Wednesday September 2, 2015: Prague

After breakfast we went on a guided walking tour of Prague, or Praha as the city is known to the Czechs, with a local guide. The city has 10 districts, and each has quarters within it.  Prague 1, for example, contains Old Town, the Castle Area, and Lesser Town.  The city is on the Vltava (Moldau) River. We started in part of the Lesser Town then crossed the Charles Bridge to Old Town.  The guide gave us some of the history of the city and the country that we had heard the day before including the fact that the fate of the country during 1938 and 1939 was decided “about us but without us” by discussions between Britain, France and Hitler resulting in the Munich Agreement, known by Czechs as the Munich Betrayal.  She showed us a memorial that was erected in 2014 in memory of the 2,500 Czech pilots who served in the British Air Force during the war.  The Lion is the symbol of Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic). Winston Churchill’s grandson attended the unveiling.  Over half of the pilots returned to the Czech Republic after the war, but when the communists took over they were persecuted and many were sent to labor camps.


There is another second World War monument in the same park.


Prague was only bombed once during the war, and that was by mistake.  It was in February 1945 and it was very foggy and the Allies were supposed to bomb Dresden and mistook Prague for it.  The new town area was the only part of Prague to be damaged.

We walked to Vojanovy Park, a very pretty park that was once the garden of the bishop’s court in medieval times and became part of a Carmelite convent.  The nuns planted many fruit trees and they are still here long after the convent was abolished by the communists.  We met a woman who had participated in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and she told us her personal story and shared some photos from that time.


She told us that her parents were a doctor and a biologist who were not dissidents but also not members of the party.  They taught her to follow certain rules about discussing the family.  If you or your parents were openly against the regime you could not go to high school or university and only got a menial opb.   Children were encouraged to report on their parents’ activities and conversations.  She was a teenager in the 1980s when communist central control started to weaken.  It started in Poland and the perestroika movement occupied the attention of USSR leaders was diverted to their problems and less focused on what was happening in Czechoslovakia. When the Berlin Wall fell, they all thought everything in this country would also change.  A week after the fall of the wall she and her friends attended the International Day of Students – there were thousands of students and others there.  After the official speeches, the crowd started spontaneous chanting of anti-communist slogans.  They were going to Wenceslas Square and the Police seemed to be letting them  but then blocked their way and told them to go home.  The police then started pushing the crowd together and pressing them against walls and windows  Several shop windows cracked and some broke and she had trouble breathing at one point.  A very narrow arcade opened up and people started to run towards it but the police were there with wooden clubs beating them on their heads and limbs.  She and her friend made it out and ran up to a house.  The door opened quickly and they were pulled into the house and the door closed again.  There were about 50-60 other people in the house with them.  The Police shouted for the owners to open the door but everyone was completely quiet and they left.  After a couple of hours, they left quietly in small groups, went to the nearest pub and got very drunk!  There was no internet then but the news spread very fast and people started occupying schools and other buildings.   Their supporters grew to about 800,000 people in Wenceslas Square.  The communists realized that would not be able to suppress these demonstration and agreed to allow free elections. Václav Havel had been one of the leaders and became the first President of the new democratic republic.  She was 19 years old and, for her, the most important change was that she could travel to Paris, London and Italy where she could see the art she had always wanted to see. Many people were badly injured during the demonstrations,  but luckily no one was killed – hence the term “Velvet Revolution”.

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We walked to the Vltava (Moldau) river and our guide pointed out the high water markings along the side of a building: The lower one was in 1890 and the much higher one marks the level of water in August 2002 when the Czech Republic was hit by devastating floods, in what was the biggest natural disaster in modern Czech history.  Since then a flood defense system has been installed along the river to protect the central part of the city, and it worked when the city was again hit with even worse flooding in June 2013.

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We walked down to the edge of the river and saw all the swans there. We could see the old town across the Charles Bridge.

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We walked through the courtyard at the Kafka Museum where we saw David Černý‘s “men peeing” statue.  Černý is a very controversial Czech sculptor.  This particular piece reflects what he thinks about the EU.  It shows two EU politicians peeing on a map if the Czech Republic.  Their hip sections swivel and the penises go up and down.


The guide told us of some of Černý’s other controversial work.  During 2009 when the Czech Republic had the 6-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, he created Entropa to be displayed outside the EU parliament that depicted each country as a stereotype.  Bulgaria was so incensed at being depicted as a series of Turkish toilets that that part of the sculpture was covered up during the time it was on display in Brussels.  The UK is missing altogether! We later saw a couple of his other works as we walked through more of Prague.

