopped at the P4 parking lot for WasserWelten (www.wasserwelten-krimml.at/wk/en/index) in hopes of walking to the bottom of the falls. However, the increasing rain soon discouraged us so we took a few pictures and got back into our dry car. Fortunately, parking there for the first 20 minutes is free. We got several more views of the falls from different overlooks on the road. The Alpine Road was really pretty but the clouds and rain were a bit annoying since this was supposed to be our grand driving day. As the day progressed our fantastic driver, Robert, needed coffee. We stopped at the Raststation Fernsteinsee near the HotelSchloss Fernsteinsee. This location had a neat castle ruin across the road and was next to the Fernsteinsee. We soon discovered this location was a few kilometers from the noted Zugspitze Mountain, the tallest point in Germany. After more twists and turns in our mountain roads, we found our home for the next two nights, Gutshof zum Schluxen (www.schluxen.at/en/). This is a family-run, beautiful inn that is basically isolated in a field surrounded by hills. It may be isolated but it is central to lots of things. There is a nice grocery a five-minute drive away, where we scored some wine; the castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau are 15 minutes away; Linderhof Castle and the beautiful lake at Plansee are also nearby. They have tickets in various combinations available for purchase before you arrive to see the castles and this will definitely save you hours in line (www.schluxen.at/en/activities/royal-castles/). They also participate in the ACTIV Card promotion, which offers free or discounted activities in the area; ask for your free card when you check in. The inn is well-maintained and the rooms have wide plank, pine floors that are lovely. Our room had a flower bedecked balcony. The bathroom was rather tiny but otherwise fine. It was especially pleasing to have a nice restaurant as part of the facility. We ate there both nights because of the convenience and the quality. The menu is short but ask about the specials. We just missed the asparagus menu but were in luck because the mushrooms were in season. The first night we had cream of mushroom soup, pork schnitzel and roasted filet of beef with chanterelle-creme sauce and noodles. The second night we enjoyed a great pork shoulder steak with bacon and veal with chanterelles. As we said before, mushrooms were definitely in season! There is abundant beer but the wine list is small. Nevertheless, there were some good local choices. The included breakfast was also very pleasant with scrambled eggs as well as meats, breads, and cheeses. Note that they responded to emails very quickly. We highly recommend this inn! THURS, JULY 27: King’s Castles and More We enjoyed breakfast in our hotel and then we girded our various loins because we knew we would be going to the most heavily visited attraction in Germany, Neuschwanstein Castle (www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/palace/), as well as the also popular and nearby Hohenschwangau (www.hohenschwangau.de/430.html). These castles are popular for good reason; they are amazingly impressive. Neuschwanstein is the model used by Walt Disney for the castles at Disney World and Disneyland and is the image that everyone visualizes when someone says “castle.” With such a large number of visitors (over 6,000 a day in the summer), it is imperative to pre-reserve tickets to the castles ahead of time. We had arranged to buy the Königsticket (23€ pp for seniors, 1.80€ pp reservation fee), which includes both castles, through our hotel and presumably would not have to wait in line for too long. Anyway, that was the plan. We parked in Lot 4 (as recommended by Rick Steves). It was a good lot, near the trail up to Hohenschwangau, but on the wrong side of the ticket office. We had to pick up our timed tickets by 8:50 a.m. at the latest but when we approached the ticket office, we saw an incredibly long queue that was not visibly moving. We stood there stunned until one of the geniuses in our group (it was me!) realized that there MUST be a line for people who had pre-reserved tickets and sent a husband (John) to search for it. There was indeed a minuscule line hidden on the other side of the horde of humanity where we were standing, and that minuscule line was moving rapidly. Note well: if you come to see the castles, pre-reserve your tickets! Later, when we finished our touring and were making our way back to the car, we saw that the line for same-day purchase tickets had grown exponentially and was still not moving all that well. There was a sign saying that from this particular point in the line, you could expect to get a ticket three hours later. PREBOOK! We had plenty of time before our 9:50 a.m. timed entry into Hohenschwangau. (The hotel people recommended we go there first so that we could spend more time at the end of our castle tours at Neuschwanstein.) We leisurely took the path up to the castle past Alpsee, a beautiful mountain lake. At the castle, a display board showed the times for the various groups so we could keep a good eye on our expected entry. In the meantime, we enjoyed taking pictures around the beautiful grounds and of Neuschwanstein overlooking us on a nearby knoll. At the correct time, we joined our guided group for an excellent tour of Hohenschwangau—no pictures allowed. On the hour-long tour we went through