Riverboating from Budapest to Amsterdam

October 3, 2006

Our boat is a riverboat. It is called the Swiss Pearl. I have been on ships before. This is my first riverboat. I notice the difference immediately. Ships are vessels you have to walk up into. Riverboats are vessels you walk down into. They are like swimming pools. Above the water line they are more glass than steel. On a riverboat a rough sea is merely a description of poor penmanship. I checked with the man on the bridge to see how deep the Danube was. He said just now it was 6 feet deep. We were a few kilometers out of Budapest. If we sank, everyone would go to the upper deck and wait for a taxi.

Our riverboat is thirteen years old. It was renovated three years ago. Painted in black letters on the superstructure just above the entrance are the symbols L110, B11, Pass 123. I think of bingo. It is shorthand for dimensions. The Swiss Pearl is 110 meters long, 11 meters wide and holds 123 passengers. On this trip it is holding 104 of us. This is something else that separates a riverboat from a ship. Aboard a ship, one can find volumes of technical information, mostly about the engines. Ship lines are proud of their engines. One can easily learn how many screws there are and how many blades on each screw. The horsepower of each engine is common knowledge and the engine builders are treated like literary giants. On a riverboat the technical information focuses on your mini-bar and the power supply in your cabin. If you want to know how many blades are on the spare propeller, you have to count them for yourself. (The Swiss Pearl propellers are seven bladers.) In short, on a riverboat there is not the slightest nod toward “man against the sea.” I like that. It is like taking a stretch limo to Amsterdam.

Brad Bates, a long time traveling friend from MIT—he majored in Electrical Engineering in 1959—informed me at breakfast that the boat's bridge actually moves up and down like an elevator. He tells me that all the masts fold down and that the railings fold in. On the river the perils are not from rogue waves but from low bridges. If you are on the top deck and a low bridge is in the offing, duck or the bridge will be offing you.

The Swiss Pearl is anchored on the Belgrade Rakpart (quay). Across the river and up on Gellert hill is Liberation Monument. Sculpted by Zigmond Strobl, it depicts a woman holding an object high over her head. The statue was originally intended to honor the memory of Istvan Horthy, son of Hungary’s pre-war and World War II dictator. In that version the woman was holding an airplane propeller. When the Russians liberated Budapest, to commemorate that liberation a slightly different version of the statue was substituted. In this one the woman holds up a palm leaf. When the communist regime ended in 1989, the figure of a Russian soldier at the foot of the monument was removed and the monument, commemorated yet another liberation; obviously, an all-purpose monument.

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