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DISNEY’S MAGIC

DANUBE
RIVER CRUISE
The sun has begun to set. It is the “golden hour” when everything (and everyone) looks warm and inviting. The skeptic in me wants to believe that I am seeing the world through Campari glasses, but my inner wideeyed traveler reminds me that I have just set sail down the Danube River. Flickering tiny villages give way to vineyards built into steep hills that rise out of the riverbed. Cities appear beyond smokestacks and water locks. On board as the temperature begins to cool, men walk hand in hand along the deck and women snuggle under cozy blankets. I am aboard Brand g Vacations’ inaugural itinerary—a privately chartered cruise from AmaWaterways, one of Europe’s leading riverboat operators. The current carries us down river as a piano player’s tuneful musings rise from the lounge below. How I wish this golden hour would never end.

by MATTHEW WEXLER

Schonbuhel Castle, Wachau Valley, Austria

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eneral Manager Charlie Rounds (along with Director of Marketing Brian Van Wey) is the driving force behind this riverboat excursion and Brand g’s explosive success in the gay cruise market. With more than 25 years of industry experience, Rounds is no stranger to what works on the high seas, but he also feels that the timing is right to shift the paradigm for a new generation of gay travelers. “The industry has evolved,” says Rounds. “We want to offer a boutique travel experience, yet cater to a broader spectrum of the community compared to what you might see on the bigger ships,” he adds. Rounds chose the Danube based on his experience introducing the region to gay travelers more than a decade ago. With interesting ports and the chance to visit five countries, Rounds hopes to capture a common bond among guests by offering unique experiences in a positive LGBT environment. I confess that destinations like Dürnstein, Austria or Bratislava, Slovakia aren’t necessarily on my bucket list, but I suspect from the mischievous glint in Rounds’ eye as he welcomed guests on board that this itinerary has been well curated. AmaWaterways’ newest riverboat, the AmaCerto, is my floating oasis for the week. The 164-passenger vessel has modern amenities and conveniences such as free Wi-Fi, 24-hour coffee service, and more stateroom closet space than my New York City apartment. What the ship gratefully lacks is typical cruise ship décor. Instead, the AmaCerto is furnished with plush fabrics, natural woods, and a warm, neutral palette that lets the landscape shine. The company also understands and respects the value of the LGBT tourism market. “The number of LGBT guests we’ve welcomed aboard over the past ten years has grown by leaps and bounds,” says AmaWaterways Executive Vice President and Co-Owner Kristin Karst, “AmaWaterways is honored to be considered the most ‘LGBT-friendly’ river cruise line. We make it easy for guests to meet like-minded travelers—people who are well traveled, curious about the world, eager to interact with new cultures and cuisines, eager to have experience that go beyond the ordinary. That’s exactly the kind of clientele we cater to.” Karst’s sentiment rings true as the crew, led by Captain Jan de Bruijn and Cruise Manager Cheri Coll flash gleaming smiles and extend sturdy handshakes. There is a buzz in the air as guests settle into their accommodations. I gaze upward and catch a glimpse of the radar mast, which on this occasion flies a rainbow flag. It’s a sight to behold. Let the adventure begin.

