Travels & Traditions: Sailing The Danube - #1405

Europe’s Danube River beings in southwest Germany and flows through nine countries until it empties into the Black Sea. It runs for almost 2,000 miles making it the second longest river in Europe. The longest is the Volga in Russia. The most famous waltz written by Strauss, describes the river as the Blue Danube, which leads me to the conclusion that Strauss would never have passed the color chart test for a drivers license. The river is brown or brownish-yellow because the current is constantly stirring up the lime and mud on the riverbed.

Nuremberg is in the German state of Bavaria. Bavaria covers all of southeastern Germany and is the nation’s largest state. But Bavaria is also a state of mind. It’s Europe’s epicenter for partying and its held that title for over 500 years. During the 1500s, the rulers of Bavaria spent so much money building magnificent churches and palaces that they almost ran out of cash. Nuremberg Castle dates back to the Middle Ages. From 1050 to 1571, every emperor of the Holy Roman Empire spent part of their reign in the Nuremberg Castle. Many of the rooms have their original paneling and are furnished with paintings, tapestries and furniture from the 15 and 1600s. For thousands of years, if you were looking for a safe place to build your castle you need a spot that was high enough so you could see what was happening around you and to make it difficult for your enemies to get near. You also had to have a dependable source of water, particularly if your castle was under siege. The shaft of the Nuremberg castle well was driven through 50 yards of sold rock.

The castle was built in stages on a sandstone hill on the north side of Nuremberg’s old city. The German emperors never had a home base. They moved around the country from one castle to another, but the castle at Nuremberg was a favorite and they appear to have spent more time there than anywhere else. The local government of Nuremberg was responsible for the cost of maintaining the castle, but in exchange they had the right to live there when the emperor was out of town. Hey Moe, it’s Curley. Barbarossa just left for his summer place. The castle is ours till September. Let’s get in today. In order to find a new source of revenue, the chief accountant for the Duke of Bavaria suggested that instead of buying beer from an out-of-state brewery, a royal brewery be set up right in Munich and it was a great idea. It kept all the cash in town and resulted in the introduction of the first Hofbrauhaus.

The beer is served in a liter mug called a mass. If you are the designated driver you might skip the mass and have a radler, which was designed for people going about on bicycles. It’s half beer and half lemonade. After our beer break, we headed into Nuremburg to tour the city. Nuremburg got rich during the 12th and 13th centuries as a commercial and craft center and the undeclared capital of the Holy Roman Empire. During the 1400s, it became a favorite city for artists living in northern Europe. The most famous was Albrecht Durer who was born in Nuremberg in 1471. For anyone interest in the history of art the Durer House is fascinating. It is a half-timbered building that was constructed in the 1400s, and is the only completely preserved Gothic house in the city. Exhibits inside the house are devoted to Dürer's life and works. A series of large woodcuts illustrating the Revelations of St. John was an immediate success. The horrors of doomsday had never been visualized with such power. Durer’s St. Michael is not standing in a traditional pose. This is real hand-to-hand combat between good and evil. Durer clearly had a fantastic imagination and the ability to present it in his works. But he was also devoted to the beauty of nature. His drawing of a hare makes the point. And so does his painting of a small patch of earth.

Nuremberg was at the center of the European trade routes and by the early 1600s, it was at the height of its economic and cultural development, but nothing lasts forever and by the early 1800s it was broke. My immediate assumption was that its decline was the result of an early form of credit default swap. But in fact, it was caused by Columbus. After the discovery of America, world trade routes shifted from the land to the sea. Nuremburg began to deteriorate. And Protestants killing Catholics and Catholics killing Protestants for 30 years during the Thirty Year’s War didn’t help either. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1800’s, when the German railroads were being built that Nuremburg made a comeback as an industrial powerhouse.

Our next stop was Regensburg. Like most of the towns in Western Europe, Regensburg began as a Celtic settlement that dates back to about 500 BC. When the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius came through he took over the area and made it his power center for the upper Danube.

The Regensburg Cathedral, dedicated to St. Peter is a prime example of the Gothic architecture of southern Germany. Ribbing that reduces the weight of the roof. Arches that allowed for the introduction of larger windows. Buttressing that made it possible to build larger and taller churches than ever before. The dark heaviness that was typical of the earlier churches gave way to the light open warmth of the Gothic. These structures were meant to illustrate the wealth and influence of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. It was built on the site of the north gate of an ancient Roman fort.

