Blog 2, Danube series.

From its source, the Danube flows past the ancient kingdoms of Swabia and Franconia and the contemporary German towns of Ulm and Neuburg. But it is not until Regensburg that the river becomes Bavarian. Founded as a Roman garrison town, Regensburg was unscathed from wartime bombing, so its medieval art remains intact. The city’s primary landmark is the Steinerne Brucke, a marvelous stone bridge with fifteen arches that become higher and wider at the center, giving it a distinctive middle hump. I have visited Regensburg during other trips and never cease to be amazed.  On this trip, though, we joined the msAriana at Passau, one of the most visited cities in all of Germany.

Passau has been called the Venice of Bavaria, or the Drei-Fluss-Stadt, three rivers town. Dominated by rivers, Old Town is built on a peninsula whose end marks the confluence of the Danube with the Inn. A smaller tributary, the Ilz, emerges from a gorge to the north topped by two picture-perfect castles, complete with turrets and all. From a high vantage point, one can discern the rivers by their colors: The Ilz is black, the Danube is blue-brown, and the Inn is silver-gray.

I loved the pastel colors of houses lining the riverbank—pale yellow, russet brown, amber, and lime-green—meeting the baby-blue sky above. From the river banks, we climbed through a maze of narrow streets to reach the cream-colored St. Stephens Cathedral. What a treat! No wonder Napoleon said that in all of Germany, he never saw a town so beautiful. 

Celtics established and fortified their settlement on the Passau peninsula in 500 BC, trading salt up and down the Danube and Inn rivers. Romans replaced the fort with a camp in the first century AD. In the Christian era, the city was reborn and eventually became a prince-bishopric with its ecclesiastical rulers ruling along the Danube as far as Vienna. Passau became rich through trading flint, ceramics, wine, and grain. Products were offloaded at Passau and sent via pack animals far into Bohemia. Back the other way came hops, malts, spirits, animal hides and wool. Merchants made sure that their Rathaus (town hall) was one of the most splendid civic buildings along the Danube.

After touring Passau on our own and ending with coffee in one of the many riverside cafes, we boarded the svAriana for our cruise down the Danube. The top deck provided a view for miles.

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Fifteen miles downstream from Passau, the Danube becomes a wholly Austrian river; however, four centuries before Charlemagne’s rule, the river was the boundary of the crumbling Roman Empire. Craggy granite heights above riverside towns were used by the Romans for forts and lookout stations. Now those fortresses hang onto bluffs, and hide behind breaks in the forests, abandoned to the ravages of nature. I imagine that each of these castles has a story to tell. We do know that some rose again as medieval castles, and later, others were turned into restaurants-with-a-view.

In no time, we were about to enter the first set of locks. I was amazed to see how close the ship came to the edge of the locks—not much over one foot! All these locks along the rivers differentiate a European river cruise from an ocean cruise. The Danube has most of them, a total of 19 locks; most of them (15) are between Regensburg and Vienna; one is between Bratislava and Budapest; and two are at the Iron Gates between Budapest and Bucharest. And finally, the last one is at Cernavoda, close to the delta.

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Dikes have been built to prevent floods along the Danube ever since the 16th century. Only about a fifth of the floodplains that lay along the Danube in the 19th century remain. Now, the Danube itself is regulated along over 80% of its length. Around 60% of the yearly electricity generation within the Danube River Basin in Austria originates from hydropower. After svAriana had passed through the locks to the other side, we viewed vast swaths of generation stations.

Europe is the birthplace of the bicycle and cycling culture runs deep. And the Austrian Danube is most likely the most famous cycle route in all of Europe. As we sailed downstream, we saw bicyclists on the banks cycling downstream. Most start their bike tour near Passau and end in Vienna; however, some continue to Bratislava, Slovakia, only 35 miles away down the river. The route is easy for beginners: There are few hills, and most of the ride is on paved paths that follow the river as it passes through the Eastern European countryside. One 13-day, 526-mile ride (named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Tours of a Lifetime”) from Experience Plus begins in Germany and winds past „impressive Bavarian monasteries, verdant Austrian vineyards, and pristine Hungarian villages before ending in the imperial gem that is Budapest.“ Melanie, because I began this blog on a German typewriter while staying at my step-daughter’s home in Germany, now Word does not allow me to fix the quotes. If you can, fine; if not, just type the preceding sentence over or reword so that it is not a quote. Thanks. Another travel company, AmaWaterways, offers a cruise combined with cycling stops. To some, cycling is a welcome change from the usual cruise-excursion voyage, but I prefer riverboating combined with bus and walking tours.

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During one of these walking tours (in the pedestrian lane of the bike path), our guide described past use of these trails. The bike route follows former bridle paths that run along the river from Passau to Vienna. But before that, commercial ships were pulled upstream by teams of horses.  And before that, slaves of the Roman Empire pulled those ships along! For most Americans, traveling Europe is living a history we don’t know much about. The advantage of cruising Europe is that I can come back to the same cabin every day to research what’s coming up next.