Ebb and flow of civilisation

Cathrin Schaer absorbs the folklore of central Europe as she floats through five countries and centuries of history.

Once upon a time, in a small Bavarian town far, far away, there lived a clever bridge builder. He was building a stone bridge for the town of Regensburg. At the same time, another builder was working on a church.

As builders tend to do after a couple of beers, the men made a bet on who would be finished first. Time passed and the bridge builder started to lose. Seeing his opportunity, the devil approached the bridge builder with an offer: in exchange for the first three souls to cross the completed structure, the devil would help the bridge builder win. And, about 11 years later, in 1146, he finished first.

The devil was pleased with himself, especially when he saw the town's duke, bishop and a prominent merchant approaching the new bridge. But before the three townsfolk could cross, the cunning bridge builder shooed a dog, a cock and a hen across the bridge, forcing the devil to take their souls to hell instead.

The devil was furious and tried to destroy the bridge. He tried and failed and this is why Steinerne Brucke, which crosses the Danube in Regensburg, still has a lump in the middle.

Just downriver from that lumpy bridge stands a small, smoky hut with uncomfortably low ceilings. Apparently it was once the cafeteria for the devil-defying bridge builder and his men. And it's also apparently the first "wurstkuchl", or sausage kitchen, in the world.

More than 950 years later, on any day of the week it will be packed with diners, side by side on wooden benches tucking into delicious sausages. The kitchen is run by the same family that started it and the recipe for the delightful Regensburger sausie is an inherited secret.

Sausages and devils yes, these are the sorts of stories you remember when you're on a two-week river cruise on the good ship MS Amadante from Amsterdam to Budapest, passing through five central European countries, hundreds of kilometres of rustic countryside and centuries of history along the way.

Cruising is all about the joy of having a floating hotel room, with lots of destinations and something different to do every day: guided walks, shopping trips, bike rides, bus tours. And you only ever have to unpack once.

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But to be honest, things do get a bit blurry after a while. Some call it "picturesque-European-village-fatigue", others curse the ABC (that's an acronym for "Another Bloody Church" invented by my fellow Australian travellers).

However among all these fairytale castles, cobbled lanes and ancient bridges, there are moments and meetings and stories that will never be forgotten. Every one of my fellow passengers would have a collection of indelible memories. The following are just a few of my favourite things, on-board and off.

The cabin window. Life really is passing us by. Actually, it's floating by. The entire side of my room on this 110-metre-long, 11.6-metre-wide luxury river cruiser is made of glass.

On average the ship moves at the breakneck speed of 15kmh, its size allows it into ports that larger ships cannot reach and as we travel the watery highways of central Europe, small riverside villages, ancient ruins dusted with icing-sugar snow and whole cities slip off the visual

radar. An estimated 40 per cent of the greatly reduced traffic on the rivers these days is tourism but we also pass the occasional coal barge and small fishing boat.

Perhaps best of all are the sunsets. Despite the chilly temperature outside, I open my cabin's sliding glass doors at dusk. A few lights twinkle magically on shore, the silhouette of a church spire and a grey sky shot through with marmalade streaks. And all the while our ship of merrymakers cuts a sparkling swathe through the gloam, leaving only ripples and some bloke's ribald laughter behind us.

Religion. I find myself offering thanks that the spirit moved so many to create such impressive buildings. This cruise prides itself on its "freedom of choice" style of touring. We dock somewhere new each day and at every port of call there are different options. For example, in Nuremberg passengers have the option of wartime history or medieval sights. In Vienna, it's royal history or a trip to the colourful and lunatic Hundertwasser Museum, where boyhood sketches by the eco-crusading Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser hang alongside his better known, later paintings. And then close by there is his wacky Hundertwasserhaus apartment block to photograph it's something of a cultural monument but people still live here.

And although I'm a hardened atheist, most of my Kodak moments have something to do with churches. In the tiny Austrian town of Durnstein, on the banks of the River Danube, a tour of the monastery allows us to see the Easter chapel, out behind the charming Augustinian abbey's church. This is like a grown-up version of the dioramas we made out of shoe boxes at school, featuring life-size balsa cut-outs of religious figures lit by candles in coloured glass shells.

