The grand tour
Historic highlights on a European meander
HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY: For 15 days, Viking River Cruises’ Grand European Tour delivers one sigh-inducing scene of Old World culture after another, including 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Choose a Budapest-Amsterdam sailing, rather than the reverse, and your first UNESCO tick is the Hungarian capital’s historic heart. As with most of the itinerary’s United Nations-approved gems, you can see it on the included tour then return for a more detailed visit during your free time. Top options are the fairytale-spired neogothic parliament or the Buda Castle quarter, especially Fisherman’s Bastion, where the 14th-century Matthias Church’s colourful roof tiles seem impressive until you look across the Danube to the Pest side of the city. And be on deck to see a twinkling Budapest pass by at night as your ship (in my case, Viking Skadi) begins its journey. More: vikingrivercruises.com.au.
VIENNESEV CLASSICS: Next stop, Vienna, where the old city centre, or Innere Stadt, is a UNESCO site. The medieval maze at its core includes St Stephen’s Cathedral with its 137m-high tower that still dominates the skyline, while beyond are buildings, monuments and gardens on a grand scale from Vienna’s long reign as the Habsburg empire’s capital. These include the Belvedere, a baroque palace now home to a gallery renowned for its Gustav Klimt paintings, including The Kiss, and the entire Ringstrasse, a gracious boulevard constructed around the Innere Stadt during the heyday of The Blue Danube waltz. Then there is Vienna’s other UNESCO site to consider — the vast imperial summer residence, Schonbrunn Palace. With only 24 hours in port, the Sacher torte served at Hotel Sacher’s charming cafe may have to wait.
PICTURE PERFECT: The Wachau Valley should b be drifting by when next you wake, ideally d draped in mist or morning sunlight. Described by UNESCO as a “medieval landscape which has evolved organically and harmoniously over time”, it’s dotted with quaint towns, villages and lone buildings peeking out from terraced vineyards rolling down to the Danube. This idyllic scene is prettiest during autumn, when the vines turn golden. Painted a similarly eye-popping hue, Melk Abbey is part of the UNESCO listing and significant enough for the ship to dock alongside. Founded in 1089, it had a baroque makeover in the 18th century, evident in the chapel decorated according to the motto that you can never have enough gilding or too many cherubs. T TIME TRAVEL: One of Europe’s largest and bestpreserved medieval streetscapes, the UNESCOl listed Old Town of Regensburg, in southeast Germany (at the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers), seems made for strolling, although local drivers incongruously zooming around may claim otherwise, so do beware. Highlights along the crooked cobblestoned streets include Roman-era fortifications, the skyhigh gothic cathedral, Renaissance Italian-influenced mansions, and the Old Town Hall, demonstrably built over several centuries. Just before departing via the 12thcentury stone bridge, enjoy uber-traditional bratwurst at Historische Wurstkuche zu Regensburg, which diners have been enjoying since the bridge opened; the present building dates from the 1600s. More: wurstkuchl.de.
BAVARIAN BEAUTY: Another day in Germany, another UNESCO-approved medieval town centre, but Bamberg’s distinct character defies tourist ennui. Most distinctive of all is the Old Town Hall, perched on an artificial island in the middle of the Regnitz River. This was an inspired solution when the local bishop-prince refused to provide land for the building — at least according to legend, which is depicted in vibrant trompe l’oeil frescoes on its exterior walls. Other highlights include the 13th-century cathedral and 17th-century bishop’s palace. Allow time for another enduring Bamberg curiosity — rauchbier, or smoked beer, made using malt dried over beechwood fires.
HOLY OFFICE: The bishops who formerly ruled Bavaria either didn’t take a vow of poverty, or d didn’t take it seriously, as their residences are the very definition of palatial. Wurzburger Residenz, described by UNESCO as a “work of art [that is] the most homogeneous and extraordinary of the baroque palaces”, was built during the 18th century by leading European artisans and artists, including Venetian painter Tiepolo. His ceiling fresco, above the colossal white-marble staircase, is the world’s largest, and depicts what were then considered the four continents: Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas (my guide apologises for Australia’s absence). The building was badly bombed in 1945, making this showcase of truly grand design all the more remarkable.
W WAGNERIAN VISTAS: Lauded by UNESCO for its “long history of human involvement with a d dramatic and varied natural landscape”, the Upper Middle Rhine has long been crucial to trade between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. Sixty small towns formed along this prosperous, picturesque river valley, as well as 40 castles built to exact tolls from merchant vessels; terraced vineyards have flourished for a millennia. Most castles were ruins by the 18th century, but this only enhanced the landscape’s appeal for artists, poets and composers, including Richard Wagner, whose mythical Rhinemaidens dwelt here. Hours of scenic cruising are capped off with a visit to Marksburg Castle; among the valley’s best preserved hilltop fortifications, it reveals what medieval life was like in German castles and the privy is particularly intriguing.
SACREDS GROUND: When Cologne’s archbishop acquired the Three Wise Men’s relics in 1164 (a claim yet to be disproved), he had them encased in a reliquary covered in gold, silver, jewels and enamel. It’s a wonder among wonders at the city’s cathedral, which was built as a shrine for these relics from 1248, but not completed until 1880. The original designs were followed religiously over the centuries, resulting in a high gothic masterpiece of immense proportions: at 157m, it’s the world’s tallest twin-spired church. Germany’s most popular tourist attraction, the UNESCO-listed Cologne Cathedral, was among the few buildings to survive World War II carpet bombing of the city, because Allied pilots used it as a navigational landmark.
WINDW IN YOUR SAILS: The cruise’s last UNESCO site, and final stop before arriving in Amsterdam, i is Kinderdijk. Nineteen historic windmills form a picturesque testament to Holland’s capacity, for nearly a millennia, to control the water that would otherwise inundate this low-lying country. Although these windmills have been functionally replaced by two large electric pumping stations, their sails continue to spin quietly amid a network of dykes, reservoirs and canals. Learn about the time-honoured language of the sails (which are parked in various positions to announce the windmill’s status, including malfunction or the operator’s absence), feel their power up close, and wonder how a family could live inside these 18th-century structures as they are squeezy enough without the massive vertical post rotating in the middle. MOVING VISTAS: The cheapest cabins might be a little squeezy for two passengers but everything else about life on board a Viking Longship is, well, cruisy. Built to suit European waterways (and so precisely you might feel a bump in the night as the ship passes through a lock), they are both accommodation and transport so there’s no endless unpacking and repacking. With understated decor and a maximum of 190 passengers, it’s a blessedly different experience to mass-market ocean cruising. Meals on board are a la carte and include basic beverages; there are many included port tours and other optional excursions. More: vikingrivercruises.com.au.
Patricia Maunder was a guest of Viking River Cruises. • whc.unesco.org
Viking Longship on the Danube, Budapest, top; St Peter and Paul Church in Melk Abbey, Austria, top right; Bamberg, Germany, above right; admiring Gustav Klimt in the Belvedere, Vienna, above; Marksburg Castle on the Rhine, below