As we walked toward the Charles Bridge we came across some cars being removed from illegal parking spots.  Apparently the parking problem results in some wealthy people just dealing with regular tows.

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The Škoda is the most common car in the Czech Republic as it is a Czech company.


We walked across the Charles Bridge across the Vlatava.  It was started in the mid-14th century by King Charles IV of Bohemia who was also a Holy Roman Emperor.  The bridge has 30 statues along the sides all of the which have been systematically replaced by replicas, and the originals have been exhibited in the National Museum.

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One of the statues is bronze (as opposed to sandstone) and has two shiny spots where people have rubbed it. It is the Statue of St John Nepomuk who was a priest in Prague under King Wenceslaus.  The Queen made a confession to John of Nepomuk who was then accused of intimacy with her and executed by being thrown into the Vltava River from the bridge and drowned.  Tradition says that if you rub the bronze plaque on the right side you will have good luck and if you touch it on the left side you will come back to Prague one day.  Of course, we rubbed both sides!


There are a lot of vendors selling various items on the bridge and we were told that the Program Directors always buy earrings there.  I do not need any and didn’t know what would appeal to the various people I would give them to as gifts, so I didn’t spend much time browsing (Katie came back later when we had more time and got some very pretty earrings).

The bridge is a popular place for wedding photos!


We walked across the bridge to the Old Town with the guide going through the Old Town Bridge Tower.


Then we walked through a lot of the Old Town admiring many interesting buildings on our way to the main square.

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We went to see the famous astronomical clock which dates back to 1410.  It is amazing how such complex mechanisms were made more than 6 centuries ago, and how they reflected the 15th-century interest in astronomy.  The guide described all the things we would see, then we waited for a few minutes along with many other tourists for the hourly “performance”.  YouTube has a good description.


The guide left us in Franz Kafka Square and recommended a number of good places to eat lunch.


Katie, Linda and I chose one of them and had an enjoyable lunch there in the garden.  Contrary to what our Program Directors had told us about Czech’s generally not smiling, the waiters and waitresses were very pleasant.

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After lunch we explored that part of town and went back to the Starbucks Katie had spied near the town square, had a coffee and bought a thermal mug with Prague on it (to go with the identical mugs from New Zealand bought earlier in the year).  I was also intrigued by a small cafe selling absinthe, but was not tempted to try it (there seemed to be something appropriate about that skeleton in the doorway)!

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We got back to Franz Kafka Square to meet up with the Program Director Lukas for an optional walk to Wenceslaus Square.  Since Prague is Lukas’ home, I particularly wanted to go on his walks. So did a lot of others and he was surprised at how many of us were following him.  It is times like that that make the “whisperers” very helpful as you can hear what the guide is saying even when quite a way behind.


Lukas pointed out the building that used to house Radio Free Europe which broadcast to countries behind the iron curtain.  After the Velvet Revolution, it was moved from Germany to Prague.

In front of the National Museum we stopped to look at the monument to Jan Palach at the spot where he set himself alight in 1969 to protest the end of the Prague Spring when the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia.  The monument is also dedicated to Jan Zajic, another student who also burnt himself to death on the same spot a month later.

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We then stood by the statue of St. Wencelaus and looked down the famous long avenue known as Wenceslaus Square that featured so much in the stories of all the protests through the years.

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We walked down the street and at one point went into a hotel where Lukas had worked as a bellboy when he first moved to Prague to attend university.   He showed us the Andy Warhol painting of Franz Kafka that hangs in the lobby.

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Lukas pointed out many more interesting buildings and also showed us the mix of communist style architecture and earlier Czech buildings.


There is a sizable Russian population in Prague.  According to a blog on the subject the community which has settled here in the last two decades is very diverse. Broadly speaking, Russian people have come to the Czech Republic for two reasons – they have been forced from their homeland because of the political situation, or they have come to pursue business, find a job, travel, or study. The post-revolutionary period represents a new era of Russian immigration. From 1994 to 2010, the number of Russian people in the Czech Republic has grown from about 3,000 to just over 32,000. From this total, about 18,000 have permanent or long-term residency. The majority of Russian people, approximately 22,000 according to the last census, live in the capital. While these absolute figures represent an approximately nine-fold increase, relative to the number of immigrants, the proportion has only doubled from 3% to 7% of all foreigners.

