Bill Sauro’s Travel Blog

Of A Cruise on the Danube River


Wednesday, April 22, 2009:  Made it to Prague with "flying colors!"  The fastest baggage service on earth!  Our suitcases were popping onto the carousel as we walked to the baggage claim area, and we got off the plane first!  Great service on Lufthansa all around.  Sleeping 3-4 hours on our way to Frankfurt made a huge difference.  Second day in Prague and we are pretty much over our jet-lag. 


Walked all over the place today… we join our boat tour people here at the Prague Marriott Friday night.


Love the architecture, the trams, subway and friendly people.  And great values, outside of the hotel.  You can buy a ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell beer for 70 cents a glass!


Found free Wi-Fi at Pizza Factory restaurant across from our hotel.  Beats the $30 a day the Marriott wanted to charge!


Time to try some Czech wines!


Saturday, April 25, 2009:  We’re in love!  With Prague!  What an amazing cosmopolitan City.  Turn a corner, look up and be dazzled by the incredible architecture of buildings never touched by war bombings or vengeful dictators.  Today we also toured the Prague Castle and the Strahov Monastery and Libraries.  We got a private entry into the two library book-rooms and were amidst 280,000 volumes dating back to 950 A.D.  The history and age of everything you see makes you feel so miniscule.  The famous Charles Bridge linking the two sides of Prague was built in 1357!  After our Tauck tour this morning, we had a fab trendy lunch at a restaurant called “Barock” on the fashionable “Paris” street of designer boutiques.


We met our fellow Tauck Tour group travelers last night for dinner and got welcomed by the three guides who will be accompanying us on the Danube.  We were surprised at the composition of the tour-goers:  76 Americans, 2 Brits, 2 Aussies and 1 Canadian.  We had expected a lot more Europeans.  Most of our fellow travelers are devoted “Tauck Tour-ers,” having been on 5, 10 even 25 prior Tauck trips!  Tour is not sold out, either… just 81 passengers on a ship with a capacity of 118.


The tour company provides dinner at your choice of several Prague restaurants, and we were pleasantly surprised that one of the choices for tonight was Kampa Park, a critic’s choice as one of the best and most expensive restaurants in the Czech Republic.  So far so good with Tauck Tours!


Have to be up early tomorrow to take a coach to Regensburg, Germany and board the maiden voyage of our “Swiss Jewel” riverboat.


Sunday, April 26, 2009:  What a ship!  Brand new and most everything works except for the Internet!  Frustrating but almost predictable, since this ship has a new, faster satellite broadband system, while older ships used by Tauck Tours relied on cellular service for Internet connections.  But the satellite system is down and no one knows how to fix it!  I’m trying to be understanding, but it is still a bit annoying!  But this email is being sent from Linz, Austria, where I’ve been able to pick up a free Wi-Fi signal from a nearby hotel.


Looking at the bright side, our suite is fabulous, beautiful fabrics, wall coverings and bathroom, with a shower stall and a tub.  Sitting area, flat panel TV, cool lighting, floor to ceiling windows that open completely.


Food onboard the Swiss Jewel has been equally excellent.  Mostly an Indonesian crew with Dutch officers.  It’s funny to see the bartender, suddenly serving you your salad at dinner and the cocktail waitress manning the concierge desk.  Everyone does double and triple duty on this little ship.


We were supposed to board the ship in Regensburg, but a lock on the Danube was out of service, and the ship could not get all the way up the Danube to Regensburg.  So we had to be bussed to Straubing, Germany where our ship awaited us. 


Monday, April 27, 2009:  Regensburg was very cool… an amazing medieval town with a vibrant social scene due to 30,000 college students who inhabit many of the 12th century buildings that have been transformed into dorms.  The Stone Bridge across the Danube, an amazing engineering marvel built in 1146 still works great, as we walked across it many times! 


Then it was on to Passau, a hilly German town on the Danube that is mostly famous for the biggest cathedral organ in Europe.  Ronna\\\\\ is glad I’m not making any more jokes about that!


At the time of writing this, we’ve gone through three locks, each lowering us about 40 feet each time, and they are amazingly fast and efficient as they pump millions of gallons of water out of our enclosed “swimming pool” space bring the entire ship to the level of the next part of the river. 


Tuesday, April 28, 2009:  Spent the night in Linz and early today we were bussed to Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace.  I’m not sure what that poor city would do without Mozart and the “Sound of Music.”  You walk thru an area and the gardens were “where they filled Maria teaching the kids ‘Do Re Mi.’  Yikes!  After a morning walking tour, we had a great lunch at the oldest restaurant in Europe, the Stiftskeller St. Peter, which opened for business in 803!  Not 1803, 803!  They’ve been in business for 1300 years!  Charlemagne allegedly ate dinner there!


