Thursday, June 18, 2015

Danube Cruise

Hungarian Parliament building at night
Kali and I couldn't agree on a domestic destination for our summer vacation.  So, when Viking River Cruises offered free airfare to Europe as part of a deal, we jumped at the chance.  We decided to cruise the Danube from Budapest, Hungary upstream to Nuremberg, Germany during the last week of May.  Temperatures were around 65 degrees F (18 degrees C) and the first two days were rainy, but the remaining days were generally  just overcast.  East-central Europe had received a lot of rain before we arrived, so the Danube was running high, fast, and muddy.
Hungarian National Library on Castle Hill and famous Chain Bridge (oldest suspension bridge in Europe) linking Buda and Pest
Neither Kali nor I had been to Hungary, and I hadn't been to Austria; Kali's dad was in the Army and had been stationed in France twice, so Kali's family had traveled extensively in Europe when she was younger, so she had been to Austria previously.

Heroes' Square and the Millennium Monument in Pest
The first day, we got a guided tour of Budapest in the rain.
Matthias Church rooftop in Buda
After our city tour, we cast off from the dock and cruised all afternoon and overnight, arriving in Vienna in the morning.  Kali and I took the "Explorers' Tour" of the city, hopping the subway from our ship into the center with our guide.

Cafe in Vienna
After the tour, Kali and I stopped in a pastry cafe and had espressos and Sacher torte, a Viennese specialty.  Then, Kali and I took the subway back to our ship just in time for lunch.  (We ate and drank way too much on this trip.)  After lunch, we got on a bus for a guided tour of Schonbrunn Palace, the obscenely ostentatious Hapsburg palace and gardens built to rival Versailles (though it's considerably smaller).
The Hapsburg's Schonbrunn Palace and gardens, Vienna
After we returned from Schonbrunn, Kali wanted to take a nap, so I tucked her into bed and then took a vigorous 1-1/2 hour walk out along the Danube promenade and back through a huge wooded city park particularly favored by runners.  I needed an antidote to sitting on board the ship, eating and drinking too much, and taking slow guided walking tours.

The next day we spent mostly cruising along the Danube through the Wachau Valley, a region of Austria renown for its dramatic scenery and its white wine vineyards.
Church and vineyards in the scenic Wachau Valley section of the Danube
The Danube valley hosts many historic buildings from the Baroque era, but few medieval (or earlier) structures.  So, while we saw some ruined battlements and fortresses on the tops of strategic hills, such ruins were far more common sights along the Rhine when we cruised that river about a decade ago.
The incredibly ornate Baroque Melk Abbey, Melk, Austria
In the afternoon, we docked at Melk, Austria, a small town with an opulent abbey perched on the hill above.  After we toured the abbey, we walked downhill back to the ship.  While we were waiting to embark at a cafe and ice cream shop, we talked with Tommy, a young fellow from Berlin who was riding his bicycle as far east as he could get accompanied his golden retriever in a towed buggy.  His goal was central Asia.  We wished him well.

During our overnight cruising, we passed from Austria into German.  We docked in the morning at Passau, where the weather improved.  We took a (poor) guided walking tour, sat for a half-hour organ recital in the Passau Cathedral (which boasts the largest pipe organ in the world), and then enjoyed lunch with another couple from our ship who we found wandering the narrow streets like us.
Narrow street in Passau, GermanySunny skies!
Kali and Scott lunching at a Passau cafe
The next day, we cruised to Regensberg with its famous Stone Bridge over the Danube.  Much of the bridge is being rehabilitated and is shrouded with scaffolding and tarps, but I did manage to find a section that was exposed in order to take a photograph (below)

Above Regensberg, the Danube becomes too shallow and unnavigable for ships the size of ours.  In order to proceed further "upstream," our ship left the Danube proper and entered the Danube-Main-Rhine Canal, a modern (1992) engineering marvel that links the Danube and Rhine Rivers.
A portion of the famous Stone Bridge in Regensberg, Germany
Since this blog is "It Just Comes Naturally," I had to add something natural.  This Blackbird (actually, a species of thrush like an American Robin) was singing from its lamppost perch in a Regensberg city park.  Its song was varied, melodious, and strikingly beautiful. 

