Arrival in Munich is a stress less affair, replicated across the planet. Get off the plane, line up for immigration, empathise with the person the immigration officers take a dislike to, collect your bag and off you go. Munich Airport is a 30 to 40 minute drive from the city centre. Locals go on about the traffic but it really isn't too bad, certainly not Auckland bad but it's not Dunedin either. Our hotel, the Sofitel Bayerpost is located right beside the Hauptbahnhof which surprisingly provides a great range of decent eateries. The hotel itself is kind of chic contemporary German where style supplants practicalities, it shouldn't take 10 minutes how to figure out a light switch! On the plus side it looks very good and the breakfast is one of the best I have ever come across, a selection of Herrings, breads, fruits, Mediterranean styles etc ...
After a brief orientation of the hotel we met in the bar and decided on the Augustiner Biergarten. Actually the intention was the Augustiner Keller but the map on my phone took us to the Biergarten, one of those fortunate cock ups. The Biergarten featured a wooded area liberally populated with seats and tables. The inhabitants appeared to be predominantly locals many of whom were decked out in lederhosen and the female equivalent. This was a great start to our German visit. It took a bit to find out how to get a beer and food but basically it was self service, go and grab a beer, an impossibly large pretzel or some form of pork and get stuck in. The atmosphere was really friendly and inviting, overly so in some cases, which would be true of the rest of our time in Munich. The beer comes by the litre and is very reasonably priced, in fact significantly cheaper than New Zealand bars. As the afternoon turned to early evening and the dappled green effect created by the sun filtering through the trees darkened, we headed back to the hotel, well satisfied with this afternoons excursion.
We arrived a day ahead of the scheduled start to our Avalon tour so happily had a free day to orientate ourselves. The hotel provided a map with a couple of walking trails which fitted in with my interests so me and my room mate headed off towards the old part of Munich and the Marienplatz. The route along Kaufingerstrabe is lined with beautiful structures enhanced by the colours of spring with tulips in full bloom. Most of this area is pedestrian only making for a very relaxed exploration of the area. It takes a while to get used to traffic coming at you from the other way when you cross the road. My advice, look both ways all the time. I had last visited the Marienplatz and the extraordinarily picturesque Neue Rathaus in nineteen eighty seven slightly under the weather from spending far too long at that other Munich institution, the Oktoberfest.
As I experienced more of this beautiful, fascinating city I was extremely grateful for another opportunity to visit. There is a lot more to it than consuming beer in ridiculous quantities. From Marienplatz we made our way past a plethora of predominantly new Baroque architecture and 21st century scaffolding to the very tranquil Hof Garden created in the 17th century by the Bavarian king Maximilian 1. From here it was a short walk to the Englischer Garten, an absolutely massive space. We would learn the following day that 40% of modern Munich is occupied by parks and gardens. Along with height restrictions on building this facet makes Munich extremely liveable from my perspective. Before entering the garden we came across the fairly odd sight of youngsters surfing on one of the tributaries where the force of the water cascading through a calvert creates a wave where boarders can perform a variety of moves. The park itself wouldn't top the list of things to do on a short Munich visit but should definitely occupy some time for an extended visit. It was a public holiday so it was great to experience the locals spending their leisure time in this area. Our next stop of note was the Alter Botanische Garden and the Park Cafe for lunch. We went for a couple of Tarte Flambees washed down by the obligatory beers, in this case of the Hofbräu variety. All the beer halls have a Radler (shandy), Dunkel (dark) and your normal lager. Some also have a Weiss (wheat) bier which is a bit of an acquired taste. Was a bit surprised at the lack of variety, there are none of the craft type beer alternatives we find in New Zealand. The waiter here was great, basically told us what beers we should be trying and was fairly blunt on his assessments of the beers on offer. The beers were ok but still prefer my Emerson's. Revived we continued our journey coming across the Glypotek housing Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. This is a pet hobby of mine so was keen to visit but alas it was closed due to the holiday.
