A Cruise into the Past; 14 Days in Heartof Europe

Article excerpt


Going downriver has always been a metaphor for self-discovery, an exploration of the increasingly dense layers of our more ancient, more primitive selves.

In literary terms, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" follows a journey downriver to a primal view of existence that is both primitive and undeniable as part of who we are.

Conrad makes the point that we must make the journey and face the connection between the past and the more ancient ways of life and our own existence.

Europe reflects this in ways we don't always see, and yet the very basis of Europe for American travelers is the existence of an ancient and historical legacy rich in culture, myth and legendary places and people.

So we go to Europe to view the castles of the Dark Ages and the miracle of modern culture meshing with ancient sites and cities and distant legacies we cover with modern development.

Just below the surface, increasingly evident as we reach older cities less touched by modern life, is a more primitive, more inward-looking perspective that tells a story about all of us as we learn about our present by exploring our past.

That's the theory. Our journey is a European river cruise, a 14-day expedition on a floating palace from the free-spirited melting pot of Amsterdam, down the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers.

We will sail past the storybook castles of Bavaria, into the bourgeois heart of classical Vienna and on to the even older and very different cities of Bratislava and Budapest, time capsules cut off from the West for much of the 20th century.

We are traveling on Viking River Cruises, which operates a fleet of river-cruise boats in Europe and Asia, on the ship Viking Spirit, which makes regular runs from Amsterdam to Budapest and back every two weeks. In Amsterdam, we are met at the airport and taken directly to the boat.

One of the attractions of a river cruise like this is that you see 16 cities and unpack only once. Our cabin, though somewhat small, is comfortable, with a large window. The ship, which carries 150 passengers, is well-appointed, with a large lounge encased in picture windows, and a sprawling sun deck.

Amsterdam represents the libertine passion of modern society. The city itself, a beautiful gem set on more canals than Venice, encapsulates an open society with few restraints.

It lives up to that promise, with coffeehouses dispensing high-grade marijuana and an expansive red-light district that thrives day and night.

A favorite with the young and the backpacker set, Amsterdam is also a delight for the mature traveler. On day one, we take a canal tour and visit the Rijksmuseum, we see Dam Square with the royal palace, and we sample as much of a great city as you can in one day.

Then the cruise begins.

Our crew is smart and sharp, fairly young and largely German, Slovakian and Hungarian. As the boat disembarks, the energy of the passengers is palpable.

Our captain, Lothar Liedke, is an impressive man with a ready smile who has grown up on and truly knows every inch of the rivers we will travel.

Our cruise manager, Jochen Kargl, is a strapping young Austrian who will lead our excursions for the next two weeks with precision and humor. The float down the large canal toward the Rhine is picturesque and riveting. As we pass through the first two of 68 locks on our journey, the excitement level rises.

These modern miracles of shipping and commerce will lift the ship some 1,300 feet as we transship from the Rhine through the Main and then lower it back down as we move along the Danube toward Budapest.

The next morning, we arrive at our first stop, Cologne. Bombed into near extinction during World War II, Cologne has the tallest cathedral in Europe, a Gothic masterpiece built between the 12th and 19th centuries that contains the relics (bones) of the three Wise Men. …