Thursday, May 24, 2007

From Vienna

Please note: this is rough text, uncorrected. Excuse typos etc. Also, no pictures--but I'll post them later... Just about to leave the boat for a day in Vienna. Best to all on a hurried morning. Cheers, PaL


After breakfast, given that our tour start was scheduled for later than usual, Ellie opted for a solo walk in the city of Passau, whilst I stayed aboard to bring the log up to date and post it to the blog. I noted with pleasure, along the way, that Cardozo had posted the usual Tuesday conversation back in Los Angeles, and regretted not having the time to read it or respond. I did note, too, that several responses had come in to earlier postings, from Munich, Nuremberg and elsewhere—and again regretted not having time or access to respond. Ah, well…

Our boatload of tourists separated into five groups and set off at ten o’clock, each with a local tour guide, as usual. Ours arrived somewhat flustered: her morning had not gone well thus far, and she spent a good deal of time bringing us up to date with her personal history—which did not bode well, in my book, for a useful and informative tour. Alas, my foreboding proved all too accurate as we walked through the narrow streets and alleys—the only word, again, is “picturesque”—of this small city at the juncture of three rivers: the Danube, the Inn, and the Itz. Our party began to lose interest, not surprisingly, and the tour disintegrated into an unruly mob. On a couple of occasions, as we crossed paths with other groups, Ellie and I debated defecting from our group and joining another, but we saw it through, and ended up with all five groups reassembling in the cathedral square, the Domplatz, and crowding into the cathedral for a promised concert on what was billed as the largest pipe organ in the world.

We found seats near the altar end of the nave and waited patiently—actually, reviewing our pictures for the day—for the concert to begin. We were treated first to a seven minute lecture, all in German, by a professorial type who seemed oblivious to the fact that the vast part of his considerable audience could not understand a word of what he said. No translation, thankfully, was offered. That would have made it a fourteen minute lecture, and no more interesting than the snatches I gathered from the German in between semi noddings-off.

And then the concert. Ah. Forgive me, friends, I have little knowledge of music, and frankly even less of church organ music, but this seemed to me the most self-indulgent display of mediocre virtuosity that I had ever heard. The organist dashed with ham-fisted verve through a couple of classical works—including Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue”—and burst into his own “Improvisation.” I repeat, I know nothing of music and therefore have no right to judge, but I swear, for all the world, it sounded to me like Victor Borge doing his best parody of pompous grandiosity. But I’m being unkind, I know… I had a hard time suppressing the giggles before dozing off, mercifully, into rapt inattention—if that’s not too terrible an oxymoron.

Am I sounding a wee bit cranky today? Chalk it up to a number of days of travel, and less sleep than I’d like. Did I mention that I was woken by a searchlight penetrating my poor brain a little before midnight last night? Yes, I see I did. Forgive me for repeating myself: one of those dreaded signs of aging.

Anyway, having suffered through the “Orgelkonzert,” (I kid you not!) Ellie and I decided to pass on lunch on board and found a little restaurant in town, where we enjoyed a sampling of the local delicacy, Spargel—white asparagus, that is—and a fine chef’s salad, before foraying at Ellie’s insistence into the shops. Notably, a women’s clothing store, where she was able, after long indecision, to find the light blouse and top she has been missing, having packed for Arctic Germany and discovered, well, heat wave. We also made a stop at a glass jewelry shop, where Ellie found a lovely pair of earrings, a pendant and a ring, all at fairly reasonable prices. P took revenge at the local Cuban cigar shop, and is looking forward to a quiet moment topsides.

Gelato on the way back to the boat, and a sudden, short rain shower. After which, some much needed down time with an old Dick Francis novel on the middle level of the boat, where there is shelter from the occasional gentle rain. Frank, our genial cruise manager, gave his usual evening preview of the day to come, and we had dinner together with our new friends Tom and Denette, from Indiana—managing to consume two large carafes of house red between us.