In Nuremberg, I wander in an incredibly beautiful Gothic cathedral, the medieval Frauenkirche from 1275, with candle-lit interiors so dark and romantic I wouldn't have been surprised to find vampires hanging in the corners.

And then in Passau the town's cathedral, St Stephan's, is so baroque it makes the Versace hotel on the Gold Coast look minimalist. The years the principal sculptor spent on his back resulted in a bevy of handsome, bare-chested men with long hair on the walls and ceilings above us. These lovely young men trail golden sheets in a celestial breeze, while angels, cherubs and assorted scholars look on. There's not an inch of unadorned space, everything is gold and caramel or has alabaster skin and it's all set against a surreal, cerulean interior sky.

The spa pool. One of the most luxurious things you can do while on a cruise is float while you're floating. On one day, onshore activities include a 32-kilometre bike ride.

Bikes are unloaded off the back of the boat and a hardy handful of us take off under stormy skies, carrying our raincoats as well as a packed lunch and a photocopied map of our route past tawny fields, vineyards and shrines.

Half an energetic day later, the ship has beaten us to Durnstein, a tourist-friendly hamlet nestled into the hillside next to ruins of a fortress where Richard the Lionheart was apparently held captive about 1192.

Half an hour later I reward myself for the first serious exercise all week (I've been ignoring the small on-board gym) in the spa pool on the sundeck. I'm alone. There's no champagne, sunshine or palm trees. But there are snow-covered river banks, pine trees and a polar breeze blowing while heated water bubbles at the nape of my neck.

Gingerbread and apricot brandy. As one might expect, every port offers opportunities to spend. Disembarkation is not compulsory you can stay on board and drink tea and eat cake all day, every day, if you want. But many prefer to get out and squander their children's inheritance.

Area such as Austria's Wachau Valley offer traditional knitwear, handmade soaps and the local speciality, sweet apricot schnapps.

In cities such as Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava, you can't help but bump into your fellow passengers staring at those Prada shoes or standing, intrigued, outside a dainty cupboard of a shop offering handmade floral perfumes. In Nuremberg it's hard to leave the cafes and not just because it's cold outside: they serve what might be the best gingerbread in the world.

Other people's birthdays. You may be lightening your wallet daily but you can be sure you'll be gaining a few kilos. There's always time to chow down on the MS Amadante and most meals are huge, informal and a good time. And although entertainers arrive on board every evening after dinner, one of the more entertaining events is a passenger's birthday.

Almost every night at dinner one or more of our new friends is celebrating a birthday. So it becomes a routine: the lights in the restaurant are dimmed, the obliging staff carry out a cake lit by sparklers and the whole dining room sings happy birthday. Hilariously, sometimes like, say when there were three birthdays on one night I begin to suspect that these mild-mannered, mainly middle-aged passengers might be taking the piss.

Random bits of interesting information. I don't remember the names of all the churches and the men who designed them. But I do learn that Renaissance-era churches tend to have clear windows because the motivation was enlightenment whereas Gothic churches are dark and fearful places.

I also know that in the Wachau area, the families who made wine had black roof tiles and the families who worked for the church had red ones. I now know that the biggest church organ in the world is in Passau and that most of the incredible statues in Budapest, especially those concerned with liberation, look like some early Kate Bush video: women in flowing robes, hands to the sky, running up hills.

I've floated down the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers and I've seen the Continental Divide. I also know how the world's first sausage would have tasted and why the stone bridge in Regensburg has a hump in the middle.

Cathrin Schaer travelled courtesy of APT Touring.

FAST FACTS

Cruising there

APT's 15-day Magnificent Europe cruise, from Amsterdam to Budapest or vice versa, costs from $5495 a person, depending on the season and cabin style. This includes cabin accommodation, main meals with wine, touring options in ports, nightly entertainment, most on-board activities, transfers and gratuities. It is possible to combine a river cruise with a city tour. It is also possible to join the ship at a later stage in the tour and spend only eight days aboard. Phone 1300 656 985 or see aptouring.com.au.

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