Passau, gateway to Bavaria.
Fall colors intensify as the boat ambles along the Danube. Picturesque German villages glide silently by. Beside the river, fortified structures dotted the landscape, once used to collect tolls from merchants as they made their way along the river; today most are in ruins. You find yourself humming “the Sound of Music” and expect to see Julie Andrews around the next bend.
Approaching by water, the sight of Passau is amazing. Sunlight sparkles behind spires reach heavenward, each crowned with a different style steeple. Three rivers the Inn the Ilz and the Danube meet, and at its confluence the other two merge into the Danube. Perhaps due to its old world charm numerous river cruise ships dock here, more than ten at our arrival. Tied to other ships we have to walk through the other cruise boats to reach the dock. Our captains word of warning, “cross over the boat only, this is not an excuse to tour the other ship.” With that admonition ringing in our ears, we do as directed.
Directly on the Austrian border, and once part of the country of Bavaria, Passau’s wealth came from salt, as well as knife and sword making. Originally ruled by a prince bishop, these rulers became princes of the Holy Roman Empire in 1217 and continued to rule this area until 1803. A both monastic and secular position, these men were more like kings than bishops. Remaining independent until World War II, it later became a part of Germany.
A castle looms over the city on the opposite side of the river, once home to the prince-bishops. Later replaced with a new residence adjacent to St Stephens Cathedral, the elaborate new palace features gothic, renaissance, baroque, and rococo architecture
Gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral burned in 1662. The only original remaining section was then incorporated into new church. In an effort to create harmony the original steeple was modernized to blend with the new baroque features. Containing the largest pipe organ in Europe with almost 18000 pipes, the smallest only 1/2 " and the largest over 11 meters, it’s a sight to behold. A mix of copper and aluminum pipes, five different organs are incorporated, but all can be played from one single location. Just to manage the over 200 pedals, and uncounted knobs you have to be an expert.
Over 50,000 residents live in this small community. Of them 11,000 are students, making Passau a college town, much like Tallahassee. The pedestrian shopping avenue features cafes, clothing stores selling modern apparel as well as the traditional German dirndl skirts, and bakeries selling lebkuken, a cookie made with molasses that resembles a gingerbread cookie. Most unusual is the store that sells nothing but gummie-bears. Who wouldn’t want to try a gummie pizza, authentic right down to the gummie mushrooms?
Infamous as a one-time residence of Adolf Hitler, and location of sub branches of the concentration camp Mathauson-Gusen, there is a great deal of World War II history in the area.
An optional ships tour takes “Sound of Music” fans to several of the actual filming locations in the area.
Charming but tiny Passau is easily explored on foot in a few hours, leaving plenty of time for an onboard chocolate tasting, and relaxing cruising time to the next destination.
Savour the fruit in Durnstein, and Melk, Austria.
After a leisurely sail from Budapest, your tour continues in the scenic
Wacau valley. An ideal place to visit, October sees Durnstein and Melk awash in beautiful fall colors.
Once part of the Hapsburg Empire, Richard the Lionhearted was captured and ransomed in Durnstein. He spent a year and a half of his captivity, free to wander throughout the small community, making him one of the first tourists. Ransomed for 150,000 silver marks at a time when a horse cost just three marks, he was eventually turned over to Austria, and released.
Inside the city walls, you will find only 350 residents. Picture perfect, a one-lane road bisects this tiny village. During summer over 200 marriages take place here, while fall brings a peace to the region. At street level shops sell all manner of products, including local made in Austria souvineers. Nearly every store bottles their own version of Apricot Brandy, and homemade apricot preserves, many offering samples.
Locally grown grapes, and apricots in all forms available in the area. Apricots here are only harvested at their peak. Those not sold at local farmers markets are turned in to apricot brandy and preserves. The valley, only ten miles long, contains over 4000 acres of grapes. The terraced slopes stacked stones walls warm the ground, keeping the roots from freezing, while the cool night air imparts extra flavor to the grapes. The Wacau Valley is known for Riesling as well as other varieties including Gruner Veltliner. An onboard wine tasting provides ample opportunity to sample the locally grown harvest. Over 1000 buckets of wine are sold locally before it is sold in litres
Falls brings a riot of mixed colors to the region, yellows, reds and oranges blanket the hillside as grapes shed their leaves for the winter. Brilliant yellow linden trees are mirrored in the slow moving Danube river, and swans float serenely by.
