Our journey through the Hapsburg Empire began shortly after we landed in Budapest, Hungary. Budapest occupies both banks of the river Danube — Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank. With nearly two million people, it is the eighth largest city in the European Union. The city tour opened our eyes to some amazing cultural sights dating back nearly 1,000 years. In the afternoon we began the cruise on the Danube along with 125 people. We did not know any of them before the trip but now consider a number of them as friends.
The Danube originates in the Black Forest in Germany and flows mostly eastward for nearly 1,800 miles passing through several Central and Eastern European capitals before emptying into the Black Sea in Romania. Our first stop along the Danube was in Vienna, Austria on Day #4. Fortunately, we had been to Vienna before because the total time in this great city was less than a day. We were able to fit in a city tour, a walk through the amazing 13th-century cathedral, and attend a concert at the Hofburg Imperial Palace. The Mozart and Strauss music was superb.
From Vienna it was back on the Danube to Melk, a city of Austria (population around 5,000) which is the site of a massive baroque Benedictine monastery named Stift Melk. Everything about Melk is quite impressive but to me the library and it’s collection of more than 400,000 books is the most interesting. Seventeen monks still live and work at Stift Melk and operate a school for 900 children in the area. (Galen Frysinger took much better pictures than I could have).
Day 6 brought us to Passau, Germany and the end of the cruise. The three-hour bus trip made a lunch stop at Cesky Krumlov, the best-preserved medieval city in the Czech Republic. The city is built around a 13th-century castle overlooking the Vltava River. It would have been easy to spend a full day there. The motor-trip that afternoon brought us to the great city of Prague. I had last been to Prague in 1994 for a meeting of the Internet Society. (Note: I would call this the turning point where the technical community began to gain consensus that the Internet would become the predominant global network for education, healthcare, government, business and the consumer. It took another five years for the business world to completely buy in.) The buildings of Prague are restored to their Baroque and Art Noveau splendor. We toured the Jewish Quarter, home of the oldest Synagogue in Europe, and the majestic Prague Castle. The castle’s vast complex of palaces, churches, halls, and towers provided the residence of Bohemian royalty 1,100 years ago.
After breakfast on Day #9 we boarded the Majestic Imperator Train for an eight-hour ride to Krakow, Poland. The thought of an eight-hour ride on a train built in 1905 was not appealing initially but turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The owner is truly a train lover — he went from car to car meeting and greeting the passengers. He told me that after a dozen years, the private train operation has become profitable. He owns eight cars and rents the tracks and locomotive from governments where he operates. His staff provided outstanding service and the day with our new friends went quickly.
The last two days were spent in Krakow, the cultural and spiritual capital of Poland. The Cathedral of Saints Stanislaus and Waclaw, dating from the 14th century, is a sanctuary of national history. All of Poland’s kings were crowned there and lie in the crypt below the church (a total of 48 people are buried in the church). The "old town" is a joy to visit — especially the 14th-century church where a lone trumpeter sounds a haunting call every hour on the hour in commemoration of a warning of an impending attack by the Tatars. The enormous plaza is surrounded by ornate houses and towering spires.
It was a long 4,000+ miles to get home and back to board meetings and other activities. Central and Eastern Europe is an outstanding way to learn more about the history and evolution of that great part of the world. I highly recommend a visit. We plan to stay in touch with a number of new friends.