Our Danube River cruise began in Hungary, took us to Slovakia and Austria, and ended with visits to three remarkable cities in Germany: Passau, Regensburg, and Nuremberg.
Sailing into colorful Passau on a foggy morning was extraordinary. It ended up being the most impressive sail-in of the trip! Passau is located on the border with Austria where three rivers meet among rolling hills and forests. It was founded over 2,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest cities in Bavaria.
We started our day walking through the old-world streets of Passau with our tour guide. Because the city has long enjoyed a great strategic position, it grew to be an economic and political power. Its past prosperity lives on in graceful arcades, pastel-colored buildings, and the glorious St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
The cathedral is home to one of Europe’s largest pipe organs with over 17,000 pipes, plus eight enormous bells in the bell rooms of the North and South towers.
Another church in Passau is St. Paul’s. The beautiful pink church on top of a hill is small in comparison to St. Stephen’s, but it’s worth a visit to appreciate the quiet solitude and impressive artwork.
On the riverbank opposite Old Town Passau, at the junction of the Ilz and Danube rivers, is a fortification known as the Veste Oberhaus castle complex. It was built in the 13th century and is one of the world’s largest surviving castle complexes. Now a museum and exhibition center, we could easily see it from where our ship was docked.
We journeyed by bus to the countryside after lunch for an optional excursion to a Bavarian Beer Fest. After touring a sprawling horse farm, we enjoyed traditional German music, food, and locally brewed beer. We were, without a doubt, in a group that knew how to party!
That evening before dinner, we learned the actual “cruising” part of our trip was over. The water level in the Danube River between Passau and Regensburg was too low for our ship to sail, so the plan was to remain docked in Passau another night, and bus to and from Regensburg the next day. The water level issue was out of Viking’s control, but they handled the itinerary changes remarkably well. Sadly, it is the sailing in and out of ports that I enjoy most, so I was disappointed not to get another sunrise and sunset on the river. It’s a good thing our arrival in Passau that morning was so spectacular… and the sunset wasn’t bad either!
The morning bus ride to Regensburg took an hour and a half. We got off the bus and walked across the Old Stone Bridge which straddles the Danube River. The bridge has 16 arches and was built between 1135 and 1146. This marvel of medieval engineering was used by Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land in the 12th century. The view of the Danube from the bridge was gorgeous, but I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of regret that our ship was not part of that view!
Regensburg was one of my favorite stops of the trip. It escaped major damage during World War II, so it was awesome to see an intact city and its medieval structures. Regensburg dates back to the Stone Age when a Roman fort was built around 90 AD. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of two millennia’s worth of notable historic structures, including ancient Roman, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The town has a unique character marked by tall buildings, narrow alleys, and relaxing courtyards.
We had lunch at the historic Alte Wurstkuche (Old Sausage Kitchen), where they have been serving excellent sausages since the 12th-century. Some of our fellow passengers returned to the ship at this point while others joined us on an optional excursion to Weltenburg Abbey, followed by a short cruise through the Danube Narrows.
Weltenburg is one of the oldest monasteries in Germany and features an elegant marble interior, a gilded altar, and masterful paintings of biblical scenes. The abbey’s famous brewery was founded in 1050 and they have brewed beer here ever since. We had one of the ten different brews they produce, and it was quite refreshing!
We boarded an excursion boat for a tour through one of the most scenic bends in the Danube Narrows. This area of white cliffs and towering forests is where the river has cut a pass through the mountains creating the narrowest and steepest section of the river. While the excursion was lovely, it ran way behind schedule. By the time we made it back to our ship in Passau, we had missed the Captain’s Cocktail Party and farewell toast… but they gave us our champagne at dinner.
The following morning brought an end to our Danube River Cruise, but we opted for a two-day extension in Nuremberg. Had the river level not been low between Passau and Regensburg, our transfer to Nuremberg would have only taken an hour, but since the ship couldn’t get passed Passau, it took 2 ½ hours by bus instead!
I wasn’t sure what to expect in Nuremberg. All I knew about the city was its ties to Hitler and the Nazi Regime, and the war crimes trials that took place here. But there is so much more to Nuremberg than the rise and fall of the Nazi party. It has a medieval old town surrounded by 13th century walls, gates, and watchtowers. Its Imperial Palace sits proudly on a sandstone ridge and dominates the historic center of Nuremberg. Downhill from the palace is the bustling Market Square, famous for its gingerbread, toys, and beautiful gothic fountain. Hansel and Gretel would have loved it here! Unlike Regensburg, Nuremberg was nearly leveled by Allied bombing in 1945. During the war, 90% of the town was destroyed, meaning much of what we saw had been rebuilt.
The morning we toured the Nazi Party Rally Grounds and Congress Hall was appropriately gloomy. Heavy fog had reduced visibility and increased the eeriness of these sights. Between 1933 and 1938, Hitler staged six Nazi Party Rallies at Zeppelin Field, each lasting around six days, in order to flaunt his propaganda. Near the rally grounds, he ordered the construction of Congress Hall. It was to be built to the massive scale of the Roman Colosseum (to match his giant ego), but it was never finished. I appreciate the attitude the people of Nuremberg have about this part of their history. They demonize the man, but don’t remove evidence of his existence. They never use the physical remains of the Third Reich for any purpose for which they were initially intended. The rally field, for example, is often used for rock concerts and car races, but they don’t use the stands for seating – bleachers are brought in for that. Hitler would turn over in his grave at the throngs of drunken teenagers stumbling over his precious rally field! We also visited the site of the famous post-war Nuremberg Trials and the venue that captured the world’s attention about war crimes: Courtroom 600.
After two days in Nuremberg, we departed for home at 4:30 AM with our negative Covid test results in hand so we could get back into the United States. I remember after our first Viking River Cruise thinking that Viking had done everything right. I’d have to say this time around they did ALMOST everything right… right enough that we would consider cruising with them again, but not before the world becomes a happier, healthier, less stressful place to travel. That is our wish going forward!
There will be one more post in this series: On the River
View the first two posts of the Danube series here:
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