Category Archives: Uniworld

Leaving the MT; our first stop en route to Vienna, the glorious abbey of Melk

After our gala farewell dinner, we bade farewell to our favorite servers in the dining room, went to the lounge for a while and then headed to our room to pack. Some of the passengers were taking advantage of their last night on the MT enjoying the music and atmosphere. We would undoubtedly see the new  friends we had made on the cruise during the next three days, but we didn’t think it likely we would be in the same place at the same time again.

Chad handed out our next days schedule in the usual information session before dinner. As it turned out, we would all be staying at the Ritz-Carlton for our two nights in Vienna. Budapest was another story. It is a much smaller city and though it has its share of hotels, there was not one which could take all of us. Chad told us he was still working on placing us in Budapest Hotels, but they would all be four star hotels.

Actually most of us were pleased to be staying at the Ritz. It has a central location off the Ringstrasse and we would be able to walk to many places on our own. If we had still been on the Maria Theresa, we would have been quite a distance from the city center, requiring either a bus, taxi or tram ride.  Finally, because we wouldn’t be eating our meals on the MT, we each got 90 EU spending money for our lunch and dinners in Vienna. Breakfast was included in our hotel stay.  The Ramblers were surprised to hear a few people grumbling about the amount, as we thought it was quite fair and actually came home with Euros left over. However, we spent no time at the bar, didn’t order room service and enjoyed eating regional food at local places. We felt that Uniworld had treated us very well, adjusting as best they could to the low water problems.

We were asked to have our packed luggage outside our cabin door by 4 AM, so it would be ready to be loaded onto our busses just as if we were leaving for our flight home. And so it was, after a last excellent  breakfast, we headed down the gangplank  of the MT for the last time. Of course, a number of the staff were there to wave good-by as we left.

Before we leave the Danube behind, the Rambler would like to say her bit about exiting a river boat. If you are at all familiar with boats, you may recall that all gangplanks have some sort of cleat on them to prevent people from slipping on rainy days. These cleats stick up from an otherwise smooth surface. In the case of the Maria Theresa, they were very prominent, and placed every foot or so along the gangplank. Those of you who are prone to tripping or have trouble walking please look carefully before you place your feet when walking up or down, even when it’s not raining. It is possible to take a nasty tumble when leaving the ship, especially when you are walking downhill.

Our first stop today would be the beautiful Abbey of Melk,  nearly 200 miles from Regensburg.

We had arrived at the abbey parking lot. The abbey is still quite a ways off.
We had arrived at the abbey parking lot. The abbey is still quite a ways off.

We left the quay at 8:30 and expected to get to the Abbey around 12:30. On the way we would stop for a break at a rest stop off the Austrian version of the US Interstate. Of course we all got out to check out the rest stop. Some wanted to visit the bathrooms and others looked over the shops. It wasn’t quite as nice as the  one we had stopped at on our way to Salzburg from Linz, but clean and neat, nevertheless.

We got to Melk at 12:30, but would only be able to stay for an hour as we were scheduled to go on a cruise of the Wachau Valley at 1:30. Seeing the abbey in an hour was a tall order as it is huge. It also turned out to be a fairly long walk from the parking lot to the Abbey entrance.

These steps were quite a haul for the Ramblers and many of the other passengers.
These steps were quite a haul for the Ramblers and many of the other passengers.

Some of us were dismayed to find that we would have to climb an extensive series of steps to reach the main path to the Abbey.  After having both her hip joints replaces, the Rambler can now walk quite well on level ground but steps are still a chore. Nevertheless, Melk is a spectacular place, so climb we did.

Last December we had visited Gottweig Abbey, another Benedictine monastery near Krems, only a sixty miles from Melk. It too is an impressive baroque structure, founded a thousand years ago but rebuilt during the late 17th century. However, I found Gottweig to have a museum-like quality as its current congregation is quite small, and there is a sense of loneliness within. Melk, on the other hand, exudes a welcoming warmth, and not just because the sun was shining.almost thereWhile Gottweig has a pink and white exterior, another favorite baroque color, Melk glows in Hapsburg gold and white. Evidently that particular shade of gold was a favorite of the Habsburgs; think of the Schonbrunn Palace…  In fact, Hapsburg gold is a popular colorchoice today in Vienna paint stores.

