We considered the Rhone River cruise we'd long been thinking about, but finally decided to take a cruise through Eastern Europe on the Danube River instead. This was the first year the Danube would be open all the way to the Black Sea since the war in Kosovo when NATO bombed several bridges, blocking river traffic. We thought it would be nice to see that part of the world (Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia) before it was overrun by tourists.
And so, we signed up for Grand Circle Travel's 13-day "Eastern Europe to the Black Sea" tour. It was supposed to cruise from the Black Sea to Budapest, Hungary. We added a 4-day pre-trip extension to Vienna, which we hadn't seen since our very first tour, way back in 1961. We expected a very relaxing time, but ran into a number of complications.
The first complication was Hurricane Isabel. It was forecast to pass through our area in Central Virginia Thursday night and then on through the Washington, D.C. area very early on Friday, 19 October, the day we were to fly out of Dulles International Airport. We decided to cancel our plans to stay at an airport motel Thursday night and stayed with our son Randall in Culpeper instead. That way we were only 75 minutes from the airport but wouldn't be stuck at the motel if our flight was canceled. Also, there was the problem of getting anything to eat in the D.C. area because all the restaurants would be closed Thursday evening.
Friday, 19 September. Although the eye of the hurricane passed over Culpeper during the night, by 8:00 a.m. there was only a scattered drizzle and very little wind. The situation was much the same in the D.C. area. By mid-morning we learned that our 4:10 Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt would depart on schedule.
Randall drove us to the airport where we found operations proceeding normally. Apparently only flights between 4:00 p.m. Thursday and 8:00 a.m. Friday had been canceled. Our flight pulled away on schedule. Dinner was served at 6:30. We tried to rest, but the noise and lights made it difficult.
Saturday, 20 September. Breakfast was served at 5:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m. EDT) and we landed in Frankfurt just before 7:00. It took just a minute to pass through the European Union immigration and customs. Our 8:30 Lufthansa flight to Vienna arrived there at 9:45, but we were at the airport until 11:00 as the Grand Circle representative (Valentin) searched/waited for people coming in on other flights.
Even so, when we arrived at the Renaissance Vienna Hotel, it was still too early for the rooms to be ready. So Valentin took the group on an orientation walk in the vicinity of the hotel. Although the hotel was not near the city center, it was in a nice location with plenty of restaurants, a pedestrian shopping street, and even a subway stop right across the street. It's also right on the Wein River (which flows into the Danube), but that's hardly a scenic asset. The river was a mere trickle in a big concrete canal.
When we got back from the walk, the rooms were ready. We rested a bit, unpacked, and had a light lunch. By then it was after 2:30. In spite of our fatigue, we didn't want to waste the warm and sunny afternoon, so we took the subway one stop to the Sch�nbrunn Palace. We had seen it on our previous visit to Vienna in 1961, so it was somewhat familiar to us.
Begun by Josef I as a grandiose palace that would surpass Versailles, it was completed under his daughter, Maria Teresa, on a more modest scale and used by her primarily as a summer palace. We took the "grand tour" that included 40 rooms. We ran into a group of children in period costumes in one of the rooms.
Then we wanted to see the huge garden (the "park" as the Viennese call it). But as we tried to get to it, we accidentally wandered into the Privy Garden, adjacent to the left side of the Palace. We had not seen that on our previous visit. In fact, this garden was only recently restored and first opened to the public this Spring. It is sometimes called the Orangerie because it contains a number of citrus trees.
There was an orientation briefing at 6:30 where we learned for the first time that there were more complications ahead. Low water levels in the Danube would prevent our boat (M/S River Adagio) from sailing from Bucharest to the Black Sea and from sailing completely through Serbia. Alternate arrangements were being made so that we would not miss most of the places we were to visit, but there would be a lot of tiring overland travel instead of relaxed cruising on the boat. Everyone was disappointed, but we knew that Grand Circle was doing everything they could to make the trip work.