Back at the hotel we met up with the rest of the group and headed to our intended destination of the previous day, the Augustiner Keller. Of all the beers I have tried the Augustiner varieties were my favourite. The interior is exactly as you would imagine a Munich beer hall to be, vaulted ceiling, slightly worse for wear, wall art depicting various beer iconography, bushy sideburns, bulky fräuleins with an enormous capacity to carry beer. The service here was once again outstanding, our waiter communicating on the level you want to be communicated with, friendly, funny and very down to earth.
The first day of our tour proper involved a tour around Munich and for me an optional excursion to Dachau Concentration Camp. Three coaches awaited the group, I thought gosh we are going to overrun a few places. As it turned out we didn't as arrivals and departures were expertly managed so each group didn't cross paths. The first part took in the Oktoberfest grounds and various other city sights many of which we had covered the day previously. However it was great to get out of town and be provided with commentary to add to the sketchy knowledge we had acquired the day previously. Our first major stop was the icy cold Nymphenberg Palace. The place is huge as are the grounds but the sub Arctic temperatures necessitated a fleeting visit. We ventured by coach taking in more of the cities sights before arriving at the National Opera House. I have to say that the outskirts of Munich are very, very nice reinforcing the impression that if I ever ended up in Germany you could do much worse than living here.
We took a walking tour of the central city culminating in viewing the glockenspiel on the Rathaus. Don't get too excited about this, Star Wars it is not. The real highlight for me was the detail our guide added to some of the things we had already seen and some we hadn't. We were free for lunch so went with a couple of the group to a restaurant where Weiss Bier was served. I had the potato soup which was extremely nice then I made a culinary faux pas ordering a slice of Leberkas. If you happen to have seen the pie scene from Titus Andronicus you will get the idea of what appeared on the plate, a slice of pink, heavily processed meat. It wasn't too bad but I couldn't get over the appearance. A German couple sitting next to us highlighted my mistake suggesting bread and mustard were required to make it palatable.
Our coach awaited in the picturesque Max Joseph Platz to transport those who wished to Dachau Concentration Camp. I had visited before but was keen to go with a guide for more of an insight. On our way the guide outlined Hitler's rise to power drawing eerie parallels with some of the stuff going on in our world today in my mind. Visiting a Camp is a requirement for all German school kids, I can think of a few other people who might also benefit! The guide added the detail I needed with several personal stories of some of the camps inhabitants beyond the general historical narrative. No visit here could be described as fun but for me it did fulfill a need to know more.
We had spent some time earlier in the day at the iconic Hofbräuhaus. I really wanted to have a feed here, Oompah band and all. Happily the rest of the group did too. Back to the hotel for a rest then we made our way once again into the pedestrian area and back to the Hofbräuhaus. Getting a seat for 11 wasn't easy but achievable so it was with some glee that I was finally experiencing a night out in this iconic spot. The band was playing, the beer was flowing, a pigs knuckle (knoedel) was delivered ... my visit to Munich was complete! The walk back to the hotel really put Munich into perspective for me. Locals were enjoying the pedestrian area, buskers were performing at an amazing quality, one chap was playing a grand piano. The ambience was just fantastic, love this place.
The image of Neuschwanstein Castle was pivotal in setting me on a lifelong course in travel. That image of a castle standing over a Bavarian plain filled me with a sense of wonder and excitement and a determination to visit places like this from a very young age. So it wasn't too much of a chore to be offered the chance to visit again. The weather forecast didn't bode well for this day but while the day was overcast the torrential rain didn't occur until later in the day after our visit. Visiting Neuschwanstein involves a relatively easy half hour walk to the castle entrance. Entry is strictly controlled. It was one of those instances where it is great being part of a tour group. All was in place on arrival making the process for our group very easy in stark contrast to waiting in a not insignificant queue to acquire a ticket. It was a blow to my younger self to discover that the castle itself wasn't a middle age construction but rather a culmination of the dreams of the ill fated King Ludwig in the 19th century. However while gazing down from the bridge, Marienbrucke, overlooking the castle I reflected back on those early discoveries and images in books from school and public libraries that kindled my earliest desire to travel the planet. Thanks Ludwig!
