City of Prague, Czech (Saturday, 06/1 – Monday, 06/03; 3-Nights)
Our “Danube Waltz” River Cruise on the Viking Longship Sigyn began with our arrival in Prague on Saturday, June 1. Our pre-cruise Prague city visit included a 3-night stay at the Hilton Prague Hotel.
Prague, capital city of the Czech Republic, is bisected by the Vltava River. Nicknamed “the City of a Hundred Spires,” it’s known for its Old Town Square in the heart of the historic core with colorful buildings, Gothic churches and the medieval Astronomical Clock that gives an animated show each hour. Completed in 1402, the pedestrian Charles Bridge is lined with statues of Catholic saints. Traditional local cuisine is Beef Goulash with Dumplings and Pigs Knuckle. Beer is also big in Prague with lots of variations that trace their recipes back to 14th century monk brews. https://www.prague.eu/en/articles/history-of-czech-beer-10522 Prague has a population of about 1.3 million and is the largest city by population in Czech Republic’s country of about 10 million.
On the Saturday afternoon of our hotel arrival, we were exhausted from the long 10-hour flight and the 7-hour time difference, but after a short nap and shower, the two of us ventured out for a few hours. We walked several blocks from our hotel and decided on dinner at the Adele Restaurant & Bar (https://www.adelerestaurant.cz/en/) located in a town square. We were seated in the patio-seating with great views of the activities in the square. Food was nice and it was a beautiful evening.
Sunday, June 2: Our Viking package included Hilton’s fantastic breakfast which we enjoyed before starting our tour. The Panoramic Prague tour began promptly at 8:30 am with a shuttle ride to the Old Town Square. A Viking Tour Guide provided historic information about the buildings, history of the 14th to 19th centuries, changes brought about from World War I and especially the dark times of the Nazi era World War II. The post war Communist era was Czechoslovakia as part of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union fell apart, the country became two republics split into Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. Our tour was a 4-hour walking tour on cobblestone streets and sidewalks along narrow European medieval style streets with stops along the way. One stop was the Tyn Church with its 15th century Astronomical Clock that comes alive every hour with its “Walk of the Apostles,” a collection of wooden statues of the 12 Apostles rotating into view through a couple of doors on each side of the clock. We saw the Prague Castle and the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral then crossed over the Charles Bridge by foot to experience the nice views of the Vltava River.
Vltava River is the longest river within Czech Republic, running southeast along the Bohemian Forest and then north across Bohemia. The Vltava River has flooded many times throughout recorded history. Markers denoting the water line for notable floods have been placed on the walls of buildings situated along the river’s banks. Charles Bridge is the historic bridge that crosses over the Vltava River. Its construction started in 1357, it replaced the original bridge built in 1158-1172 that was destroyed in a flood in 1342. It was the only bridge crossing the Vltava River until 1841. The Charles Bridge is a walking bridge only now, closed to vehicles.
Our second tour at 1:30 pm was a tour of the Lobkowicz Palace and included an elegant lunch in the Lobkowicz family’s original living quarters. After lunch we enjoyed a private concert in the baroque concert hall and afterward we enjoyed a self-paced audio-directed tour walking through various museum style rooms showcasing portraits, artifacts, artwork, beautiful china, and a timeline history of the Lobkowicz family.
After a full-day of touring the City, we returned to our hotel, showered, rested and headed out on our own for dinner at the Restaurant Zvonice (http://www.restaurantzvonice.cz/lang/cz/), a restaurant that a few people we met earlier had recommended. It’s a small quaint restaurant built inside “Henry’s Clock and Bell-Tower” (15th-century landmark). The ambiance, food and service was wonderful and we also highly recommend you visit. Reservations recommended.
Monday, June 3: We took our 4-hour excursion “Historic Prague by E-Bike” tour. Neither of us had ever ridden an electronic bike but had considered purchasing a couple for our RV so we thought why not give it a try in Prague! There was a short orientation and it took a few minutes to get used to the automatic acceleration that occurs when you begin to peddle. Our bike group included a couple from Jasper Canada and another couple from the UK, both much younger than us and they were a lot of fun. Our group was a small group of only 7 people, including the young tour guide.
