Luxury cruising through the heart of European culture

ONE of the first things you notice about the Danube is just how quickly this great river tears through central Europe on its charge to the Black Sea.

Surprisingly clear and a shimmering green, aquatic birds struggle against the tide as we board the Viking Delling Longship at Nuremburg, moored against a conspicuously Teutonic forest shrouded in fog.

The ship is essentially a floating five star hotel with plush interiors, comfortable cabins, incredibly friendly staff, top quality fine dining and – most importantly – a very wellstocked bar.

The upshot of this being, when you’re not out on your travels, everything is taken care of and, with daily tours taking place each morning with optional excursions in the afternoon, your itinerary can be as busy or as sparse as you wish.

There is never, as it happens, a shortage of things to see as you sail through Bavaria and Austria on to the Hungarian capital, and the staggering thing about this part of the world is that its immense beauty – whether it be the natural beauty of this forested wonderland or the architectural fruits of a millenia of German civilisation – is all around you.

The Bavarian city of Regensburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a case in point and, if you’re a bit of a photographer, you will have to remind yourself to get out from behind the lens every now and then to see it with your own eyes.

The city is littered with historical pastel-coloured buildings, medieval masonry and Italian-style towers which were once the status symbols of the city’s ruling merchants in the days of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Thurn und Taxis Palace, which is still own by the princely descendents of the former hereditary imperial postmasters, is also open to the public and definitely worth a look if you have an eye for opulent living.

But this beautiful city also records some of the darker chapters of Europe’s history, with Jewish gravestones inscribed in Hebrew appearing randomly on old houses – which were taken as trophies by 16th century residents who drove out the city’s Jews and desecrated their cemeteries – and a memorial to the demolished synagogue.

For ridiculous fairytale beauty, however, Austria’s Melk Abbey easily tops the bill on this trip – a true palace of an abbey with one of the most ornate churches in the German-speaking world that even solicited the praise of the great Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria.

Constructed largely out of red marble with a good few tonnes of gold leaf and frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr, this early 18th century church is a feast for the eyes like no other – a level of ornamentation, beauty and craftsmanship you would have been forgiven for believing was not possible.

From these ‘living museums’, however, Vienna is an altogether different experience.

Featuring the same architectural beauty and imperial grandeur, the Austrian capital is nonetheless a fast-paced, modern and altogether sexy city.

Among the throngs of tourists, the locals stand out with their high style, penchant for black, and the very film noir trend I noticed among middleaged men for donning trilbies in the icy November temperatures.

In this city of coffee houses which Sigmund Freud made his home, of art galleries such as the Secession founded by radicals like Gustav Klimt, of so many theatres and opera houses brought to life by Mozart and Strauss, the ancient has always cohabited uneasily with the shock of the new.

For centuries this fostered an atmosphere of tension, suspicion, even repression in this old imperial city, but today it provides one of the richest historical and cultural experiences any world capital has to offer and, as you spend only a day and a half there, should be savoured to the full on this trip

Thurn und Taxis Palace, Regensburg

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This grand residence in the centre of Regensburg is still owned by the Thurn und Taxis family, known for the flamboyant Princess Gloria and her son Prince Albert, a car racing driver. The former Benedictine monastary has everything you would expect from a princely palace, from baroque bedrooms and ballrooms, but also a brewery offering a range of the family’s own-branded brews. The palace even hosts a Christmas market during the festive season.

St Stephen’s Cathedral, Passau

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This beautiful baroque church was built in 1688 in the seat of the Prince-Bishop of Passau, who ruled the town under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor until 1803 when the ecclesiastic principality was secularised. The church houses the largest cathedral organ in the world, with 17,774 pipes and is also the largest organ in the world outside of the United States.

Albertina Museum, Vienna

Albert, Duke of Saxen-Taschen and his wife the Duchess Maria Christina, Maria Theresa’s daughter, were the superstars of the 18th century and their former palace was named the Albertina. Duke Albert amassed a large collection of art and the museum has carried on his legacy, currently showing an exhibition by renowned Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer, as well as showing work by Albrecht Dürer, Picasso and Andy Warhol. The museum has also opened the palace’s residential quarters to the public, for those interested in the grandeur the Duke and Duchess once lived.

Hotel Sacher, Vienna

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If you’re a fan of cake, don’t miss out on your chance to try a slice of the original Sacher Torte in the city of its birth. This light chocolate cake separated by apricot jam and smothered in a chocolate ganache was created by Franz Sacher in 1832 for Prince Wenzel von Metternich. Hotel Sacher was built by Franz’s son Eduard and the hotel’s cafe still makes a fine torte. Find it on Philharmoniker Straße 4.

This article originally appeared in the Essex Echo.