Tauck’s Danube Reflections, Part Two

Transcending the typical tourist experience along the Danube with some of its most beautiful and pastoral sites as well as one of the saddest and most meaningful.

Tauck

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

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Slovakian sunrise.

We awoke to a glint of sunshine on the Danube, with the MS SAVOR tied up alongside her smaller fleetmate, the MS SWISS JEWEL, at Bratislava. This would mark my first visit to Bratislava and, for that matter, Slovakia.

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MS SAVOR Arthur’s, facing forward.

Before heading off on a coach tour that would take us deep into the Slovakian countryside, we grabbed a quick bite in Arthur’s, a 38-seat space on aft Ruby Deck that serves as a combination lounge and alternate dining venue.

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Round the clock coffee, tea and treats in Arthur’s.

In the morning, Arthur’s provides cold cuts, cereals, breads, fresh fruit and even Greek yogurt, as well as some delicious, freshly baked pastries and croissants. It also has round-the-clock coffee and tea, and, in my opinion, the ship’s best cappuccinos, which can be taken in “to go” cups.

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Cookie corner.

And the cookies! I might mention the homemade peanut butter cookies were one of my favorite temptations throughout the voyage.

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Inverted pyramid of Bratislava.

On our morning tour en route to Cerveny Kamen Castle, we drove through downtown Bratislava. As our guide explained, although the Communists destroyed much of the city’s classic architecture to make way for charmless block-style apartments, they did build an impressive, if not very practical, inverted pyramid office building straight out of a 70’s sci-fi flick.

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Cerveny Kamen Castle.

Cerveny Kamen Castle is nestled atop a Little Carpathian foothill and surrounded in a verdant forest that was giving way to a spectrum of autumnal colors. Built in the 13th Century and largely rebuilt in the 16th Century, it was the residence of the Paiffy family until World War Two.

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Cerveny Kamen Castle grotto.

Within moments of stepping inside, the local guide advised that no photos were allowed. This was after many of us got a good shot of the chapel, which has been carved out of a grotto on the ground floor.

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From barrels to bottles at Elesko.

Our next stop was the Elesko winery, where we were given a guided tour followed by a tasting of four surprisingly delicious wines. Slovakian wine…who knew?

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Zoya Museum of Art at Elesko Winery.

Adjoining the Elesko Winery is the Zoya Museum of Art, an interesting curation of contemporary work by noted Slovak artists. Again, who knew?

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Antipasti in the Compass Rose.

We returned to the MS SAVOR in time for an excellent buffet. Each lunch, I would seek out the wonderful offerings at the salad bar in addition to the antipasti tray with its marinated delicacies. Every day, there were local specialties, as well, for those with a yen for something more hearty: sausages, meats, dumplings, et al.

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“New Bridge” tower at Bratislava.

After lunch, we joined Tauck’s host Michael (one of three who took care of all of our arrangements on land and on the ship throughout the week) for a short walk to the “New Bridge” and a ride up to its observation tower, which is topped by a disc-shaped lounge and open air platform. More Slovakian sci-fi architecture!

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Ex-czechered facades.

In typical Tauck style, Michael discretely paid for all of our admissions, allowing us time to wander and take photos, which we did in every possible direction.

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MV SAVOR (rear) and MV SWISS JEWEL at Bratislava.

In addition to a bird’s eye perspective of Bratislava and the southeastern landscape of Slovakia, there was a great aerial vantage of the MS SAVOR and the 361-by 37- foot SWISS JEWEL.

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Slovak street scene.

On our return to the MS SAVOR, we detoured into old Brasislava for a quick walk down one of its charming cobblestone streets.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

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Preserved STADT WIEN at Tulln.

During the course of the night, the MS SAVOR made a westbound/upstream trek past Vienna. She was due to call at Krems but traffic in the locks intervened and she berthed at the town of Tulln, instead. We made our approach in the morning dampness, passing the preserved steamer STADT WIEN of 1939, which is now a restaurant.

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Grafenegg Castle.

The itinerary change had no effect on the morning excursions and as the MS SAVOR cast her lines ashore, we spied a fleet of coaches waiting to whisk us off to Grafenegg Castle, parts of which date from the 18th Century.

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Peaceful panes at Grafenegg Castle.

Largely rebuilt over the centuries, Grafenegg today is a mix of Gothic, Baroque, Biedemeier and Neo-Gothic styles. The grounds and a neighboring amphitheater are home to the Grafenegg Music Festival.

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Gottweig Abbey.

Our next stop was Gottweig Abbey, which is situated atop a densely forested promontory overlooking the Danube. Unfortunately, heavy mist and fog obscured the spectacular views of the Danube and Austrian countryside. The abbey, itself, was first dedicated in 1072 and has been expanded and rebuilt in the ensuing millennium.

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Overhead at Gottweig Abbey.

In the main hall of the monastery, there is a magnificent ceiling fresco, “The Apotheosis of Charles VI” by Paul Troger from 1739 and considered one of the world’s most important Baroque masterpieces.

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Marquetry and tapestries at Gottweig.

Now beautifully restored, many of the monastery’s treasures were either sacked or damaged in World War Two.

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Chanting at Gottweig.