So all’s well and tomorrow we head further down the Danube to the wine country.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009:  The Internet is up!  The Internet is up!  After a lot of bitching on my part, the cruise line operators had a network techie from Amsterdam join us in Linz, Austria.  He worked for hours last night and today we had connectivity!  Hurray for the Dutch guy!  So now I can see how the Giants are doing and other really important things. 


The weather in central Europe continues to be marvelous!  Sunny right now after a little overcast this morning as we sailed thru the Wachau Valley--Austria’s version of the Napa Valley but with canyons dropping down to the Danube River level.  The sun’s heat reflecting from the River makes the grapes ripen in these amazing terraced vineyards.  Ronna is off with “the group” on a walking tour of Durnstein.  I decided to take a break from the predictable diet of old medieval towns:  A big cathedral; a wall that the Roman’s built; a trendy shopping street with no cars; and an English speaking guide who is way too happy with her job.  I’ll meet up with Ronna at 4:30 pm at the Kloster Keller for regional wine tasting.  Besides I haven’t quite broken in my new “wide-bottom” shoes which I bought yesterday in Salzburg that should make walking on these damn cobblestones a bit less arduous!


We’ve gone through about 10 Danube River locks, each lowering our ship about 40 feet.  Austria has built so many efficient power producing damns on its rivers and streams that 80 percent of its power is now sustainably produced with no green house gases.  They have even created “power storage systems” in which water flowing down from the mountain creates electricity during the day, and at night when demand for power is low, they use electricity to pump the river water back up the mountain to come down the next day.  Very clever people!


Tonight at 8 we sail for Vienna… one of the highlights of the trip. 


Thursday, April 30, 2009:  This is continuing to be a trip beyond our expectations!  We’ve had more fun than you can imagine!


I left off last time about ready to meet up with Ronna at a cute wine tasting restaurant and vineyard in Durnstein, Austria.  We had some great Austrian wines including our favorite, Grṻner Veltliner.  And marveled at the amazing vistas of vineyards, the Danube and the mountains all lined up in perfect symmetry.  Medieval Durnstein has only about 500 residents, but over a million visitors a year!


We arrived in Vienna in the middle of the night and woke up early to join our tour of the famous Schonbrunn Palace, the extraordinarily lavish Hapsburg’s summer home that has more than 2,000 rooms and when it was built no toilets (The year: 1743).  It’s just 20 minutes from the center of Vienna, but took the Hapsburg’s three days to move all their stuff from their winter home.  It was built to rival Versailles and it measures up.


After an afternoon rest, we had dinner at the Palais Pallavicini, built in the mid 18th century.  The ornate baroque rooms were spectacular and we were treated to music from a small symphony orchestra, ballet dancers and opera singers… all during our excellent private performance dinner.  The artistry of all was excellent and our waiter was a true professional, having served private parties in the Palais for 45 years.  None of this “I’m Jimmy and I’m your waiter” adolescent nonsense!  Incidentally, both Mozart and Beethoven played their music in the very room in which we dined!  A great day in Vienna!


Friday, May 1, 2009:  May Day in Europe… almost all the shops are closed, but museums, restaurants and performance venues are open.  Caught the early 9 am bus from our ship dock location on the Danube into the City Center of Vienna and caught the 11 am performance of the amazing Lipizzaner Stallions in the 18th century Spanish Riding School Exhibition Hall.  430 years of breeding and renaissance tradition in a breathtaking setting.  The young horses have to train for 6-10 years before they can perform amazing feats of syncopated dance steps, choreographed processions and leaps into the air.  Well worth the ticket price and effort to get there!


We then had a fun lunch of Austrian beer, wieners, potatoes, green beans with bacon and dumpling soup in a cave-like old restaurant underneath the Albertina Museum.  We did lots of walking and shopped at some tourist shops that remained open despite the holiday.  Then we took the fabulous Vienna subway from the central city out to our Danube dock location.  Great fun!


Vienna perhaps surpasses Prague on our list of favorite cities so far.  The people were much friendlier than the Germans, not as uptight and the architecture and sophistication of the city is unsurpassed.


We’re sitting in our stateroom at the moment and it has started to rain pretty hard… the first precipitation we’ve had on the whole trip!


Saturday, May 2, 2009:  We’re on dry ground again!  We said goodbye to the ship and crew of the “Swiss Jewel” this morning after a wondrous week on the Danube.


We tied up right near the central part of our “sleeper” city, Bratislava, Slovakia… the right have of the former Czechoslovakia.  Slovakia’s claim to fame is an across the board 19% flat tax for individuals and corporations that has created a business boom in this formerly poor country.  Bratislava has grown from 100,000 people 20 years ago, to half a million today.  The picturesque central square area is punctuated with whimsical statues of many of forms.  From a life-size Andy Warhol to a peeping tom statue peaking up from a sewer manhole cover… dozens of metal sculptures in strange locations!  We were only in Bratislava for half a day, but it was quite memorable.