A little bit of history before we enter the abbey. It was founded in 1089 by Benedictine monks. A century later, the monks established a school there and it soon became renowned for its manuscript collection. some of the monks who worked there excelled in copying manuscripts and it soon was renowned for its collection. The Benedictine life included both work and prayer; some monks were farmers, others copied books.

This photo is from Wikipedia's public domain photos. We could look but not touch.
This photo is from Wikipedia’s public domain photos. We could look but not touch.

The abbey was rebuilt in the early 18th century in the baroque style so popular in Eastern Europe. Its library is renowned for its collection of incunabula. Although the word sounds like some sort of mystic spell, it actually refers to books printed before 1500. When you consider that the printing press was invented in Europe between 1440 and 1450 (the Chinese much earlier) these books date to the beginnings of the printed word in Germany.

One of the many long interior hallways; the walls are lined with portraits of assorted Habsburgs.
One of the many long interior hallways; the walls are lined with portraits of assorted Habsburgs.

Melk has 750 in its collection which is amazing. There are many rooms to the library but only one is open to the public. The others are for research purposes only.

Melk also has a famous and expensive gymnasium or high school which currently has over 900 pupils, both boys and girls. Perhaps that it one thing that give it such an air of vitality.

We would have a quick walk through of the abbey, which included a stroll on the terrace with its magnificent views

To me, this view of the town looked almost like it could be a miniature train setting.
To me, this view of the town looked almost like it could be a miniature train setting.

After being awed by the  the library and admiring the views from the terrace at the top of the abbey, we headed for the church. Now Austrian baroque churches are similar, lots of gilding, curves and gorgeous frescoes but the Melk abbey church actually had something more unusual to offer. Nearing the end of a two week river cruise, we had already seen many churches and frescoes. Quite a few of the passengers took a quick look around and headed toward the gift shop. The Rambler on the other hand, had to get her money’s worth so she walked down the side aisles and stopped, looked, looked again. Yes, that was a skeleton dressed in velvet and pearls reclining in a glass coffin at one of the side altars. Looking further, I saw there was yet another elaborately dressed skeleton in a coffin at another side altar. Looking at them closely I decided they were relics of saints, but there were no identifying signs to tell just who these saints were.

St. Friedrich in his glass coffin in the Melk abbey church.
St. Friedrich in his glass coffin in the Melk abbey church. For a gruesome close-up, check out the link.

We Catholics do have a penchant for relics of saints which dates back nearly to the time of the apostles but they are usually not displayed in skeletal form, or so I had thought. When we got home I found an interesting article on these skeletal saints on the web here, if you are interested.

Incidentally, the saints at Melk are Saints Colomon and Friedrich. These saintly skeletons can be found in churches in Eastern Europe and Switzerland, and are still considered by many to be a devotional aid, although others have been packed away, vandalized or stripped of their precious gems.

After communing with these saints, I was more than happy to spend time in the Melk gift shop staffed by jolly and helpful Austrian women. Since we weren’t going to be able to spend time in Krems or Weissenkirchen, I was able to buy some of the apricot schnapps which this region produces in large quantities. It makes wonderful souvenirs. For the non-drinkers, they also sell delicious apricot jam. The ladies kindly wrapped my purchases very carefully so that they would travel home safely.

On the way out, I noticed this back parking lot, must be the tradesmen's entrance.
On the way out, I noticed this back parking lot, must be the tradesmen’s entrance.

By 1:30, we had boarded our busses and were on our way to Krems, where we would board yet another boat for an afternoon cruise to the Wachau Valley. The Ramblers wouldn’t have minded staying on at Melk as its restaurant looked very inviting and the food smelled delicious.


We Ramblers get our fill of walking on an amazing tour of the BMW Plant…

For the first time since we boarded the Maria Theresa near  Amsterdam, the Ramblers were going directly to our second tour without returning to our ship. We didn’t understand why then but the reason would be revealed to us later that day. Although we missed our lunch, the driver distributed water on board the bus, which was definitely appreciated. Uniworld supplies a pitcher of fresh water to each cabin every morning and we all got metal water bottles with the Uniworld logo to fill and take with on our outings. However, the Ramblers must confess that they never used their water bottles on the cruise, preferring to take along a plastic bottle that could be discarded. They did make nice souvenirs though.