Towards the end of our visit, we were able to listen to the dulcet chantings of the Sunday prayer service. We would return to the ship for lunch, then embarked upon the most emotionally trying and surely the most important excursion of this or probably any river cruise tour.

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Austrian rails.

For some, the afternoon excursion to the Matthausen labor camp was just too painful to experience, so Tauck provided an alternate tour to the scenic village of Durnstein. Our coach ride to Matthausen was quiet and pensive as we hugged the northern shores of the Danube and turned inland slightly into a landscape of farms and rolling hills. On our left, there was a seemingly quaint railway that delivered hundreds of thousands to the unspeakable between 1938 and 1945.

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Memorial at Matthausen.

Our guide, the grandson of a villager who witnessed many of the atrocities, first led us to a memorial overlooking a rock quarry that was mined with slave labor (political dissidents, Slavs, gypsies, Jews, homosexuals and just about anyone the Gestapo chose). Many of the prisoners were brutalized within view of the local farms, some flung over the very ledge we stood at, all at the whim of sadistic SS officers. Our guide read us a letter from a woman who lived on the farm across the way, complaining of the horrors, asking that if they could not be stopped, that they be committed “out of view”.

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Matthausen gates.

Trainloads of the prisoners were delivered to Matthausen every day, to be marched through the small town and up the hill to the labor camp. We entered its gates with the knowledge that we would soon exit. Not so for up to 300,000 people who were either worked to death or gassed when they were no longer of use.

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Matthausen barracks.

We first saw the barracks where the prisoners were forced to sleep in head-to-toe rows.

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Prison Bars.

Across the way, the pale green prison, where we were told few if any would return.

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Faces.

When demand from the quarry lulled or if there was a major influx of new prisoners, the exterminations were accelerated.

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Names of the murdered.

A memorial of backlit names, in no particular order, filled one room.

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Gas chamber.
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Crematoria.

For the rest of the week, many of us would ask and ponder, “How could this happen?”

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The red chimney.

Outside, in a courtyard where prisoners were often lined up and shot, we stood in the shadows of the red chimney that drew endless complaints from the locals for the stench it emitted.

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Steps out.

And then, with a few steps that so many were never able to take, our visit was over.

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Horror enlightened.

There wasn’t much to say as the sun broke through the clouds and cast its light on the grim walls of Matthausen. We must never forget…

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MS SAVOR at Weissenkirchen.

We found the ever-sleek MS SAVOR in the scenic town of Weissenkirchen, located on the eastern edge of the UNESCO World Heritage Wachau Valley region.

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Weissenkirchen Cathedral.

After dinner, our intrepid Tauck hosts and a local guide led us into town, past the dramatically lit Weissenkirchen Cathedral.

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Wine tasting at Weissenkirchen.

A local winery welcomed us for a tasting of its three young vintages.

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Oom Pah Pah in the Panorama.

Back aboard the MS SAVOR, we were serenaded yet again, this time by a local Oom Pah Pah band.

Monday, October 19, 2015

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Sunrise over Weissenkirchen.

On our thus-far weather-challenged journey, it was so nice to see the faint, pinkish rays of the sun breaking through as the MS SAVOR began her journey into the picturesque Wachau Valley.

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MS SAVOR Sun Deck in the Wachau Valley.

It was a little cold but serenely beautiful on the Sun Deck, where one or two guests would even brave the chill to enjoy the Jacuzzi.

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Tower of Tauck.

Our hosts, Bara, Sinead and Michael, shared highlights about the local towns and scenery over the ship’s PA.

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Passing Melk.

The rain returned shortly before we passed Melk, whose monastery is one of the Danube’s most popular — and crowded — attractions.

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Entering Melk Lock.

The Wachau Valley officially ends at the Melk locks.

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Stadttheater, Grein.

By the time MS SAVOR tied up at Grein, the skies had opened up. Nonetheless, we joined our fellow shipmates for a walking tour of the quaint Austrian town, which is home to one of the oldest still active theaters on the planet, the Grein Theater. While its structure dates from 1563 as a granary, it became a theater in 1791.

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Gray day in Grien.

We did our best to avoid slipping on the wet leaves as we continued upwards with our local guide to the Grein Castle.

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Grein Castle.

Completed in 1493, the castle is on a hill above the town overlooking a strategic bend of the Danube.

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Grein courtyard.

The courtyard was especially impressive with its fall-tinged foliage.

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Grein Grotto.

The Castle is home to a maritime museum on its second floor but that level is usually inaccessible to visitors. On its lowest level is a grotto with mosaics composed of tiny stones.

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Bikes not used.

Back at the ship, we regrettably forfeited taking a pair of the ship’s bikes out for a ride along the riverfront trail. It was just too wet…

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Walking with the ducks.

…but not too wet to stop me from venturing back out to get some photos of the ship from the neighboring marina breakwater. The only others out in the drench were some rather boisterous ducks.

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MS SAVOR at Grein.

Was it worth it? You be the judge. But at least I gave it a try.

End of Part Two

Much More To Come…

Tauck’s Danube Reflections, Part three

Special thanks: Tom Anderson, Mark Helbig, Aaron Saunders

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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