the well furnished and decorated rooms of this wonderful structure, where “Mad” King Ludwig II lived with his mother. We now had about an hour before our 11:55 a.m. entry time into Neuschwanstein. But we had to get up another hill to get there. There is a motor coach shuttle, a horse drawn carriage (with a significant line and cost), and a path. We took the path since we had plenty of time; the total distance from one castle to the other is a little over a mile with a climb of about 300 feet (90 meters) for the second hill. Before we entered the castle, John and I took a side trip to the famous Mary’s Bridge, a climb of another couple of hundred feet but with the classic view looking down over Neuschwanstein. Of course, it was jammed with people but we slowly made our way to the far end for some wonderful pictures. The Pöllat River below was roaring with water from recent rains. The path through the river gorge back to the lake was closed because of the high water level. We returned to the castle for our entry time and had another wonderful tour. This castle was less furnished than the previous one (“Mad” King Ludwig II did not live long enough to move in) but nonetheless was impressive. After more pictures it was time to find our way back to the car past those long ticket lines. This time we took a shorter but steeper path down the hill. John and I had planned to hike to the ruins at the Ehrenburg Castle Complex (www.ehrenberg.at/en/) near Reutte while Robert and Mary visited the Benedictine Abbey at Ettal and/or another of Ludwig’s castles, Schloss Linderhof. However, the weather was drizzly so we decided to jettison the hiking plans and join our friends. We had not done any extensive research on the Ettal Monastery (www.kloster-ettal.de/oeffentliche-fuehrungen/). However, it was easy to spot it when we arrived in Ettal. We drove past, parked on a lane off the main road, and walked a few hundred yards to the Basilica. We entered via the large courtyard and up the steps into the Basilica. This is a free visit but donations are appropriate! The church interior is a marvel of Baroque style with a great dome over the center and gold designs everywhere. The monks also make beer here but there was no time for that today. The third famous castle in this area, Schloss Linderhof (www.schlosslinderhof.de/englisch/tourist/index.htm), is only a short distance (6.8 miles or 10.9 km) from the Monastery. It is the only castle that “Mad” King Ludwig II completed. By the time we arrived, the sky was clearing so we could enjoy the Italian-style palace gardens and skip seeing the interior of this small castle. There was nothing small about the gardens and they were enchanting and full of flowers! They also had the benefit of being free. We climbed to the highest overlooking level for grand views of the gardens, castle, surrounding hills and construction cranes. From here we also viewed the fountain show that erupts on the hour and half-hour. Even mad kings lived well! Now that we were done touring, the sun decided to make an appearance for the ride back to the hotel. The obvious road back serendipitously went through the lovely Ammergau Alps. Today, we saw Austrian alps in the sunshine instead of rain as on the previous day. Definitely a plus! We had a bigger surprise when the road rounded a bend and the beautiful green waters of Lake Plansee stretched before us. This was a lovely drive along the shores of this Alpine lake back to our lodge. We took advantage of the many pull-offs for photos of the lake and the surrounding forested mountains. Despite the change in plans, we had another great day of touring, followed by a second outstanding meal at our hotel as detailed above. Remember the mushrooms! FRI, JULY 28: Munich, Germany After another delightful breakfast at our hotel, we packed up and headed for the big city, Munich, about two hours away. We had an 11:30 a.m. reservation for a guided factory tour (9€ pp, senior rate) of the BMW Group Plant (www.bmw-welt.com/en/experience/guided_tours.html). Our intrepid driver loves BMWs and made this one specific request of places to visit on our trip, so we had to honor it. We arrived a little early, parked our car, and entered the world of fancy automobiles. We liked a Rolls-Royce convertible but decided it would be too much trouble to package and ship home. At the appropriate time (this was Germany of course), the 2.5-hour tour began and we were treated to a great journey through the innards of this auto plant. We saw car pieces, robots, welding sparks, carbon fiber panels, the painting, upholstery—front bumper to back bumper. It was amazing! We had selected a highly-rated but relatively inexpensive, ideally located hotel for our last German lodging. We soon discovered the reason for the high ratings—while the Hotel Laimer Hof (laimerhof.de) itself was sort of standard, the owners are amazingly helpful! Our room was comfortable, the bathroom spacious, the area quiet (even on a Saturday night!), the location ideal. There is no air conditioning but fans are supplied. A potential downside is that the hotel only has a handful of parking spaces (we were lucky enough to nab one); although there is curbside parking throughout the neighborhood, it might be hard to find a spot. We arrived before the standard check-in time but Alexandra had our rooms ready and also gave us plenty of advice about our visit and where to eat and sight-see. She provided