e spend our first night docked in Regensburg (known for laptops and lederhosen), and I have a full day to meet the other passengers and explore this quaint city nestled in the German state of Bavaria. I am traveling with my friend Dan and single travelers like us seem to be in the minority as we disembark for our first land exploration. There is Mr. and Mr. North Carolina, retired schoolteachers and veteran cruisers; Mr. and Mr. Beauty Shop, former salon owners and just as in love as the day they met; and Mrs. and Mrs. New Jersey, heart-filled lesbians with booming voices and infectious laughs. As we parade down the gangway, I feel like I’m in an all-gay community theater version of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello Dolly! and I’ve been left without a dance partner. Chin held high, I stuff my single-life sorrows with a sausage slathered in sweet mustard from one of the oldest sausage kitchens in Germany. Later, we board a bus for a tour of the Weltenburg Abbey and boat ride through the Danube Gorge. Dating back to 1050, the abbey is considered by many to be the oldest operating monastery brewery in the world. I sip a malty Barock Dunkel and nibble on some German pretzels before hopping on a boat that weaves through the soaring cliffs. While the scenery is nothing short of spectacular, it also offers time to meet more fellow travelers. There’s Mr. and Mr. Atlanta; tattooed and donning graphic t-shirts, they look like they might be more comfortable at Comic Con than rural Europe. How about Mr. and Mr. D.C., an over-worked event planner trying desperately to unwind while his stress-free younger counterpart flip-flops his sculpted physique along the deck? Dan and I do what single gay men are accustomed to doing—size everybody up. Maybe we’re making up for lost time in high school where we were picked on for an over-exuberant reaction to Whitney’s latest release or abhorrent casting of the spring musical. (“What do you mean he’s the Scarecrow? That was supposed to be my role!”) What I realize as Dan and I chat a bit more is that my idea of gay community—or gay relationships for that matter—feels small. Old and young, M.B.A. and working class, diverse as the topography before our eyes…we have converged on this glorious river to share an experience together, our commonality simply that we have the right to do so and with the ones we love. Bedecked in traditional dirndl (the female counterpart to lederhosen), Coll welcomes us back to the AmaCerto with the warmth of a mother hen who has let the chicks out of her sight for the first time. This temporary family has been christened. And what better way to celebrate all of our diverse gayness than with a good ol’ cabaret act? That evening, we convene in the lounge for musical theater, pop hits, and standards from onboard entertainers Anne Steele and Nate Buccieri. The two met in the New York City and bring a buoyant energy to the room. Rounds hired the duo exclusively for this cruise, knowing his audience would have high expectations. Steele, who is openly gay (she is engaged to Kelli Carpenter, cofounder of R Family Vacations), says she earned her chops in the highly competitive piano bars around town and feels comfortable as an out performer. “You can’t play a part. You play yourself and people have to fall in love with you. Sometimes it’s a vulnerable experience, putting yourself out on the line like that, but whatever happens happens.” Steele’s openness pays off and the duo deliver in spades, belting their way through a set that has the crowd in tears in one moment and on our feet the next.

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Wachau Valley, Austria
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he energy on board the following morning is palpable. After a quick stop in Passau, packed charter buses begin the two-hour journey to Salzburg. Celebrated as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as well as for its Baroque architecture, the city also is known for its shopping districts from centuries old storefronts in the Old City to the local Green Market. But who are we kidding? This is

danube river cruise

Salzburg

While I peacefully cruise along the Danube, I imagine my counterparts stitching costumes out of bus seat covers and singing “Do-Re-Mi” at Mirabell Palace.
the land of Maria von Trapp and The Sound of Music. One great aspect of the riverboat experience is that you can customize your itinerary to be as active or relaxing as you’d like. My 1960’s gay icons fall in the Barbra Streisand camp so I leave the Julie Andrews–inspired search for the Holy Grail to my newfound friends. While I peacefully cruise along the Danube, I imagine my counterparts stitching costumes out of bus seat covers and singing “Do-Re-Mi” at Mirabell Palace. The convoy returns later that evening and I catch an earful of the day’s events. “It was the Tour of Broken Dreams,” bemoans the elder Mr. D.C., “Our guide said her name was Maria Trapp, not von Trapp— whoever heard of such a thing?” Other myths are dispelled: Maria was not initially in love with Georg but the nuns encouraged her to marry him for the sake of the children; and that infamous escape over the Swiss Alps? It never happened—the family left by train. Even so, it’s apparent that gay camaraderie formed on that ride, like a group of children who refuse to believe that Santa Claus isn’t real. An unspoken consensus hangs in the air that the movie version of Maria von Trapp is far more fabulous than her real-life counterpart. While others recover from Trapp trauma, I venture into the charming city of Linz. Crowned the European Cultural Capital in 2009, the streets bustle with art, music, and innovation. Linz was the childhood home of Adolf Hitler, who wanted to develop the region into a “Führer” that exemplified urban renewal. As frightening as that might sound in the hands of a madman, over the decades Linz has cultivated its own form of creative expression and now defines itself as a “City of Peace, prepared to oppose any kind of aggressive extremism.” I take a short stroll from the dock to the Ars Electronica Center, a multidisciplinary showcase of art and technology. For the ultimate visual-tripping intergalactic journey, I enter “Deep Space,” AEC’s interactive flight through the universe. This technology makes IMAX look like your childhood ViewMaster. A total of eight high-definition, stereocapable projectors display 50×30-foot images onto the arena’s wall and floor. After my virtual trip through space and time, I feel like a speck of bio-matter, but AEC’s other exhibits remind me that humankind flourishes through art and innovation. “What Machines Dream Of?” showcases mechanical inventions solely created for artistic expression, including Franz Gsellmann’s World Machine—a 24-year project composed of found artifacts (a.k.a. junk) repurposed into a joyful whirligig of sound, light, and movement. In addition to Ars Electronica, Linz is home to a number of other noteworthy cultural institutions. Voestalpine Stahlwelt showcases the region’s steel industry with an insider’s factory tour, jaw-dropping rotunda, 80
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Charles Bridge