The Romans were great judges of real estate. When they saw something in a good spot, they took it. Even it if it needed a little work. Regensburg sustained little damage during the Second World War and many of its ancient structures are still standing. It’s most famous is the Stone Bridge that was built in 1146 on the base of 16 huge arches. It’s been in continual use for over 800 years. At the base of the bridge is a little house where sausages are cooked and served at nearby tables. This simple outdoor restaurant was actually set up in the 12th century to feed the men who were working on the bridge.

Next, we sailed through the Danube Gorge. It’s only a 20 minute trip on a small tour boat but it passes through some of the most interesting scenery in Europe. Millions of years ago, during what Stephen Spielberg made famous as the Jurassic period, the Danube carved its course through the hard limestone rock of the Swabian Alps. At some points the river is only 350 feet wide with cliffs on either side that are 250 feet high. There are a number of rock formations on the walls that have been given special names. There’s the Bishops Mitre, the Beehive and Napoleon’s Suitcase. Unless you live in the neighborhood or have just finished 3 or 4 shots of the local brandy these forms maybe a bit hard to recognize. The area is also filled with ancient fossils, present company excluded. In fact, the oldest musical instrument, a flute carved from the tusk of a mammoth that dates back over 37,000 years was found in the Swabian Alps. Over the centuries rain has slowly been dissolving the entire mountain range. It’s loosing about 2 inches a year. So you better get here as fast as you can.

Salzburg means salt castle, which is a reference to the nearby salt mines. For centuries salt was the best way to preserve food through the winter and it was extraordinarily valuable. It was what made Salzburg important. People have been living here since the 5th century BC. When Rome collapsed so did Salzburg. But during the 8th century, St. Rupert put Salzburg back on the map. Apparently, Rupert had the only good map and he put on whatever he wanted. Today, Salzburg is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and the old town has many of its original baroque buildings. During the 1600s, Italian architects were invited to work in the city and the most beautiful squares and buildings were the result of their work. It’s most famous building, however is at Getreidegasse number 9, where on the 27th of January 1756, at 8 O’clock in the evening Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born and cried his first note. (Baby Cries) It was a C sharp.

Getreidegasse is the main shopping street and it’s lined with dozens of shops. One of my favorite spots in Salzburg is the restaurant St. Peter. It was built into the walls of a mountain and is considered to be one of the oldest, still functioning restaurants in Europe. We all went there for lunch. As the Danube River runs west from the Austrian city of Vienna it passes through some of the most picturesque scenery in Europe. For over 35,000 years people have been living on these shores. They were originally attracted to the area because of the mild climate and the ideal conditions for farming. The ancient Romans occupied the region and when Christianity became the official religion of Rome the local population slowly gave up its pagan beliefs and built dozens of monasteries on the hills. 

But a monastery was not just a center for religious activities. The monks were skilled craftsmen, architects, and technicians. They set up permanent facilities that organized the peasants and showed them how to improve their farming, how to build better houses and upgrade the construction of roads and bridges. When a ruler donated land and money for the creation of a monastery it may or may not have improved the rulers’ value to the Almighty but it was definitely a mighty improvement in the value of the lands that the ruler ruled.

The town of Melk was founded as a Roman garrison at the point where the Melk River joins up with the Danube about 50 miles west of Vienna. In the year 976 the Emperor of Germany chose the Babenberg family to rule the neighborhood, which they did from a series of fortified castles. The castle at Melk was their most important stronghold and became the cradle of Austrian history. The Babenbergs decided to bury their ancestors at Melk and to make sure that the family burial site was cared for properly they set up a monastery inside the castle. The Babenbergs ruled for just over 100 years, at which point the castle and the surrounding lands were turned into a Benedictine monastery and Benedictine monks have been living and working here ever since. For centuries Melk was able to support itself with taxes from the local peasants and a profitable agricultural program on its own land. These days, however, the major source of income is tourism. Each year almost five hundred thousand people visit Melk.

St. Benedict’s motto was pray, work and read and the physical structure of Melk is designed to serve these functions. Up until that time monks were primarily hermits living separately in huts and caves. St. Benedict did that for a while but then he decided that monks should be together in a community. The Benedictine model is to bring people together in a life of holiness, but at the same time it should be a life of wholeness. He promoted a balanced personality of work, spiritual life, and intellectual advancement. The Benedictine communities became an oasis of learning within Europe, an oasis that preserved the idea of scholarship that was so much a part of the European tradition. The Rule of St. Benedict requires that nothing be more important than the worship service and the Melk Abbey church clearly reflects that instruction. Work on the church began at the beginning of the 1700s, under the direction of Abbot Dietmayr. Dietmayer decided that the subject matter of the artwork should be based on the idea that without a just battle there is no victory. And that theme is reflected throughout the interior.