We thoroughly enjoyed the ride into the hilly forest paths of Petrin Park with stops for scenic views of the City from several lookouts, one stop was at the 1,240-foot-tall Petrin Tower (a 1/65 replica of the Eiffel Tower), also included was a stop in the Park for a local brewed beer. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks and the heavy traffic from trams, automobiles and people-traffic made it a little more challenging navigating when the E-Bike tour ventured through the Old Town sections. It was nice be able to see areas in Old Town that we had not seen on the previous tour. The John Lennon Wall is a famous wall in Prague. Once a normal wall, since the 1980s it has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs. This is quite the tourist attraction and we were actually given a marker to write our own inscription which had to be about love and peace. There were couples posing for engagement pictures with professional photographers attempting to get that perfect pose amongst all the tourists crowded around the wall.
When we travel, we almost always take the public transportation to fit in with the locals and get the real feel of the City. This was no exception. In Prague, if you are 70 or older, all of the public transportation is “free.” We didn’t quite meet that qualifier this trip, but the tram is not expensive and you can actually use a credit card on the tram without having a previously purchased ticket. We had taken the tram on Saturday evening for dinner, and purchased a full-day pass for today. The Hotel Shuttle provided transportation to our E-Bike tour; however, afterwards, we decided to forego the shuttle back to the Hotel and revisit the Old Town for lunch and a little shopping. We took the tram from the Bike Shop to Old Town, had lunch with a patio view at Restaurant Al Minuto (https://www.prague.eu/cs/objekt/mista/1736/dum-u-minuty). The restaurant is just next door to the Astronomical Clock and we arrived just before the hour and people-watched the crowds of people waiting to see the animation of the “Walk of the Apostles,” that we had observed the day before. Monday night ended with dinner in the Hotel’s 24-hour café. Tomorrow we depart on a shuttle to Passau to board our cruise of the Danube.
Passau, Germany (Tuesday, June 4 – Wednesday, June 5; 1-Night)
We arrived at our ship to begin our cruise late afternoon on Tuesday, June 4. After our orientation and getting settled into our cabin, we enjoyed a pianist at the bar and dinner in the Dining Room.
Passau, a German city on the Austrian border and has three rivers that join together – the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. Known as the Three Rivers City, it’s overlooked by the Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century hilltop fortress housing a city museum and observation tower. The old town below is known for its extravagant architecture, including St. Stephen’s Cathedral, featuring distinctive onion-domed towers and an organ with 17,974 pipes. Passau has a population of 50,000, of whom 12,000 are students at the University of Passau.
Something to remember if cruising in the future with Viking! If you upgrade to a patio suite, you may be disappointed to learn that almost every port we traveled, including the day we boarded in Passau, there was at least one, usually more than one, other boat tied off to our boat. This meant guests crossing steel platforms that connect the lobby of your boat to the lobbies of the other boats tied on. To get to our boat we would often walk across boats may be one or two out from the dock. Your upgraded patio-views only come
into play while cruising along the river (mostly at night), but when at dock you most-likely were looking into the patio or wall of the boat tied off to yours.
Wednesday, June 5: Today we are scheduled for a guided 2-hour walking tour of Passau. We thoroughly enjoy strolling through the narrow, quaint, European city streets with the unique historic buildings and houses. There were views of the Fortress – Veste Oberhaus across the river, we walked through the town hall square, and at St. Stephen’s Cathedral we were treated to a 30-minute organ concert. The Cathedral was beautiful and ornate with painted ceilings much like the many churches and cathedrals we have seen in Europe. The organ is the largest cathedral organ in the world. Built in 1928 by the German organ-building family Steinmeyer. We thoroughly enjoyed relaxing and sitting in this beautiful cathedral listening to the organ music.
Back on the boat after our tour, we relaxed out on the ship deck with its scenic views from both sides of the boat, one of the nice advantages of a River Cruise.
City of Linz, Austria (Wednesday, June 5 evening – Thursday, June 6; 2-Nights) Linz is the third-largest city of Austria and capital and largest of the state of Upper Austria (German: Oberösterreich). It is in the north center of Austria, approximately 19 miles south of the Czech border and stretches to both sides of the River Danube. The population of the city is 204,846.