Some say that there is a flourishing Russian mafia running the casinos and some hotels etc.


Lukas led us into a small arcade off the square where there is a statue of St. Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse. It is another sculpture by David Cerný, made of foam but resembling bronze.

The sculpture is a mocking reference to the more famous equestrian statue of St Wenceslas at the top of the square and possibly a mocking nod to Czech president Vaclav Kraus.

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I liked the stained glass in another shopping arcade we walked through called Svetozor. It has a logo of former Czechoslovakia firm TESLA which was a large, state-owned electrotechnical conglomerate in the former Czechoslovakia and had a state-sponsored monopoly on electronics production in communist Czechoslovakia, and produced nearly all electronic products in the country until 1989.


We walked through the Franciscan Garden, a pretty park with an interesting gate. It is wonderful oasis of calm in the city.

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We then went to a restaurant that Lukas highly recommended.  It has a historical beer tap from the original cellar (I was trying to remember the history of it and am surprised that it is not mentioned on the restaurant website).  I can’t drink beer (unless it’s gluten -free, which would be rather insulting to the Czech beer reputation) and neither Linda nor Katie felt like one, so we left everyone there and made our way back to the hotel by streetcar.

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Catching up – a little!

I am writing this post from Santiago, Chile.  It has been months since my wonderful summer in Europe but I have had a terrible time trying to finish the blog about the trips I did then.  Too many conflicting priorities and technological frustrations!    I promised myself I would finish the record of the Danube Cruise I took with Katie and Linda and I have finally accomplished that and am about to post entries covering the time we were in Prague on the last three days of that trip.

As for the two other great trips that came straight after the Danube cruise (Bulgaria in 12 days, and the Transylvania Pilgrimage) I have draft entries for each day and, for my own personal record, I will probably post them at some time in the future.

But now for Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – I will see if I can  manage to be more efficient and briefer and, at least, post my photos,  but maybe not as I go – experience has taught me that it can be hard to accomplish that during the travel itself, and experiencing is more important than recording.

Will I ever catch up? Yes I will!

I am in the hotel room at Cluj-Napoca (the Romanian name on the maps) aka Kolozsvár, (the Hungarian name) having just repacked my bags for the flight back to London in a few hours.  I am really looking forward to a few days of rest and spending time with family and friends before my final departure home. It’s been a very long journey but an amazing one with each different part wonderful – I am truly blessed to be able to experience so much, learn so much history and geography, and meet such great people too!

Internet access has been challenging and I have not had much time or energy in the evenings to catch up on this travel blog, so I am still back in Prague before the great Bulgaria trip followed by my Transylvania “pilgrimage” with members of my previous church in California. I have managed to load many photos and create very rough drafts of posts so I will not forget, and eventually I will catch up!

Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to select just a very few photos and cut out all the details, but I find it harder to cut the photos even further than the main weeding out that I do as I load and I find myself so interested in the history, geography, politics and culture that I want to capture that for myself to re-read at some future date, so I continue to write “too much” – such is life as a classic “Type A” person not always known for common sense!

Back to the blog soon – and that’s a promise to myself and to those of my friends and family who have been kind enough to say they enjoy reading it!!


Tuesday September 1, 2015: Linz to Prague via Český Krumlov

We had an early breakfast and left our cabins at 8:30 am then got onto the bus and waved goodbye to the crew.  It had been an excellent cruise and the crew were all wonderful.  It was interesting to hear some other passengers compare this Grand Circle Cruise with others they had been on.  It seems that Avalon is more luxurious (and more expensive)  but they only have 1 program director for 150 passengers compared with the Grand Circle 1 per 50 maximum.  We heard mixed reviews of Viking.  Often we were berthed beside other ships and either their passengers walked through our lobby or we walked through theirs.  One of them, the AmaSerena, from the Ama line was frequently in the same place at the same time as we were.  It is a brand new ship and very luxurious with a swimming pool on the sundeck with a swim up bar.  I see from their website that you have to ask for a quote to see how expensive they are.  I was quite happy with the value we had for our money and would happily use Grand Circle if I was planning another river cruise.

