Cruise Across Europe

June 30, 2022

.
From the Black Sea to the North Sea via the Danube, a canal, the Main, and the Rhine: Over 2,200 miles (3,500+ km) stopping in 8 countries over 3½ weeks.


In 1992, after decades of work, a canal linked the Danube to the Main/Rhine, promoting commerce and enabling extraordinary river cruises across Europe. Going the whole distance, my June 2022 river cruise was on the MS Royal Crown operated by Noble Calendonia, an outstanding British cruise company I'd toured with previously. (Click map to see more detail.)

SCENIC VIEWS

Half of the joy of the weeks on these rivers was simply sitting on the sunny top deck sipping a drink and gliding by splendid scenery.


The Mraconia monastery in the Danube gorges area called the "Iron Gates." Going upstream here, Serbia is on the left and Romania, as you can see, is on the right.

Enjoying another section of the Danube's Iron Gorges.

My favorite river castle was the beautiful, imposing Schloss Schönbühe near Melk, Austria, dating from the early 1100s.

Budapest has extraordinary public buildings dating from its glory days as a capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One legacy is now Hungary's Parliament, spectacularly illuminated as we float by the evening of our departure.

Looking back at Austria's huge Melk Monastery (dating from the 11th century) as the lock closes to lift us higher up the Danube.

Morning entry into Passau, the first German city on the Danube after Austria.

Soon after departing Passau in the evening

Isabel gazing at the Rhine Valley near Rudesheim

This medieval castle (Burg Gutenfels) above Kaub, Germany, is just another one of the several dozen perched along the beautiful "upper middle" Rhine Valley. We were lucky with the sunny weather.


CHARMING OLD TOWNS

City visits included extended strolls through the sweet, pedestrian streets of restored old towns, sometimes stopping at a museum — and always stopping to savor the gelato specialties... on every block.

We were sure to see the picturesque old town and the top cathedral — and perhaps a nearby castle or vineyard.

Pecs, Hungary, was especially appealing to me. Wanted to spend more time there.

Hard to imagine a more picturesque old town that Bamberg, especially with its famous Altes Rathaus (city hall) on a tiny island in the Regnitz river.

Timber-framing (holzfachwerk) was used throughout Germany and was invariably prominent in the old town centers, such as here in Miltenberg shown early on a Sunday morning.

Me in a Bratislava square 2011 versus 2022:
Same aviators. Still wearing khaki cargo pants. Still a beige jacket, but the hat brim is larger. Canon camera on my belt replaced by my phone in a cargo pocket. (For some reason, the row of young trees did not last.)

FANTASTIC CATHEDRALS

Seemed as if nearly every city, big or small, had a remarkable cathedral — often lavish, embellished, and way over-the-top! Some of the cool kids turned up their modern noses, but I enjoyed being overwhelmed by the massive scale, lavish artwork, delicate stained glass, intricate altars, striking sculptures. These Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals are a far cry from the plain Protestant churches of home, but that always makes them all the more fascinating to me.

At the same time, these grand houses of worship feel bittersweet. As Europe becomes — by any measure — increasingly secular, these surviving monuments to its fading Christian past become tourist attractions and no longer homes of large congregations that would befit their size.


The spectacular Serbian Orthodox Temple of Saint Sava in Belgrade is the one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world.

The meticulously restored Romanian Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Constanta

This altar at the Amorbach Abbey near Miltenberg is my one uploaded example of the dozens of widely varying — but always phenomenally ornate — Catholic altars whether Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Rococo, whatever.

This large Jewish Menorah is featured at the entrance to the Würzburg Cathedral. It is described as a symbol of Christianity's origins in Judaism, but having been added in the reconstruction of this German cathedral after World War II, it surely conveys far more than that.

Of course, the Cologne Cathedral is astounding. As high as a 50-story building, it is one of the highest and largest cathedrals in the world. Construction started in 1248. I backpacked around Europe after college and I'll never forget emerging from the nearby train station and looking up, up, and up at this gargantuan Gothic triumph. It is still every bit as breathtaking to me today.

MAJESTIC MUSIC

Often no soundtrack was needed but sometimes I used my phone to listen to Mozart as we drifted up the Danube and perhaps Beethoven along the Rhine. Best of all was the chance to hear live music whether opera or folk songs.

For several days, we were joined by these four members of the London Festival Opera who sang dazzling selections in the elegant settings of the castles or estates we were visiting.

About a dozen of us attended a modern re-staging of the oldest (1607) extant opera — Monteverdi's L'Orfeo — at the celebrated Vienna State Opera. Not a big fan of L'Orfeo but it was still a wonderful evening with excellent seats.

The rich harmonies of these monks at the Veliko Tarnovo Monastery in Bulgaria perfectly echoed off the ancient walls.

Folk music and dancing keeping traditions alive:
Belgrade, Serbia (top); Bratislava (teams from dozens of villages around Slovakia); and Velinko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

In the small Bulgarian city of Vidin (population only 56,000), its philharmonic orchestra (!) gave an impressive special performance for us. (Shown warming up.)

MISCELLANEOUS


Near Entville is the Kloster Erbach, once an important monastery and now home to the Steinberg vineyard. Time for wine tasting. I'm not a connoisseur at all, but the atmospherics were sure theatrical.

Of the roughly 65 passengers on board, about 58 were from the UK. To celebrate Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee on June 5, we had Union Jacks, toasts, a rousing rendition of "God Save the Queen," cake and tea.

Always a thrill when the ship narrowly clears a low bridge, but it has risks. In the past few years, Viking cruise ships have twice struck Danube bridges, once killing two crew members and once injuring about a dozen passengers. I will stick with Noble Caledonia.

The Danube-Main-Rhine canal required parts of the waterway to be built over valleys and highways. I was not forewarned and did a double-take when I looked out and saw our ship was "up in the air."

The last day was in Amsterdam where the highlight was the deservedly famous Rijksmuseum.

Before the cruise began, I spent a couple of days in Bucharest. At the train station, I was awestruck by all the work that the Romanians had done to help incoming Ukrainian refugees:  Lots of volunteers including translators; large waiting rooms reserved exclusively for arriving/departing Ukrainians; donated food; counseling; and even an emergency medical station 24/7 for anyone arriving with health issues.

Reflections

● The cruise was long, busy, and intense. Despite its overall success, most people were ready to split after nearly a month.

● Noble Caledonia, as usual, did a superb job with the all-inclusive excursions.

● We did so much and saw so much that this post only skims the surface.

● Glad I took the east-to-west route since the German Rhine was a better grand finale.

● Except for an afternoon shower in Budapest, we were exceedingly lucky with sunny skies and perfect temperatures. Sadly for Europe, our lack of June rain resulted in an record July drought that left rivers unnavigable, forcing cruise cancellations and more economic havoc.

● Overall, this cruise across Europe exceeded my expectations: The river panoramas were more glorious, the old towns were more charming, the cathedrals were more glittering, the music was more memorable, and the gelato was more tempting than I had imagined.