Wednesday evening when we arrived in Linz we saw many young people relaxing in lawn chairs along the river-side outside the music hall. There was either a concert earlier or the location is close to a college and it may have just been a regular hangout for young people. We were allowed off the boat when we arrived late Wednesday and did take a stroll along the river-side park after dinner.
Thursday, June 6: Our walking tour of Linz included a stop at the Mariendom, the New Cathedral. It is the largest church in Austria although not the tallest. There is a room at the very top of the tower, called the “Hermit in the Tower” that is a rentable apartment/room by the week. It is 395 steps to the top of the tower and the room with its single bed, desk and chair where one is asked to meditate and reflect on life, write in a daily journal and spend 20-minutes a day in silent communion. Rent includes food and is reasonable, although difficult to get reservations due to its high demand. You can see what the room is like without climbing the 395 steps by viewing a life-size replica of the room on the first floor inside the Cathedral. The Cathedral has colorful stained-glass windows like many churches, but these were unique by design. One of the stained glass windows is sponsored by a bank owner and it shows a bright yellow-colored bank building (this bank is still located in the square). This particular window also shows the bank owner, Beethoven (hand over ear), a young couple being married and Mother Mary at top.
It was interesting to hear the tour guide describe that Linz was a welfare state, taxes up to 55% of your income, the tax credit a family receives per month per child is $65 (US currency), free college, free healthcare and only $6.00 per prescription with no cost-limitation. If an Austria worker becomes unemployed, the government pays their expenses for 1-year, they also pay maternity-leave of absence for up to 1-year.
There are shops that sell the native, traditional dress, the “dirndl” worn in Austria, although only the elderly women wear it much anymore. The placement of the knot on the cloth-belt, determines if married, or single. If it’s tied on the left-side, it indicates single; if tied on the right-side, it indicates married. Our tour guide joked that if it’s tied in the middle it means they are a virgin which isn’t seen much anymore!
Our tour-guide said Lenz was very safe and the leader of parliament or the president freely walk around town with no guards. We heard an interesting story of Johannes Nepomuk, later named the Saint of Bohemia (Czech Republic). He was thrown into the Vltava River at the bequest of King Wenceslaus, the Roman’s King of Bohemia. It is said that the reason the King had him thrown into the river to drown was because Nepomuk refused to reveal the confessions the King’s wife, Queen of Bohemia, made to him. On the basis of this account, John of Nepomuk is considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional, a patron against calamities and, because of the manner of his death, a protector from floods and drowning.
After our tour ended, we took a tram up to the top of Linz’s landmark for magnificent views of the entire city. Our lunch was at Postlingberg Schlossl (http://poestlingberg.at/gutscheine/), the website is not in English, but check out the link webcam or photos; it’s listed as one of the top 10 restaurants in Austria. We toured pilgrimage basilica Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, a small Catholic church which was displaying a small art exhibit at the time. It was a nice area with absolutely the best views of Linz. Our night ended in Linz with dinner on the ship and entertainment in the lounge afterward with a fun crowd game of “Name That Tune” that included a little dancing.
Krems, Austria (Friday, June 7; 1-Night) Krems is a town of 23,992 inhabitants and it is the fifth-largest city of Lower Austria located approximately 43 miles west of Vienna. Krems is the primary producer of Marillenschnaps, an apricot brandy. There were beautiful, scenic views cruising through Wachau Valley on our way into Krems on Friday morning:
Our scheduled tour was the Gottwig Abbey, a tour bus ride up to the mountainous location with again, beautiful views of Krems’ from the top. We learned that the only difference between a Monastery and an Abbey is that an Abbey has an Abbot – Spiritual Leader. There was a devastating fire in 1718 and the monastery burnt down and was rebuilt on a grander scale during the abbacy of Gottfried Bessel (1714-1749). There are approximately 45 monks that live within this Abbey. Our tour ended with a tasting of the Apricot Brandy. After our tour we took the shuttle to the Old Town Square and walked around on our own.
The evening entertainment in the ship’s lounge was disco night with music from various eras and dancing. Although we weren’t very good at naming the tune, it was a fun night!
Vienna, Austria (Saturday, June 8; 1-Night) Vienna is Austria’s capital and lies in the country’s east on the Danube River. Its artistic and intellectual legacy was shaped by residents including Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and Sigmund Freud. The city is also known for its Imperial palaces, including Schönbrunn, the Habsburgs’ summer residence. Mozart was born in Salzburg, however, lived in Vienna during most of his biggest compositional achievements.
