Mystery Cruise Day 10 – Final day

The final day started at 2:00 AM when our alarm went off. Damn early for sure. Our flight out was scheduled for 6:00 AM so of course we had to get there 2 hours early, meaning we left the ship at 3:15 in the morning. We flew from Budapest to Paris, from Paris to London and then from London to Washington DC – so a very long day and three different flights.

It has been a wonderful adventure and one that we will think back fondly. Even though it was so damn early in the morning Barbara got up to see us off – and of course a final selfie for the collection. Empress Maria watched over the entire Mystery Cruise.

I have added a few more pictures that didn’t make into the dally blog – just for fun.

Ellen Bettridge, CEO of UniWorld, Janeen, Barbara and David
Rik Sprengers Cruise director for the trip and Janeen
This little group spent a bunch of time together. Hopefully we can all sail again sometime.
David, Candice, Janeen Ed, Sue and Don.

Janeen and I have already signed on for the first Mystery Cruise in 2023 – starts and ends in Amsterdam mid June. Won’t you join us?

For now, this Blog will be in hiatus until new adventures need to be posted.

Mystery Cruise day 9 – Budapest

Our final stop on our Mystery Cruise was Budapest.  This is a city we have visited previously and spent some quality time exploring the sites. 
Budapest is the capital and most populous city of Hungary and the ninth-largest city in the European Union by population within city limits and the second-largest city on the Danube River; the city has an estimated population of 1,752,286 over a land area of about 525 square miles.

The history of Budapest began when an early Celtic settlement transformed into the Romantown of Aquincum, the capital of Lower Pannonia. The Hungarians arrived in the territory in the late 9th century, but the area was pillaged by the Mongols in 1241–42.  Re-established Buda became one of the centers of Renaissance humanist culture by the 15th century. After the reconquest of Buda in 1686, the region entered a new age of prosperity, with Pest-Buda becoming a global city after the unification of Buda, Óbuda and Pest on 17 November 1873, with the name ‘Budapest’ given to the new capital.  Budapest also became the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a great power that dissolved in 1918, following World War I. The city was the focal point of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Battle of Budapest in 1945, as well as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. 

Matthias Church – The current building was constructed in the florid late Gothic style in the second half of the 14th century and was extensively restored in the late 19th century.

The central area of Budapest along the Danube River is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has several notable monuments of classical architecture, including the Hungarian Parliament and the Buda Castle. The city also has around 80 geothermal springs,the largest thermal water cave system, second largest synagogue, and third largest Parliament building in the world. Budapest attracts around 12 million international tourists per year, making it a highly popular destination in Europe

We spent the day exploring and enjoying the City. There are several monuments that speak to the history of the City and some of its troubled past. One that is particularly moving is Installed along the bank of the Danube River and is a monument consists of 60 pairs of 1940s-style shoes, true to life in size and detail, sculpted out of iron. 

This memorial is simple yet chilling, depicting the shoes left behind by the thousands of Jews who were murdered by the Arrow Cross.  This was a moving memorial – sad to think about the various families, father, mother, children who where all shot along here.

There are eight bridges that span the Danube but the most famous is the Chain Bridge. The Chain Bridge is the oldest suspension bridge in Budapest and is the Danube’s most renowned, connecting both sides of the city, Buda and Pest. The bridge’s real name is Széchenyi, in memory of the Count István Széchenyi, who helped build it, but is commonly known as the Chain Bridge.

One of the places we certainly wanted to revisit was the large market. The Great Market Hall was building in 1897 and is the most beautiful and largest of all Budapest market halls. The market hall is not only ‘great’ in size, but is also great in other aspects as the volume of trade taking place on a daily basis is amazing. There is food, and a vast amount of other stuff available to purchase. Janeen was specifically looking for a new purse and fortunately we found just what she wanted early on during our visit.

The Grand Market
I caught Sue and Don on the escalator heading out of the Market!

Back on the Boat there was the final evening and the Captain’s Farewell Reception – where of course I did a selfie with Barbara.

