Thursday, June 30
After getting up it was clear that I was still a bit under the weather, so I elected to skip the Panoramic Vienna tour. After all, we spent a week here on our honeymoon, so I have already seen the Ringstrasse, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the National Museum, and the other likely stops on the tour, and the rest would be good for me. Cheryl went on the tour, however. While she was out I went for a walk to find a drug store and pick up some medications. In the afternoon I was feeling better so joined Cheryl for our behind-the-scenes tour of the Lippizaner stallions. We saw the stables, the tack, and saw some of the horses up close. Lippizaners are born black, and transition to being white after 5 years more-or-less. The riders join out of high school, and must already be certified in Dressage. They then train alongside the horses, and are given a specific horse to train. That takes about 6 years, and when the horse is successfully trained the rider advances in rank. The competition to be a rider is very difficult, and they take about 1 out of 100 applicants. It is a lifetime job, and retirement is at 65, though there is talk that they may move it to 70. Another requirement is that the riders be short, but have long legs. Short because the stallions are on the small side for a horse, and long legs so that they can grip around the belly of the horse. It is called the Spanish Riding School because Ferdinand of Spain became the Holy Roman Emperor, and brought his favorite horses from Spain. They are called Lippizaners because they set up a stud farm in Lippiza (Lipica) in Slovenia. It was brutally hot in downtown Vienna, so we were happy to get back to our air conditioned ship. I think the heat took it all out of me, so we skipped the concert in the evening and made an early bed time of it.
Friday, July 1
We docked in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, overnight. In the morning we went for our tour. We began with the castle, which is on the high point overlooking the Danube, and toured the grounds for a bit. Being on the high point the views were of course spectacular. Our guide pointed out that we were very near the borders to both Austria and Hungary, and that Bratislava is the only capital so close to two other countries. It is also the smallest of the 4 capitals on the Danube, the largest being Vienna, then Budapest, then Belgrade.
Napoleon came through this area, and fired 4000 cannonballs into the city, destroying 600 houses. He captured the city, and afterwards the people whose homes were destroyed asked for financial aid from the city in rebuilding their homes. This was granted, but you had to prove your loss, so even today you see buildings in Bratislava with cannon balls mounted in the facade. The larger the cannon ball, the greater the subsidy. On the return of the Grand Armee from Russia, a French soldier who was wounded stayed in Bratislava, and got married. And it turned out he knew the secret of making Champagne, so he gave a big boost to the wine industry here. Though as far as I can see the wine industry does well every place we have visited. There is a statue of this French Soldier leaning over a park bench in the town square.
We also saw some examples of Communism ruining things. One building in particular that our guide pointed out looked like it was about to fall down. The owner was kicked out when the Communists came in, and the government started collecting the rent, but never did any maintenance, so now it is a disaster.
The whole tour was about 2 hours. We could have stayed in the city a little longer, but while I was feeling a lot better, it was very hot, and we have several days in Budapest ahead of us, so we went back to the ship. At 11:30 am we cast off to start the last leg of our cruise. We cruised down the Danube, and on the last lock of the trip we went down 60 feet! As we were approaching the lock you could see that dikes on either side kept the water level above that of the surrounding country. The lock not only improved navigation, but I think they used some of the water to generate hydropower.
We pulled into Budapest around 10:30 in the evening and the buildings were all lit up and quite spectacular. I’m sure you could enjoy it strolling along the banks of the river, but seeing it on a cruise made it that much better. Cheryl did not stay up. I don’t know if she caught what I have, or found her own unique bug, but she skipped the dining room and went to bed early. And after seeing the light show, I too went to bed.
Saturday, July 2
Our last full day on the ship. After breakfast, we went on a tour of Budapest. This was mostly to point out the highlights. Since we booked the Budapest extension we will be here for several more days and can go back to the things we want to explore more deeply. We did most of it on a coach, but we stopped in Heroes Square, which commemorates over 1000 years of military heroes and rulers. Hungary was settled by nomadic tribes from central Asia, but in 896 King St. Stephen made the country Christian and decided to orient it to the West and become Roman Catholic. And he dedicated the country to the Virgin Mary, who is normally pictured wearing a crown as the Queen of the country. Originally there were two cities here: Buda, on the south side of the Danube, and Pest, on the north side. The Danube was the border of the Roman Empire, but they sometimes put fortifications on the north side, and we saw some evidence in a church that was built on top of an old Roman fortification.
Three of the countries we visited (Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) have in common the Nazis and the Communists, and it is still fresh in their memories. The Nazis were finished in 1945, but for these countries it was just exchanging one devil for another, and they speak of the Soviets first liberating them, then invading them. Given the history of Hungary in this respect, it is very sad that Viktor Orban is turning his country into a fascist state.
Hungary was a part of the Austrian Empire, then in the late 19th century they worked out a federal state deal with Austria that gave them some measure of autonomy. But the Austrian Empire dissolved at the end of WWI, and in the Versailles process of setting up independent states a lot of territory that Hungary considered “theirs” historically was given to other countries. You have to be careful in interpreting this, because every inch of ground in this part of the world has belonged to about 6 different countries, so when they say it is “historically theirs” that really depends on which time period you think matters. But this matters because when WWII started, Hungary decided to ally with Germany because Hitler promised to restore those lands to them. But in 1944, seeing how the war was going, Hungary tried to back out of the alliance, and the Germans invaded and staged a coup to put in a Nazi government. In order to speed things up on the Final Solution, they marched the Jews to the bank of the Danube, and told them to take their shoes off. Then they shot them and let the bodies fall into the river. But they kept the shoes, which were valuable. There is now a display of shoes on the river bank as a reminder. Austria being very Catholic, the city center was reserved for Catholic churches. But outer sections were set up for Jews, Lutherans, and Calvinists, each of which had their own places of worship.
Stalin died in 1953, and some people thought there would be more of a thaw after that. Hungary elected a reformist Communist government, and this led to liberalization until the Warsaw Pact troops invaded in 1956. The statue of Stalin was torn down before this invasion, but afterwards a statue of Lenin was put up. You could repudiate Stalin, but not Communism. Hungary did not throw off communism until 1989 when all Eastern/Central Europe did so.
After our tour we returned to the ship to relax and to have lunch.
After lunch we went to see the Hungarian Horsemen show. Historically, the Magyars were originally another Central Asian nomad society who shot arrows from horseback. And this family, the Lazar Brothers, resurrected a lot of it, including driving teams in 2-in-hand and 4-in-hand, as well as individual riders on horses. They ride without saddles, and watching them jump easily onto the back of the horse is quite amazing. They train their horses to lie down on command. The idea is that if an enemy was approaching and you wanted to be unseen, a horse lying flat on its side in tall grass is invisible. They did an exhibition of a rider standing on two horses, with another three horses in front, galloping and obeying the rider’s commands.Then we went into the museum and saw a couple of short films and viewed many of the trophies they have won in worldwide competition. Then it was a carriage ride, a visit with some farm animals, and we returned to the ship. It being our last night on board, we prepared three envelopes for tips. We prepaid the standard gratuities that go into the pool, but we got extra service from three people and wanted to do a little more. After that we were tired and went to bed.