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November 06, 2018

A treasure trove of memories

A cruise down the Danube River gives Arul John lessons in history, art and architecture

Arul John

It was a trip from my wildest dreams. I was treated like a king and got to stay in a posh stateroom aboard the Crystal Ravel river cruise ship earlier this year as it sailed down the Danube River through three countries.

From Nuremberg in Germany, we travelled to the German town of Passau, the Czech town of Ceský Krumlov, as well as Krems, Melk and Vienna in Austria.

I made the most of the journey by getting off at every port of call to experience a bit of local life and learn more about these European cities, known for their beauty and history. On top of the free-flow wine on board, there was good beer to be found everywhere on land.

I disembarked at the end of the seven-day cruise with a collage of memories. Here are a few of my more unforgettable experiences:

 

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site

As a baby boomer, I grew up listening to stories about World War II, the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.

So when the opportunity to visit the Dachau site in southern Germany came up, I did not hesitate to sign up.

I walked around the complex with a few other tourists and came across the infamous words I had read in history books — Arbeit machtfrei (“work sets you free” in German). Our guide said they were meant to highlight the benefits of work. The irony was not lost on me.

Dachau opened in 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. As the first concentration camp to be built, it was the prototype for other similar sites.

It also had 140 sub-camps that altogether housed over 200,000 people, including Jews, gypsies and Russians from 1933 to 1945. Some of those buildings are now used as training facilities for the German police force.

One of the grimmer moments of the tour was viewing the ovens where dead bodies of the victims were burnt; disconcertingly, they looked scarcely different from today’s commercial ovens.

I learnt that the primary security system consisted of a series of electric fences ringing the camp’s perimeter.

Sometimes, desperate prisoners would kill themselves by deliberately running into a fence and getting electrocuted.

Visiting sites where these terrible events occurred was a profoundly moving and unforgettable experience.

 

Passau by the river

This quaint German market town is known as The City on Three Rivers because it sits at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Iz rivers. It may be small but it packs a punch.

When the Crystal Ravel ship stopped there, I found myself surrounded by grand buildings constructed in the Gothic and Baroque architectural styles.

They typically featured facades of gigantic proportions, large open central spaces, twisting columns and lavishly decorated interiors.

The town was founded in 739 as an episcopal residence for priests and bishops. By the 13th century, it had become an independent principality and in 1805, it became part of the Kingdom of Bavaria, which later joined the German Empire.

Passau can claim some bragging rights.

St Stephen’s Cathedral is home to the world’s largest functional pipe organ; the town square nurtures one of the last remaining wild orange bushes in the world; and there is the world’s first museum devoted to dachshunds.

A small shop space devoted to this breed of dog features items such as fabric with a dachshund print, postcards and other paraphernalia.

 

The Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna

Whenever I am in a foreign land, essentials on my itinerary are bookstores, museums and theatre performances.

In Vienna, I focused on art and culture and the Austrian capital did not disappoint.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) in Vienna is home to some of the finest art collections in the world, many of which were assembled during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918).

Our guide explained that such massive art collections, in particular those that included pieces from outside Austria and Europe, reflected the expanding world view of the empire’s rulers.

Several pieces grabbed my attention. One was a model of a Spanish warship, complete with crew, movable sail and functional cannon that fi red miniature iron pellets, as shown on a video.

Another was a beautiful jug made from a single block of crystal, a rare find in mediaeval times. There were also numerous tapestries showing off their vibrant colours.

The Art Chamber within the museum is home to the Saliera (Salt Cellar), a gold-enamelled sculpture by 16th-century Italian goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. It depicts the earth and sea in human form, and has additional figures representing the winds and the times of day. The compact design makes it the perfect ornament for display on a tabletop.

Other pieces on show include the imperial crown, orb, mantle and sceptre used by the emperors of the Austrian Empire, and later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I came away with a greater appreciation of world history and the many cultures of ancient and mediaeval times.

 

GETTING THERE

■ Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa have direct flights to Munich. From there, it is a three-hour bus ride to Nuremberg. Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines operate flights between Munich and Vienna and other major Austrian cities such as Salzburg and Graz.

 

TRAVELLER’S TIPS

■ Cruises are best enjoyed between July and October, and from February to March, when temperatures are not too high or low, and the rivers are calmer.

■ Visit www.crystalcruises.com/river/ships-ravel for information about Crystal Ravel, and www.gentingcruiselines.com to find out about Genting Cruise packages on the ship.

 

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