Blue Danube Waltz
Posted April 30, 2007 3:35 p.m. EDT
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The warm sunshine of a late October morning was a welcome greeting as I sat in front of Prague’s Ruzyne Airport waiting for a bus to take us to a hotel. We had just completed an overnight flight from the U.S. plus a short hop from Brussels, Belgium.
Even though it was late fall, the airport bustled with tourists. Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, is a popular vacation destination for 10 months out of the year, and winter was still a few weeks away.
My wife and I were part of a 12-day Danube River tour. We spent three days in Prague before busing to Nuremburg, Germany, where we boarded a small cruise ship. Cruising down the Danube is a great way to see Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and a handful of small towns that flank the river.
The Danube River flows through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and the Ukraine. Important cities include Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. The Danube, with the aid of canals, connects with the Main, Oder and Rhine rivers.
No trip down the Danube would be complete without visiting Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. Even though it is more than 100 kilometers away, the Danube has been historically significant to this region for centuries.
Prague is bright and colorful. The Czech Republic was freed from communism by the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. Since then, Czechs have embraced a market economy. Tourism -- and Western money -- are not only welcome, but vital.
Today, streets are filled with happy tourists whose pockets are lined with euros and dollars. Even though the Czech Republic belongs to the European Union, the official currency is the Czech Crown. Most shops, however, accept dollars and euros.
Once-dour facades are as bright and colorful as a basket of Easter eggs. Domes, spires and towers dominate the skyline, but the ground-level view from Old Town Square is a feast of Gothic houses and baroque detailing. The streets are clean, the people friendly and many shop signs are written in English as well as Czech.
The compact Old Town Square is a great place to spend an afternoon. Climb the stairs of the walkway around the top of the Old Town Hall, built in 1338, and you’re rewarded with a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the square and its bustling outdoor cafes. The narrow platform is also an ideal place to get an unobstructed view of the twin spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, an imposing building that was also constructed in the 14th Century.
The Old Town Hall also houses the recently renovated Astronomical Clock that dates to 1410. It contains figures of 12 apostles.
Slip into the Italian Segafredo coffee shop for a rest, and savor the richness of its hot chocolate. Leave the square and stroll down Parizska Street, an avenue of lavish shops reminiscent of Paris.
The Jewish Museum has one of the world’s largest collections of Jewish art. Next to it sits the Old Jewish Cemetery and 12,000 headstones, the oldest of which dates to 1439.
The Charles Bridge, built in the 14th century, crosses the Vltava River. It has 30 statues, and is today a place where artisans ply their wares and play music.
Prague Castle and the St. Vitus Cathedral overlook the city from their hilltop perch. The Cathedral is a spectacular beauty.
On the Danube
Once you finish the prelude to your trip in Prague, it's time to head to the Danube.
The manmade Main-Danube Canal, with 53 locks, spans the 106 miles between the Main River and the Danube River, which was the northern border of the Roman Empire in the first century B.C. It has given birth to a burgeoning river cruise business.
Kelheim, Germany, lies near the end of the Main-Danube Canal. The Weltenburg Abbey, located near the northern end of the Danube gorge, was founded in 600 A.D. While the Abbey’s architecture is beautiful, many of the nearly 500,000 visitors come to the Abbey to sample its beer. Weltenburg monks have been brewing beer since 1050, and it is one of Germany’s finest.
Further down the Danube, at the town of Melk, Austria, sits the Benedictine Abbey. Melk stands at the head of the Wachau Valley, one of the Danube’s most picturesque sections. The Abbey’s spectacular baroque architecture towers over the tiny village. Inside this huge building, one finds breathtaking frescoes, such as the one painted by Paul Troger, whose three-dimensional quality is exceptional.
The Abbey is also home of a tight spiral staircase that looks like the inside of conch shell.
Vienna is a rich city whose origins date to the fifth century before Christ. It is home to luxurious shopping, expensive housing and offices of many international businesses. Its role in musical history is legend. Mozart lived in Vienna during the prime of his live, and this year Vienna is celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birthday.
Johann Strauss, born in Vienna, was known as the “waltz king” because he revolutionized the peasant dance, and wrote “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” also known as the Blue Danube waltz.
Locals gather in Vienna’s coffee houses to linger over exotic coffee and delicious sweets. Because Vienna’s apartments are small, coffee houses function like living rooms. People spend time reading, socializing and passing the time of day.
Paris of the East
Budapest, often called the Paris of the East, is basically two cities that straddle the Danube. Pest is on one side, and Buda on the other. Budapest was devastated during World War II, but today it looks like a bustling city that is rapidly growing used to freedom from communism.
The castle district on the hills of Buda is one of the best places to get an overall view of the city, especially at sundown or early evening. Budapest has a myriad of lights and it sparkles like a jewel at night.
The stonework on the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion is fabulous. Both overlook the city, and the view at night is best. Fisherman’s Bastion is built on the site of a medieval fish market and it is a monument to the 18th century fishermen who defended the fortifications.
If you want to sample a traditional Gypsy dinner, complete with dancing by the waiters and soup served from buckets carried on a pole, Budapest is the place.
Shopping at the huge indoor market is a great way to get a feel for everyday life. Residents scurry through the huge building that looks like a train station. It is filled with stalls where piles of fresh vegetables, sausages and other foods are sold.
Out on the street, happy diners revel in the open-air cafes that look as if they could be in Paris.
The Danube is a long river with a tremendous history. Over many centuries it has been a conduit for armies, trade and life itself to east central Europe. Today, the steady flow of compact cruise ships adds a new dimension to river life.
The cruise ships are like floating hotels that move with you every day, making them a convenient base for sampling a wide variety of cultures and geography in a relatively short time.