Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Durnstein and Melk Abbey

A very busy day today with two towns to visit off the boat. In both cases local guides take smaller groups of people around so you have some idea of what you are seeing. As a plus, cruising through the Wachau Valley with its small towns and old castles.
Durnstein is a lovely small town on the banks of the Danube, famed for an ornate Baroque church tower that looks like it was made by Wedgewood, the pretty church itself, and white wine. the delicious Gruner Veldtliner. They also grow apricots due to a warm microclimate, and make apricot brandy, jam, liqueur, and anything else they can think of. Only about 900 inhabitants and I think the summer river tourists probably saved the economy of the place.
We had a wine and brandy tasting, a visit to the church and a wander around the pretty streets now mostly filled with shops, liquor sales and tourist souvenirs.

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Durnstein castle ruins and Clairite monastery walls
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Durnstein street
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Houses and church tower
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Interior of the church
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High altar of the church with choir stalls for the monks
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The monastery and tower from the water

Everywhere one sees the typical street signs for hotels and bars, ornate and distinctive.

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Forging on through the Wachau Valley there were lovely little villages and several castles to be seen.

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Fortified church in the Wachau Valley
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Aggstein Castle

Back onto the boat and on to Melk Abbey, arriving via the well planned coaches and with our own guides again within the abbey. Set on a bluff high above the medieval village it was well placed to be defended if needed.


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The place is still an active Benedictine abbey with 30 monks. Through an impressive courtyard and the renovated facade, now in Baroque style of course, to a quiet room where the rule and philosophy were explicated, then to the treasury with a few well exhibited chalices, crucifixes and monstrances then onto the library, still a very active one for research and for new acquisitions as well. The beautiful bound volumes were exquisitely done but no photos allowed in this space.

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Jewelled cross
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The vast dining room for guests


We learned that monasteries had to be big to accommodate all the guests who might visit, including the emperor and his retinue, so there were long corridors of guest rooms, quite apart from the monks quarters, which we did not visit of course.

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Entrance archway to the first courtyard
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A guest corridor. There were at least six

The church itself is in high Baroque style with lots of gold and curlicues. Click on the picture for an enlargement

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The nave and altar
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The high altar
We wandered back down steps and through the village to return to the boat.
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Melk township from the abbey
There was a concert after dinner but we were exhausted and went to bed. This is not a relaxing holiday if you want to see everything provided.
Tomorrow: Passau,a side trip to Cesky Krumlov, but a rest day for Nick

Tuesday, 29 April 2014


We expected a city that demonstrated culture and a love of the arts. We didn’t expect quite that much grandeur, especially in the architecture, nor so many palaces, such a history of aristocracy versus industrialists nor so many effects of royalty and royal decrees that affected everything from religion to open spaces to the design of city streets.

Our walking tour of the town was led by a guide who was obviously deeply immersed in the history of architectural styles and also on the influence of royalty on the city, but who was actually as boring as bat shit. We did at least get treated to the story of Sacher torte and had the coffee houses pointed out. Plus a few lovely shops.

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Chandelier shop
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Cake shop
We had a little time to visit St Stephen’s Cathedral, learn the story of the plague monument, peek at the Lipizzan horses in their stables while being overwhelmed by the mass of information about the ages and stages of architecture, of which Baroque, with its balanced designs and OTT gilding seemed to be the dominant form.

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The nave of St Stephen’s
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The emperor on the plague monument showing his humility
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Mozart coffee house
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Lipizzan horses, born black but turn white by 10 years

After dinner we dressed up a little and were taken to the Leichenstein City Palace for a concert of Austrian music, including, of course, the Blue Danube. This was the real thing my friends, a genuine palace belonging to the family (one of about 6 they own) recently restored at a cost of E100,000,000. Oh my!!! While no photos were allowed of the orchestra, we could take photos in the several rooms we used. Let them speak for themselves.

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Entry hall
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Welcome salon
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Performance room
I Googled the family later. They own a bank, as one does. Their personal fortune in E4 billion. The bank is worth E7.1 billion. Truly a night to remember.

The next morning we selected a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer palace of the Hapsburgs of whom Maria Theresia was probably the most famous; in between being Empress she bore 16 children who she then married off to various royal houses in Europe, including Marie Antoinette to the King of France. Oops!

