Navigating Through History And Culture on Europe's Danube

Six days, centuries of heritage; neophyte cruisers learn to set their own course - and to sign out when they go ashore

The first thing to know about a river cruise is that when the captain says the boat will leave at 11 a.m., he may mean 10:55.

My husband and I had scrambled up a hill to get a better view of the Danube River and the castle ruins above the Austrian town of Drnstein. The rain had stopped, and clouds settled in long fingers around the hills at the bend of the river.

Twenty minutes up to the ruins, 20 back, the local guide had said. We figured we could shave five or 10 minutes, but hadn't counted on the splendor of the view or the camera's running out of batteries and film at the same time. No problem, just pick up the pace in the flats. We'd still be back with five minutes to spare.

But at 10:55, the crew had pulled up the gangplank and were casting off from shore. The sailors manning the ramp spoke mainly Hungarian, but recognized genuine alarm when they saw it. They restored the gangplank and pulled us aboard.

(You're supposed to sign out when you leave the boat, so that the crew knows when everyone is back. That instruction had escaped us. It would not again.)

We were new to cruises, even to the idea of taking cruises. Somehow the thought of adhering to a schedule violated an unwritten law of vacations. But the Danube is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. The structures along its banks span thousands of years of history and culture. It had to be seen from a boat.

Our six days on the Danube began in Budapest. We flew from Strasbourg, France, to Hungary's capital, then churned up the Danube through Central Europe: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany.

Our French cruise ship, Sissi, was named for a Habsburg princess renowned for her beauty and elegant attire. Happily, our fellow passengers did not dress up to the standards of Elisabeth von sterreich. We had packed in haste, and the outfits we could assemble from what wound up in our duffel bags were better suited to a hike in the woods than a candlelight dinner at the captain's table.

Most of the passengers on our cruise lived near Strasbourg, the home base of the cruise line. They spoke French, German, or Alsatian, a regional dialect. Many could manage a conversation in English, but also welcomed the chance to improve any effort to speak their language.

They also clearly enjoyed this cruise: the food, the crew, the bingo games, the morning exercise class, going through the locks, visiting Baroque churches, or just talking to strangers on deck.

THIS cruise included two-day stops in Budapest and Vienna, as well as shorter visits to Castle Hill in the Hungarian town of Esztergom, Drnstein, and the Baroque abbey at Melk, in Austria. Guided tours were available in French or German, but the crew said that English-speaking guides could be arranged in advance.

The advantage of such tours is that you can cover lots of ground quickly; the down side is the constant urge to shout "Stop!"

In Budapest, the tours hit high points of Hungarian national pride: the castle district, Heroes' Square, the Parliament (691 rooms, 365 spires), and folk dance at the Rajko music school. But we sped past the largest synagogue in Europe, "recently restored with help from American film actors, especially Tony Curtis," the guide said.

We also skipped sites connected with the 160-year Turkish occupation of Budapest, as well as the monumental Communist-era statues, all moved to the Park of Nostalgia at the edge of the city.

By Vienna, we had begun scripting our own tours. In the time it took the cruise tour to visit the Vienna woods, eat dinner on board, and play the first two rounds of bingo, we had caught a first glimpse of the Ringstrasse, seen Wagner's "Siegfried" at the Vienna opera house, and eaten bowls of goulash and a plateful of warm pgacsa (pastry).

A Central European friend once told us that his ideal of travel is to drive into a town, sit down in the cafe in the main square, listen to what people were talking about, and, on that basis, decide whether it was worth staying there.

Without the language skills of a Central European, this strategy is not feasible. But there is much to be learned from just walking through neighborhoods.

For example: Notice the animals on the streets. Paris is a city of liter-sized, "designer" dogs; Rome, a city of cats. Budapest is a city of power dogs - Doberman pinschers, German shepherds, and (illegal) pit bulls. The tough dogs are a new development, since the end of Communist rule, a local guide told us. They cost more than the equivalent of a month's salary for the average Hungarian.

The cities and towns visited on this cruise are stunning - even after you've seen enough chubby gold cherubs to last a lifetime. Budapest is two cities: Buda, high on a hill and above much of the pollution, and Pest, in the flats. Buda's castle district is in the last stages of intensive sandblasting, painting, and reconstruction in honor of the nation's 1,100th anniversary this year. Here you can still see shell and bullet marks from the 1956 Soviet invasion.

Many of the older mansions above the chalk cliffs fell into semi-ruin during the Communist era, and are now being bought up and restored by the "nouveau riche," our local guide explains, with an edge of contempt in her voice for her nation's controversial new capitalists.

Pest, the city on the left bank of the Danube, is more commercial and faster-paced. Some 600 coffee houses stood here at the turn of the century, when Budapest was the intellectual hub of Central Europe. Only a handful remain. At one of the last of the great coffee houses, the Gerbeaud, on Vrsmarty Square, we'd hoped to find echoes of the intense political debates of the past but found mainly tourists.

A MORE authentic spot to see how people live here turned out to be a local mineral spring that we stumbled upon before breakfast one morning. For 7 forints a liter (pennies), you can fill plastic containers with warm, sulfur-smelling water, prized since Celtic times. People waited in lines, and many hauled the water home by hand.

Outside, the morning commute had begun, and diesel buses packed with workers turned the air heavy. But only a short walk up Buda hill, the air changed - a phenomenon apparently appreciated as much by the city's former nobles as by its nouveau riche today.

Rivers have a way of imposing their own rhythms. Just the fact of being out of range of a telephone changes the pace of a day. It's good to fall asleep listening to the sounds of a river, often just the quick slap of wavelets below the cabin window. Along quiet stretches, even over the drone of the ship's engine, you could hear frogs on the banks or cuckoos in the woods.

We had a few clear nights, full of stars, and many sodden, misty mornings on our early spring voyage. Baroque churches and castles do well in mist. One evening, two swans flew by at eye level, past a castle and into the sunset.

But there's more to this river than romance. The Danube has been the backbone of Central Europe for centuries, its importance eclipsed by railroads less than 150 years ago. It's called the Donau in Germany and Austria, the Dunaj in Slovakia, and the Duna in Hungary. After the Volga in Russia, it is the second-longest river in Europe.

Flood markings high on the walls of old houses along the river are a reminder that this waterway, by whatever name, has been capable of much destruction.

The river also quietly testifies to wartime ravages. "There's about 80 percent less traffic on this river since the war in Yugoslavia," says our captain, Robert Weinberger. "What you see on the Rhine in an hour, you now see on the Danube in a day."

Danube cruises once ran from Passau, Germany, to the river's mouth in the Black Sea. Barges laden with coal, iron ore, stone, and wheat from Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria used to ply these waters. But the Danube flows past war-torn cities like Vukovar in Croatia.

"Sometimes they'd shoot at ships from the shore," says Kalapos Gyula, a Hungarian sailor aboard our ship. A Russian ship was hit by a rocket, he said. "I've met a few people from that ship; I think they've named a boat after the crew that were killed."

A final note: The Danube may be beautiful, but it is not blue.

*Alsace Croisieres: 12 rue de la Division Leclerc, 67000 Strasbourg, France. Tel: 011 (33) 88 76 44 44. Fax: 011 (33) 88 32 4996. A six-day cruise costs about $900 per person, including airfare from Strasbourg to Budapest. Meals, but not beverages, are included.

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