Another thing I had not thought about before was how much a river cruise can be impacted by the height of the water.  We heard stories of trips where the river was too high for the ship to go under the bridges, or too shallow.  These issues can completely change a cruise for the worse, replacing some or all of the itinerary with buses and hotels which negates the main advantage of unpacking once. If you are lucky you can stay on board and be taken by bus to each place on the itinerary, but if not the rest of the trip is a land trip. The Aria was heading back the same day with a new set of passengers to do the reverse trip down to Budapest and was then doing another trip to the Black Sea, but unless the water level increased in the meantime, they would not be able to get all the way to the Black Sea.


As we drove to Český Krumlov, Viki gave us a lot of information about the Czech Republic.  The history is very diverse – the Czech lands have changed hands many times, and have been known by a variety of different names.

(Note on my blog:  I find myself writing a lot of history  about each country we visit because it fascinates me.  The countries we have been in on this trip have had much in common and also many differences, but all have had a turbulent history with many changes over the past few centuries and, in particular,  major changes in the 20th century.  The Czechs are probably the  most fascinating for me as they have such a tradition of protest and  longing for independence and human rights over a very long time.  Our guides were great at giving summaries of the history and we learned more as we visited various sites.  I apologize to any reader who does not share the same interest – just skip the next few paragraphs!)

By the late 14th century the church was very rich and powerful and had fallen into disrepute. One of the leading reformers was Jan Hus who was influenced by John Wycliffe in England. In 1412 Hus and his supporters were expelled from Prague University and excommunicated.  Eventually Hus had to answer charges of heresy and he was burned to death in 1415. The Czechs were appalled and afterward many of the practices of the Czech church were reformed.  The Pope started a crusade against this but the Czechs defeated his troops in battle.  Eventually the church in Bohemia (Czech Republic) remained a moderate Hussite one.

The country was ruled by the Habsburgs for 300 years and the religious issue was fought over a number of times – some of the Habsburgs were more tolerant of the protestants than others.

Today the Czech Republic has one of the least religious populations in the world behind only China and Japan. Historically, the Czech people have been characterized as “tolerant and even indifferent towards religion”. According to the 2011 census,  of the 55% who answered the question about religion, 34% of the population stated they had no religion, 10.3% was Roman Catholic, 0.8% was Protestant and 9% followed other forms of religion (of which 863 people answered they are Pagan).

In the 19th century, Czech industry grew rapidly. The textile industry boomed. The sugar industry and an iron industry also prospered. Coal mining boomed. So did an engineering industry. Meanwhile interest in Czech culture and history grew. Nationalism and the ideas of the French Revolution grew more and more important during the 19th century and in 1848 they exploded in revolution. Czech radicals erected barricades in the streets of Prague. The army withdrew but used artillery to bombard Prague and the city surrendered.

Dring the first world war Czechs fought on both sides.  Some with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and some against as they were reluctant to fight for the Austrians and Magyars. They were also reluctant to fight the Russians (fellow Slavs). On the eastern front, thousands surrendered to the Russians rather than fight them.

On 28 October 1918, an independent Czechoslovak Republic was declared in Prague.  The new state of Czechoslovakia was the only industrialized state in eastern Europe. It also proved to be the only successful democracy. Its first president was Tomas Masaryk who had called for an independent  Bohemia and Slovakia in November 1915. He resigned in 1935.

In the late 1930s the main issue was the Germans who lived in the Sudetenland. After annexing Austria in March 1938. Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. By March 1939 the Germans had occupied all of the Czech lands and Slovakia became a separate country and a German satellite. In July 1940 the British government recognized Benes as the leader of a Provisional Czechoslovakian government in exile. In October 1944 Czech soldiers fighting alongside the Russian army crossed the border from Poland into Czechoslovakia. In April 1945 President Benes formed a provisional government at Kosice and on  May 5th  the people of Prague rose in revolt and fought the Germans until May 9th when the Russian army arrived in the city.

After the war, the Communists began taking over Czechoslovakia and in 1948 there was a coup d’état by the Communist Party and a single party government was formed.

Alexander Dubcek  introduced a more liberal regime in the so-called Prague Spring of 1968. It was sometimes called ‘socialism with a human face’. Censorship ended and people openly criticized the Communist party. However the Russians were appalled and liberalization of the communist regime was stopped by the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

On 16 January 1969 a student called Jan Palach poured petrol over himself and set it alight in Wenceslas Square in Prague. He died in hospital three days later. The demand for human rights in Czechoslovakia continued and there were more protests for human rights until in November 1989 human rights activists started mass protests and  huge demonstrations were held. over several days. The government resigned but the demonstrations continued.  Eventually the Communist party agreed to end one party rule and to form a coalition government. However, it turned out that Communists dominated the coalition and the people were not satisfied and  held more demonstrations. Finally on 10 December a new government was formed with Communists in the minority. The Federal Assembly elected Vaclav Havel president of Czechoslovakia on 29 December. In June 1990 multi-party elections were held and the process of turning Czechoslovakia into a market economy began.