Vienna was built at the crossroads of two major trade routes. The north-south axis was the Amber Road that went from Northern Germany to Greece. The east-west traffic was handled by the Danube River. The Danube was essential for the growth of international trade. Vienna got rich because the city controlled the traffic heading down river. And Vienna was controlled by the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburg family came to power at end of the 1200s and hung onto it for almost 700 years. This is Schonbrunn Palace, it was their summer place. Now, most royal families increased their land and their power by using military might, but the Hapsburgs used marriage. It all started when Maximilian married Mary, the daughter of the

Duke of Burgundy, which added the Netherlands and Luxembourg to his lands in Austria. Then Max’s son Phil married Joan, the heiress of Castile. And that got him Spain and Naples and Sicily and Sardinia and all the newly conquered Spanish lands in the Americas.
These guys were getting married all over the place and getting all the places where they got married. But at one point they made a fatal mistake. In order to avoid anybody marrying a Hapsburg and getting their land they started marrying each other--- a genetic disaster. It’s good to have a close family but not that close.
Swimming in the same gene pool made them weirder and weirder and in the end they lost everything. Fortunately, what they lost is now on display to the public.

Robert Tidmarsh has been a senior guide to Schonbrunn Palace for over twenty years. Tidmarsh: This room is the so called Marie Antoinette Room; it dates back to the time of the Emperor. What we've done is to try to show the public what a dining room was like at the time of the Emperor.
The napkins are the so called Kaiser Serviette. They're shaped similar to a fleur d'lys, and they were used, or are used for the head of state.
Even today when we have a state reception, if the President of Austria gives the reception then they will use the Kaiser Serviette. If it's the Chancellor, then they don't.
The Master of Ceremonies chose the length of the candles. So if it was going to be a long reception he would use long candles, if it was going to be a short reception, the short ones. Most of the people that came to a state reception were Austrians that had been to thousands of receptions before, and they would automatically look at the chandeliers to see how long the reception was going to take. The Emperor ate very quickly, which is not quite true. If he did, he would have looked like me. He ate very little and finished very quickly, and that led to a problem. As soon as the Emperor stopped eating everybody else was obliged to stop.

Most of the restaurants near to the Schonbrunn or near to the Hofburg or the hotels, knew about the problem. They knew that the reception would be over very quickly, and they were getting ready for the end of the reception. And the end of the reception would have been that moment, as soon as the Emperor stopped eating and everybody left the Hofburg or Schonbrunn and went to the next best hotel for a meal.

The last day of the cruise was was spent in Budapest, which is actually made up of three cities: Buda, Pest and Obuda. These days Budapest is a peaceful, beautiful and culturally interesting city, which has managed to hold on to much of its history while adapting to the needs of a modern capital. This is the Castle Hill area. The capital of Hungary was originally a few miles up the river on a flat plain that was almost impossible to defend. During the middle of the 1200s, the Mongol Tartars, who had become wealthy as a result of their invention of tartar sauce, invaded the town and destroyed it. So the next time a town was built in the neighborhood it was put up on a steep hill. Good move, safer neighborhood. The hill is about 200 feet high and about 5,000 feet long and it holds an entire city district filled with historic houses. The district also contains the Mathias Church. The original church on this site was put up in 1255 for use by the German residents of Buda. At the time it was known as the Church of Our Lady but people started calling it the Mathias Church after it was used for the first wedding of King Mathias in 1463. Mathias used it again for his second wedding to Beatrice of Naples. And I’m sure if he had a third wedding he would have been here too. He loved getting married in this Church and he was getting a fabulous deal from the florist.

Next to the church is an equestrian statue of St. Stephen who converted to Christianity in the year 1,000 and became the first king of Hungary. There is a story that the number of legs connected to the ground on an equestrian statue is related to the way in which the rider died: one hoof raised means the rider was wounded in battle; two hooves raised means death in battle. All four hooves on the ground means the rider survived all battles unharmed.

This is a popular story but not always true. It depends on when and where the statue was made and who made it. Behind the statue is an area known as the Fishermen’s Bastion. During the 1200s each group of tradesmen were responsible for defending a part of the city wall and this was the part defended by the fishermen. The spot has a great view of the Danube and Pest. The building that dominates the Pest bank is the Parliament. Well, that’s river cruising on the Danube. For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.