We took a small walking/subway group tour (only 7 of us, including the tour guide). It was a fast paced tour, but very informative at the stops along the way. Our first stop was at the Opera House which is a magnificent large building with a large water fountain in one corner and large statues above the entrance; there was a visit to the Habsburger Palace, we entered through the Swiss Gate into the Swiss Court “Schatzkammer,” once protected by a mote surrounding it. Outside the square there was an area showcasing an excavation of exposed Roman Empire ruins. One interesting sculpture is the Deo Filio Redemptori representing the mercy seat which was to serve as a remembrance that the city survived two disasters, the black plaque and the second the Turkey siege (1683). We visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral where the ceilings have rock-type formations hanging called “Sky of Stones.” After the guided-tour ended, we did a self-walking tour where we visited the Farmer’s Market area and enjoyed a pizza on the patio.
Bratislava, Slovakia (Sunday, June 9 “Our Anniversary” – Spent the Day, No Overnight Stay) Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is set along the Danube River by the border with Austria and Hungary. It’s surrounded by vineyards and the Little Carpathians mountains, crisscrossed with forested hiking and cycling trails. The pedestrian-only, 18th-century old town is known for its lively bars and cafes. Perched atop a hill, the reconstructed Bratislava Castle overlooks old town and the Danube.
Our Panoramic tour was both by bus-touring and a walking tour, as we were only scheduled to be in Bratislava for ½ a day. The bus portion of the tour included a drive through an area called “Beverly Hills of Bratislava,” with very expensive, hill-side housing. We were able to walk around the outside of the Bratislava Castle, although we were not able to tour the inside, we saw beautiful views of the city from the castle. Tour guide took us on a walking tour of old town, pointing out points of interest. There was a “burning ladies plaque” on the sidewalk with an explanation it was placed there as a memorial for what was thought to be the first known burning of a Bratislava witch, guilty of practicing witch-craft. One of the most-photographed attractions we were told is the human-size chrome-figure of a man holding out his hat, called “nice man.” The chrome figure represents a real person, Ignac Lamar, the son of a shoemaker and grandson of a famous clown, who was known to have brought happiness to the streets of old town, walking around in top-hat and tails, greeting people always smiling. A second famous sculpture is known as “The man at work”. The sculpture sits low on the sidewalk and is made to look like a man crawling out of a man-hole. The legend is if you rub his head your secret wish will come true. Naturally, this is a popular tourist stop for a photo. There was a large organized, large race/run being held while we toured the town, so we navigated around the blocked off areas.
After our guided tour and back on the boat, we were told that the boat was rescheduled, not to leave until 7 pm, instead of the original scheduled 1:00 pm departure. We could have gotten back off the boat for a short walk back into town, but we did not. The change from just a ½ day in Bratislava and an afternoon river cruising to Budapest changed to not departing until 7 pm meant river-cruising at dark and no chance for the sunny, relaxing scene and river cruising watching up on deck. This was the first of many, discouraging changes related to our highly anticipated stop in Budapest. It was also at this time that we learned we would not be porting in Budapest, but at the town of Visegrad, Hungary a port, 28 miles and a 45-minute bus ride into Budapest.
The evening in Bratislava is where we enjoyed our special 30th anniversary dinner with a few other couples, and the crew delivered an special anniversary cake and sang to us.
Budapest, Hungary (Monday, June 10; 1-Night) Budapest, Hungary’s capital, is bisected by the River Danube. Its 19th-century Chain Bridge connects the hilly Buda district with flat Pest. A funicular runs up Castle Hill to Buda’s Old Town, where the Budapest History Museum traces city life from Roman times onward. Trinity Square is home to 13th-century Matthias Church and the turrets of the Fishermen’s Bastion, which offer sweeping views.
On Monday, we awoke at the Visegrad Port. Since everyone on the boat had to be transported by bus to Budapest, we had to be ready to disembark by 8am. We first toured the Buda (upper portion) of Budapest that includes St. Matthias Church with beautiful views of the Parliament across the Danube. Outside the church in the courtyard is a large statue of King Matthias on a horse. We were allowed a little free-time to walk around this area and picked up a few souvenirs before loading back onto the tour-bus.