The Czechs and Slovaks were two quite different people with different histories. In June 1992, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia won elections and pressed for Slovak independence. Czechs and Slovaks quickly reached agreement and on 1 January 1993 Czechoslovakia separated into two states, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in what was known as the Velvet Divorce.

In 1999 the Czech Republic joined NATO and in 2004 it joined the EU.

Like the rest of Europe, the Czech Republic suffered in the recession of 2009 but the Czech Republic soon recovered and today it is a prosperous country. The Czech Republic is noted for making machines, paper, glass, steel and ceramics. It is also famous for beer. The auto industry is very strong.  Czech GDP growth was 4.4% this year – the highest growth rate in Europe. Unemployment is at 4.9% – the second lowest unemployment rate in the European Union after Germany.

Today the population of the Czech Republic is 10.2 million about 2 million of whom live in the greater Prague area.

Viki also answered many questions about the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Europe and the attitudes of the various major players including Hungary who had just erected a fence to keep the migrants out. This crisis has less of an effect on the Czech Republic as they are not te first point of entry in the EUfor refugees.

We arrived in Český Krumlov and were given a tour of the town by a local guide. It is a medieval town sitting around a curve on the  Vltava River (also known as the Moldau) and is very picturesque and charming and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Viki says if she gets married she would come here for her honeymoon and Likas later told us he has enjoyed many visits with his ex-girlfriend!)


We walked through the old town and admired the views of the town and the castle on the hill above it. As we walked the guide gave us some of the history of the town that was once owned by the Rosenberg family whose 5-petaled rose emblem can be seen on many buildings in the town.

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The guide pointed out the Sgraffito on many of the buildings.  It is a technique where the design in scratched away.  There are also some faux versions which are just painted to look the same.

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We walked past the St Vitus Church, which is a major landmark, but rarely used today except for weddings and funerals. The guide explained, as Viki had done earlier, that the Czechs are not a very religious people.


The guide also pointed out some beautiful painted designs on some of the buildings and explained that many had been restored after being covered over many times over the years. On one of them you can see painted “windows” with a woman looking into the street and a monkey smoking a pipe – they used to have monkeys in the markets to pick lice off people.

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The town square is beautiful. There is a plague monument on one side (it used to be in the center of the square but was moved to improve traffic flow.).

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We walked through the square to the castle entrance.  The guide pointed out shops selling jewelry along the way including one that sells some made of Moldavite,  created when a meteor hit. She also showed us where to buy Bohemian garnets, the official national gem, if we would like (we resisted, though it was certainly beautiful) and she warned us to be careful of the fakes in many stores.

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After the guide left us at the gate to the castle, Linda and Katie went  looking for some gifts in the shops and I walked up to see the castle. The castle is very large for such a small town.  It is second only to the castle in Prague.

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In the castle moat there have been bears there for many years.  Today there are three bears: Vok and Kateřina, and Marie Therezie.  I only saw two of them – either Vok or Kateřina was hiding from view.

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There are some great views from the different levels of castle courtyards.

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We had lunch at a restaurant in the main square before getting back on the bus to head for Prague.

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We stopped for a WC break at a gas station on the way to Prague and the program directors served us two typical Czech drinks: Kofola, which rivals Coke and Pepsi in the Czech and Slovakian markets,  and Becherovka which is 76 proof.  I was not very keen on either of them!


After we arrived in Prague we were warned that Czechs are not very service-oriented and we could expect to be greeted with sour faces and slow service.  The program directors told us not to take it personally and  suggested we try to make a Czech smile!  They were right about the service but we did find a few people who smiled – definitely in the minority in restaurants, though.

After dinner we took our bus to Restaurace U Marcanu,  for authentic Czech food and folk music and dance.  The food was good and there was unlimited beer and wine.  The wine was served from long glass containers which the waiters had on their arms and poured into glasses from quite a distance by taking their fingers off the ends.

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The musicians were great and demonstrated a number of traditional instruments.

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There were two dancers who danced several types of traditional dances, and a singer.

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They got audience members involved too, including a number from our party, and also some from other trour groups including one from Germany and another from New Zealand.