After dinner, a breath of air on deck, photo-ops of the spot where the three rivers meet, and a visit to the bridge, where our captain tolerated some rather boozy behavior from a small crowd of passengers, gathered to admire the electronic gadgetry that helps him steer the vessel. I left for bed rather earlier than Ellie, and spent a while with the ever-entertaining Dick Francis.


What a blessing is a good night’s sleep! I went to sleep at ten thirty or so and woke are a quarter to seven, with only a couple of quick pit stops during the night.

At dawn we were still cruising down the river, pulling in to the landing site at Melk as we finished breakfast, and gathering on shore shortly afterwards for a walk from the river bank to the village of Melk and the monastery. Another glorious morning, cool enough this early, and again I was awed by the sheer multitude of luscious green trees on either side of the alley that led to the village, and the cheerful songs of so many birds. It’s something we miss in Los Angeles, and something that really lifts the spirits.

The town of Melk proved busy and, inevitably, picturesque. A market town, though clearly the majority of its business is geared to the tourists attracted by the “Stift”—the abbey that towers on the hill above it. We climbed the steep hill and assembled at the front gate for our turn to be escorted inside, just one of numerous groups visiting this centuries-old home of Benedictine monks. Thirty, we heard from our tour guide, still live there, operating a school in one of the great buildings surrounding the many elegant courtyards. It’s a complex piece of architecture, quite majestic in scale, with long, white corridors reaching in every direction, vaulted ceilings, and many great halls. Highlights of the visit included the great marble hall, the library with its countless shelves of venerable leather-bound tomes, and perhaps the most ornate of baroque-style chapels I have ever seen. Over-the-top glorious, rich in golden carvings, marble sculpture, paintings and frescos. A sumptuous feast for the eye—and a reminder of those centuries of devotion to the glory of God.

From Melk, the boat soon brought us into a different realm of glory—the vine-covered slopes of the Wachau Gorge, where we cruised from village to village through a breathtaking landscape dotted liberally with a historical wealth of castles, monasteries and churches. All accompanied by an excellent commentary from our cruise manager Frank, who kept us informed as to the fascinating unfolding of dates and events that all of us will immediately forget. As I sit here writing these notes shortly after dawn the following morning, I have already forgotten the names of those memorable little towns.

Leaving the (picturesque!) Wachau valley, we cruised south, arriving in Vienna shortly before dinner. After docking, we were served an early meal—too early a dinner, after a lunch delayed by the spectacle of the valley!—we boarded our buses to drive into the city for a concert by the Residenzorchester at the old Stock Exchange. The drive took us along a good part of the Ring, rousing memories of my last visit to this wonderful city, some fifty years ago. I came here as a student for a summer course at the University of Vienna, with a small group of friends from Cambridge—and managed to have a good educational experience which had nothing to do with the course.

One memory: that old Austro-Hungarian Count I used to meet at a wine cellar I frequented in the evening, who would shake a finger in my face and tell me, “Sie sollen nicht Journalist werden”—you must not become a journalist.” I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had not followed his advice and been a little less precious, at that time in my life, about my talent as a writer, and had gone into journalism instead of into academia. A useless speculation, of course, but one that reminds me poignantly of the distance in time between those youthful days and now.

The concert was a series of wonderful old chestnuts by Mozart and Strauss. The Mozart was, as always, elegant beyond words; and the Strauss was made tolerable by a little hamming on the part of the performers. Great fun. A “Gulaschsuppe” was awaiting us on our return to the boat, and we spent a while up on the deck with a group of good people from Kentucky. Small world department: two of the women had attended the University of Iowa when I was teaching there, back in the 1960s…

1 comment:

carly said...

that Baroque church in Melk is too much, isn't it? Unbelievable.

our fave haunts in Vienna:

Hundterwasser cafe and nearby apts.
St Stephans gothic church when the organ is going full blast.
Cafe Sachler for tortes and vienna cafe
Augustinerkeller ratskeller
outdoor market and eateries, Sundays?

and, of course,
Esterhausy torte