In late October, I spent a glorious fall week aboard a fancy river-going ship with Viking River Cruises. We began in Nuremburg. The weather swung between gloriously grey, blustery skies, and that mellow, golden sunlight unique to fall. The leaves were in their annual shift to yellows, oranges, and reds.
I wandered the streets of Nuremberg on my own to acclimate a little. Tall, narrow buildings flanking crooked, cobbled streets are easy to get lost in. I loved the liberation of taking a screen shot of my location on Google maps when I departed, and then venturing out on my own without the security of the app to guide me. It was a delight to wander the haphazard maze of streets. I was searching for a tiny natural foods store and on the way, was stopped by a trio of students who had created a little art installation on a small, covered footbridge. They seemed relieved to learn that I was an English speaker, since they were American, and studying abroad for a semester.
The boat. I have never traveled with this level of service. My room was an incredible example of making a tiny space feel airy, roomy, expansive. I loved the tiny angles at which things were placed, the space to sit at the window, listen to music and write, and the luxurious bathroom with its heated floor that extended into the shower. It all felt so fancy. The first evening commenced with dinner aboard the ship while we remained docked. The food was awesome; I had a Thai-inspired veggie curry. There was always something that suited my fancy. Europe has the gluten-free thing on lockdown and the kitchen was incredibly gracious and accommodating.
And then, finally, we were off. There was a palpable enthusiasm as the boat slowly churned into gear toward the middle of the slow Danube, and the industrial buildings of the harbor gave way to the locks. The locks! They are kind of amazing. They are a means of raising and lowering vessels by way of adjusting the water levels of a contained lock. They took a while to pass through, so it was a good opportunity to nap, or to creatively practice yoga in the tiny space between the bed and the balcony. The walls of the locks are damp and covered in moss and algae, and that might sound unappealing, and maybe it kind of is to some folks, but it reminded me of crypts and catacombs and Edgar Allen Poe stories, and I found them fascinating, especially from the safe vantage of my tiny balcony.
That first day on the water was perhaps my favorite, if only for the newness of it. I did not expect the boat to travel so slowly. The slow pace set a tone: a lazy, daydreamy pace, one perfect for reading, for snoozing, for writing, for those still moments that I so hunger for and so rarely have. The ripe smell of the river wafted up in the golden afternoon, and we passed by a landscape of alternating tall pine forests and cultivated fields and farmland. The sun set and everything felt just right.
Jet-lag interrupted my sleep patterns, and I found myself going to bed early and rising before dawn. But I loved it. That quiet time just before the light comes is magical, and it’s rare that I rally for it unless I have to. But my body wouldn’t let me sleep, so I rolled with it, going for an early cup of coffee that I’d bring back to my room, huddled in my coat and big socks on the balcony to watch the dense fog give way to a blue and then grey light.
We docked in Regensburg early on a Sunday morning. I love how small towns hold to the tradition of closed shops and quiet streets on Sundays. A day of rest. It was lovely to walk the empty streets, punctuated by the chiming of the many church bells, which is one of my favorite sounds in the world, and to feel like I had the town all to myself. I ducked into one of the imposing cathedrals and took in the fragrant incense and the many lit candles and the imposing Latin service. I left and wandered some more.
In the afternoon we visited an amazing monastery. I have a real weakness for the unabashed opulence of Baroque architecture, and this place was next level: pinks and golds and decorative motifs everywhere, amazing frescoes plastered over every surface, and that incredibly dramatic light, the kind of light that’s sharpened by contrast, coming in at unexpected places. It was glorious. We rode on a local boat with disgruntled wait staff, ate french fries, drank beer in the warm sun (not me – but, you know), and generally had a marvelous afternoon. The river was flanked by limestone cliffs, and a few climbers made their way slowly up them. Kayakers paddled along. Families strolled along the riverbanks. It was the last warm weekend.
Then, my favorite morning on the trip: Passau. Valentin, the cruise director, pointed me towards a trail that snaked around a hill to a fortressed castle up top. Off I went. It was another perfectly misty morning, and it felt so good to be out in the cool air, ascending the hill, working up a sweat, and on my own after more time with a large group of people than I’m used to. Across the wide bridge with its incredible views of the castle and up one of many meandering paths. There was a tangle of paths in the woods and it was the first time that I felt like I had left a built environment since the trip started. Fallen leaves everywhere, the good, ripe smell of a forest in fall, yellows and burnished oranges and the softness of footfall on leaf litter. It was exactly what I needed and it was glorious.
In Melk, Austria, we visited another amazing abbey, this one with the most astounding, unusual and verdant altars that I have ever seen. The one above was my favorite. I mean, look at all those root vegetables! Cabbage, kohlrabi, garlic, leeks, potatoes, squash, radishes, celery root. It felt very close to the earth, bound to harvest and the time of the year, a request or offering or prayer for a little abundance in a hard winter. It felt a little pagan, and I liked that. Fecund, earthy, ancient.
We traveled through the Wachau valley in Austria, where Grüner Veltliner grapes are produced. It was ridiculously scenic, with golden grape vines lining terraced hillsides, and quaint buildings clustered into small towns at every turn. I treated myself to a bowl of gluten-free pasta on the deck of the ship for lunch, flanked on both sides by those gorgeous hillsides and little towns.
That evening the crew dressed up in dirndls and lederhosen and fed us an intensely meaty Austrian feast. It was fun.
The breakfast spread was insane. I was really thankful for my humble daily bowl of steel-cut oats with infinite fruit and nut toppings, and the occasional slice of bacon snuck on the side. I loved to bring my breakfast back to the balcony for a quiet moment watching the river and its landscape float past.
When traveling with an intense schedule, I think that many folks reach a moment when they realize that their vacation is as busy as their day-to-day, and they need to get off that bus. Our first day on the boat was so mellow and leisurely that I thought it would establish the week’s pace, but it did not. Days were packed full of activities, and we often had only a few hours in a town. In other words, there was some serious FOMO going on if I didn’t disembark in every port. Who knew that small European cities would inspire fear of missing out? They did. I had my moment of done-ness in Vienna, of all places. Some folks on the cruise were most excited about Vienna, but I couldn’t really muster much enthusiasm. I prefer mountains and small towns. I began the day with the tour, but I felt on the verge of getting sick, and I wasn’t in the mood for a city, and it was icy cold, so I grabbed a taxi back to the ship, and I slept. Hello and goodbye, Vienna. Another time. C’est la vie.
And then, we were in Hungary! I found myself enjoying Budapest in spite of that mountain preference: it’s vibrant, and chaotic, and colorful, and it feels old. Their language is unrelated to any other language in Europe except Finnish, so it was wonderfully disorienting to listen to something that I couldn’t anchor myself to at all. There were gypsies haunting the tourist spots, paprika everywhere, and so much evidence of its colorful past – both the grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the stark minimalism of the communist era. There was a Hungarian feast on our final night, and a small group of performers played Hungarian folk songs. That’s me dancing in the video. (It’s having trouble loading, I can’t quite figure that out.) A smart fellow passenger grabbed my phone to capture the tail end of it.
A big thank you to Viking River Cruises for graciously inviting me on this trip. They covered the costs, but all photography, writing, and opinions are my own. It’s about time to start daydreaming about our next getaway, isn’t it?