The Regensburg BMW Plant is located on the outskirts of the city and I enjoyed the drive through the streets of the ordinary neighborhoods, a  change from the historic sites we visited. Would have liked to check out their supermarkets but we went directly to the plant which was indeed as large as had been reported.  We disembarked from our bus at the welcome center and found that we would have a tour limited to our Uniworld group with an English speaking guide. BMW offers two kinds of tours, a mixed group or an exclusive guided tour. The Ramblers were glad that we were on an exclusive tour as on the regular tours the guides are German-speakers.  Before we started, we had to place all our belongings in lockers as we could bring only ourselves into the plant. Unfortunately no photos were allowed. This was disappointing for the Rambler who missed a lot of great photo ops,  I have compensated by putting up a few excellent pictures from the BMW website. This is the first post in which I haven’t used any of my own photos.

Ariel view of the BMW plant in Regensberg.
Ariel view of the BMW plant in Regensberg. Since we couldn’t take any pictures all of these are from the BMW website.

Our guide told us that to make getting around easier, sometimes we would take our bus to the next plant.  Even so, we were warned that there was  lots of walking on this tour. More than 25,000 people from all over the world,  take the tour every year.

In the press shop, metal is stamped into auto parts.

Our first stop was the press shop where lots of metal was stamped into auto parts. We learned that the Regensburg plant has been in operation for twenty years. It has a workforce of 9,000 in the plant with approximately 300 apprentices who all wear some form of blue uniform. Jobs in this plant are much prized and there is considerable competition for them. We were there during the beginning of the shift change and the large groups of workers heading for the plant, certainly looked happy to be there.

A view of the paint shop. The painting is done by robots behind a glass window.
A view of the paint shop. The painting is done by robots behind a glass window. The is absolutely no paint smell in the viewing area.

BMW now employs both men and women although this was not always the case, but women are in the minority in certain areas, particularly the press shop.

Here they produce more than 1,100 BMW’s every day.  The models that are built in Regensburg include the BMW 1 Series, BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer, BMW 3 Series Sedan, BMW 4 Series Convertible, BMW M 4 Convertible, BMW X 1, and BMW 24 Roadster.

Another view of robots at work. The human workers duck behind the wire screens before the robots do their thing.
A view of robots at work. The human workers duck into the wire cages before the robots do their thing.

My favorite part of the tour was the final assembly plant where the cars were put together by humans and robots on a series of assembly lines. BMW uses many different kinds of robots which work alongside human workers in what looks like a stylized ballet. It was very impressive.

Robots and humans at work in the plant.
Robots and humans at work in the plant.

Everything was choreographed for efficiency but also for safety as no one would like to be clobbered by one of those robots. By the time the tour was over, we were all ready to go home and order a BMW, so impressive was our experience. The company does an excellent job of selling the superiority of their product during the tour, but for most visitors, the glow wears off eventually. I am still driving my Jeep. LOL

At the end of our tour, we were offered cold drinks which were much appreciated after our long hike. We did get a bathroom break during the tour, for those who wonder about this, as the tour itself took several hours. Tired and hungry, we boarded our bus for the drive to the Maria Theresa at the Regensburg quay.  Much to our dismay, construction in the area forced the our bus to stop a long way from the ship.  When we finally got to the quay, we found that we had to cross over a rafted ship to board the Maria Theresa. The Ramblers and their fellow tour members were not the only ones climbing up and over to get to the Maria Theresa. We shared space with a long procession of the kitchen staff, each carrying boxes of vegetables and other kitchen supplies to the galley. Wish I had taken a picture because it looked like a scene out of a film, , but I was hot and tired  and didn’t think of it until later. Drat!

Back on board, we gravitated to the Leopard Bar for a cool drink, trying to decide if we had the energy to walk back into town to get a bite to eat, as we had missed lunch and dinner wouldn’t be until 7. There were always snacks available, of course, but we were pretty hungry. After a very brief discussion, the Senior Rambler refused to walk anywhere else as some major body parts were aching. I must confess I wasn’t too eager to go anywhere either, since I had done the full tour while he had stayed on the bus for a few of the stops. Wish I had worn a fitbit to see just how far we walked that day.

What we didn’t know was that it wasn’t really that far to the alstadt, The Maria Theresa was now tied up on the opposite bank of the Danube  opposite  where we had been  dropped off early that morning for our historic Regensburg tour. We wouldn’t have had to cross that 1,000 ft. bridge to reach the historic center.  We didn’t learn this until I starting work on this blog entry. I always try to place our location with google maps, and I searched for our quay for long time on the wrong side of the Danube before I realized this.