chrome-plated spheres, and an interactive steel-grade mixing console. Celebrating its tenth anniversary on the Danube, LENTOS Kunstmuseum holds more than 12,500 works of modern and contemporary art. The building itself, designed by architects Weber & Hofer, features glass ceilings, an illuminated façade, and “The Freiraum,” a freestanding urban atrium, and an entrance hall that offers picture-perfect river views. fter several days of delicious onboard cuisine (AmaWaterways is an official member of La Chaine des Rotisserus, a prestigious culinary membership), I’m ready to try some local cuisine. Wagnerei is tucked away on a difficult-to-find side street, just a few blocks from the river and the main square. Highlights include a first course “surf and turf ”—thinly sliced beef carpaccio topped with seared sea scallops and a heavy pour of olive oil. For a main dish, Chef Walter Wagner prepares a modern interpretation of Hungarian Goulash. The tender meat, piled high and finished with savory cream foam and lingonberries, could feed a family of four, but I’m determined to clean my plate and still save room for dessert. No trip to Linz would be complete without a piece of Linzer Torte. Austrians take their sweets seriously and this famous cake is no exception. Dating back as early as 1653 from a recipe found at Admont Abbey, the cake is known for its red currant jam filling, flaky hazelnut crust, and lattice topping. Every café features a variation in the window, but I head to Café Jindrak, which proclaims to be the house of the “Original Linzer Torte,” and annually produces more than 80,000 cakes. Sugar high complete, I head back to the ship for a good night’s rest. Wachau awaits. The following morning I meet Dan for another epic breakfast buffet. I’m still recovering from last night’s feast and even an espresso looks daunting, but I need sustenance before our next disembarkation. We’re cruising through the glorious Wachau Valley, one of Austria’s most famous wine regions where Grüner Veltliner waits for me. Poised to trump Riesling as the go-to white wine in the United States, Grüner Veltliner is easy drinking, affordable, and usually shows notes of apple and pepper. The picturesque vistas reveal trellised vines and steep terraces engineered by Bavarian monasteries during the Middle Ages. We ease into the dock in Dürnstein and towering in the distance is Kuenringer Castle where Richard the Lion-Hearted of England (who some historians believe to have been homosexual) was held prisoner in the 12th century. I see tourists scaling the 520-foot-high ruins, but I’m more adept at navigating a wine flight than a steep, rocky path. Dan and I conquer various tasting rooms along the cobblestone streets and discover another Wachau delicacy: apricot brandy. The sweet, golden libation is easy on the palette, as are the small-batch wines, most of which are impossible to purchase in the States as we receive a mere six percent of the country’s total wine export. Between the Grüner, brandy, and an even more potent apricot liqueur, I’m ready to roll back to the ship… that is until we stumble upon one of the Mr. North Carolinas about to traverse the castle ruins. Bravado can rear its head at the most inopportune time and I refuse to be outdone by my senior travel companion. “Let’s hit it,” I say to Dan as we shove our bottle purchases down our pants and hit the trail. It doesn’t take much more than a 20-minute vertical climb with brandy belches to convince me that the expired gym membership was not such a good idea. Dan looks marginally better and Mr. North Carolina (who could easily be my father) looks like he could parasail his way down without batting an eye. We take a different path back to the riverboat, skidding along the winding gravel and praying that our bottles and bones make it back in one piece. Farewell Wachau, hello Vienna.

