Monday, November 17, 2014

Cruising along the Danube

Flowing from Germany's Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube offers a chance to explore some of Europe's grand Old World cities. Whether you prefer to bike, hike, cruise or drive along the banks of the "blue" Danube, you will be astound by the beauty of the countries (10!) and even capitals (4!) you will pass. 

The Hungarian capital of Budapest is divided by the Danube. River cruise passengers usually visit the Fisherman's Bastion, a large terrace that overlooks the city and river. You might also see the Great Market Hall, founded in the late 19th century.

Bratislava is the heart of Slovakia, and it's the only national capital that borders two other countries, Austria and Hungary. It has an attractive Old Town and baroque palaces, and your guide will probably point out Michael's Gate, the only surviving portal from Bratislava's medieval fortifications.

In Vienna, visit the Hofburg Palace and St. Stephen's Cathedral, and see the Ringstrasse -- a broad avenue lined by stately buildings. Your itinerary may even include a private concert of classical music in the Austrian capital. Watch Rick Steve's travel video Vienna and the Danube here:

During a port call in Austria's Melk, most passengers head for the 900-year-old Benedictine abbey that looms over the town from atop granite cliffs. Be sure to check out the beautiful ceiling frescoes, the enormous library filled with nearly 16,000 books, and the great views from the terrace.

Austria's Wachau Valley is one of the most scenic parts of the Danube, lined with terraced vineyards and picturesque villages like Durnstein, centered around a pretty blue and white church tower. Some Danube River cruises sail through the Iron Gates, a spectacular gorge that forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania.

In Passau, Germany, you may be treated to a concert on the 17,774-pipe organ in St. Stephan's Cathedral. That city also has some fine examples of Gothic and Baroque architecture.

Regensburg is a cultural hub in eastern Bavaria, originally a Celtic settlement and then a Roman garrison. Here you can glimpse the old Roman gate, explore the well-preserved medieval center and stand upon the 12th-century Old Stone Bridge.

Nuremberg is another beautiful medieval city. It gained notoriety as the site of Nazi party rallies and later was the location of the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945 and 1946. Local guides show travelers the former Nazi parade grounds and the Palace of Justice, where the trials took place.

Many Danube River itineraries include an excursion to Salzburg, where you can seek out the mustard-yellow home where Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756 and stroll through the manicured gardens of Mirabell Park, used in the filming of "The Sound of Music."

Finally, wintertime brings festive holiday scenes to cities along the Danube as outdoor Christmas markets open in town squares. Guests on these late-November and December sailings have numerous opportunities to visit the traditional bazaars and browse the merchants' booths for handcrafted ornaments, toys and woodcarvings. Sample local cold-weather treats like grilled sausages, gingerbread and the mulled wine called gl├╝hwein