European  Blackbird

One of the most famous bratwurst cafes in Germany at Regensburg
Our point of disembarkation was Nuremberg, Germany.  We docked about 15 minutes outside town, and then took a bus into town for an excellent guided tour.  Though Nuremberg was heavily damaged by Allied bombing during WWII, there's no evidence of the damage now.  The castle crowning a hill above the city looks like it did during medieval times, and there are beautiful, historic structures scattered through the city.  Much of the central city, however, is modern.

The Nuremberg Fortress crowning a hill in the eponymous city
A Nuremberg wedding (right side).  The half-timbered building in the center of the image was renown engraver Albrecht Durer's house
We had a good vacation and Viking Cruise Lines did everything in its power to make our trip exceptional and memorable.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Swamp Slog

One hundred forty years ago, an intense corporate rivalry inadvertently produced the largest wetland in my county, located just a quarter-mile south of my preserve.  In the mid-1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading Railroad each were desperate to build a railroad linking Philadelphia to New York City.  The Pennsylvania Railroad chose a route that was slightly longer but which incorporated a straightaway that ran level and flat for dozens of miles along an old geological fault.  The Reading Railroad selected a shorter, more direct route that used the water gap eroded by my creek to penetrate the high, steep northern face of the geologic fault.  Each railroad company had to place tremendous quantities of fill in the wide floodplain of my creek in order to raise its tracks out of the floodplain, and this fill, in turn, impeded drainage toward the creek, thereby impounding the 40-acre wetland with which we are blessed today.
Field trip participants on the former Reading Railroad bridge over the swamp drainage channel
Because the wetland includes habitat that is unusual in southeastern Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Botanic Club scheduled a field trip to visit the site on Saturday morning, June 6, and they asked me to come along for the walk.  Though I have walked in the wetland proper a few times, I usually stick to the railroad tracks when I explore.  The Reading Railroad tracks have been removed and are now part of a county rail-trail (about which I have posted before); the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks are still in use for commuter rail service.

Making our way down from the railroad bed to the marsh
The water in the wetland is deepest near the rail lines, then the land gradually slopes upward and becomes drier as the distance from the tracks increases.  Nearest the tracks, the wetland is a marsh with dense emergent herbaceous vegetation.  Further uphill, the vegetation grades to shrub-swamp.  And, in the driest areas, the wetland becomes a red maple-pin oak (Acer rubrum-Quercus palustris) swamp forest.  Our group of seven walkers at first scoped-out the wetland from the elevated railroad tracks, and then skidded down the embankment and "took the plunge" into the jungle led by yours truly, who got tired of just poking around the edge.  Fortunately (for the hike), we hadn't had much rain lately, so the wetland had little standing water and just a few inches of organic ooze.
Let the botanizing begin!
Almost immediately, we came across a pair of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) in flagrante delicto; alas, they disengaged immediately.
The female half of an Easter Box Turtle pair
Further into the marsh, we found a nest likely built by Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) last summer suspended between a few twigs .
Last year's nest, probably from a Red-winged Blackbird
An abundance of sedges (very challenging to identify)
Field trip leader Joe serving as a backdrop for pictures of a blooming sedge
One of the plants we were especially interested in finding was lizard's-tail (Saururus cernuus).  It's not that rare, but it's an interesting wetland obligate that's not extraordinarily common.  I was the first to come across the plant and squealed with delight at my discovery.  Then, as we continued across the marsh, we found huge expanses of the plant.
Our quarry:  Lizard's-tail (Saururus cernuus)
One of my favorite plants: parasitic dodder (Cuscuta spp.) (the orange "silly string")  How cool is that?
We finally emerged from the marsh and shrub-swamp into the drier swamp forest.  Here, there's no understory to impede walking because the large deer herd that finds refuge in this isolated pocket of wilderness eats most regenerating trees and shrubs.
Pin oak-red maple swamp forest in the driest parts of the swamp
I wasn't enthusiastic about participating in this walk.  It was on a Saturday morning after I had just worked a full week, and it involved a trudge through mud and extremely dense vegetation (think African Queen here).  But, you know what?  I had a great time!  I got wet and muddy and the company was simpatico.  When I got back home and told Kali about my morning, she said, "Despite your belly-aching, I knew you'd have a great time!"  She knows me better than I know myself. 

A note to my blogging colleagues and readers:  Kali and I were on vacation at the end of May (blog post to appear soon), and I have been crazy busy since we got back.  I apologize for not having commented or posted recently.