a nice map of the surrounding few blocks that had all the important features (attractions and restaurants). These included the nearby Nymphenburg Palace (0.3 miles (500 meters) away and an easy walk), the Königlicher Hirschgarten beer garden (0.5 miles (800 meters) and a shady ten minute walk), and Romanplatz (0.4 miles (600 meters) and another easy walk). Romanplatz is important because it’s where you can catch a trolley that will take you directly to the Old Town of Munich. The beer garden is important for obvious reasons, but also because it really does have excellent food. The hotel had a nice breakfast with eggs, meat, cheese, and breads for a small extra charge. It also has a small beer garden of its own where you can enjoy a few bottled brews after a long day of enjoying Old Munich. Alexandra’s husband, Sebastian, is a true font of information about the area and is just enjoyable to speak with. He passed us the essential information that the Hirschgarten opens at 9 a.m., if you need that breakfast beer. What more could we ask for! They also responded to emails very quickly. After a quick unloading of our stuff, we were off on the short walk to the Nymphenburg Palace (www.schloss-nymphenburg.de/englisch/tourist/index.htm). The rulers of Bavaria initiated this Italian Baroque structure in the late 1600s and expanded it until the early 1800s. Part is actually occupied by the Wittelsbach family, who still consider themselves royalty in Bavaria. The Palace is set in a huge park (one-square-mile!). We first enjoyed a good walk around much of that park and some of its interesting water features. Of particular note was the lagoon with a Venetian-style Gondola! We next toured the Palace (5€, senior rate) and immediately entered the Great Hall. This airy Rococo room has Greek gods and nymphs in profusion, including the Palace’s namesake. We then proceeded through the usual opulent palace rooms in wings off this central space. One room held particular interest for the gentlemen. King Ludwig I (granddad of the “Mad” Ludwig of Bavarian castle fame) was a girl-watcher (and more than a watcher!) and invited pretty women to the Palace for a portrait (and more!). His Gallery of Beauties has 36 comely portraits, each no doubt with an interesting tale. By now we had an appetite for more than beauty so it was time for a walk to the Königlicher Hirschgarten beer garden (www.hirschgarten.com). They claim to be the largest beer garden in Bavaria, holding up to 8,000 people during special events; there is a table-service area with seating for about 1,200 and the restaurant can hold 500. In any case, on this day we ate from the self-service food stands section. The setting is really pretty with lots of trees and grass with a small deer park nearby. The beer garden section has tables that will seat six or more people and are spread out nicely under shady chestnut trees. You do not need to leave a deposit on a beer mug, which makes it easier than some gardens. We had roast chicken, spare ribs, and a selection of sausages including a great currywurst. The sauerkraut was especially good. And what a surprise—we had lots of good beer and even a giant pretzel! SAT, JULY 29: Munich, Germany We took a short walk to Romanplatz where we bought an all-day group ticket for the trolley (www.munich-touristinfo.de/Munich-Public-Transportation.htm). This ticket (12.60€) allows up to five people to travel together and is a much better deal than buying individual one-way tickets (2.80€). We boarded the proper trolley (#16) and proceeded in the direction of Old Munich. Little did we know about the construction! There was an announcement in German (of course) and on really bad speakers (of course) so we did not completely understand that this tram was not going on its usual route. When it got to the train station, we were surprised to find ourselves turning away from the Old Town and moving in the opposite direction. So that’s what they were announcing! We quickly got off and visited a tourist information office to get the details for our return trip. It would be fairly straightforward but just unexpected. Our hotel hosts had not known about this detour. We walked the couple of extra blocks to the Old Town where we began our day-long walkabout (www.bigboytravel.com/europe/germany/munich/freewalkingtour/). Robert and Mary accompanied us to the first few tour stops, then struck out on their own, It should be noted that many of the structures we visited have a long history but have been restored in the recent past after the heavy bombing in WWII. Our tour officially started at Karlsplatz as we walked past the large, modern fountain there and through the New House Gate, part of the original inner city wall. The new gate is not so new since it dates from 1337. Just inside is the Fountain Boy, a small fountain showing a naked boy shielding his face as a Satyr spits water onto him. Continuing down the pedestrian street we began our exploration of some of Munich’s many churches with a stop at the pink Citizen’s Hall Church; this is a meeting hall that was converted to a church in 1778. Among the artwork that was added is a statue of a Guardian Angel protecting a child from a striking snake. St. Michael Church, just past the tall Richard Strauss Fountain, is large but not particularly ornate. However, it does have the tomb of “Mad” King Ludwig II in its crypt (2€ pp). In definite contrast to the previous two