As expected the place is ginormous with extensive grounds and gardens. We saw only a small selection of the rooms and were not allowed to take photographs inside, but Baroque again proved the dominant motif, along with quite a large amount of Chinese material, porcelain and lacquer and delicate drawings. No one in Europe was making porcelain at that time so it was truly a luxury item.
A charabanc trip around the gardens completed the visit. Lovely high clipped hedges, a massive fountain or two, acres of raked gravel and mown grass; that sort of thing.

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The front of the palace
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Gloriosa; the monument on the hill

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Driving through the gardens

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The high hedges

We finished in the city where Nick and I opted for a quick Italian lunch followed by a trip to the Albertina Museum to see some of the precious drawings from their works on paper, rarely displayed. They included Durer’s “Hare” and the famous “Praying hands”. They advertised on their steps to lovely effect.

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A little touch of home: This is an apartment block designed by Harry Seidler; Austrian by birth, Australian by choice.

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Tomorrow: Durnstein and Melk Abbey

Saturday, 26 April 2014


A long, long flight from Hong Kong to Zurich, a quick connection and a smallish plane onto Budapest. We arrived fairly early and went to our Palace, the Palazzo Hotel Zichy to leave the luggage before wandering off for some sightseeing and lunch.

We decided on the beautiful covered market, remodelled in 1996 or so, wide walkways and many shops selling fruit, bread, pastries, meats and all sorts of paprika and peppers, cheeses, wines and palinka (local spirits). I was most taken with the huge size of the foie gras, not to mention the strawberries.

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The huge market hall
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Green and white asparagus
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Foie gras

We ate at a cafe upstairs, some fairly forgettable food actually, and we bypassed the multiple souvenirs of embroidered everything.

Down to the waterfront to admire the handsome bridges and look across the Danube to the Buda side , where castles and churches and bastions dominate the skyline, before checking in and relaxing a bit in our room. Then dinner in a very traditional restaurant, Museum, where I had duck breast and Nick chicken and asparagus. Of course we had to finish with the Palinka, which was presented in a pretty wooden trolley with beautiful bottles. A  distilled fruit spirit like a grappa and very warming.

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Budapest from Liberty Bridge
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Duck breast
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A lovely sleep in a proper bed, though the Swiss lie flat seats were so good that even I managed some sleep. Then a most fantastic breakfast buffet before venturing to the city. The gilded St Stephen’s church was impressive but didn’t move us spirituallly. We wandered over the Chain Bridge towards the castle heights but hard rain drove us back. We took the Metro out to the Szechenyi Baths and peeked inside the grand edifice, to find people frolicking in the heated spring waters despite the rain.

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Chain Link bridge
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Liberty Bridge
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Szechenyi  baths entrance

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Szechenyi  baths

On  to the Fine Arts Museum on Hero’s Square for a dose of culture that included six El Grecos and a marvellous Egyptian collection. Even the local train stations were minor works of art.

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Getting a shot of Nick getting a shot
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Egyptian face
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St Anne and the holy family
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Pretty station on the Metro

We had booked a wine tasting in the cellars buried in the hill under the old castle. A husband and wife team gave an individual tasting of a number of wines, many of grape varieties we had not tasted before. An excellent evening, which we finished with a view from the Fisherman’s Bastion over the lights of Budapest.

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Faust wine cellar
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Wine in candle-light

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The next day was boarding. We left the luggage on the boat and spent a bit of time having a meal with a gypsy quartet in a cellar, followed by shopping. More shoes! Well comfy Siebel sandals actually. Very good! Then back to the ship to meet everyone and have dinner followed by a city lights sail up and down the Danube for an hour. It is a gorgeous city.

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Nick already at home in our cabin
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Budapest Fisherman’s Bastion

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Budapest Parliament

In the morning, still in Budapest, we were taken for a city tour. The opera house was stunning and we had a personal tour and a few songs from a tenor. Six pounds of gold leaf were used to decorate the main theatre, there are beautiful, original red velvet seats and gorgeous red velvet hangings, lots of private boxes at the sides and a magnificent chandelier and staircase.

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Royal staircase
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A short serenade
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On to other landmarks, finishing with a daytime view of the Parliament as we sailed.

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Detail, Heroes’ Square
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St Matthews
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Detail of tiling


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APT are incredibly well organised with trips, buses, groups formed according to interest and mobility plus feeding us constantly with very good food in the main. The sailing is so smooth you don’t even realise you have departed. So far, very well run and really excellent experiences.

Next stop: Vienna