Janeen had to get into the act.

Later in the evening, the ship repositioned for better unloading of everyone and I caught a couple of nice evening shots of Budapest.

Tomorrow morning, the final day of the Mystery Cruise, we were up and out to the bus to the Airport at 3:15 AM – yes in the morning.

Mystery Cruise Day 8 – Bratislava and White Party

Friday – Day 8 of our Mystery Cruise and we were heading to Bratislava – the Capital of Slovakia.

The Danube River – the Castle is on the right with the red roof.

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is set along the Danube River by the border with Austria and Hungary. Bratislava is the largest city in Slovakia.  The population is about 450,000 and is the only national capital that borders two sovereign states.  The city has several universities and many museums, theatres and galleries plus other cultural and educational institutions.  While it doesn’t look very prosperous, it was ranked as the third richest region of the European Union in 2017 behind only Hamburg and Luxembourg City. 

It’s surrounded by vineyards and the Little Carpathian mountains, crisscrossed with forested hiking and cycling trails it attracts about a million tourists a year. The pedestrian-only, 18th-century old town is known for its lively bars and cafes. Perched atop a hill, the reconstructed Bratislava Castle overlooks old town and the Danube.

Out walking tour went past a number of places including the American Embassy – which they didn’t want us to take pictures of which I found interesting – so of course I downloaded a picture.

Along the way, we stopped in at Naštartované retro.  This café was created by three friends who were tired of meeting in various businesses around Bratislava and so the idea was born to create something for friends and guests where everyone will feel at home.

The concept of the place is very 70’s with lots of Czechoslovak artifacts on the walls and the front end of ŠKODA 100 car displayed inside.  All of the items belong exclusively to the 70’s and 80’s period.  Normally the place serves high-quality coffee, as well as specialties from the past, such as codfish, spreads, and Russian eggs. The assortment is always complemented by fresh desserts, and draft beer and kofola are a matter of course. 

and Had to include at least 1 picture of me and Barbara.

 When we entered, there were bottles of local soda as well as the codfish spreads on the tables.  It was truly a step back in time, but unfamiliar to all of us but an interesting insight into the locals.

It seems they have a very different take on bagels. First they are not round, more of a crescent shape and often filled with stuff. We stopped and sampled a few and found them very tasty. The place we stopped has been around a very long time – over 130 years!

Throughout the City there are various art installations.  These artwork installations just sort of pop out at you as your walking along – very neat stuff.  

Perhaps the most famous of the statues (and definitely the most photographed) is Cumil, a sewer worker coming out of a manhole, just sitting there and watching the world go by

These art pieces are a stunning contrast to the Communist-era buildings that still dot the city streets. 

Having a good time and and adult beverage is also important. I found this quite interesting as I was walking around.

On top of one of the tall buildings, this St George the Dragon Slayer would normally be placed. However, the building is getting some work done and St. George gets to rest in the courtyard until it is once again placed on top of the building. Nice to get a close up of this wonderful building topper.

After our walking tour, we boarded the bus for a motor tour through more of the upscale areas of the city – including passing by various Ambasador’s homes (including the US Ambassador).

At the top of the hill, at the Castle, there is quite a view of the area below.

The Bridge includes a restaurant at the top of the tower. One leg has an elevator and the other has a bunch of steps. The Citizens seem to like the restaurant, even though it was built by the Soviets.

All in all a lovely day in this city.  Getting back to the boat, it was group picture time and a “white party” after dinner.

d sI was taking pictures of the photographer – so here’s a picture from what we saw.

Mystery Cruise Day 7 – Vienna

Day 7 of the Mystery Cruise had us docked in Vienna.  This is a city we had been to previously but this time we were going to have some new adventures for sure.  After a fairly brief coach ride, we started walking towards one of the most renown institutions in Vienna – the Spanish Riding School.