In Durnstein, a churches distinct sky blue steeple soars above the community. At a time when the masses did not read, the blue color on the baroque church was symbolic, blue being closest to heaven. Then an extremely expensive color, in time it faded to grey, and people forgot the meaning. Only rediscovered during restoration, the church has been restored to its original majestic color.
A short sail further down the Danube brings tiny Melk into view. No longer visible from the Danube due to shifting riverbeds the Monastery once soared above the river.
The Monastery collected money from the local population, and provided protection and trade. One of its functions was to educate students, that function continues today. The library contains many original manuscripts in Latin and German. Twelve rooms house over 85,000 original books and 2000 illuminated manuscripts.
The Melk monastery was founded in 1089 by grant from Leopoldo I of Bamberg. By
1418 the Abbey became the head of the reform movement rules of St Benedict. Like much of the area, attacks by the Turks reduced it to ruins. The current Baroque incarnation dates to 1702. Decorative coal fired heaters warm the massive structure, and baroque style plasterwork adorns the ceiling. Completed in 1746, much of the decorative work is guided, but not solid gold, and the perspective used in the paintings on ceilings make them appear to be domed. Your tour provides many historic details, and allows ample time to view the massive Baroque Chapel.
Having enjoyed the history of the area, and the vivid leaf change, its off to another port along the Danube.
Holiday in Austria!
Our visit to Vienna coincided with the largest Austrian National Holiday. Commemorating the country’s regaining their independent nation status and permanently declaring their neutrality is celebrated annually on October 26. Festivals abound, and most businesses are closed, there is a military ceremony, and open houses at The Austrian National Parliament; the State House of the Austrian National Library; and at the Federal Chancellery of the Republic of Austria. Many museums offer free or reduced entry as well. An incredibly busy downtown; expect it to be busier as most Austrians are given the day off as well.
Like so many other fortified towns, a wall once surrounded Vienna. Today the wall is gone and a ring road circles historic Vienna. During the 1600’s and 1700’s the government sold off parcels of land to fund construction. Many of the buildings are still in use today.
Due to the larger size of Vienna, our tour began with a bus overview of the area, followed by a walking tour of the downtown.
Famous for the Giant Ferris Wheel, constructed in 1897, the world’s tallest as recently as 1985. Once there were 30 gondolas, damaged during World War II now only 15 remain. At 212’ tall you can view the whole city from this sky-high perch, or rent a gondola for a private occasion.
Only kings once used the Hapsburgs’ many palaces and gardens. Today they have become public parks and museums.
The bus passes centuries of architecture.
The baroque Church of St Charles is from 1715. Flanked by columns that appear as if they came straight from Egypt, entry is only 4,50 euro.
Nearby, two prefabricated Art Nouveau buildings, by Otto Wagner from 1900, are constructed of metal frames and solid marble slid in to each section, one a train station the other a café
Another, the Secession Building, is topped with an open weave golden ball that resembles flowers, built as an exhibition space for artists in 1897 it was not popular at the time but is an extraordinary stop today.
The Rathaus, or city hall, was located outside the original city walls. On October 26, live music fills the air, children squeal in delight as rides spin and people nosh on fair food.
The Opera a famous cultural landmark, is beautiful by day, and the scene of endless entertainment by night.
Our circle complete, we tour through the historic core.
In the center of town, a UNESCO world heritage site, Gothic St Stephens Church steeples tower 450’ originally used as watchtowers to check for fires in the city. The church sports four gothic towers. As styles changed, the last incomplete tower was toped in the later style renaissance fashion. During World War II the church was not bombed, but a fire next door caused the church roof to burn. The conflagration resulted in all the majolica tiles cascading to the floor. The interior was saved because it was already bricked up to prevent damage. The new metal roof is covered with majolica tile, still displaying the original coats of arms. Modern day pollution leaves soot stains on the church, requiring a year round cleaning operation. In the historic core only one modern structure creates discord. Built before the entire downtown was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mirrored structure reflects back the surrounding buildings.
Windows so delicious you want to lick the glass front the famous Demel Chocolate Confectionary & Bakery. In a city famous for chocolate and tortes, there are many competing shops, all awaiting you to sample their delicacies.
The Hofberg palace and Spanish Riding Stables famous for the internationally known Lipizzaner stallions is packed with spectators on this particular day, as speeches are given and awards presented.
Located close to the metro station, it is a quick trip downtown to continue exploring once the river cruise tour is complete. With an abundance of history, music, and chocolate, it would be easy to spend days here exploring all that Vienna has to offer.