We were anticipating our 2009 trip to Europe, expecting the two weeks cruising on the Danube and Rhine to be an exciting adventure. It turned out to be a bit more exciting than we would have preferred.
This was our second river trip on the Danube. Both were on Viking River Cruises, starting in Budapest. Three years earlier, we went downriver to the Black Sea. This time, we were going in the opposite direction, up the Danube, through the Main-Danube Canal to the Rhine, ending in Amsterdam.
We arrived in Budapest a few days early so that we could enjoy that wonderful city. It is really two cities. On the east bank is Pest, a thoroughly modern metropolis. Across on the western side, on top of towering hills is the old city of Buda, complete with a castle, museum and historic old Matthias Church.
We stayed at the Buda Castle Hotel, within easy walking distance of the Castle and the funicular that makes the trip down to the river, right by the Chain Bridge, the oldest and most famous bridge in Budapest. It was destroyed during WWII, and was meticulously restored to its original glory after the war. Here’s a view from the deck of our boat, looking across the river at the Buda Castle. The funicular can be seen as two faint diagonal lines just to the right of the far bridge tower.
The weather was warm and muggy when we arrived, but it quickly became cool and rainy. Then we started hearing rumors about torrential rains in Austria and Germany, particularly in the Alps. The Danube is the main drainage channel for the mountains. Soon, the river began to change character, from a dark, slow-moving stream to a swift and muddy torrent. The day we boarded the boat, we heard that the water level had risen two meters in just a few hours in Vienna, a hundred miles upstream. We stayed in Budapest overnight on the boat, and the next morning, we could see that the river was noticeably higher on the banks next to our dock.
We left that afternoon for our first stop…Bratislava, Slovakia and reached it in the early morning. We went on a morning bus tour of Bratislava, followed by “free time” to enjoy the city. I climbed up to the castle that overlooks the city and got some spectacular pictures looking out over the river.
The river boat with the blue deck, just to the right of the bridge is ours.
We were supposed to stay in Bratislava until midnight, but we were informed that the departure would be at 5PM instead. Our captain was concerned that the rising water levels could cause the locks to be closed in Vienna.
However, 5:00 came and went, and the boat didn’t move. At the daily briefing, just before dinner we got the bad news. The locks in Vienna were closed. All traffic on the river was stopped. We were stuck in Bratislava, but this wasn’t much of a problem. We were due in Vienna the next day, and it was only an hour by bus, so we could do everything that was planned in Vienna…just a couple extra hours on a bus. Surely, the river would be reopened for traffic by the following day.
The Vienna visit went off as planned, but the locks remained closed. The next day, we were due in Melk, a picturesque old town with a famous Abbey. The bus ride to Melk was two hours, so the half-day shore excursion we had planned turned into a very tiring day, with four hours on the bus. But the river was dropping, and we hoped to leave Bratislava at last.
Nope. The locks in Vienna remained closed, and we couldn’t bus to the next stop. It was too far. So, our poor beleaguered shore excursion staff had to improvise. They found an interesting old castle in the Carpathian Mountains north of Bratislava, and a ceramics works that we could visit.
At last the locks were opened the next day, and we proceeded. Now, we were days behind our schedule, but we had already done our explorations of Vienna and Melk, so the boat just proceeded for a day-and-a-half without stopping. We were almost back on schedule when we arrived in Passau, but a very low bridge blocked our way. We needed the water to drop about twenty inches before we could proceed. Another day of waiting.
At last we reached the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, with its numerous locks. The level in the Canal is controlled, so there was no problem with bridge clearances, but we were days behind schedule, and it became clear that we could not remain on the boat and reach Amsterdam on schedule if we made the scheduled stops. Getting us to Amsterdam on time was essential, of course. Everyone on board had flight reservations, and the boat had another load of passengers to pick up for the return trip.
In our case, even a few hours late would have been disastrous. We were scheduled to fly from Amsterdam to London on an early morning flight, and we had a ridiculously tight schedule in London when we arrived. We had to get to our hotel, check in, shower, climb into our dress clothes and get to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in downtown London by 3:00 PM. Actually we needed to be there somewhat before that to pick up our tickets. I calculated later that our odds of pulling this off were probably less than fifty-fifty.
So, we were debarked from the boat, and the rest of the trip to Amsterdam was done in buses. We had one short three-hour trip on the Rhine in an excursion boat, but otherwise we missed most of the spectacular Rhine scenery. Very disappointing.
The next stop was Cologne, and our hotel was within walking distance of the Cathedral. This is the largest and most impressive cathedral I have ever seen. It dominates the skyline of the city.
We enjoyed our visit to Cologne, but I will remember it for a long time for another reason. When we checked out of the hotel, I forgot to empty the safe in the room, where I had placed our passports and all our money! We didn’t discover it until we had reached Amsterdam that evening. The next morning, we were scheduled to fly to London! What to do? We contacted the Viking staff members and explained our problem. Eventually, we found a solution. The hotel staff in Cologne had found our stuff and was holding it. We arranged to have a courier drive to Amsterdam and deliver it to our hotel in the middle of the night. Other than the stress level, no harm was done by my stupid mistake.
The flight to London the next morning was right on schedule, and we arrived at our hotel at about 10:00. Suzanne sweet-talked the hotel staff into letting us into our room early so we could shower and dress for the opera. Everything was going smoothly until we got to the Tube station and discovered that there was a “service interruption” on the Piccadilly Line! We would have to offload to a bus to bypass the closed section, adding about a half-hour to the trip. Worse yet, the bus was not air-conditioned and it was a hot, muggy day. We were a bit wilted by the time we got to Covent Garden.
But we made it, with almost an hour to spare! We put that time to good use, visiting the spectacular glass-roofed bar on the top floor of the Royal Opera House (ROH) for a much-needed glass of champagne. The opera was Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (Masked Ball), and it was a fine production in that glorious old house. The tickets were expensive, and the effort to get there was considerable, but we both agreed afterwards that it was worth it. We had a wonderful time. Afterwards, we found a very nice restaurant a few blocks from the ROH and had an elegant dinner. What a day!
What a wonderful, disappointing, entertaining, embarrassing, fascinating and frustrating, experience!