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24 HOURS IN PRAGUE
My pre-cruise itinerary begins with a short stay in the Czech Republic capital of Prague. While it’s relatively easy to find affordable accommodations in the city center, be sure to do your research to ensure a reputable establishment. I choose Hotel Jalta, a historic boutique hotel located in Wenceslas Square. Originally designed by architect Antonín Tenzer, the renovated property exudes comfort and convenience. For a bit of Cold War history, there is multi-level subterranean fall-out shelter that was built to withstand a nuclear attack. It could house up to 250 people for ten days—what better place for an end-of the-world party? The hotel is currently renovating the space for public use. In the meantime, head next door to the adjacent COMO Restaurant, where you can sample the national drinks Becherovka (a pungent herbaceous liquor) or Slivovice (plum brandy). With many sights to see, here’s a handful to add to your list. Don’t miss St. Charles Bridge. Built in 1357, the bridge is decorated with upwards of 30 statues crafted in a Baroque style. You’ll see an array of artisans selling their wares, ranging from handmade items to kitschy souvenirs. The Jewish Quarter is one of central Europe’s most well-known Jewish communities and contains a number of historical synagogues as well as The Jewish Museum, that contains a wide range of textiles, metal works, paintings, and more. For panoramic city views, visit Prague Castle, where you can witness the flourishing changing of the guard each day at noon then explore the grounds at your leisure. On a culinary front, Prague features a wide array of traditional artery-clogging eateries to Michelin-star dining. At Kolkovna (multiple locations) you’ll find roasted meats, cabbage, and plenty of beer along with sparrow, rabbit, and duck. To experience the city’s interpretation of a modern steakhouse, be sure to dine at Cestr. The restaurant pays homage to the local “Czech Spotted Cattle,” where master butchers and chefs prepare custom cuts and preparations to your specifications. Prague is known for its gay nightlife, but with one night in town I want to experience it with the locals. Termix is a small club that packs them in thanks to a friendly staff, energetic crowd, and local pop music. I am immediately swept onto the dance floor with a German remix of “Never Ending Story,” but unfortunately mine must come to an end as I say goodbye to Prague and head west toward the Danube River. –Matthew Wexler

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St. Charles’ Church, Vienna

he boat docks for two full days in Vienna, and it’s love at first sight. Unload my bags and sublet my apartment, I want to elope with this cultural mecca! A bus tour helps me gain my bearings as we maneuver around the Ringstrasse, a circular street that encompasses the city center. We continue to explore more by foot, beginning with St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a soaring display of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and then on to other highlights including The Vienna State Opera (designed by gay architect couple Eduard van der Nüll and August Sicard von Sicardsburg) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which houses everything from ancient works to the celebrated symbolist paintings of Austrian favorite Gustav Klimt. With so much to see and the clock ticking, everyone is ready to part ways and discover their own Vienna. I have one destination in mind: Steirereck in Stadtpark. Lauded as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, this culinary institution has been in the Reitbauer family for 40 years. It is a meal of epic proportion that begins with no less than five amuse-bouches ranging from a carrot sandwich with apple jam to airdried beef served on a miniature clothesline. I’m satiated before the meal officially begins, but that doesn’t inhibit me from savoring every last bite of the forthcoming seven courses. Steamed young tree spinach arrives with buttermilk-poached gnocchi and marinated white radishes; fermented mung bean sprouts and marinated borage accompany raw mountain trout; and venison receives the royal treatment of sautéed chanterelles and preserved apricots. A cart rolls by three hours later, not to carry me out the door as I expect, but offering “jewels” crafted out of handmade chocolates. It seems impossible that Vienna could look more beautiful than when I first arrived, but strolling through the park after this once-in-a-lifetime meal I am proven wrong.

