Tuesday 13 June 2017

Birthday girl

My best beloved has finally joined me at the milestone we were celebrating this month with our European cruise – assiduously reported in this blog. So today we went for coffee in the Rhinefield Hotel in the New Forest, to have a card-opening session. And very nice it was too.

This was the view out of the window.

We wanted to go for a meal at The Ship in Distress at Mudeford today, but when we rang up to book they said they couldn't do lobster or crab because, for some reason, the local boats can't get out to harvest them at the moment. Since one of those was my best beloved's chief desire, we decided to postpone it until they're back on the menu. We shall ring in the morning to see whether the boatmen are out, and make a booking if they are. Otherwise we'll probably get to Erin Mae for a few days.

Monday 5 June 2017


Travelling east, we've been learning more and more of the convoluted history of this neck of the woods, and of the historical figures around whom so much of it revolved. In Vienna we found a fascination with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and a garden dedicated to her memory.

She'd hated the position she acquired by marrying the young emperor Franz Joseph and became, increasingly, an absentee, for which she was criticised. Her murder in 1898 by an Italian anarchist turned her almost instantly into a revered and beloved figure, and there is evidence of her impact everywhere, including a fascinating museum dedicated to her in the Hofburg palace in Vienna. The anarchist intended a symbolic act – the consequence was the creation of a legend of a sort he would probably have detested.

Vienna is naturally very conscious of its identity and the ways in which that is expressed, from the horse-drawn tourist carriages…

to the soaring spires of St Stephen's cathedral.

When we reached Bratislava, we found that an earlier, 18th century, Habsburg empress had left her mark on that city. Slovakia was then part of Hungary, and Empress Maria Theresa, in modernising mood, declared that the old walls of the city should be removed, since their mediaeval function was no longer relevant. But she excused one of the towers from this destruction, probably because it supported a resplendent upper section which she herself had donated.

Budapest is our third capital in three days, and just as full of symbolism. We were taken by coach past a square with statues commemorating the original seven Hungarian tribes which had migrated in the 9th century from the Urals, and the figure of the angel Gabriel, who supposedly appeared to the pope of the day to tell him to accede to the Hungarians' request to become a recognised kingdom.

Gabriel thereby became something of a national symbol, and representations can be found all around the city. One was as part of a monument which, as we examined it, turned out to have been highly contentious.

It shows an eagle representing German forces occupying Hungary in 1944, and Gabriel, holding an orb, as a peaceful victim. But along the fence in front of the monument is a protest, backed up by people gathering every afternoon, against what is seen as a whitewashing of Hungarian history. There are personal and household objects that people have left, and explanatory leaflets pointing out the complicity of the Hungarian government and people in the Nazi project, and in the forcible removal and / or murder of many Hungarian citizens, principally Jews and Roma. Down on the edge of the Danube is another, very different monument remembering the war.

This is the place where many Jewish men, women and children were shot so that they fell into the river, but were required to remove their shoes first because of their value. It's a very moving spot.

We fly home from Budapest tomorrow. This has been an extraordinary cruise, and it's appropriate that we say farewell from such a historic city.

This fella was in Bratislava. He must symbolise something, though I'm not sure what it is. But perhaps Jeremy Corbyn might add this to his nominal collection of manhole covers, and manage a visit if he becomes Prime Minister on Friday.

Friday 2 June 2017

The great and the good

We arrived before breakfast at Melk, best known for its Benedictine abbey, which dominates both the surrounding countryside,

and the town below.

The abbey was originally a fortress gifted to the Benedictines in the 11th century, but it had a major make-over in the 17th.

Its opulence was not really to our taste, but one feature was quite extraordinary. The “marble hall”, intended for use as a dining room by visiting royalty, has a flat ceiling painted to give the impression of the room being surrounded by a balustrade open to the elements. The artist used perspective techniques to create a completely convincing 3-dimensional illusion – so long as you were at the centre of the room. From there, the pillars of the balustrade were perfectly orientated. However, when you moved off-centre, all the painted pillars suddenly seemed to be at very odd angles. Intriguingly, it was almost impossible to see how the artist had achieved his effect – I couldn’t even see where the flat section of the ceiling began. But since no photography was allowed, I can’t show you what it was all about.

One of our cruise leaders gave a commentary as we cruised on down the Rhine after lunch. There were some castles, used these days for weddings and so on.

There were hamlets along the banks, where the churches often had a bell-shaped structure as part of the spire.

And there was Dürnstein Castle, where Richard the Lionheart was famously imprisoned on his way home from a crusade.

Tonight we shall reach Vienna, and the Ars Mundi string quartet are coming on board to give an after-dinner recital. That will be a delightful preparation for a day to spend in the city tomorrow.

Thursday 1 June 2017


Passau cathedral is pretty impressive from the outside.

But the real gem is inside – the second largest organ in the world.

Its design centres around having five separate organs which can be played independently, but which can also be played all together from the central console. Two baroque organs sit, one each side of the main organ.

At the east end of the church is the “choir” organ, to the left of the sculpture over the altar representing the martyrdom of Stephen, the patron saint of the cathedral.

Overhead there is a fifth organ in a chamber above the roof, with its sound cascading down from a grill in the centre of one of the frescos.

Half of the passengers on our ship attended the thirty-minute lunch-time organ recital, which was out of this world – Bach and Buxtehude, etc, as they could never have imagined it but, you have to believe, would have thoroughly appreciated.

Passau itself is pleasant enough, a place where the Danube is joined by other rivers, and where we pass into Austria.

The city relies a lot on tourism these days, and there are usually several ships tied up. Our ship had to double park, leaving us rather farther from the quay (and a much longer potential drop!) than when Erin Mae breasts up to another.

After leaving, we found ourselves being pursued and overtaken by the enemy, who were obviously going a bit faster than 4 mph.

However, we joined them in the next lock.

The name of the barge that we drew up behind was telling. I’d be calling out “Save me!” if I found the MS Charles Dickens bearing down on me from behind at a rate of knots.

Thereafter we have cruised down a wonderful section of the Danube's gorge. Just a sample of the shots from our cabin window…

As a certain radio station might put it – relaxing classics in the afternoon.