Author: André Dombrowski, Assistant Professor of Art History
The Habsburg Empire once stretched over immense territories in Central Europe. The Danube was its major waterway, and there is perhaps no better means to see the beauty of the former Habsburg lands than from the slow-moving perspective of a luxury cruise ship. Traveling at a leisurely pace up this majestic river means passing the larger cities like Budapest, Bratislava, and Vienna as well as spectacularly situated sites like the Benedictine abbey of Melk in the pretty Wachau Valley.
I had the pleasure of joining such a trip as faculty host this September, accompanying 22 Penn alumni. Our 14-day trip took us through six Central European countries—Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland—one as beautiful and interesting as the other. We visited eleven UNESCO World Heritage sites, saw some of the best-preserved historic city centers anywhere in the world (Český Krumlov, Prague, and Kraków), visited many of the best art museums in the world (like the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), and toured one of the most beautiful baroque structures ever built (Melk).
After a day of delays due to the Lufthansa strikes, I arrived in Budapest just before the ship took off for Slovakia. I was greeted warmly by our excellent tour hosts Lydian, Danuta, and Jacques (later joined by Will), and soon met my fellow Penn passengers. They came from all walks of life, with distinguished careers in many fields after degrees from Wharton, the Medical School, and the College. Some still live in and around Philadelphia or in Pennsylvania, but others came from further afield, from Savannah or Albuquerque. Everybody bonded quickly.
On my second day on the ship—moving quietly along the Danube—we had a Penn reception followed by a Penn dinner. We toured again together as a group during the bus ride from Passau to Prague and saw that beautiful city together guided by our expert local guides. Many other meals and conversations were shared while we often jumped up from our seats marveling at the lock we were just in, a famous site emerging into view, or a birthday cake being carried into the restaurant accompanied by much singing and clapping.
What stood out for me among this extraordinary range of sites and events? I had lived in Vienna for a semester some fifteen years ago, and it was great to see the city again, and anew, together with other Penn guests. Melk was certainly a highlight—such an utterly stunning site—built to impress and bolster ecclesiastical power and cultural prestige, then and now. Prague and Kraków are both among the most beautiful cities I know. Prague especially charms with its nighttime gaslights and true historic feeling, so seamlessly blending all architectural styles into such a coherent and undisturbed whole. Our last day was the only day of continued rain, fitting weather for a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp outside Kraków where silence befell all of us at the sight of the unthinkable Nazi cruelties committed there.
I loved sharing my knowledge of the area, gave one lecture on Baroque architecture in Austria as an introduction to our visit to Melk and one on Vienna’s Ringstrasse and early Viennese Modernism, a special favorite of mine. We later toured some turn-of-the century art and architecture in Prague, including the Mucha-Museum and the Cubist House (ending with drinks in the 1912 upstairs Grand Café Orient!), which was great fun as well. Until we meet again (perhaps on another Penn Alumni travel trip?), please stay in touch.
*If this post inspired you to take a trip with Penn Alumni Travel, click here to visit our 2013 trip schedule. A 2013 trip along the Danube with Penn host, Stephen Lehmann, is scheduled for late September 2013. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest travel news and tips.