The Spanish Riding School is an institution dedicated to the preservation of classical dressage and the training of Lipizzaner horses. The leading horses and riders of the school periodically tour and perform worldwide. This school is one of the “Big Four”, of the most prestigious classical riding academies in the world.

The School is in central Vienna with performances taking place in the Winter Riding School, built between 1729 and 1735. The Winter Riding School is a sunlight-flooded hall, mainly white with some beige and light grey, with a portrait of Emperor Charles VI above the royal box and opposite the entrance (to which the riders always salute before they ride), which measures 180 by 59 feet and is 56 feet in height.

The riding school was first named during the Habsburg Monarchy in 1572 and is the oldest of its kind in the world.  Records show that a wooden riding arena was first commissioned in 1565, but it wasn’t until 1729 that Emperor Charles VI commissioned the architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach to build the white riding hall used today. We toured this facility and had the opportunity to watch a practice session.   

The Spanish Riding School was named for the Spanish horses that formed one of the bases of the Lipizzaner breed, which is used exclusively at the school. Today, all of the breeding of these horses is closely controlled and monitored and only stallions are used at the School (having some mares around would be very distracting for sure).  Selected stallions are taken to the breeding farm each year and are allowed to sow a few wild oats.

The Spanish Riding School has antecedents in military traditions dating as far back as Xenophon in Ancient Greece, and particularly from the military horsemanship of the post-medieval ages when knights attempted to retain their battlefield preeminence by shedding heavy armor and learning to maneuver quickly and with great complexity on a firearms-dominated battlefield.

Traditionally, Lipizzaners at the school have been trained and ridden wholly by men. In October 2008, two women passed the entrance exam and were accepted to train as riders at the school – the first women to do so in 436 years.

At the outset of our visit, we had the opportunity to meet one of the riders and learn about the overall process they go through.  It is clearly a long-term commitment as once you start there really isn’t a final end point until you decide to retire.

The rider may have several different horses they are training – ranging from new additions to the stables to older horses who have been at the School for many years.  Generally, the horses will remain active for 20 plus years and as previously mentioned are all stallions. 

It is a very impressive operation with a VERY long tradition.  Our access to the stables, walking course and the area was really great.  If you’re at all interested in more information about the Spanish Riding Stable, there is a very interesting book called The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts.  This book describes the plight of the riding stables during World War II and is quite interesting.

When we returned to the Ship, we had a special treat as a ‘Mini Mozart’ was there to perform for us. She was all of 11 years old and clearly knew how to play the piano.

After returning to the ship, enjoying a little Mozart and having dinner, we re-boarded our bus and headed out to the Palais Belvedere for a private showing.

I admit, I didn’t take this picture as we were there in the evening – but this is the Belvedere Palace.

The Belvedere palaces were built in the early eighteenth century by the famous Baroque architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt to be used as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736). One of Europe’s most stunning Baroque landmarks, this complex – comprising the Upper and Lower Belvedere and an extensive garden – is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today the Belvedere houses the greatest collection of Austrian art dating from the Middle Ages to the present day, complemented by the work of international artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Max Beckmann.

VINCENT VAN GOGH – The Plain of Auvers

One of the highlights is the world’s largest collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings including the famous golden Art Nouveau icons the Kiss (Lovers) and Judith. 

Das Gehör – Each panel is a different sense
Hearing – Touch – Sight – Taste – Smell

We had the museum to ourselves with a fantastic guide who was ready to spend several hours going over all of the collection.  

Most likely the most recognized painting in the collection is by Gustav Klimt – The Kiss. I have seen this hundreds of times on everything from bags to coffee mugs.

Regrettable, we didn’t have 4 hours but only a couple to explore and learn about this wonderful museum.  

Thus ended our trip to Vienna – a lovely day with many highlights for sure.

