Europe’s fa­bled wa­ter­way is prone to spring­ing sur­prises — such as de­lays due to surg­ing flood wa­ters

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS - ANNE Z. COOKE

De­layed at the air­port in Nurem­berg and thor­oughly fraz­zled, we checked and rechecked our watches as the miles ticked by, with the Danube River and our Scenic River Cruises ship, the Pearl, nowhere to be seen.

Gunter, mean­while, hired to drive us to the dock in Vilshofen, for a nine-day Danube cruise and long­planned fam­ily va­ca­tion, calmly fid­dled with the ra­dio, tun­ing in a soc­cer match and then a music sta­tion. Fi­nally he switched it off and sigh­ing thought­fully, gazed into the rear view mir­ror.

“The ship is wait­ing,” he re­marked. “No wor­ry­ing. Like Amer­i­can movies say, only rolling with the punches.”

Words to live by, in­deed. With the Danube at flood lev­els, there was no way the 167-pas­sen­ger Pearl was go­ing any­where, not that night. Ar­riv­ing just as the wel­come-aboard party ended, we man­aged a glass of cham­pagne and a hur­ried hand­shake with Capt. Gyula Toth.

Nor was the next day wasted. Though it rained on and off, the kids kept busy ex­plor­ing the ship and bik­ing for miles along the river path while I resched­uled ex­cur­sions, pi­ano con­certs and mu­seum vis­its.

Join­ing a tour of Pas­sau, we drew a law stu­dent for a guide, an am­a­teur his­to­rian as en­ter­tain­ing as he was knowl­edge­able. By bed­time we’d met enough peo­ple to dis­cover that we — an­other pas­sen­ger and I — had at­tended the same high school.

As for the River Danube, molten sil­ver by moon­light, it looked as harm­less as a back­yard fish pond. Un­til the next morn­ing when it reared up with a roar, ris­ing an­other foot, flood­ing towns and fields, lap­ping at the un­der­sides of bridges and thwart­ing cruise pas­sen­gers.

It was then — still docked in Vilshofen — that I no­ticed Capt. Toth had gone to ground.

“He gave a talk our first night, but af­ter that noth­ing,” said New Zealan­der Janet Holmes, a vet­eran ocean cruiser, who was ea­ger to get go­ing.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to see the Danube,” she said. “If they had a reg­u­lar Cap­tain’s Ta­ble, like the big cruise ships do, we could ask him when we’re leav­ing.”

Hope sprang anew when ho­tel man­ager Miguel Ro­driquez called a meet­ing. But when he an­nounced that two other ships had hit a bridge, block­ing our route, a mut­tered protest swept the lounge.

“Why can’t we just leave? I paid for this and I want to go, or I want my money back,” yelled a tough-look­ing char­ac­ter who said he’d been on 20 cruises and ex­pected bet­ter. What he didn’t re­al­ize was that river cruis­ing is noth­ing like ocean cruis­ing. Water lev­els change. The cur­rent never stops. Whirlpools gouge the river bot­tom, shift­ing sand­bars. Trib­u­taries de­posit de­bris. Some low bridges are im­pass­able. And the water can rise in min­utes.

Or fall just as fast. A cou­ple of hours later the river lev­els dropped, the sun came out and the Pearl cast off, head­ing down­stream be­tween low moun­tains, be­side rocky cliffs and past an­cient cas­tles and vine­yards.

“It’s like driv­ing a car,” said Toth when I fi­nally found him in the bridge house, hun­kered down and peer­ing at the cur­rent. “You can’t take your eyes off the road — or the river — for a minute,” he said, ges­tur­ing to the first mate to take the helm while we talked.

“You can’t stop to look at a map, or even get a cup of cof­fee. I’ve been on the Danube for more than 20 years, from one end to the other, and there’s al­ways some­thing new.”

A slow start not with­stand­ing we made it to ev­ery port on the itin­er­ary.

At Pas­sau, Re­gens­burg and Durn­stein we had a choice: to walk into town, ride the bus, join a guided tour or ad­mire the land­scape from the seat of one of the ship’s elec­tric bikes. Full- and three-quar­ter-day bus tours went far­ther afield (thank you, Scenic, for the new­est, plush­est, sleek­est buses ever); to Salzburg (this earned a thumbs down as too far and too many tourists) and to Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Repub­lic.

Vi­enna of­fered a va­ri­ety of choices, rang­ing from sight­see­ing and the Lip­iz­zaner horses to mu­se­ums and a pi­ano recital at the Liszt Music School. Our dressi­est even­ing added a touch of class, with wine and an opera recital at the Palais Liecht­en­stein. On-ship events in­cluded a Vi­en­nese waltz per­for­mance and be­gin­ners’ les­son, and a folk dance group and band.

