DURNSTEIN / MELK / SALZBURG / PASSAU / NUREMBERG – 7 November

Current location: At the back of a coach cruising along an autobahn through Bavaria. Time: 9:20am. Weather conditions: Grey, foggy and wet – ironic given a lack of rain is exactly why we’re all piled on a bus right now instead of reclining in the luxurious lounge/private cabins of a five-star cruise ship.

If you’ve seen my Instagram pics from the trip so far, you might’ve noticed that the weather’s been stunning: everything bathed in sunlight with a clear blue sky overhead. This is extremely unusual because we’re in November – deep into autumn, less than a month out from winter – and while it’s great for sight-seeing/photography, it’s bad news for cruise operators who rely on Nature to keep the river topped up. As it happens, it’s barely rained since July and there’s evidence of this everywhere: fountains switched off, ponds dried up, and all along the Danube, embankment walls lined with dried moss and rust where there’s usually water.

And so here we are. After a couple of warnings that this might happen, the final call was made last night that we’d have to swap ships – the river’s simply too low between Passau and Nuremberg for the Ama Verde to get through, so we’d catch the bus to Nuremberg instead, spend the day there then board a new ship, the Ama Reina. Which is a major pain in the arse but what can you do? Just suck it up, get out your laptop and use the coach time to do some typing.

The last few days have been a blitz tour of Austria/Germany. Our next stop after the hustle and bustle of Vienna was Durnstein – a quiet, quaint little village that felt like the set of an Austrian remake of Heartbeat. While most of the group was happy to shuffle in and out of shops selling overpriced marmalade, Josh and I set about finding a path to access the mysterious castle ruins perched on top of a hill far above the town. We eventually succeeded and after much upward hiking, found ourselves among fragments of stone wall surrounded by densely forested mountains, morning mist still rising from the trees, the big blue Danube now far below us, winding its way to the horizon… An epic scene that immediately transported us to the world of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart, and made the modern world seem like a strange and vivid dream we’d left behind.

That night we docked a little further up the river in a town called Melk, famous for its massive Benedictine Abbey. The tour group was wowed above all by the vast dining room, with a ceiling brilliantly painted to appear curved even though it’s perfectly flat. For me though the most fascinating room was the library, the walls lined from floor to ceiling with big dusty old books dating back hundreds of years. A few were on display under glass, their pages open to display Gothic text so meticulously scribed you’d swear it was done by a printing press… Yet also strangely formatted to my modern mind, with abrupt margins and random text boxes within the body content (and yes using desktop publishing speak to talk about 800-year-old manuscripts feels wrong).

The following day was Salzburg, home of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music – a movie I’ve never seen but which was heavily referenced throughout our walking tour. Salzburg is overlooked by a huge white fortress, Hohenzollern, which apparently has never been taken – and going up there I could see why. Stone walls the size of tidal waves; rows of funnel-shaped brick windows for firing crossbows at attackers; and multiple lines of defence so that even if you penetrated the outer courtyard, you’d still have to fight your way into the next, Russian doll-style. Various rooms in the fortress had authentic Middle Ages paraphernalia on display – weaponry, cooking utensils, an incredibly huge and ornate porcelain stove, and of course it just wouldn’t be complete without a handful of torture devices: various wooden stocks, a spiked chair, bizarre bondage-style masks designed to degrade and humiliate, and a chastity belt designed to make any knob that comes too close shrink back like a snail… With great effectiveness. All apt reminders that for all his feats of engineering and artistry, Man can also be a strange, brutal and perverted creature.

The next destination was one we never meant to have on our agenda: Passau. The plan was to use Passau as a base for a morning tour of nearby Regensburg, then jump back on the boat and promptly sail on. But the low water level meant we were stuck, and a walking tour of Passau was added to fill the afternoon. Buggered from a string of brutally early starts, intensive exploration/sight-seeing, heavy drinking and heavy eating, Josh and I opted out of the Regensbruck trip to give ourselves a bit of a sleep-in, then set about exploring Passau at our own leisure – in what turned out to be an excellent decision. Passau is beautiful. Its main cathedral – yet another St Stephen’s – is a triumph of Baroque architecture and contains the biggest organ in Europe, so that when you walk up to the altar with your jaw dropped taking it all in, then turn around, you’re awed all over again. It also has a crypt below the altar – basically a stone subterranean room with metal coffins, welded shut, surrounded by spiky black wrought iron and red candles… Very heavy metal.

Today was Nuremberg – Nurnberg in German – infamous for being the site of the Nazis’ biggest rallies and later, the war trials following their downfall. A picture of Nuremberg is pretty much what you should see when you look up the word ‘Germanic’ – a city of dark stone, red brick and red-tiled roofs, sombre and sturdy, like something out of WarCraft. Josh and I escaped the formal walking tour to do our own, climbing up battlements and towers and enjoying some local bratwurst for lunch – then caught to a taxi to what the locals call the ‘Documentation Centre’: the Nazi rally grounds, as well as a nearby congress hall (never completed) which was intended to host the once-a-year Nazi Party congress. It is fitting that the sun disappeared behind grim grey clouds by the time we found the grounds, situated next to a lake that was now (thanks to the lack of rain) a miserable swamp. The lectern structure where Hitler delivered his speeches is unmistakable to anyone familiar with Nazi history – it was the setting for the Nazi-sponsored propaganda film Triumph of the Will, its footage heavily re-used in scores of subsequent History Channel documentaries – now reduced to an eerie edifice, the carved stone swastikas scraped off, the steps all around the grounds blackened and overgrown with weeds. Indeed most of the space is actually fenced off, with trees planted across the halfway point and buses parked in front of them, making it difficult to fully capture the scale of the grounds… Probably a deliberate move to euthanise the place of its former glory. But as you look back at the lectern structure against the darkening late-afternoon sky, the place still feels haunted by its founders, and you can almost hear Hitler’s raucous yelling still echoing in the air.

BAMBURG – 8 November

Another day, another painfully early start to get on board a bus and check out another city in this ongoing whirlwind tour. Today it was Bamburg, and I’m happy to say it was worth the early rise.

Bamburg is similar to Passau, full of light-coloured Baroque buildings with little flourishes that I find aesthetically preferable to the stern and heavy-set Nuremberg. I haven’t got much say about it to be honest… Josh and I skipped the formal walking tour which meant we didn’t learn much of the history unfortunately, but got to explore more of the city as well as take some time out in a café full of local families out for Sunday lunch.

I mentioned the Syrian immigrants situation previously and it’s been fascinating to see it firsthand, and hear about it from the people affected. “We are worried what will happen,” our German guide mentioned to us on the way to Bamburg today, in response to a question. “These people don’t want to learn German and they form their own areas in the cities.” I saw the situation myself at Salzburg’s central station a few days prior: a teeming mass of Middle Easterners, mostly men, sitting and standing around. The vibe from them was potently unfriendly, borderline menacing: they glared fixedly at our tour group as we passed them by – let’s not forget most of our group is comprised of gentle, fragile elderly men and women – and it made me wonder what they’d do if it weren’t for the dozens of Austrian army personnel patrolling around. Having already transformed a section of the train station into an intimidating ghetto, as they waited for trains to take them from Austria to Germany, their hostility to their new environment was palpable. “But I should not talk about these things,” our German guide remarked at one point, almost cutting himself off. “I was told not to talk about politics or religion… But yes, the reality is we are all talking about it here in Germany. We are worried how the future of our society.”

The heavy sigh he concluded with, before returning to his tour-guide narrative, said it all.

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