Statue of Francis II


Mystery Cruise – Castles and Apricots

Day 6 of our Mystery Cruise and we are sailing along the Danube heading towards Durnstein for a quick visit.  However, along the way, Rik, the Cruise Director, provided some commentary about the views we were seeing along the way.  The Danube has been a major means of travel for centuries and many of the castles were built to safeguard the local area from invading forces as well as to collect a ‘tax’ to pass along the river.  Once a castle had been erected, a heavy rope or chain would be strung across the river preventing boats from getting past.  In order to continue on their journey, the boat would have to pay for the privilege of continuing along the way.  There could be tributes paid every few miles depending on who was occupying the surrounding land.  

Standing at the edge of a cliff just to the north east of Melk, a city dominated by its own gorgeous Benedictine monastery, is a gorgeous 12th century castle (known locally as “Keeper of the Wachau”) sitting just a stone’s throw from the waters of the Danube. 

One very significant castle is Marchwardus de Schoenbuchele.  Standing at the edge of a cliff just to the north east of Melk is a gorgeous 12th century castle (known locally as “Keeper of the Wachau”) sitting just a stone’s throw from the waters of the Danube. It’s origins stem from Marchwardus de Schoenbuchele, who wanted to create a defensive fortress overlooking the river and keep an eye on those who used its waters. As the castle has been renovated and renewed over the years, it stands proudly in full view for you to see as you cruise past on the river.

I didn’t take this picture – just so you understand.

While the Marchwardus de Schoenbuchele is being maintained, others like Aggstein Castle. The ruins of Aggstein castle stand as a monument to the various conflicts both big and small which took places within the stretch of the Danube.  Aggestein Castle changed hands numerous times since it was first constructed at the start of the 12th century, but only certain parts of the castle now remain standing to be seen. In its hay-day, the castle acted as an almost unassailable stronghold with a key strategic position over the region. Legend has it that he used an iron chain stretched across the Danube to commandeer ships who used the river as part of the trade route and repurpose them for his own use.  

The ruins viewed from the River really make you wonder how it was built given its location at the top of a mountain with a cliff on one side.  

As we approached Durnstein, the ruins of Dürnstein Castle can be seen atop the hills overlooking the river. The castle was originally built in the 12th century its most famous for its relevance to the legend of Richard the Lionheart. It is said that when Richard the Lionheart returned from the Third Crusade, he refused to share the spoils of war with Duke Leopold V of Austria, and so was imprisoned by Leopold within the walls of Dürnstein Castle between 1192 and 1193. 

Dürnstein Abbey with its blue tower and the Castle ruins on the hill overlooking the town.

In addition to the castles, there a vineyards planted along the hillside.  The wines along this section of the Danube aren’t the world class wines from other areas but still quite pleasant to drink – a sampling of several wines was held for later in the evening, after our tour of Dürnstein.

Dürnstein is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the Wachau region and also a well-known wine growing area. The town gained its name from the medieval Dürnstein castle, which overlooked it. The castle’s name derived from the German duerr/dürr, meaning “dry”, and Stein, “stone”. The castle was dry because it was on a rocky hill, high above the damp conditions of the Danube at the base of the hill, and it was built of stone. The modern town stands between the castle and the river.

After docking, and having another wonderful lunch, we joined our group and headed out for a walking tour of the town.  It is very clear this is a tourist stop.  Virtually all the shops along the one (yes, one and it doesn’t have a name as it’s the only street in town) street sell trinkets, fridge magnets, local wine and apricot preserves.  Seems there are something like 100,000 apricot trees locally resulting in a huge production of various things using the fruit.  It is interesting that the harvest of the fruit only happens once the fruit has dropped from the tree – no actual picking is done, just picking up the fruit from the soft bed of leaves that are left on the ground.  We walked through the town and went into a large building for a tasting.  Interesting juice but the jam was wonderful (resulting in bring 2 jars back with us!).

Back on board the boat, there as a tasting of local wines and treats in the lounge and after dinner a 70’s party!  Lots of funny costumes for sure.

It was a nice day with lots more to come over the next few days.


Mystery Cruise Day 5 – A visit to Grein and Castle Clam

Day 5 of our Mystery Cruise found us in the small city of Grein.  