churches was our next church, St. Anna. The interior was decorated by the church-building Asam brothers (Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin). It has the most amazing elaborate frescoes and stucco work, plus a life-sized sculpture of the “Last Supper”! But St. Anna was sedate compared to the church the brothers decorated as a showplace to advertise their work and get more commissions—St. John of Nepomuk. This tiny (twelve pews) Rococo church seems to have every inch covered by a painting, stucco, gold leaf, or frescoes. At the entrance is a golden skeleton cutting a man’s thread of life! High above the altar is a golden window symbolizing the Eye of God. We next made our way past the Old Cattle Market (Rindermarkt) and another part of the old city wall, the 13th-century brick Lion Tower, to the more sedate St. Peter’s Church which actually pre-dates Munich. One of the more interesting items in the church was the grinning, gem-covered skeleton of the putative 4th-century martyr, St. Munditia—a little creepy. After a quick tour of the Victuals market and view of the Maypole, we made our way to the crowds around the Neues Rathaus in order to see the clock tower and its 2-level, 28 foot (8.5 m) tall Glockenspiel, the largest in Germany. Here mechanical figures perform a 15-minute long miniature Medieval tournament. It was slightly underwhelming, especially compared to the water-powered Mechanical Theater at Hellbrunn Palace. The Wurmeck Dragon climbing the southwestern corner of the Rathaus is said to have brought the plague to Munich; the plague ended when the dragon was killed. We later returned to the Rathaus to take an elevator to the top of the tower (1€ pp) for great views over Munich. For now, we had more churches in our plans. First was Holy Ghost Church, with beautiful ceiling frescoes added by the Asam brothers. While we were there, we saw the temporary art exhibit “The White Doves”: over 2000 origami doves spiraling through the nave. Next up was the massive Cathedral of Our Lady, the tallest church in Munich. The tall Gothic brick towers of this church even survived the massive bombings during WWII. The design of this church gives the illusion from the entrance that there are no windows; however, as you walk down the aisle, the beautiful stained-glass windows appear between the columns. An interesting feature is the Devil’s footprint seen in a section of marble flooring near the main entrance. A legend says that the architect ran out of money and the Devil agreed to finance the rest of the building as long as it had no windows. When he saw the finished church, he stomped his foot in anger (leaving the imprint) when he realized that he had been tricked. Another item of interest is the huge, tomb-like bronze cenotaph memorializing Emperor Ludwig IV, the Bavarian. Ludwig is buried in the Cathedral’s crypt, along with other members of the Wittelsbach dynasty and the archbishops of Munich. Eventually we moved from opulent churches to an opulent home of Bavarian royalty in Munich, the Residence Museum (www.residenz-muenchen.de/englisch/tourist/index.htm). The origins of this palace date to 1385 but many additions have been made through the years. A highlight of our visit (6€ pp, senior rate) was the Antiquarium Hall which is a lavish Renaissance space full of color and light. Also interesting was a portrait gallery where one of the kings tried to show that he was related to Charlemagne. The Residence is filled with gorgeous rooms and giant tapestries, each trying to outdo the other. We were suffering from opulence overload so we decided to skip the Royal Treasury and Cuvilliés Theatre (both separately ticketed or included in various combo tickets with the Museum). Always leave something for the next visit. Next we made our way to Odeonsplatz, site of the Field Marshall’s Hall, an open-air Italian gallery reminiscent of Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Although intended to honor Bavarian military heroes, it became known as the site of Hitler’s failed 1923 revolution, the Beer Hall Putsch. After Hitler came to power, he established a Nazi memorial there and required anyone who passed to give the Nazi salute. To avoid giving the salute, people would take nearby Viscardgasse (locally known as Dodgers’ Alley), bypassing the Hall. We had endurance for one more church, the yellow Theatine Church, also on Odeonsplatz. This Italian Baroque church was built by Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, and his wife in thanksgiving for the birth of their son and heir; this royal couple also built the Nymphenburg Palace and are buried in the church crypt with other members of the Bavarian Royal Family. A small chapel contains the tombs of King Maximilian II and his consort Queen Marie, parents of the two “mad” kings: Ludwig II and Otto. The airy, whitewashed interior of the church is covered with little detailed cherubic figures, many spiraling up the columns. It was impressive and different from most of the other Munich churches we saw. We were now positioned to escape the world of Old Munich and head to the great outdoors of the city’s famous park, the English Garden. This is one of the world’s largest urban gardens—a spacious, tree-dense area in the heart of the city and next to the Old Town. It’s easy to see why the locals love this space: it’s full of museums and restaurants but it’s also famous for its surfers and nude sunbathers. The