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he following day, Dan and I continue to wander Vienna’s streets, discovering local shops and quaint neighborhoods. It’s refreshing to have a bit of unstructured time and equally as comforting to run into Mrs. and Mrs. New Jersey on a side street as if we’re all gleefully racing through a cultural corn maze. We take an afternoon respite at the historical Sacher Hotel. Founded in 1876, the property has hosted an array of world figures, entertainers, socialites, and gay icons. Composed of six building linked together, a number of private apartments still exist among the exquisite hallways, but it is the opera-inspired presidential suites that truly showcase the hotel’s pledge of luxury, tradition, style, and comfort. Swept up in the majesty of it all, we decide to have lunch at the hotel’s Rote Bar and experience a Viennese tradition: wienerschnitzel and the Original Sacher-Torte. While some might think that a fried veal cutlet and slice of chocolate cake are not the most difficult dishes to execute, these are done with skilled perfection. Perfectly crispy and served with parsley potatoes and a heavy squeeze of lemon, the wienerschnitzel redefines comfort food. And for the torte, let’s just say that many have tried to imitate this recipe of historic proportion but none have succeeded in capturing the perfect balance of chocolate cake, apricot jam, and heavenly chocolate icing. As the afternoon fades away, we return to the AmaCerto and take advantage of the free bike rentals for one last city exploration. Our time in Austria has come to an end and we arrive at our next port, Bratislava, Slovakia the following morning. Having just left magnificent Vienna, Bratislava feels underwhelming as our mini-train chugs us along a tour of this relatively new country. It is only since 1993 that Slovakia has been an independent country and Communist influence is evident. While the sights may not have the flourish of our past destinations, Rounds felt it was important to support the burgeoning LGBT culture in this destination as the

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German Village on The Danube

gay community fights for basic civil rights and recognition. He has arranged a private visit to the local office of the Open Society Foundations where we have the opportunity to chat with representatives from the gay community. Before the informal panel discussion begins, one of the local participants asks if he can take a photo of our group, saying, “I can’t remember the last time I was in a room with so many gay people.” I am struck by the magnitude of our cultures coming together to share thoughts on civil rights, democracy, women’s issues, and long-held discriminations. Slovakia was the last country in the European Union to establish Gay Pride (2010) with its first year attracting 800 police and four helicopters to “monitor” a crowd of 3,000 participants. Spending just a few minutes with these men and women who are fighting for gay rights on a daily basis is a stark reminder of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go.
AmaCerto

fter dinner, during our last night on board ship, we pack into the lounge for Anne and Nate’s final performance. Birthdays and anniversaries have been celebrated throughout the week and tonight is no different. It turns out that Mr. and Mr. Beauty Shop are celebrating their 38th anniversary and have requested “Not a Day Goes By.” The crowd hushes as Steele delivers a teary-eyed performance. In this moment we are all overwhelmed by the journey we have been on together and the opportunity to share it with those we love. Mrs. New Jersey humbly says, “I never thought the gay movement would come this far in my lifetime.” The crew comes out for a final bow and the crowd leaps to its feet in standing ovation, whooping and hollering in appreciation. Coll, who has been managing the guests with the efficiency of a stealth fighter pilot and the warmth of Mrs. Claus says, “I can honestly say with hand on heart that the most special thing about the Brand g cruise is the guests—you are so brilliant! You’re not only smart and informed, but just plain good fun, making the cruise for the crew and me very special. It’s been a privilege.” Responding to the room’s electric energy, the last remarks of the evening come from Rounds. “The crew rises to the level of the guest,” says Rounds, “As we demand that people respect us, we respect them. We are setting the stage for the travel industry to integrate with LGBT people from around the world. We had a dream that we could change the landscape of gay travel. You are our allies. Our friends. Our family. And this is only the beginning.” If only it was the beginning and I could rediscover each magnificent port all over again. But part of the riverboat experience is moving with the current. And where that takes me next is by my own choosing and with whomever I desire. Brand g reminds me that this is a privilege, not a right, for many, and one that should be celebrated, cherished, and shared.

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danube river cruiseresources
CRUISE RESOURCES
Where is Brand g Vacations going in 2013? Everywhere. This dynamic LGBT tour operator hosts a wide range of international getaways from relaxing riverboat cruises to adventurous land tours. Whether you choose to explore the biodiversity of the Galapagos or drink your way down the Rhône River, each meticulously planned itinerary offers you custom experiences that exemplify the next generation of LGBT travel. www.brandgvacations.com AmaWaterways. Fifteen custom-designed vessels navigate the waters of Europe, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Africa. www.amawaterways.com

