BURT WOLF: 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.
This river is brown or brownish-yellow because the current is constantly stirring up the lime and mud on the riverbed.
Accordingly, our cruise will take us down the brownish-yellow Danube starting in Nuremburg with a stop in Regensburg, a passage through the Danube Gorge, a beer break at the Weltenburg Abby and a visit to Linz, home of the Linzertart.
We boarded our ship, which was an AMAWATERS river cruiser.
One of the really nice things about traveling on a river ship is that you unpack once and never deal with your suitcase again until the trip is over. The ship is like a moving hotel that takes you from town to town.
BURT WOLF: We boarded the ship in Nuremberg, which 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 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.
Hay Mo, this is Curley. Barbarossa just left for his summer place. The castle is ours till September. Let’s get in tonight.
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 and sending revenue out, they should set up a royal brewery right in Bavaria and keep all the cash in town. The net result was 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.
The crews on the AMA ships are always looking for an excuse to introduce the passengers to something that’s fun, and Bavaria’s love of beer and sausages was a perfect opportunity.
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.
At the time, Italy was considered the great artistic center of Europe. The Italian masters had discovered the scientific principles of perspective, and a detailed knowledge of how to render the beauty of the human body. Durer travelled to Italy to learn how all this stuff worked.
When he returned to Nuremberg and opened his own workshop he was able to demonstrate his new and impressive skills.
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. He’s in the thick of it, using both hands to drive his spear into the dragon. 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.
The Durer House is definitely worth a visit.
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.
Hitler saw Nuremberg as the perfect stage for his party rallies. This was the location where he held his fanatical gatherings. It was also the city that gave him his strongest powerbase.
On January 2nd, 1945, British and American bombers pounded the city into a pile of rubble.
Clearly, the Allied high command wanted to send a message to the residents of Nuremberg about the consequences of their previous behavior. As you sow, so shell you reap.
AMA arranged for us to travel though the city with a particularly knowledgeable guide.
BURT WOLF: When the war ended the city was chosen as the site of the War Crimes Tribunal. Their work became know as the Nuremberg Trails. Leading Nazi war criminals were tried for conspiracy and crimes against world peace, the rules of warfare, and humanity. The trials became a milestone in judicial history as the birthplace for a new law of nations: For the first time in history, sentences were pronounced according to the principle of personal responsibility on the part of the individual. It was the end of “But I was only following orders”.
Eventually, the remaining population of Nuremberg began to reconstruct their city. For the most part, they were able to do it with the original stones. Today, almost all of the city’s main buildings have been restored including the castle and the old churches.
After the tour, we returned to the AMA ship and took part in a wine tasting and talk given by one of the America’s leading wine experts.
Alpana Singh is the youngest woman ever to pass the final exam to become a Master Sommelier. Only three percent of the people who take the test pass. She is especially well known in Chicago as the host of the local PBS show called Check Please.
Alpana gave us a taste of the wines that are produced in the areas we sailed through. It’s one thing to have a tasting at your local wine store, it’s quite another to drink your way through the neighborhood where the wines are made and have a great wine authorities on your ship.
AMA has a number of cruises hosted by leading wine authorities and I think knowing more about the wine you are drinking can often add to the pleasure of the experience. You want a teacher who is entertaining, knowledgeable and makes the wine more interesting to drink. You loose me with the technical stuff. Alpana was perfect.
BURT WOLF: 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 they took over 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 the made it possible to building to 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.
The city 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.
THE HALL OF LIBERATION
As we sailed down the Danube, we were confronted by the Hall of Liberation looking down on us from the top of a hill and visually demanding us to pay it a visit.
Almost every country I have visited has at least one monument that must be visited and photographed out of respect. In the United States there are the Washington and Lincoln monuments.
Rome has the Pantheon.
Paris has the Arch d’ Triomphe.
This one was built on the site of an ancient Celtic settlement by King Ludwig I of Bavaria. It is a memorial to the Bavarian solders who lost their lives in the War of Liberation which took place in 1815 and led to the final overthrow of Napoleon.
The outside has 18 columns topped with figures representing the legendary German tribes.
The inside was designed to feel like the Pantheon in Rome.
There are 34 victory figures symbolizing the individual states that made up Germany at the time.
There are 17 plaques recording the names of the major battles of the war.
72 granite columns that bear the names of the cities recaptured from the enemy.
And 112 PBS viewers remembering what it felt like to be on a class trip.
BURT WOLF: Next, as a reward for visiting the monument, 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 is Europe.
About 50 million 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 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.
BURT WOLF: As a further reward for visiting the Hall of Liberation we stopped at the Weltenburg Abbey.
It is a Benedictine monastery that was founded by Irish or Scottish monks in about 620.
It is considered to be the oldest monastery in Bavaria.
The entire place was rebuilt in 1717 in the ornate baroque style. The most important structure is the abbey church, which is dedicated to St. Geroge and St. Martin. It’s filled with outstanding examples of Bavarian baroque art.
The cupola is decorated with a painting that shows the saints in heaven. And the organ, which was built in the 1700’s is in perfect working order. Now I like a baroque church as much as the next guy. But that is not the reason I keep returning to the Weltenburg Abbey.
The Weltenburg Abbey is home to the Weltenburge Cloister beer brewery, which often wins the award for the world’s best dark beer. And it’s being made in what is probably the world’s oldest brewery that is still in operation. It opened for business in 1050.
There is also a traditional Bavarian restaurant with a menu that include the monastery’s home made cheese.
Appropriately fortified we boarded the little river ship and headed back.
On the way we passed a group of people who had a unique approach to river cruising. They had built a small raft, set up a table and chairs, a bucket of wine and a few snacks. And gently drifted down stream.
BURT WOLF: AMA also offered an optional excursion to the Austrian city of Salzburg and that’s were I spent the next day.
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. It was a C sharp.
Getreidegasse is the main shopping street and its lined with dozens of shops.
One of my favourite 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.
After lunch we walked through the streets of the city, checked out the pastry shops and eventually headed back to our ship.
BURT WOLF: Our next stop was the Austrian town of Linz, which is on the Danube about 100 miles) west of Vienna. It is the third-largest city in Austria and the biggest port on the Danube.
During the first century, Linz was the site of a Roman settlement and because of its location on the Danube, by the Middle Ages it had become an important trading center.
For me, the most significant fact about Linz is that it is the home of the Linzer Torte, which is a Christmas classic in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Hungary.
There is some evidence that the oldest known recipe in Europe is for a Linzer Torte. The document dates to 1653.
That evening a group of us settled down at the bar in the lounge and started telling old jokes. Some of them were so good that I felt the need to share them with you. Here’s my favorite.
“ Mr. Goldberg goes to see his doctor for his annual check up …..”
Well, that’s what it’s like to sail on the Danube from Nuremberg to Linz. Please join us next time when we continue river cruising in Europe from Melk to Budapest. For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.