We continued down the Danube after lunch and had a quite spectacular “Captain’s Farewell Dinner” on board the ship, continuing to have fun with a whole group of new friends… including some very entertaining Aussies who will be coming to San Francisco to visit us in June and a couple from Phoenix, the wife of which went to my high school in Tucson!  We arrived in Budapest at 1 am.


Sunday, May 3, 2009:  We awoke to the spectacular palaces, parliament and bridges of Buda and Pest (pronounced “Pesht.”  An “s” in Hungarian is pronounced “sh;” while ansz” is pronounced “s.”  Go figure!)  Actually, Hungarian is hands down one of the weirdest languages on earth!  It’s an “Indo-European” language, completely unrelated to Germanic, Romance or Slavic tongues.  Words are spelled and pronounced so oddly, they are practically unrecognizable.  But the City makes up for that with sensational views and mountain top vistas from the “Buda” side of the Danube that overlook the entire city.  Kind of like a trip to the top of Twin Peaks in San Francisco, but with a river running down Market Street.  Buda is the hilly residential side of the city, with Pest the flat commercial area, and the Danube separating the two.


We finally had a poor local tour guide… a lady with rough English skills and a slow speech pattern that made every stop along our Pest walk almost unbearable.  Ronna and I finally bolted from our tour group and went off on our own after she held us hostage in one room of an art museum giving us at least three units of Hungarian Art History before we were even allowed to move!  We caught up with our group in time to have a fine lunch in an historic restaurant, compliments of Tauck Tours.  This made up for the rough morning.


We’re now comfortably relaxing in our room overlooking the Danube at the Intercontinental Hotel.  Great location, but a bit corporate.


 Just two more days to go… we’re a bit homesick but not really!


Final email before we board our Lufthansa flights back to SFO.



Monday, May 4, 2009:  We slept in and passed on the morning walking tour of Pest.  We did our own version and saw the really special St. Stephens Cathedral, the interior of which looks like it was built yesterday!  The marble and gold and ceilings were so pristine it was spooky. The most spectacular church we saw... clearly not an "ABC"... Another Bloody Cathedral!  After a long walk to the fascinating Central Market building, we went back to the hotel and prepped for a very formal Farewell Dinner that Taulk gave at the Akademia Club, a few blocks from our hotel.  Excellent live string music, three different wines accompanying a dinner that included Whitefish Carpaccio and Veal.  We offered our goodbyes to all our new friends, ending the Tour on a nice note of camaraderie.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009:  We took our own cab (as opposed to a Tauck bus that would have gotten us to the airport way too early) and discovered a very new modern Terminal 2A where Lufthansa operates.  We're trying to spend our last few Hungarian Florins and then start our marathon trip back to SFO via Munich.


Got to mention these strange Hungarian kezboards!  I'm in the Budapest Airport First Class Lounge using their computer, and there are strange letters in the wrong places.  Like a Z where the Y is supposed to be!  Zikes!  I mean Yikes.  I feel like the Cat in "I Can Has Cheezburger"  Or how about these letters... ÉÖÜű§ö.  Cool!


See zou all soon! 


Postscript:  We're home… exhausted but home after our 16-hour trip from Budapest to Munich to SFO.  But the end of our journey was not without some excitement.


Just to make things fun, our German pilot on our big Lufthansa Airbus A340 came on the PA system about an hour out of SFO to announce that "the computer that controls the nose landing wheel of our plane was inoperable and that we would be forced to make an emergency landing at SFO."  He explained that he would not be able to steer the plane after it touched ground.  Hmmmm.  Interesting. 


We had to take every briefcase, handbag, book, even eyeglasses and ball point pens and put them in the overhead compartments or otherwise stowed.  We were told to tighten our seatbelts as tightly as they would go.  But no "head between the legs" stuff.


After lots of scurrying about by the German flight attendants, I looked out my window and saw that were making a direct approach into SFO… no S-curves or holding patterns for us!  Right straight in.


The big plane cruised down to a very smooth landing, and before the nose wheel even touched the ground, the pilot reversed the engines to slow us down.  We soon realized that he not only could not steer, but he could not use the brakes… so the four big engines roared as we coasted along the runway at SFO gradually reducing our speed.  On both sides of the runway, yellow emergency fire trucks and other vehicles lined our path with lights ablaze, ready for anything.


As we came to a stop, the passengers started applauding the nice work by the pilot and we sat in the middle of the runway for a good 15 minutes, since he could not steer the plane to the jet way.  A tug truck finally arrived and pulled us to a special end gate that the truck could access.


We arrived exactly on time!


Things on the River Cruise were way too relaxing.  I suppose we needed a little jolt to bring us back to normality!


Accompanying Photos I Took:


Prague Old Town


My Wife Ronna at the Vitava River in Prague


The Cabin Area of the “Swiss Jewel”



A Medieval Tower in Regensburg, Germany


Salzburg Signs


Lipizzaner Stallion Show


Granite Cliffs Sweeping Down to Danube in Wachau Valley, Austria



The View from Pest from Buda in Hungary