AmaCerto Suite

PRAGUE
Gothic, Renaissance, and Communist eras collide in this capital city bustling with cultural attractions, historic landmarks, and LGBT nightlife. www.praguewelcome.cz Cestr, Legerova 75/57. Tel: +420-222-727-851. This post-modern steakhouse features in-house butchering of the local Czech Fleckvieh breed. www.cestr.ambi.cz Hotel Jalta and COMO Restaurant, Václavské náměstí 45. Tel: +420-222-822-111. Centrally located, this historic hotel designed as “socialist realism” is the perfect backdrop for your Prague adventure. www.hoteljalta.com The Jewish Museum, U Staré školy 1. Tel: +420-222749-211. Established in 1906, the museum showcases one of the most extensive collections of Judaic art in the world. www.jewishmuseum.cz Kolkovna, (multiple locations). Tel: +420-517-070-080. Traditional Czech cuisine including goulash, schnitzel, and plenty of Pilsner Urquell on tap. www.kolkovna.cz Prague Castle, tourist.info@hrad.cz. Tel: +420-22437-3368. This medieval castle dates back to the 9th century and now features the Royal Garden, art treasures and historical documents. www.hrad.cz Termix, Třebízského 4a. Tel: +420-222-710-462. Local pop music takes center stage at this popular bar and dance club. www.club-termix.cz

Weltenburg Abbey, Asamstraße 32. Tel: +49-9441204-0. Visit this historic Benedictine monastery and sample the equally famous Dunkel dark beer. www.en.weltenburger.de

You can have your cake and eat it too at this famous confectionary that features the Original Linzer Torte. www.linzertorte.at voestalpine Stahlwelt, Straße 4. Tel: +43-050-304158900. This steel plant and exhibition showcases the technology and artistry surrounding one of the world’s most used materials. www.voestalpine.com/stahlwelt Wagnerei, Pfarrgasse 18. Tel: +43-732-918989. Tucked away on a side street, this minimalist tavern serves modern interpretations of classic Austrian and European dishes. www.wagnerei.at

SALZBURG
“The hills are alive” in this majestic city that boasts its stature as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the film location of The Sound of Music. www.salzburg.info

LINZ
One of Austria’s most culturally progressive cities, you’ll find museums, galleries, new media and an independent art scene worth exploring. www.linz.at Ars Electronica Center, Straße 1. Tel: +43-7327272-0. Permanent installations and rotating exhibits highlight forerunners in new media, technology, art and science in this 32,000-square-foot epicenter for creativity. www.aec.at Dürnstein, Tucked in the Wachau Valley, you can explore monasteries, castle ruins, and taste dozens of wines from local producers. www.duernstein.at Café Jindrak, Herrenstrasse 22. Tel: +43 732-779258.

VIENNA
Austria’s capital offers everything from music and architecture to the famous cafés and a bustling LGBT nightlife. www.wien.info The Hotel Sacher, Philharmonikerstraße 4. Tel: +43-0-1-514 560. Tradition meets five-star luxury accommodations in the heart of Vienna at this historical property dating back to 1876. www.sacher.com/en_hotel_sacher_vienna.html Kunsthistorisches Museum, Maria-Theresien-Platz. Tel: +43-1-525-24- 0. Built in the 19th century, the museum houses an array of works with particular emphasis on Renaissance and Baroque art. www.khm.at Steirerck im Stadtpark, Am Heumarkt 2A. Tel: +43-1713-31-68. Be prepared for an epic meal at this multicourse extravaganza showcasing local ingredients and modern culinary techniques. www.steirereck.at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Stephansplatz 1. Tel: +43-1-513-7648. Filled with architectural and religious history, the restored property features exquisite sculptures, 18 altars, and two iconic towers soaring 445-feet high. www.stephansdom.com Vienna State Opera, Opernring 2. Tel: +43-1-514-222250. Since the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1869, the theatre has been home to some of the world’s best composers. www.wiener-staatsoper.at

REGENSBURG
From St. Peter’s Cathedral to the various town squares overflowing with shopping and social gatherings, be sure to pick up a pair of traditional lederhosen for your next German house party. www.regensburg.de

Photo: Brand g

BRATISLAVA
Slovakia’s capital and a stop along the Danube river cruise. Make sure to visit the Municipal Museum and the Slovak National Theatre. www.visit.bratislava.sk
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