The journey back included a visit to Oberammergau, famous for the Passion Play that occurs every 10 years. Slightly ambivalent about how I feel about this place. It's all very beautiful with fantastically decorated houses. Unfortunately I couldn't really get excited about it. On return to Munich I indulged in a bit of functional shopping which reinforced my view that there really isn't anything we can't get back home at comparable prices. Of course I course have splashed a couple of hundred Euros on some lederhosen but felt that would not have been a wise investment.
Relaxing start to this day that would ultimately result in boarding the Avalon Passion. I declined the option to travel to Passau via Salzburg opting to go straight to Passau. I have visited Salzburg a couple of times in the past so felt a fourth visit was slightly overdoing it. Really enjoyed reflecting on the past couple of days over a leisurely breakfast. Munich really is a wonderful city and would strongly recommend making time to visit. The journey to Passau was relatively unremarkable with lunch taken in a service station. As a group we were ready to get going on the boat.
My initial intention on entering my Panorama Suite was gosh that's quite small! However I needed to bear in mind that people normally travel as couples on the ships removing the need for twin beds to eat up precious space. The suitcase needed to go under the bed so I unpacked and once completed the room seemed bigger. The reality is there is plenty of space once you are organised and a bit of discipline imposed. There are no balconies on Avalon ships but with a complete floor to ceiling sliding door there really is no need and I very much prefer this style. Of course an immediate exploration of the ship was required visiting the main lounge, dining room, obligatory gym, the coffee lounge and the all important sky deck. Unlike ocean cruises the focus of the experience is outward along the river and in the cities you visit rather than inward towards shows, restaurants and a variety of entertainment.
Unfortunately the weather wasn't playing ball. The first order of business was a meeting in the main lounge for champagne and canapés while Andre, our Polish/Austrian cruise director with an uncanny vocal resemblance to Rene of 'Allo Allo' fame, outlined how things roll on board. This was followed by dinner which was ok but I certainly wouldn't go overboard. Wine is provided with dinner. I prefer reds but the French one offered this evening was average. When the wine waiter asked I told her and was immediately presented with a Spanish Syrah which was much, much better.
Breakfasts on board are again buffets, again ok. Cruises are often sold on the amount of food provided. The fact for me is that by day two I became very selective. My advice would be to go for quality over quantity. First order of business was a walking tour with the hilarious Sonia ... "it is 09:02, ve are German so ve vill go". Passau is a pleasant enough town at the confluence of 3 rivers, the Inn, the Danube and the Ilz. The highlight for me was her explanation of the Baroque interior of the town's main church. I was never in to my mind the outrageously ornate Baroque style but Sonia's explanation added some context to the display around us attempting to recreate heaven on earth. Still wouldn't decorate my own house this way but now at least understand the aim.
Finally underway there was great excitement as we approached our first lock. These truly are amazing things but it is true that once you have done one you have pretty much done them all. I know there are exceptions but on this stretch of water they are are impressively large.
We docked very close to the centre of Linz and indulged in an after dinner walk into the city centre. I really liked what I saw but had opted for the optional excursion to Cesky Krumlov the following day instead of visiting Linz.
I had been waking up around 5 every morning and today was no exception. Rather than getting my book out I opened the curtain and was delighted to see the sun shining brightly on a mist shrouded river. It was a good few hours until the Cesky excursion so I headed out and took some photos of the ship emerging from the mist and headed into town as the rising sun illuminated the city's church spires. What I intended as a brief excursion ended up as a real exploration of the central city which I had pretty to much to myself, the only exception a young returning home worse for wear after his own all night explorations!
