Baroque flourishes and Bavarian charm await Brian Johnston when he takes his river journey onto dry land.
At Regensburg, our river cruise ship runs aground. Not literally; I'm just not sure what the term is for our predicament. The captain doesn't give it a name but explains that, ahead of us, the Danube has fallen too low to continue. Behind us, the River Main is now too shallow as well. So, while we aren't quite sitting on a sandbank, we're certainly stuck.
Considering, until that point, I didn't even realise the Danube flowed through Germany, it seems a neat irony that, for the moment, it doesn't – or not enough of it, anyway. Global warming is apparently the culprit, producing less melted snow in the mountains. Certainly, no one blames the cruise company. After all, Viking Legend has brought us all the way from Amsterdam, stuffed us full of delicious food and entertained us with shore excursions organised with bee-like efficiency.
Secretly, I'm celebrating. I've been afloat for a week and am wearying of afternoon teas with Missouri dentists and their lacquered, wrinkled wives. Now I can escape ashore and I could hardly be stuck in a better place than Regensburg. Settled about 500BC by the Celts, it became a Roman outpost on the Danube and later an important centre for early Christian missionaries. In 1140, a stone bridge put it on the map and made it rich on trade between Germany and Italy; merchants had to go downstream all the way to Vienna before they found another river crossing. By 1245, it was a free imperial city fat on trade: it was the Dubai of its day, with the nouveau riches vying to erect the tallest skyscrapers. Twenty of these fortified towers, some of which reach 12 storeys, remain.
Above them soars a superb cathedral that demonstrates why the airy Gothic style was so revolutionary. On its facade, saints and sinners head to their allotted fate. This is what I admire about the Middle Ages: the belief in a divine purpose. No matter how turbulent and horrid the times, there was one certainty: everything was God's perfection and a comforting sense of order and destiny lay under the chaos of history. Religion was a big selling point in early Regensburg. Blackened churches are theatrical with weeping virgins and blood-soaked Christs. But on the southern edge of the old town I find St Emmeram's Abbey, once a great European centre of learning. Now it's a monument to religious decline, a great chunk of the abbey converted into a palace for the princes of Thurn und Taxis. Inside, rococo runs mad in a glut of irreligious excess. On ceilings, bare-breasted angels burst from behind great swirls of cloud, like striptease artists leaping from a birthday cake.
Regensburg has raunch beneath the religion. At the Golden Cross Inn, Emperor Charles V had a dalliance with local lass Barbara Blomberg, who later gave birth to the future military hero, Don Juan of Austria. I celebrate the event by having a chocolate Barbara's kiss at the 320-year-old Cafe Prinzess before shuffling off along alleys crowded with fashion boutiques and restaurants.
Down at the Danube, students are lounging on the river banks with their shirts off, playing frisbee, smooching their girlfriends or strumming guitars, making me feel fat and 40. The smell of cut summer grass and the rustle of leaves on linden trees remind me of my European childhood.
As next day dawns, our ship is still going nowhere. Most of my fellow cruise passengers opt for a compensatory coach tour to Munich but I'm intrigued by this German slice of the Danube, a river I've always associated with Austria and Hungary. Now I see from a map that it snakes through southern Bavaria from its source in the Black Forest, passing a somewhat overlooked corner of Germany that's dense in history. And so I find myself tootling along a country road in a rented car, through villages with unpronounceable names. Fields of plump sunflowers nod in approval at my great escape and piebald cows grin under the shadow of castles.
A couple of hours later, I'm scrambling through a forest to a little stream that bubbles up from the rocks, a baby on its first steps to old age in the Black Sea nearly 3000 kilometres away. A few knobbly-kneed hikers are drinking the water out of tin mugs like pagans of old toasting the goddess of nature. However, this is not quite the full story of the Danube's beginnings. This little stream is called the Breg. It gurgles through the forest and is joined by the Brigach at the town of Donaueschingen. The Danube officially starts where they meet in the grounds of Fuerstenberg Castle and where, to my dismay, an insolent aristocrat has straitjacketed its waters into an ornamental pond. As I peer into the green depths, hausfraus beside me discuss their flatulence.
"I tried charcoal tablets, Anke. According to my doctor's advice. But I can't say they've done any good so far . . . "
Downstream, the Danube doesn't look promising at first. It mostly disappears underground before it pops up again – making it difficult to follow by car – in the Swabian Alps, where it carves through chalk cliffs before bustling past tidy farms and pine-scented monasteries. At Sigmaringen, it becomes significant enough to merit a turreted castle, sitting dramatically on a bluff above. I decide to skip on the weaponry collection in favour of a cafe where busty waitresses in dirndls, body parts wobbling among frills and flounces, are serving plum pie.