It was very noisy and it was getting a little too boisterous, so several of us went outside for some fresh air and a little relief from the crowd!  We saw a Škoda car outside – the first of many! Škoda  is a Czech company that has been making cars since 1895. We later learned that every second car in the Czech Republic is a Škoda, though we saw all the usual European and Japanese cars there as well.


August 31, 2015: Linz

The ship arrived in Linz at about 2:30am.

Map to Linz

After breakfast there was an optional day trip to Salzburg, but Katie and I decided not to go as we are likely to see it on a future trip and we felt we needed some down time – it was quite a long bus drive there and back.

We walked into town, and took a ride on the little train, Linz Stadrundfahrten, around town.  It did a loop around the town for about half an hour with some narration.

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The tour started and ended in the Hauptplatz, the main square in town. Many of the houses are very narrow as they were built upward and back with courtyards at the back to avoid  taxes that were once based on the frontage.

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There is a plague monument almost identical to those we had seen in other cities from Budapest to Vienna, and also some fountains in the square.

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We stopped for a snack and Katie tried the famous Linzer torte at the bakery that supposedly made it famous.

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We walked to the New Cathedral which was started in 1862 but not consecrated until 1924. It is the largest church in Austria by capacity but it is 2 meters shorter than the cathedral in Vienna.

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During the Second World War some windows were damaged. Instead of restoring the original windows, they have been replaced with windows displaying modern art.

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We went back to the ship for lunch and then we worked together on flight options for our trip next year to Spain and Portugal.  I always find it very frustrating researching flights for these trips – so many options and none of then seemed ideal.  We found a good flight on Lufthansa, but when we went back to book it a few days later it was not still available at a reasonable price – aargh!

That evening was our last night on board the Aria and it was the captain’s dinner.  This time none of us were invited to the Captain’s table!  I said goodbye to the two bartenders who had looked after my wine and soda waters, and also our waiters.

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After dinner we packed our things ready for disembarkation in the morning.

Sunday August 30, 2015: Spitz to Linz – The Wachau Valley including Dürnstein and Melk Abbey

After breakfast we took a bus the short drive back to Dürnstein, then back to the ship and cruise down to Melk.

Spitz melf withVienna

We passed through a pretty area that is typical of the Wachau Valley and is famous for its wine production. Most of it is grown in smaller privately-owned vineyards where wine is produced – about 80% white. It is sold shops and also in Heuriger,  which are taverns where specially licensed wine makers can sell their new wines directly to others.  For tax reasons each is only open for three consecutive weeks at a time, and they rotate so that there is always at least one open during the season. You can look up a calendar to tell you whch will be open when.

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The train follows the Danube in this area, but in Dürnstein they paid to build a tunnel under the town so that it would not spoil the atmosphere of the town.


When we arrived, we went for a short guided walk through the town then wandered some more by ourselves.  It is a very picturesque town and there are many shops selling various products made with apricots including alcoholic drinks, chocolates, jams, baked goods, soaps and facial products and, of course, wine is sold as well. The town’s signature image is the blue and white church.

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The shops and heuriger have signs that are modeled on the medieval signs showing what is sold for those who cannot read.

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We walked to a square under the castle and admired the view from the terrace, then continued around the town. The castle is known as the place where Duke Leopold  imprisoned Richard the Lionheart in 1192 during the third crusade. There is a legend that the Austrian flag was  invented by the same Duke when after a fierce battle, his white surcoat was completely drenched in blood. When he removed his belt, the cloth underneath was untouched by it, revealing the combination of red-white-red. and he adopted the colors and scheme as his banner.

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There wasn’t time to go into the castle itself but we could see it above the town.

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I walked back along the river to see the church a little more closely before returning to the bus.

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I noticed the little ferry that takes people across the river, and also the wide variety of river traffic from a rowing crew to very large barges.

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There was a good view of the castle and town looking back from the river.

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We boarded  the ship for lunch while we sailed for Melk Abbey from around 11:30am for two hours.

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There was an interesting commentary by the program directors as we sailed.  They gave us some facts about the Danube.  It is the second largest river in Europe after the Volga.  It is the only major river that flows west to east. It flows through 10 countries, ending in the Black Sea.   29% of it passes through Romania, 11.6% through Hungary, 10.2% Serbia and 10% Austria.  It  is a source of drinking water for about 20 million people. There are 30 different types of fish in the river, including the Danube Salmon.  The climate in the Wachau Valley is milder than surrounding areas as the slopes provide protection from the wind – perfect for grapes and apricots!