The statue of the Sailor was quite controversial – being that the sailor is naked. It was first placed in a local bank, but the customers didn’t like it. Donated to the City, it ended up along the walkway next to the river.

Grein, which is derived from the word “grine” meaning “whining”, “moaning” or “orying”, was first mentioned in records of 1147. The “whining” refers to sailors who had to pass the whirls (rapids) in the river of Grein and were in fear of their lives. For centuries the guides of Grein have led ships and rafts through the dangerous crossings. This defined the identity of the place and ensured its prosperity. In 1215 it was described as a market place and in 1491 Grein was raised to the status of a town by Emperor Friedrich II. By the middle of the 18th century Grein experienced a time of economic prosperity. In the time of summer resorts around 1900 the town experienced a new upturn and became a magnet for guests who longed for relaxation in the charming Danube Region of Grein.

We did a short walking tour through the City, not much really to see, but enjoyable.  

We popped into the local Church for a quick visit and then off to the oldest theatre in all of Austria.

Further there is the oldest theatre in all of Austria located in the city and built by the unknown statue above.

The theatre in Grein is the oldest town theatre of Austria and was installed in the vacant granary of the old town hall in 1791. Since the stage was established, it had a lively theatre tradition. The oldest preserved playbill is from 1793 with “baker master Kasper!” in the leading role. From the beginning professional groups appeared on stage next to the theatre loving inhabitants of Grein (amateurs).

And during the 19th century next to the usual travelling theater also large ensembles from Vienna and Germany performed. In the 1920s the town theatre was threatened by the idea of a cinema.  Since 1992 there exists once and today the renovated theatre is open all year to professional ensembles and amateur groups.

Certainly not a big theatre or stage!

Martin, our tour guide, is a schoolteacher, and recommended the book, Danubia, as a history of the area.

When we got back to the boat, we had the chance to learn how to yodel! It was an fun experience for those who participated – we didn’t.

After dinner, we climbed aboard the busses for a quick trip back in history.  It was our evening with the Count.  As we approached the Castle, it was clear this place had been around for a while.  It seems the earliest written records mentioning the castle date back to 1149. In those days it was a massive fortress with two towers each measuring over 40 meters high. These impressive structures are in fact still part of the castle’s present-day form. 

The Castle on the hill.

With powers shifting rampantly and constant political intrigues, it was common practice in the Middle Ages for the ownership of castles to change frequently.  These transitions naturally inspired new phases of construction. However, when the forefathers of the Counts of Clam finally arrived and took over in 1454, they brought more stability to the castle and the surrounding lands.

During the 30 year-war the Clam family had their own private army to defend the castle. In these times of turmoil and revolts Clam village also suffered a lot and was burned down several times. Clam Castle was besieged many times but no hostile troops ever managed to capture the castle. However, in the mid 17th century when the war was over, the castle was in a very bad condition.

Under the regency of Johann Gottfried of Clam it was possible to renovate the entire castle. He started to transform the functional fortress into a comfortable castle as we see it today. He also built a church, a hospital and water pipes for the citizens of the village.

In the 18th century the wings housing the administration, the coaches and the horse stables were built. Today these wings form the outer yard.  Fortunately Clam castle also survived both world wars unharmed. Only the nuclear shelter, built in one of the castle’s cellars, is a reminder of the 20th century.

Besides the Castle the estate includes several farmhouses, a riding school, a hydropower plant, farmland and forests.

Follow in the footsteps of the ancestors and gain better insight into life in a medieval castle as you learn about the history of the Counts of Clam who have been living here for over 550 years.   The highlight of the tour had to be meeting the current Count of Clam – the 17th generation of the family to hold passion of the place.

Educated in Vienna, he spent time working for a hydro-electric firm based in the US before returning to take his place at the helm of the Castle.  

Since taking over, the Castle has continued to be improved, opened for tours and provides a venue for music concerts on the grounds.  

It was a memorable time for sure and one that would not have happened without the help of Barbara who put all the special events together for this Mystery Cruise.