The German stereotype may be one of sensible, industrious Protestants but not in Bavaria. Catholic, light-hearted and a little wanton, full of beery good cheer and buxom wenches, it's the Ireland of Germany.
That afternoon, I see Ulm, the Danube's first city, as a cathedral spire punctuates the rolling countryside like an exclamation mark. It was once the world's tallest structure until surpassed by the Eiffel Tower: imagine the shock and awe of the sight for a mediaeval traveller.
The memory of girls in dirndls urges me to climb its corkscrewing staircase, heart banging. It isn't built for middle-aged Australians or, for that matter, bulging modern-day Bavarians but, after some intimate close encounters, I reach views to the Swiss Alps. Beneath, the badly bombed old town is plugged by 1960s carbuncles. Its glass-pyramid public library looks like an alien landing beside the geranium-laden town hall.
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm in a house bombed to oblivion but I'm pleased to find the townspeople seem more taken with their Flying Tailor, who leapt off the city walls in 1811 and attempted to flap across the Danube in his flying machine. I sit in a beer garden, overlooking the spot where he plunged into the river. Beer drinkers crunch on fat radishes and dragonflies flit at the water's edge.
Downstream at Donauwoerth, the Danube becomes navigable by decent-sized boats. But further along in Regensburg, I find the Viking Legend remains becalmed. Still, there is some semblance of a schedule to maintain, so tomorrow we're going south by road to Passau, the last German stop on the Danube before it waltzes into Austria.
Passau itself should really slip across the border. Where Regensburg has German gravitas, Passau is flamboyant in pink and peach, an almost-Austrian wedding-cake town decorated with swashbuckling saints and giggling angels. At its heart, St Stephan's Cathedral features cavorting evangelists in skimpy gold togas displaying surprisingly shapely thighs: Roman theme night in a gay bar. Above, a pink-bearded God is lost among a flock of cherubs with dimpled smiles and inadequate wings.
The cathedral's famous organ is as extravagant as a Viennese pastry. Viking shouts us a concert that showcases the power of its 17,774 pipes, which thunder and hoot, sending shockwaves through my chest. This is a long way from mediaeval austerity, I think as I gaze around: the baroque is about politics and temporal power as well as religion. It seems supremely distracting from the business of God, at least to me, whose childhood Sundays were endured in a chilly Presbyterian church.
Passau has been around a long time, thanks to its strategic location at the point where the Danube and Inn – as well as the little Ilz – come together. For a thousand years, it was the seat of prince-bishops who ruled the largest diocese in the Holy Roman Empire. But when a great fire burnt it to the ground in 1662, it gained a striking uniformity when Italian architects were called in and bequeathed it a voluptuous baroque style. I find Passau, crammed with buttocks and bosoms, parks and pastries, imperial statues and episcopal glamour, an enchanting little city.
I walk along the Danube's shores, where chestnut trees rustle, gulls surf the wind and diners tuck into schnitzel and pig's trotters. The black waters of the Ilz are swallowed into the blue-brown of the Danube beneath the walls of the bishop's fortress. A little further, the chalky-green Inn joins the confluence of rivers. For a while, the two run almost parallel; Passau sits on a great outcrop of rock like a huge steamer, baroque funnels afloat in alpine water. I turn back along the Inn, where once salt boats pulled in at the wharves and where, as a boy living in Passau, Adolf Hitler was saved from drowning by a passing parish priest.
Tucking into river perch in almond butter, I contemplate this twist of fate but little can puncture my feeling of contentment. Perhaps it's my Weissenstock wheat beer, poured in a glass shaped like a curvaceous woman, that makes me feel content. Perhaps it's the unexpected joy of discovering a German Danube so perfectly delightful.
Somewhere ahead, the river makes a great sweeping curve rather wonderfully referred to as "the smile on the face of Austria". If only we can get our boat to float, I'll be the first one aboard.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Viking River Cruises and Emirates Airlines.
Getting there Emirates has a fare to Munich for about $1950, flying to Dubai (about 14hr), then Munich (6hr 35min). This fare allows you to stop in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur (ex Melbourne) and Bangkok (ex Sydney) and it is possible to fly back from another European city served by Emirates. Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.
Cruising there Viking River Cruises has several Danube packages, including an eight-day Romantic Danube itinerary between Nuremberg and Budapest, priced from $1699, and an eight-day Danube Holiday Explorer between Nuremberg and Vienna from $2550. Phone 1800 829 138 or see vikingrivercruises.com.au.
Bischofshof am Dom, Regensburg, has rooms from €138 ($189) a double including tax. Phone +49 941 58460, see hotel-bischofshof.de.
Altstadt Hotel, Passau, has rooms from €118 ($1161) a double including tax and breakfast. Phone +49 851 3370, see www.altstadt-hotel.de.
More information German National Tourist Board, see germany-tourism.de.