We also learned a little about navigation on the river.  Since we were sailing up the river we had the right of way and out captain decides which side of the oncoming ships he will pass then radios to confirm.  They also use a blue square signal by the wheelhouse that is put on the side to be passed.

There are markers along the river  every 100 meters starting at the Black Sea, so it is always possible to describe your exact position using them.

In 1830 a steamboat was the first to provide tours on the river.

We arrived in Melk to see the famous Melk Abbey.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was 94ºF which made walking around rather tiring.   We gathered in the big courtyard to meet the local tour guide who took us around the abbey.  Viki got the Yellow group (the third of the passengers she is the program director for) together for a group photo by the fountain.

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There are modern painted panels in the roof gables which were added in 1988. I think they look rather strange there.

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The Abbey was built in the 11th century and given by Leopold II to the Benedictine order.  The abbey is self-sufficient today.  There are about 30 monks, 15 of whom live ion the monastery and the others in the surrounding parishes. The youngest monk is 30 and the oldest 90. They make wine, own restaurants, and run is a school in the abbey for 900 students. During the baroque period there were 79 monks. The book (and movie) “The Name of the Rose” was inspired by the Abbey.

Austrians pay church tax at a rate of 1.1%, though currently only the Catholic Church makes it compulsory. This tax was introduced by Adolf Hitler in 1939 and retained after World War II in order to keep the Church independent of political powers  In addition ot receiving some of this, a lot of money came from the Emperor in the 18th century.   The building is 300 meters long and has 7 courtyards.  There are 500 rooms and 1,365 windows.  300 people work for the monastery. The corridor in the Abbey is very long – the photo shows only one-half of it!


The Museum is very modern and uses different media to give some of the history and show many of the artifacts.  There was a room that told of the benedictine monks. Their first monastery was in Italy in 529.  Their motto is “Ora et Labora” (Pray and work).  The  monks are required to make a vow: a promise of stability (i.e. to remain in the same community), conversatio morum (a Latin phrase suggesting “conversion of manners”) and obedience.


There is a photo of the Melk Cross as the original is hidden away since it has been stolen in the past.  It is said to contain a splinter of Christ’s crucifixion cross.


The abbey was very rich and the monks became too worldly so they were reformed in the 15th century.  There are copies of two paintings depicting them before and after reformation.

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There are beautiful ecclesiastical items on display.

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There are some beautiful panels depicting the life of Jesus Christ.

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Our guide demonstrated the very complex mechanism (still in working order) that locked the abbey treasure chest.


We walked through the magnificent Marble Hall and admired the amazing painted ceiling and walls.

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There are three windows at the top of opne wall which were opened when the musicians behind them played for guests.  They could be opened different amounts to control the volume.


There is also floor heating that was installed in 1731.


The guide explained that the ceiling is a great example of  17th-century trompe-l’œil,  an art technique that creates the optical illusion that the painting is in three dimensions.


We admired the views of the town from the top terrace.

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We then entered the main library, which is world famous for its 16,000 ancient books.  No photos were allowed but it is specatcular place with not only the amazing collection of books but also a beautiful ceiling fresco.


After the library we visited the church which is also very beautiful and very ornate.

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After the tour we needed a rest and some refreshment.  I tried a non-alcoholic drink that was very refreshing!


Katie and I walked around the garden and admired the views and the sculptures

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We found the monk’s vegetable garden and had a hard time getting out of it to make our way back to where we were to catch the bus.  In the end we had to go all the way around again, so by the time we arrived at the bus we were hot and tired!

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We set sail at 6pm just after returning from the Abbey.  After dinner, we were entertained by the crew with a hilarious crew show.  We noticed that the captain was above participating in this! It was fun to see the waiters, cabin crew, kitchen staff and others dong a variety of acts.

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Saturday August 29, 2015: Schönbrunn Palace and Vienna to Spitz

On Saturday most of us took the optional tour to see Schönbrunn Palace, on the outskirts of Vienna.  It was the summer home of the Habsburgs and was intended to rival Fontainbleau, but money ran out and it had to be made a little smaller.  It is, nevertheless, very large and impressive.

Another guide came in the bus and gave us some more information about Vienna as we drove to the Palace.  She pointed out the buildings that are  state-owned apartment buildings and have the red letters with the name of the building and the date built.