surfers take advantage of a standing wave created by a pump in the Eisbach River. We just headed for the crowd of people and found the surfers. They were really good! We continued our park stroll and saw the sunbathers in the distance. It was time to head back to Old Munich to try to score some food and beer at the famous Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall (www.hofbraeuhaus.de/en/welcome.html). Alas, this was not to be. The place was packed with people and we did not feel like waiting. By now we were getting a little tired (we had walked about 9.8 miles, or 15.8 km, today), so we found the correct tram and shortly made it back to our wonderful hotel. Sebastian could instantly see that we needed a beer transfusion; his hotel has a tiny beer garden of its own and so we enjoyed his hospitality there. We rejoined our friends after their day in Munich and rambled back to the Koniglicher Hirschgarten. We ate at the restaurant this evening but still had outside seating under umbrellas. The restaurant menu is much more ambitious than just sausages! The four of us sampled a venison stew (remember that deer park??) with a great dark sauce, roast venison, and a mixed grill with pork shank, duck, and pork roast. Dessert was apple strudel and apple fritters. And beer. This was a really fun place with really good food. We seemed to be the only English speakers in the place (with the exception of the wait staff fortunately!). Highly recommended! SUN, JULY 30: MUC to YYZ to RDU As I mentioned earlier, the procedure for dropping off our rental car was quite different than other times we have rented vehicles. It is standard for us to drive up in a rental drop off lane and be greeted by someone who checks our names and vehicle. They then give us some documentation or receipt and we are done. This was the same in France and Scotland as it was in the US. In the Munich airport, we drove into the rental facility, were waved forward by someone and then they walked off! We spent some time trying to find the Europcar office but were eventually told that all was well and we needed to do nothing else. It’s a good thing we remembered to leave the keys in the car! There’s not much to say about our return flight except that Air Canada lost the bags of our entire party. They didn’t exactly lose the bags; they just didn’t put them on the leg of our flight from Toronto to Raleigh. They apparently did not load a number of bags because there were several of us looking bewildered as the last bags came off the carousel. The missing bags were anticipated because there was an Air Canada rep standing there with a list of names and we were on it. Fortunately, the bags (full of dirty clothes) successfully arrived the next day. Despite a few kinks and some iffy weather, this was a fantastic trip and a wonderful opportunity to take in some of the premier sight of central Europe. Read Less
1 Helpful Vote
Sail Date: July 2017
We chose this cruise based on what we got for the price. What an awesome experience for our first time. The ship was wonderful and the staff--especially the dining room and kitchen--were amazing. My husband has food allergies and they ... Read More
We chose this cruise based on what we got for the price. What an awesome experience for our first time. The ship was wonderful and the staff--especially the dining room and kitchen--were amazing. My husband has food allergies and they catered to his every need. He never had a issue. The shore excursions with the local guides really brought the local history to life. Every one of them was excellent. We normally did the excursion in the morning so that we then had free time to explore on our own in the afternoon if time allowed. We chose the standard suite for the rate and it was definitely the best fit for us. We had plenty of room and why have a balcony when you can only see one side of the river? You need to be up top so you can see both! We will definitely be traveling with Viking in the future. We purchased their on-board deal before we even disembarked!! Read Less
1 Helpful Vote
Sail Date: June 2017
This was our second Viking Cruise. We did the Rhine Getaway in 2015. We enjoy the great food and open dinning concept. It allows you to meet more people and not be tied to the same table each meal. The daily shore excursions are very ... Read More
This was our second Viking Cruise. We did the Rhine Getaway in 2015. We enjoy the great food and open dinning concept. It allows you to meet more people and not be tied to the same table each meal. The daily shore excursions are very well planned and cover the highlights of each city stop. The guides are very knowledgeable. We enjoy the small tour group concept and the portable head sets allow you to hear everything the guide is saying. We also enjoy the opportunity to stay in town and enjoy the local fare instead of returning to the ship for lunch. Viking offers many optional excursions that ensure you will get to see as much as possible in each port. The concept of the leisure group concept allows fellow passengers who have handicap issues to enjoy the shore excursions a slower pace and still see all the highlights. I would recommend Viking to anyone who wants to see the world and get the best value for their money. We have already booked our next Viking Cruise for 2018. We are doing the Mediterranean Ocean Cruise. Read Less
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