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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 4: Vienna

Buses will take us into Vienna. This tour is included in the cruise, which means that most people will be doing it. While we wait, there is talk about the food on board; not everything is to everyone's satisfaction. Maybe these are hardened cruise-cognoscenti. We are surprised: to us, everything seems pretty good. The meals are ample, with plenty of healthy options. Just for the record: there is coffee and pastries for early risers, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and sandwiches, dinner and late night collations. But as I noticed yesterday, the normalising of this on-board total community makes us pay attention to the immediate and give it precedence over everything else. That includes the rhythm of meal times. I've often heard it said that food becomes an obsession when there is too little of it. The same is true when there is too much: it punctuates the day in a way that dominates life, perhaps because on a cruise boat, between excursions, there is not a lot to do but think about the next meal. Daily life is as ritualised as a Benedictine monastery. And even the excursions have something of a ritualised quality about them. Duty must be done: the key sites glimpsed (I don't say visited), the key photos taken as evidence that obligation was fulfilled; but there must not be too much of it. Tour companies understand exactly how much heritage, art and history the English tourist will put up with, and never exceed it by a hairbreadth.

We have worked out a tactic for excursions. Most of our fellow cruisers are ready ahead of time and hasten to get on the buses. But we have discovered that if we wait for the last bus of 3 or 4, it is inevitably less than half full.  This makes for a more pleasant journey and a more relaxed sightseeing group, easier to control in a crowded city centre. 

But 'doing' a city like Vienna in under 3 hours is a challenge. How does a leader try to do something intelligent in that absurdly brief time? I can't help thinking that visitors ought to be stretched a little more on trips like this, at least enough for us to feel we've earned the next meal. Most of all, it's a discourtesy to the great city herself. I wonder what value we place on heritage if this is the best effort we can achieve. True, our guide, whose day-job is to create theatre sets and who evidently loves this city, tells us a lot about Vienna's sublime architecture, stops frequently to point out who designed or lived in this building or that, then laughs apologetically and says that of course this wasn't part of the tour. Apart from his dismissive take on religion, he is trying to convey something of the rich complexity of this city, perhaps even hinting at the shadow that lies somewhere near its heart. But it can't be done in the time. And it is lost on most of us who inhabit simpler worlds untroubled by Freud and psychoanalysis, the paradoxes of baroque, the decay of the imperial dream and the Viennese' beautiful death-wish. 

We are shown the site of the house where Mozart lived at the end of his life. A Masonic hall is almost opposite (our guide doesn't mention The Magic Flute but its Masonic theme surely owes something to the dying composer's near neighbour). At the Cathedral, we are given 10 minutes inside, and that too is a concession, 'not part of the tour'. We walk through the Hofburg, have a minute or two on the Habsburgs, mention the Spanish Riding School and nod in the direction of Empress Maria Theresa.  The highlight of the morning may prove to have been Kaffee und Kuchen at the Café Central. Enjoyable, but it is not as if anyone is hungry for Viennese chocolate cake or Apfelstrudel. 

After a brief morning's excitements in Vienna, life on board settles back into its gentle routine. There is an ice-cream tea to look forward to, and Norman our Geordie entertainer is organising sports-lite on deck. There are two locks to navigate, and a thundery shower causes a frisson of excited comment. The top deck where positions had been taken up in the sunshine empties. I have it all to myself and try and capture the gorgeous skyscapes on my camera. 

Cue excursus on cruising and photography. The light is marvellous, as every water-borne painter and photographer knows. 'Luminous' is a cliché but there isn't a better word. Sky and water make an unbeatable combination, and I am keen to do it justice. The great thing is that the gentle movement of the boat allows compositions to take shape on front of your very eyes (I mean the viewfinder). You observe some feature in the landscape - an onion-shaped church tower against a forested background, a hill-top castle, the uncompromising starkness of a lock - and allow different compositions to settle in the viewfinder as the perspective slowly changes. You can take a dozen images from the same spot, see which has worked best and delete the rest.

I am especially aware of this today as we glide past the Benedictine monastery of Klosterneuberg. It is one of famous baroque abbeys of Austria, like Melk which we shall visit later. Alongside is the even more famous palace. The twin spires of the Abbey and the palace's green copper domes can be seen up and downstream for many miles. But unfortunately (for photographers on cruise ships), the course of the river was changed when it was dredged to allow big-ship navigation in the industrial era, and this means that when the monastery is at its nearest it can only just be glimpsed through a screen of trees. You have to pick your moment if you want a shot of the twin spires. So I gauge likely gaps in the canopy, and manage to get some images. They are not masterpieces, but maybe one will show well enough when uploaded to the computer. 

Dinner will be soon. This is the cue for a good moment on the top deck. It quickly empties again as our travelling companions disappear below deck to prepare for this high point of the day. I am left, as I imagine, quite alone. But then I see that there is an elderly woman leaning over the starboard side gazing into the distance. The air is warm and calm, and the only sounds are the lapping of the river against the bows, and the bird song that breaks out from time to time. I do not think I had noticed her before today. I am touched by her stillness and her contemplative way of looking. I am moved to photograph her without her knowing, and then feel that some social contact is called for as a sort of surrogate permission. 

She is travelling alone, she says, because she prefers solitude. She is enjoying the new experiences, the sights and sounds of the cruise but thinks it is too easy to chatter about nothing at all, collapse into mental and spiritual indolence encouraged by too much to eat and a surfeit of needless wallpaper music. I warm to this woman's independent spirit, her inner freedom not to fall too easily into the role of 'tourist'. She helps me to see why I hate myself when I don the required accoutrement (big camera round my neck etc) and play this tourism game. When I led a pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine in 2000, I was the only member of a large group not to take (or even possess) a camera. I kept a journal instead. That gave me the independence I looked for. But on this cruise, my behaviour is more conventional. I am simply another tourist, like everyone else, even if I want to be a pilgrim. This moment draws me back into one of what I believe is one of the reasons why travelling is not only enjoyable but nourishing: we glimpse new horizons, have our imagination stretched, gain new insights, and understand others and ourselves better. Ought it not to symbolise our lifelong journey into God, like the disciples walking the Emmaus Road on he first Easter Day? I have craved beautiful churches to spend time in, like a thirsty soul craves water, but this radiant evening shows me how any aspect of this Danube journey can be the same 'time of gifts'.

As we dine, great cumulus clouds tower above us. Their coppery edges presage another storm. When it comes, it is dramatic and brings torrential rain. Looking out from the comfort of the ship, we see crew members running on the dark quayside, bent double in the storm, lashing the vessel to its night mooring. We have arrived at Dürnstein. 

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