The day our cruise ship reached Vienna was my wife's birthday. As usual, DER Tours had buses on the dock to run us into town, and after a tour of Vienna's splendid Baroque, Neoclassic and Renaissance palaces and monuments we were deposited at St. Stephen's Cathedral, a 15th-Century landmark at the center of a fashionable shopping district.
After paying our respects to the splendors of the church, we wandered out into the shopping streets to look for a birthday present. I thought the happenstance of a birthday in Vienna, one of the world's most romantic cities, should be celebrated.
But I had changed only $50 into schillings, and we window-shopped at dozens of chic boutiques before I saw a pair of oval-shaped earrings, of rose-colored stone, that looked as if they might do.
We went inside the little store and bought the earrings, despite the language barrier. We also bought three buttons for my Ultrasuede coat; they have not been sewed on to this day. The earrings, by the way, were about $40 in schillings, which left us a little less than $10 for lunch.
As we left the shop the proprietress said, "Auf Wiedersehen . " Artlessly, I responded "Auf Wiedersehen . "
"You did that quite well," my wife said, since I am notoriously inept in any language but English.
After our shopping spree the buses took us on a tour of royal Vienna, past enormous piles of Baroque extravagances erected by the Hapsburgs, the famous Belvedere of Prince Eugene, and the very house, we were assured, in which Johann Strauss wrote "The Blue Danube." It is now next door to a McDonald's.
It seems odd that the city's other highest landmark, along with the spire of St. Stephen's, is "Das Wiener Riesenrad," a giant Ferris wheel that was built in 1897, was destroyed by bombs and fire in World War II, and was rebuilt after the war, along with most of the rest of Vienna.
It is said that "Nobody could properly claim to have been to Vienna unless he had ridden on the Wheel," so we did. This enormous plaything is 197 feet in diameter and 209 feet high. Our fellow passengers in the gondola were four Viennese teen-agers who were sharing a couple of creamy schlagobers and seemed much more interested in one another than in the vista from the top of the wheel.
That evening the buses took us through the Vienna Woods, which seemed endless and spooky in the dark, to a restaurant on the outskirts. Once again there was local music, heavy on Strauss, and I tried to order a bottle of champagne to polish off the celebration of my wife's birthday. I couldn't make myself clear to the waitress, though, and I walked across the room to ask our DER Tours representative, Heinz Grossman, who spoke the language, to intercede.
"It's all taken care of," he said, somewhat disappointed that I hadn't trusted him. From a nearby chair he retrieved an elegant birthday cake that had been baked for my wife by the ship's baker. Evidently they had learned her birth date from her passport. Heinz had carried the cake in his lap all the way through the Vienna Woods, almost getting it in his face once or twice when the bus bumped.
They didn't have champagne, but with Heinz's help I ordered a bottle of the local sparkling wine, which served the purpose. With a little Strauss, a little cake and a little Austrian sparkling wine, it was a festive birthday indeed.
The next day, after an early breakfast, we went ashore to walk through the charming little village of Durnstein, in the Austrian wine-growing belt. We saw the ruined castle and stood in the Baroque church, then sat at tables on the terrace of a winery to taste the local product.
There was a white wine that was young and fruity, if I have my vocabulary right, and a red of the most beautiful color, when held up in the sun, that I have ever seen. Alas, they are not exported. But two glasses of wine at 10:30 in the morning did give us a euphoric start on the day.
That night we dressed for the captain's farewell dinner. In his splendid uniform the handsome captain said a few words in Bulgarian, which were then translated, and evidently multiplied tenfold, by our enthusiastic tour director, Nina.
That night the crew put on another show in the Panorama Bar. Naturally we went in to pass the time, to reflect on our voyage and to watch the show. To make up for not having had any real champagne in Vienna, I ordered a bottle of Russian champagne, which was only so-so. Then Heinz Grossman sent over a bottle of Bulgarian champagne, having felt remiss for not being able to supply it in honor of my wife's birthday in the Viennese restaurant.
By then, as you can imagine, we were feeling fairly tranquil, and much detached from the real world. I was astounded but also delighted when the ship's DER representative, a young German woman who read our daily bulletins and described the points of interest we passed, went out on the floor and put on a very professional belly dance. She had certainly turned out to be a young woman of hidden talents.
It was at this point that my wife made what I thought was a rather perceptive comment:
"Now it's time," she said, "to hit the iceberg."
Fortunately, it turned out to be more philosophical than prophetic.