Whats Up, Lock?

In my very first post about this trip, I mentioned how surprised and intrigued we were to learn that we would be passing through 68 locks during our journey from Budapest to Amsterdam. We knew that we would be sailing on three different rivers, the Danube, the Main, and the Rhine, but I think we were more focused on the cities and towns we were going to visit, and hadn’t really given much though to the implications of traveling on three different waterways. 

It wasn’t until we got on board and started looking at some of the books and notes in our room, we realized we would be negotiating our way through something called the European Watershed. What is it, you may ask?

It is the drainage divide which separates the basins of the rivers that empty into the Atlantic Ocean, the North Seas and the Baltic Sea from those that feed the Mediterranean Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the Black Sea. It actually stretches from the tip of the Iberian Peninsula at Gibraltar in the southwest to the Caspian Seas in Russia in the northeast.

The implication to us as far as the Viking Lif was concerned, was that we were starting out on the Danube which flows south in the Baltic Sea, and finishing in the Rhine that flows north, emptying into the North Sea. Those two rivers flowing in opposite directions are linked by the Main Danube-Canal which was opened in 1992 after 32 years of construction.

In essence we had to go up one side of the mountain and down the other, rising from an elevation of 380 feet above sea level from that first lock we entered at Gabcikovo, Hungary, to a peak of 1,332 feet at Hipolstein in Germany, before dropping back down to 161 feet above sea level at Wijk in Holland.

Our Program Director Leonard Miron (seen below) speculated that we would find this whole process interesting for about the first five or six locks, and then it would become routine.

Passengers on board the Lif had in fact flocked to the deck and their balconies to watch with great anticipation and awe as we entered that first lock at Gabcikovo back on Thursday the 4th, shortly after leaving Budapest. We’d passed through the next three locks during the night of the 6th. Now, as we departed from Melk following our tour of the abbey, we were less than an hour away from the first of seven locks we would go through before reaching Passau, Germany at 9 AM the next morning (Monday July 8th).

Just six kilometres west of Melk, lies the Verbunk Hydropower Plant, the site of the first lock we would enter, and it would take the Lif 37 feet higher than the river level below it. Remarkably, during the evening and overnight, we would climb an incredible 280 feet from our starting point at Melk!.

Over the course of our two weeks on board, we began to recognize when we were approaching a lock, whether we were in our room, enjoying a meal in the dining room, or sitting out on our balcony. The first indication the Lif was approaching a lock came when it slowed from its usual smooth glide. That might or might not be followed by a small bump. The skill with which Captain Anne and the crew handled the 433-foot vessel never ceased to amaze Mary and I.

In talking to one of the crew members, I found out that Viking Cruises makes its lock reservations a year in advance but the Lock Master runs the show and determines what happens at the gate. Sometimes we had to wait for another boat to come along so they could put two of us through at once, which conserved water and energy. At other times, usually at night, the Lif zipped through, hitting the locks at just the right time thanks to our experienced captain. Unfortunately, as we were to find out the next morning, we weren’t so lucky on this particular segment of the cruise, and it had implications for us the next day. More on that in the next blog.

The locks at Melk (above) had two chambers and you can see a smaller cargo-moving ship entering the lock to our left as we were ready to emerge from ours. The lock experience was still new and exciting for most, but it was the next one that was to prove even more interesting than the ones we’d been through so far.

The first inkling we had that we were approaching Persenbeug-Gottsdorf was the appearance of Persenbeug Castle off to the side of the ship, and right on cue, we felt the Lif beginning its slow and controlled coast toward the locks at Ybbs-Persenbeug.


On the map below, I’ve marked the location of the castle with an awkward attempt at a yellow circle , while the blue arrow points to the chamber where the Lif would enter before climbing another 39.6 feet higher.

In the picture below, Captain Anne Jacob has exited his wheelhouse, and is moving to his external control panel, the one just to the left of him that looks like a white backyard barbecue. It is from this location, he’ll be steering the Lif into the chamber ahead, and you can see both the dam and Persenbeug castle behind him.

In the picture below, you can see that the captain has the green light, and he’s taking us in.

If you click on the link below, you can experience what it was like being on the deck as the ship entered the lock chamber.

You can see from the next picture that the captain has turned things over to the first officer who is drawing us tight to the left hand wall of the lock, (apparently) leaving enough space for a smaller cruise ship that was coming in behind us…..

We watched in amazement as the second ship entered the lock and edged its way along side us.

The smaller (2 decks versus three on the Lif), and shorter Bellissima snuggled in next to us, and we were so close we engaged in casual conversation with the passengers from the neighbouring ship – from our balconies to theirs.

Once the excitement of the side-by-side docking died down, we ducked back inside our cabin to get ready for dinner. We stopped by the lounge for Leonard’s nightly Port talk and he had a lot of ground to cover. One group of passengers would be spending the morning touring the lower Bavarian town of Passau, and those that stayed for that tour would have a choice of three optional excursions later in the day. The second group, the one we were part of, would head off the Salzburg, one of Austria’s most photographed alpine cities, and the setting of the beloved film “The Sound of Music”.

At dusk, from our dining room vantage point, we noticed another castle overlooking the banks of the Danube – Castle Wallsee, the former home of one of Emperor Franz Joseph’s daughters. While a number of different structures have stood on this ground dating back to the 11th century, a good portion of the building before us was constructed in the late 13th/early 14th century. Additions and renovations have taken place at several junctures since then. The present-day castle was sold into private hands in 1895, and has remained in the Salvator family for four generations, and as such is not open to the public.

Our evening concluded with a hilarious and entertaining presentation in the lounge from Program Director Leonard – Sound of Music….With a Twist. He took us behind the scenes of the movie, and shared gossip, amusing facts, and some incredible stories from one of the most iconic movies of all time. Of course we also got to listen to many of the great songs too!

We were intrigued to learn that while the movie was a monster hit around the world, in Germany and in particular Austria, it was met with more confusion than anything else. The much beloved “Edelweiss”, said to be a well-known Austrian folk-song, somewhat of an unofficial anthem if you will, was in fact no such thing.

The song was written and composed by Rogers and Hammerstein for the movie, and the only thing German about it, is that it is the name of an Alpine flower. No wonder the German-Austrian audiences scratched their head over the song. (note – the next day our Austrian-born guide revealed to us that she had not seen the movie growing up, and watched it for the first time as an adult, as “homework” for her job as a tour-guide.

For Mary and I, Leonard’s presentation was a delightful and laugh-filled end to another great day on the Danube, and just as we were about to fall asleep, we felt the ship slowing as it began its approach to one of the locks it would navigate in the dark of the night. Those gentle undulations and low hum of the engines was all we needed to help us nod off after a long day on the river.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Barbara Higgs says:

    Interesting reads. Either I won’t need to go on this trip when I’m done reading your blogs because I will have seen it all through your words, or I will be more eager to go and see it for myself now that I know all the pertinent information. I found my small trip up the Rideau interesting because of the locks as well. They are astounding contraptions and even more so when you realize how long they have been in use.


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