Starting my Danube river cruise — on three rivers

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My Danube river cruise on the Viking Freya began with a bit of a puzzle — finding the Danube River. That’s because the cruise started in Passau, Germany, one of the few places on earth where not two, but three rivers meet: the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. But it didn’t take me long to find the ship, moored just outside town on a river that was indeed the Danube. And after a welcome drink and a light lunch on the Aquavit Terrace, I was ready to cruise.

I arrived early in the day, after a train ride from Salzburg, Austria (you’ll hear more about that in future). And that gave me some time to get acquainted with the ship on which I’d be taking my Danube river cruise — which didn’t take long, since it’s a sister to the Viking Odin, on which I cruised last summer. But while the Viking longships are all built from the same design, each one has its own little touches. And the Freya has one I wasn’t expecting.

While showing me my stateroom, the young Viking steward pointed to a switch on the bathroom wall. “We can’t forget about this,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.” She flicked the switch and the glass wall of the shower stall turned completely transparent, giving a clear view of the rest of the room. A bit revealing? No problem. She flicked the switch once more, and in an instant it was opaque again.

Viking Freya stateroom

The rest of the stateroom was pretty much as I remembered: a big, comfortable bed facing a big, flat-screen TV, a little sitting area, a glass-walled closet and the centrepiece, full-length windows with a sliding door that led out onto the verandah, where two chairs provided a good place to watch the river slide by.

Once I’d seen the ship, there was time to get a quick look at the town we were in. Passau is shaped like a ship itself, built on a long, pointed spit of land between the Danube and the Inn. The third river, the Ilz, joins the others just past the prow of the ship. And wandering the streets on a Saturday afternoon, it seemed like a place that moved as slowly as the rivers themselves.

The next morning, after a much-needed night’s sleep, I got a better look at Passau. The day’s guided tour led through narrow, cobblestoned streets that looked more Mediterranean than German. That’s because the town burned down in a great fire about 300 years ago, and was rebuilt in the baroque style by an Italian architect. Tall houses painted in pastel colours leaned on each other across the street, using graceful-looking arches – the stabilizing technique of the time.

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And like a lot of river towns, Passau needed a lot of support. Our guide stopped in front of the huge, classic-looking rathaus, or town hall, and pointed to a scale drawn on the base of its lofty tower. A series of lines represented the levels reached by the water when the rivers flooded their banks through the centuries, and they were eyebrow-raising. The highest, in 1501, reached well onto the second storey; alarmingly, that was almost matched by the historic floods of 2013.

Passau Germany flood markers

The rivers giveth as well as taketh, however, and money from the trade in salt and other goods that moved up and down these waterways made Passau a very prosperous place back in the day. It was also a very Catholic place, ruled for hundreds of years by a powerful bishop who built some massive monuments to himself and his town. That included a castle on the hill across the river, proclaiming his power and the town’s prosperity.

And fittingly, the streets near Passau’s main cathedral are lined with big, classical buildings that once served the bishopric: a school, an administrative building, the huge, imposing bishop’s residence with its marble balcony adorned by metal vines.

But the centrepiece is the church itself — St. Stephan’s, a truly impressive building with an interior that drips with flamboyant stucco work and classical paintings, commanded by a heavily decorated, spiral pulpit. And looking over it all, the world’s second-largest pipe organ, with 17,774 pipes located in four different places around the church.

pipe organ st stephans passau

The tour over, I strolled the streets of Passau, admiring its pleasant, modern pedestrian mall. But not for long: even though it was the last week of April, the weather had turned nastily cold, biting through the several layers of clothes I was wearing. Luckily, I came prepared for uncertain weather – you just can’t trust April, even in Europe.

Happily, the Freya was now moored right on the downtown waterfront, so it was an easy walk back to the warmth. And as we sailed out of Passau, we looked back to see the three rivers flowing into one, mingling their colours into the dull green that typifies the “blue” Danube (don’t be fooled by the colours in this photo — they’re an illusion).

Passau Germany

And as the town faded from sight, it was replaced by a beautiful landscape, filled with lush forests in delicate shades of green and dotted here and there with picture-perfect farms and chalets. Watching through my cabin windows, I was reminded just what an enchanting place the European countryside  can be.

balcony shot Viking Freyaq

We were now in Austria, and headed for Linz, the second stop on my Viking Danube river cruise. Stay tuned.

I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.

The photos in this post were taken with the Panasonic DMC-G7 and Sony DSC-WX500 cameras.

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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