A photo from Wikipedia commons of Die Konigliehe Villa von der Donau.
A photo from Wikipedia commons of Die Konigliehe Villa von der Donau. The Maria Theresa was tied up right in front of the turreted wall which effectgively blocked our view of the town. We looked directly at the stone blocks of the wall from our cabin window.

As it turned out, the high stone wall of Die Konigliehe Villa, blocked our view of the alstadt

Even if we had known it was close, we were pretty tired of walking, so we just sat there looking very droopy. The MT’s hotel manager for our cruise, Carmen Mladenovic, noticed us and asked if we needed anything. We confessed that we didn’t have the energy to go to town to get something to eat, and we had missed lunch. She frowned and asked us why we hadn’t ordered food from the bar, since it was available all day and into the evening. Before we knew it, she had handed us bar menus and almost ordered us to get something.  Of course, we were pleased to follow her orders and enjoyed our impromptu lunch. We did appreciate Carmen’s kindness and concern very much;  just one of the many reasons we cruise with Uniworld.

Danube River Blues, our river cruise gets cancelled!

Since we had such miserable weather on our Christmas Markets cruise, the Ramblers decided to give the Danube River another try, adding some cruising on the Rhine and Main Rivers and the Rhine-Main canal as well. Because we  enjoyed all aspects of our Uniworld cruise last December except the weather, we decided to book with them again. Now we were members of the River Heritage Club and were entitled to an additional discount and other perks as well as a potential upgrade.

The cruise we selected was the European Jewels, on the brand new S.S. (super ship) Maria Theresa. This time we would be cruising for 15 days instead of 8, but again starting in Budapest, and ending not in Passau but in Amsterdam. Yes, the cruise cost twice as much since it was twice as long, but we thought, as long as we had to fly to our destination, we might as well get our money’s worth.

August seemed like a good time to go, although we didn’t know then that Austrians take their annual  vacation in August. We expected  the weather would be warm and the days still reasonably long.

In late spring, we booked our European Jewels cruise with a starting date of August 9, leaving from Budapest and ending in Amsterdam.

At this point, we never thought that our cruise might be cancelled because of low water levels. We had deliberately avoided spring sailings because of the chance of flooding, and also because the weather tends to be chilly, but August should be just about right, OR so we though.

2015 has been a year of contrary weather worldwide; the climate seems to be changing and sometimes Mother Nature has something unexpected in store. Early in July, we started to hear about low water levels on some European rivers, mainly the Elbe at first. But then the Danube was mentioned. We were about 40 days out when we heard from our travel agent and Uniworld that we had been upgraded to a cabin on the middle deck. This was exciting news.

Hopefully we would eventually get to board the Maria Theresa

This Ramblers had gambled on getting an upgrade, and consequently booked a cabin on the lower deck. These cabins while just as luxurious as the ones on the middle and upper deck, have small windows just above the waterline. The Senior Rambler agreed  to my plan, as we felt that even if we didn’t get an upgrade, it wouldn’t be too bad. How much time would we spend in our cabin after all? Let me just say that after checking out the windows in the “aquarium” cabins as they are sometimes called, the Ramblers were really glad we got the upgrade.

We were thinking about  packing, when, about 10 days before we were due to leave, we heard from Uniworld, through our travel agent, that our cruise had been cancelled due to low water. This was really disappointing to say the least. We got the news on Friday and on Monday I headed over to AAA to see if we could re-book on another date.

Uniworld refunded all of the money we paid for the cruise and airfare. This is another reason why it makes sense to buy your airfare from the cruise company if the cruise is cancelled. It is not easy to deal with airlines on your own.  I had also bought extended comfort Economy seats for the long flight directly from United and this turned out to be quite difficult to get back. At least for this Rambler, I found United the hardest airline to deal with. Lufthansa, the other carrier, refunded the money as a courtesy which was great.

To cut to the chase, we re-booked on the August 24th sailing of the Maria Theresa; this was the only suitable time available for us. As it turned out, due to the hard work of our travel agent, the new booking involved no additional costs to us. The airfare and upgrade was still included. However,booking this particular date  was still a gamble as there was no way of knowing whether the water levels would come up in three weeks. By this time, the low water had affected many river cruise lines on the Danube and they, along with Uniworld and the Ramblers were busily doing the rain dance.