A one hour drive entering the Czech Republic took us to the highly vaunted Cesky Krumlov. My initial impressions were guarded, looked kind of ok. We met with a local guide Sharka and headed into town. While the history of the town was mildly interesting it was Sharka's description of her upbringing under communist rule that was compelling. The very idea that you could have no idea of what life was like or that life even existed beyond a barbed wire wall is fascinating. As she pointed out she had no problems with her upbringing, she was loved and happy but grateful now for the opportunities her children now have. As we descended into town and towards the river, the sun came out and Cesky's magic was there for all to see. Every turn revealed a vista worthy of a photo, it really is a sight to behold and highly recommended. Post tour we had plenty of time for lunch and additional exploration. Three of us decided an exploration of the Eggenberg Monastery with it's own brewery and a very passable goulash would be a good way to spend the rest of our time here. Important to point out that while several tours are provided there is always time to spare for individual exploration, shopping and eating.
This had been a great, great day thus far and was utterly topped off by a short but beautiful cruise ending in the small village of Grien complete with castle, Rathaus and bar overlooking the river. I truly enjoyed this day and opened my eyes to the possibility of enacting my own agenda on a river cruise, something I never thought possible.
Getting up early was now a habit so I enjoyed a bit of solitude on the Sky Deck as we entered a lock at the beginning of the Wachau Valley, possibly the centrepiece of the cruise. I thought my boys would enjoy watching the machinations of the lock so face timed them, they weren't. However it does highlight the fact that there is wifi on board and if you want it the quality is very good.
The monastery of Melk was first order of business. Our guide once again was witty and extremely knowledgeable but it was a bit ho hum, European Palace 101, all very nice and glamorous, lots of famous people and then you get to the church. This is a jaw dropper, just get through the first bit because what unfolds before you at the end is utterly astounding.
Back on the ship we cruised down the Wachau Valley, an array of castles, functioning but mostly ruined, monasteries all ceased functioning and lively picturesque villages prospering on the local propensity to produce wine mostly consumed by the local market. The highlight of the day was touted as arrival in Durnstein. Indeed it was a stunning vista that presented itself on arrival but for me the meandering journey through the Wachau Valley with Andre, the cruise director's, enlightening and often witty commentary is the essence of river cruising. Further the opportunity to dock right outside Durnstein, like Passau, Linz and Grien before it, allowing a leisurely exploration of the small city from its heart is just a tremendous way to travel. There was a hill to climb to the ruined castle where Richard the Lion Heart was once encarcerated returning from a crusade. The castle is most definitely ruined but the views over the Danube, Durnstein and the vineyards is well worth a little sweat.
Overnight we made our way to Vienna where the obligatory walking tour awaited us. I find Vienna quite heavy, lots of weight everywhere in the buildings, the history, even in the music. Fortunately another side awaited us in the evening after an afternoon excursion to the Schonbrunn Palace. I was hesitant to invest in a night out with the Vienna Supreme Orchestra. However it was being hosted in the Albertina Palace so at least there would be something to look at. As it turned out the concert was good fun and it dawned on me that the Viennese don't see their music as heavy in the way I did.
After last night I think I was starting to get Vienna. The locals place a huge amount of importance on the arts, it is part of their soul. For example there is a screen erected outside of the National Opera House for those who can't afford to attend the nightly performances. These performances change daily. This morning after a seamless disembarkation to go with the functioning of the entire cruise we visited the Spanish Riding School. For me this was like walking into an episode of Sharpe during his battle with Napoleonic forces in the early 19th century. The school has been an institution since the mid 16th century and judging by the absolute intent that the school kids attending view the horses being put through their paces it will continue to be an institution long into the future. We only viewed a practice session but it was absolutely packed out. If you intend to visit this in the summer season, get here very early.
We followed this up with a slice of Vienna's most famous cake, the Sacher Tort, in the place of its creation the Hotel Sacher. Again a set of Sharpe or maybe War and Peace this time played in my mind. Chandeliers, velvet lined walls, plush cushions topped off with waitresses and waiters attired a la Downton Abbey. There was a queue to visit but I can assure you it is worth it! With this experience, the horses and the concert I felt far more in tune with Vienna.
Our cruise concluded here in Vienna. Would I do another one? I would with the knowledge I now have ensuring the villages, cities and excursions all conformed with my interests secure in the understanding that if I wanted to I could add my own little excursions. Life on board is very relaxed, you do as much or as little as you wish all in a seamless manner.