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Cruising the Danube


by Ruth Larson Mankin

It was a rainy, gloomy day in February when my travel bug began to itch — time to plan a trip. A quick surf on the Internet took me to the Northwestern Alumni Association travel web site.

Because I had never been to Central Europe and often considered a river cruise, my decision came easily enough. I chose the NAA-sponsored Danube River and Habsburg Empire trip to cities in Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Czech Republic in August 2005.

Our voyage aboard the MS Amadeus Classic started on the not-so-blue Danube at Passau, Germany. Our first stop was Melk, Austria, and the beautiful Melk Abbey, whose grand library holds more than 100,000 books. Back onboard we sailed through the beautiful Wachau Valley, passing castles, quaint villages, forests and vineyards.

The next day a tour of Vienna introduced us to its wonders — the Ringstrasse, the road that encircles the old section of the city; great chocolate; Mozart; the Hofburg Imperial Palace; and the glorious St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its majestic pulpit depicting the saint’s victory over Turkey. Legend has it that the fleeing Turks left behind caches of fine coffee beans — thus beginning the tradition of Viennese coffee, none better than at the Hotel Sacher, especially when it comes with its world-famous Sacher-Torte chocolate cake.

Our trip continued by bus to Poprad, Slovakia, where we rejoined the ship and sailed to Budapest. Onboard, our group of 24 NAA travelers enjoyed a cocktail reception while Waa-Mu alumni Al Bowermaster (WCAS53) and Julie Saul (C77), accompanied by Martha “Marty” Yokel Johnson (Mu53) on the piano, led us in the Northwestern favorites “To the Memories” and “Go U Northwestern.”

At our destination, our local guide told us about the city’s life during the communist regime and the Monument to Freedom, which ironically was built during that era.

The original figure held high a sickle to remind Hungarians that, under communist rule, they had been “freed from the tyranny of the fascists.” After the fall of communism, the Hungarians replaced the sickle with an olive branch. We also visited the Fisherman’s Bastion, part of the Buda Castle Quarter UNESCO World Heritage site overlooking Budapest, and some of us also enjoyed a workday meal of goulash at the ages-old Farmer’s Market.

From there we explored the charming village of Banská Bystrica in north central Slovakia before we boarded the Majestic Imperator Train de Luxe, a replica of Austrian emperor and Hungarian king Franz Josef’s private train. Settling into luxurious accommodations, we enjoyed champagne and strawberries and lively card games as we traveled north to Kraków, Poland.

Our visit to Kraków captured my heart. The Old Town streets were bedecked with garlands, flags and wreaths of flowers to mark a special day. A new archbishop was being installed at the Wawel Cathedral. I sat in a café and watched the ceremony on a giant TV screen. People on the street stood and applauded during this solemn rite. The afternoon held another kind of solemn air — we visited the Jewish district, where many Jews were resettled before their elimination during World War II.

The best for last — Prague. Brilliant blue skies over an Old Town Square crowned the beauty of this city as we watched the famous astronomical clock in the Old Town Hall tower do its magical tricks as it has done since the 1400s. We also toured the old Jewish quarter and a synagogue museum and silently walked past the 12,000 tombstones that stood as sentries in that unforgettable Jewish cemetery. The afternoon was amazing — a walk over the centuries-old Charles Bridge to Hradcany Castle, which sits high above the city. Reminders of wars and conquerors of all stripes were everywhere.

Some say the journey is better than the destination. My eyes were opened to a wealth of history, culture, transgressions and victories. My fellow travelers made this trip a real pleasure. And, as always, Northwestern made every moment interesting, comfortable and memorable.

Ruth Larson Mankin (C54) lives in Lewes, Del., after a career in public policy, public relations, publishing and editing.

For more information on upcoming NAA trips visit or call 1-800-NU-ALUMS.

Ruth Larson Mankin aboard the Majestic Imperator Train de Luxe
Author Ruth Larson Mankin, right, and fellow traveler Suzanne Michalak aboard the Majestic Imperator Train de Luxe.