The bus tour guide narrated the sites as we drove quickly through points of interest on the Pest (lower portion) of Budapest, driving by the Parliament, the “tree of life,” located at the Great Synagogue of Budapest, it is a Holocaust Memorial with names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust inscribed on each leaf. The tree of life was paid for by actor, Tony Curtis, for his Hungarian-born father. We drove-by the “Shoes on the Danube,” sixty period-appropriate shoes made out of iron lined up along the river’s edge. It is a memorial created for the 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, who were asked to remove their shoes before their being shot by Arrow Cross militiamen, falling to their death into the Danube River. Someday perhaps we can go back and actually visit those places.
We stopped for lunch at Spoons, a boat permanently docked on the bank of the Danube that serves as a restaurant where nice views of the city are visible through the windows in the dining room. During lunch our Program Director announced that she was offering a “free, Budapest at Night, bus tour.” It was limited with space availability and she took sign-ups at the restaurant which we fortunately were able to get signed-up for. After our day-bus-tour, we were returned the 1-hour ride back to our boat to clean-up, eat and prepare for our 7 pm departure and 1-hour ride back into Budapest.
Budapest at Night was fabulous! It reminded us of how much we were missing by not being in ported in Budapest instead of a 1-hour bus ride. At the Visegrad Port, just across from our boat was the 12th century Visegrad Fortress located in a small castle town. It was very high up on a mountain-top with only slight views. Our bus tour-guide said that the village of St. Andrews is a popular tourist place to visit while in Budapest if only we had time. Our night drive gave us beautiful views of the many large, historic buildings all lit up. We were taken to the Citadel, located on top of the Gellert Hill in Budapest and it was from this location there were magnificent views of the City at Night. There were views of the Marquette Bridge and Marquette Village. Our tour included driving by The Museum of Fine Arts, located across the street is the Heroes Square with Archangel Gabriel statue.
Throughout this part of Europe there are many apartments (aka blocks) built by the Communist rulers. In the last few years they’ve updated them by painting many of them different colors. There are more than 300 mineral springs located around Budapest and one of the optional excursions was a visit to one of these mineral spring Spas (we didn’t take that one). Monday, June 10, the last night of our tour, ended with us packing and getting ready to be transported to the airport.
Tuesday, June 11. Our Air Canada return home flight was a bit of a mess, as we had a transfer in Toronto, Canada and the flight had a 45 minute arrival delay that gave us only a few minutes to get through customs and make the long trot to the US domestic airline gates. We actually did arrive at the gate before the flight departed. There were 3 of us ready to board (everyone else had already boarded). It was then that we were told because our luggage did not get transferred from the Budapest flight in time, we could not board as we had to travel with our luggage. Air Canada did pay for a shuttle and room at the Westin Airport Hotel and gave us vouchers for meals. We got up at 5:30am to shuttle over, go thru the very crowded Customs again and finally catch the 8:55am flight on Wednesday morning, June 12. We arrived back home at the DFW airport that afternoon where we learned that a piece of our luggage was lost. Fortunately, 3-days later, on Saturday, our lost luggage was delivered to our home. With the luggage experience and poor service on the flights we are not encouraged to ever fly Air Canada airline again.
In Closing: On the day we left to fly to Prague as we saw at DFW airport we saw on the terminal monitors a CNN news story that our particular boat (Viking Sigyn) had been involved in a fatal boat crash in Budapest 2 days before on the night of May 29. We were sad to learn that the small sightseeing boat, the Mermaid, sunk immediately after colliding with the Viking Sigyn. The crash happened at the Magrit Bridge on the Danube. There were 33-South Korean tourists on the boat and only 7 of those survived. There are people still missing as of today, June 20, 2019.
The accident did not cause any damages to the Viking Sigyn boat and when we contacted Viking we were told all cruises were proceeding as scheduled. Once we arrived to the boat (in Passau) we were told due to the ongoing investigation there would be no discussions about the accident during our 7-day cruise and asked not to bring it up with the crew or staff. It was this accident that later made it impossible for us to sail into Budapest but more important, it was our knowledge of the sad tragedy that happened to all of those Korean tourists and their families that weighed heavily on our minds throughout the entire cruise.