On my first River Danube cruise — some 20 years ago — I spent en­tire days on the top deck watch­ing val­leys give way to moun­tains and back to val­leys. With few or­ga­nized ex­cur­sions and even fewer cruise ships go­ing by it was a “Huck Finn” com­ing-of-age.

But the Pearl, with my fam­ily in tow, was much more in the mo­ment. The kids im­me­di­ately in­vented a com­pet­i­tive “spot-the-ships” game that awarded points for each sight­ing, a list that in­cluded Tauck Tours’ Joy, A-Rosa’s Silva and Bella, Ama’s Prima, Scenic’s Jasper, the Jane Austen, Emer­ald’s Sky, Prinzessin’s Sisi, two Uni­world ships (we missed the names) and three Vik­ing River Cruises’ ships.

From a bas­ket of mem­o­rable mo­ments, I’d pick Durn­stein for his­tory and Cesky Krumlov for crafts. Built on steep ter­races, tiny Durn­stein is unique. But its stand­out fea­ture is the hike uphill to the ru­ined cas­tle on the rocks. For me, see­ing the place where in 1192, Eng­land’s King Richard I, re­turn­ing home from the Third Cru­sade, was im­pris­oned for two years, put the Cru­sades on the map.

In Cesky Krumlov, our sunny day wan­der­ing through this 13th-cen­tury re­stored Czech ham­let, soon be­came a Tif­fany-meets-Dis­ney­land with dozens of sparkly stores on cob­ble­stone streets. Built astride the Moldau River and by­passed by ev­ery ma­jor war, the town is now a des­ig­nated UNESCO Her­itage site, mak­ing it (for all you film lo­ca­tion man­agers read­ing this) a set just wait­ing for a story.

Talk­ing to Toth about work­ing with Scenic Cruises pro­duced an­other sur­prise. On the Danube, cap­tains have just one task: steer­ing.

“Our union rules don’t per­mit us to do any­thing ex­cept nav­i­gate,” he said. “My duty is to de­liver the ship and the pas­sen­gers safely and on sched­ule.” He paused and thought it over. “See them, over there? That’s why steer­ing is harder than it used to be,” he said, wav­ing to three cruise ves­sels go­ing the other way, each with a dif­fer­ent out­fit. “There are dozens of cruise ships now, and more on the way.”

The re­sult is a crit­i­cal short­age of ex­pe­ri­enced em­ploy­ees, from cruise di­rec­tors down to din­ing room wait­ers. With com­pa­nies forced to hire be­gin­ners, ser­vice lev­els now vary from ship to ship.

A few trav­ellers couldn’t avoid com­par­isons. “We booked it be­cause it’s ad­ver­tised as a lux­ury cruise,” said Richard Hol­way, chair of TechMar­ketView, a U.K. firm. “But not by our stan­dards. We’re very dis­ap­pointed. The cabin and ex­cur­sions are fine enough, cer­tainly. But the ser­vice doesn’t com­pare with Sil­ver Seas, where the staff greet you by

name, ask af­ter you ev­ery day and your waiter keeps an eye on you through­out the meal. These fel­lows don’t even no­tice when you try to get their at­ten­tion.”

But most pas­sen­gers gave it an en­thu­si­as­tic thumbs-up. The fact that the wait­ers, new hires from Ro­ma­nia and Bul­garia, were inat­ten­tive, didn’t mat­ter. They were thrilled to be va­ca­tion­ing on a fa­mous river and fas­ci­nated by new places and cul­tures. They liked the meals and praised the all-in­clu­sive pric­ing.

Even dis­ap­pointed trav­ellers even­tu­ally soft­ened up.

“We’ve had a very good time,” said Jan­ice Holmes, who had to move from one cabin to an­other when a mys­tery leak soaked her rug, not once but twice. “These things hap­pen but you can’t let it bother you,” she said, wav­ing good­bye. Words to live by, for sure.


Top: A clas­sic cliff­side pile over­look­ing a slight bend in the Danube, this cas­tle, not far from the 18th-cen­tury Bene­dic­tine abbey and li­brary at Melk, was iden­ti­fied by the ship’s crew as Schon­buhel Schloss.

Above: The Scenic Pearl, seen here at the dock where the Danube makes a tight S-curve, at the vil­lage of Durn­stein, Aus­tria.

Left: The House of Par­lia­ment, fronting the Danube in Bu­dapest, Hun­gary, seems ev­ery bit the fairy cas­tle when seen at sun­set from the deck of the Scenic Pearl.


Left: The stone bridge over the Danube, built in 1146, con­nects Re­gens­burg’s “new town” with the his­toric “old” town on the far side. At rear, the Strudel Tower, so-named for “the whirlpool ed­dies, or strudels, in the river be­low,” said city guide Ul­rike Unger.

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