When we arrived at the palace, we went straight to the carriage museum in the building that used to be the English Riding School.


We saw many carriages and the guide explained their different uses. One was an Imperial  funeral carriage.


There were quite a few displays with very life-like horses, some with very elaborate harnesses and plumes,  showing how many pulled each carriage or sleigh.

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There were also displays of clothes, showing those worn by Franz-Joseph and his wife, Sisi, including the train from her wedding gown, and the costumes servants and courtiers started to wear after Napoleon introduced them in France and the Austrians copied.  The black were servants costumes and the red for the nobles.

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There was a collection of children’s carriages including one designed from Crown Prince Rudolf when he was a baby and one that was for Napoleon’s son and was pulled by trained sheep..

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The coronation carriage was the most ornate and was pulled by a large team of horses.  It is the oldest carriage in the collection.

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There were a number of less ornate carriages that were sometimes used for visiting heads of state or other dignitaries.


In one carriage,  you could see the extension under the coachman ‘s seat where the ladies could stretch their legs out to be more comfortable.


Finally, there was an automobile from 1914 used by the Imperial Family in thier special green color with gold trim.


After the carriage exhibit, we walked through part of the gardens and admired the view of the Gloriette on top of the hill  and the back of the palace.

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After this, we toured part of the inside of the Palace (no photos allowed) including the banqueting room that is similar to Versailles and has mirrors opposite the windows to make it very light.  There was no plaster in the palace – everything is wood with leaf gold decorations. During the war only one bomb hit the palace and it did not explode.  The British government used the palace as headquarters and paid to repair the ceiling.  There is a memorial room that MariA Theresa dedicated to her husband after he died.  It is all black  with Chinese lacquer work.  There is a room that is all wood painted to look like porcelain.  There are a lot of old paintings as well and some very attractive ceilings as well.

In 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire ended and the family kept only their privately owned possessions, the rest, including the palace, were transferred to the State.  Otto von Habsburg became the crown prince when his father, Charles I, the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ascended to the thrones in 1916,  As his father never abdicated, Otto was considered by himself, his family and Austro-Hungarian legitimists to be the rightful Emperor-King. He was forced to live in exile with his family after 1918.  All titles are no longer allowed in Austria (including any von designation).  When Otto died in 2011, however, he was given a state funeral and was buried in the family crypt.  This was apparently was quite an occasion and very controversial.  Karl von Habsburg is now the head of the family.

We returned to the ship for lunch and set sail for Spitz at 1:30 pm.

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There are some picturesque towns along the river.


We went through several locks on the way, including the Greifenstein Lock, where the water level changes by 46 ft. We shared the lock with a small boat and I watched the sailor use a grappling hook to hold to the edge of the lock. At our stern the lock gates closed toward the center like many I have seen before.

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Once the water in the lock had risen to the higher level, it was interesting to see the different mechanism at the bow – it was a concrete barrier that was rolled down until it was low enough for us to pass over.

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We had a tour of the galley and were very impressed that it was completely clear of all food only a relatively short time before our dinner was going to be served!

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Apparently the berths are booked a year in advance but even so, the River Aria was not able to get a berth in Dürnstein for this trip so we passed it and carried on to  the nearby town of Spitz where we docked as we were having dinner.

The program directors gave us some background about the area, the Wachau Valley.  It is in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites. It is famous for its wine production and also is well known for apricots which the locals apparently use to make many different products. It is a favorite holiday area for Austrians and many others.

I did not attend the apple strudel-making demonstration earlier as I thought I would not be eating it, but I was surprised to get a great, but gluten-free, dessert instead!


After dinner, we went for a walk around Spitz with the three program directors.  We were surprised to see the kind of dresses for sale in one of the shops – modern version of traditional.


We saw the church on the hill and a large statue that we could make out in the dark.  Linda, Katie and I didn’t want to go for some wine with most of the others, so we headed back to the ship, but took a slightly different route and realized that we had become lost.  We tried retracing steps and I asked a person in the few German words I could remember, how to get to the river.  The man was very confident and proceeded to lead us back part of the way and then on through the town.  I tried to converse with him and managed to understand that he had lived in the town all his life, but his English was worse than my German.  We came across two other people who had also got lost and they joined us.  At several points various people had doubts about whether the Austrian knew where he was leading us, but, thank heavens, we did make it back to the river and from there we able to find the ship – what a relief!! Quite an adventure!

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