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A Grand Journey Down the Danube

September 01, 2011

By Kevin Check '96, MPA'03

What makes a great trip? Glorious weather, delicious food, first class accommodations, spectacular sights, wonderful travel companions, amazing travel directors and tour guides? How about a trip with every one of them? That was my experience on the 15-day Grand Danube Passage excursion.

After a long journey from the States, my fellow Badger travelers and I kicked off our time together with a wonderful seaside welcome reception and dinner in Thessaloniki, Greece. We also met our other travelling companions in the forms of Boilermakers, Spartans, Wolverines, Tarheels, Hokies, Trojans, Fighting Irish, and many others. Our spectacular travel directors – Beata, Joannie, and Judy – provided a warm welcome and set the stage for our journey.

After our three days in warm (hot, actually) and sunny Greece, where we visited many historical churches and many archaeological sites, including the tomb of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, our journey took us to Bulgaria.

A good guide can certainly make or break a tour, and Miglena was outstanding. Her knowledge of the cultural and political history of her country definitely educated this traveler. Our final night in Bulgaria included dinner at a restaurant known as “The Place,” where we were entertained by traditional Bulgarian singers and dancers, including some who danced on a hot bed of coals. One more thing, if you’ve never had a shopska salad, you are missing a treat.

The trip already sounds pretty good … right? Well, it would only get better as we began our 9-day cruise up the Danube River aboard the MS Amadeus Elegant. To explore the Danube from a river boat is a unique experience I am sure to never forget. As you travel through the Iron Gates Gorge while the early morning fog hovers over the river, it is easy to imagine yourself as one of the traders and merchants who sailed on this great waterway hundreds of years ago.

As our journey took us into Hungary, it soon became evident that paprika is the seasoning of choice in the region. They even have a museum dedicated to the zesty spice. (Hey! Wisconsin has a museum dedicated to mustard. So, why can’t Hungary have one dedicated to paprika?)

Budapest, Hungary … what a marvelous city! Did you know that the Danube actually divides the cities of Buda and Pest? Magnificent architecture, spectacular bridges, and the lively Central Market Hall are only a few things that made this a most memorable stop along the Danube. Magical Budapest by night is a sight that you will never forget once you’ve seen it. To say that it is breathtaking barely does it justice.

Bratislava, Slovakia, a beautiful city of approximately 400,000 people, is seated on the banks of the Danube. Be sure to snap a few pictures of the lovely town square, and don’t forget to take a photo with the statue of Schöner Náci. They are certainly proud of their hockey in Slovakia, too.

Continuing our journey up the Danube into Austria, we saw the very different and beautiful aspects of the country. Vienna is a vibrant and bustling metropolis full of culture, spectacular architecture and a bustling social scene. Of course, the wiener schnitzel is delicious, too. Known for its winemaking heritage, the Wachau Valley has vineyards literally everywhere on the landscape. The scenery is throughout the entire valley is beautiful, but the picturesque little village of Dürnstein is a must-see.

Our final stop along the Danube was Passau, Germany. It is here that the Inn, Ilz, and Danube Rivers come together with their distinctly different shades of blues, greens and browns. Be sure to climb to the fortress overlooking the city for a great photo opportunity.

It is always with a hint of emotion that a great experience ends or we say goodbye to friends. Although my excursion along the Danube may have ended, I am proud to now call many of my travelling companions my friends. In fact, you just might run into one of them no matter where your next adventure takes you. From Wisconsin to Poland and Missouri to Ireland, and many places in between, the Badger Spirit is alive and well. If you do see one of my friends, be sure to let them know that you are a Badger and greet them with a hearty “hello” and an “On Wisconsin.” They should be easy to spot…they will be the ones proudly sporting the embroidered Bucky Badger on their shirt.

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