Post Christmas Assessment: Hope

It is a reasonable question— “How was your Christmas?”

In truth, we ask lots of “how was” questions.

How was your vacation?

How was your weekend?

How was your trip to the urologist?

How was your car buying experience?

When I’m asked the Christmas question, I am very tempted to say, “I’m thankful that Christmas is over.”

I wonder what poinsettias, door wreaths made from the limbs of evergreen trees, and wrapping paper would tell us about Christmas?

In their short life span, I wonder what these traditional items might say to us as they quietly observe our Christmas ways.

Might these non-human observers say to us: these nice folks need to slow down, the pace is too hectic, perfection— forget it, keep Christmas simple, don’t over extend, if Christmas is grounded in love, shouldn’t the followers of Christmas be able to share this love everyday of the coming new year?

Here’s what I remember about Christmas 2022.

December 23, our four grandchildren gathered around the kitchen table decorating cookies.

The four grands and their cookies. Ably assisted by Uncle Andrew (Photo by Bill Pike)

Christmas Eve, the weather, the temperature was brutally and bitterly cold.

Next, I spent early Christmas morning trying to find a convenience store that sold Monterrey Jack cheese. That was the one cheese that had been forgotten in making Brad’s pasta dish. Brad is one of my wife’s nephews.

It has become a tradition in our family to feature Brad’s recipe for dinner, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I’m sure cardiologists see dollars signs with all of the rich artery clogging cheeses used to fix this dish.

At a Sheetz on West Broad Street, I found a reasonable substitute, Colby Jack.

Late on Christmas afternoon, an unwanted and unwelcome intruder arrived at our home. A stomach virus hit my 94 year old mother-in-law.

A few hours later, that trifling germ consumed our youngest daughter.

With this invasion, a tension filled our house. We all wondered who would be next? Hand scrubbing and Lysol spray became our new friends.

Our son-in-law headed back to North Carolina on Monday. That night the stomach bug welcomed Doug to the club.

That bad bug briefly messed with our son and his two daughters.

For whatever reason, this naughty nuisance really whacked my mother-in-law. Dehydration and weakness caused her to pass out and fall. Luckily, Betsy and I were there to catch her, and that prompted a 911 call.

My wife’s sister-in-law is a doctor, obgyn, she arrived before the paramedics, and found my mother-in-law’s vitals to be stable.

The paramedics with all of the latest equipment confirmed that original assessment. As I watched this team work, I thought to myself, we are lucky to live in a community with compassionate and well-trained rescue personnel.

But, we were also lucky that Betsy and I were with my mother-in-law when this collapse occurred. Her passing out could have been much worse.

Gradually, our house guests recovered and departed.

At some point, I worked my way back to Trinity. We have a 10 a.m. worship service on New Year’s Day. I needed to check on our volunteers who had been removing the seasonal Advent decorations.

During the weeks of Advent, volunteers work to keep the poinsettias looking fresh. They water and rearrange the deep red flowers, especially, if one is looking weary.

A weary poinsettia post Christmas (Photo by Bill Pike)

The wreaths are subject to the whims of Mother Nature—sun, rain, wind, and cold can quickly fade a healthy green wreath to a brittle khaki color.

It’s tough being a real live Christmas decoration.

But, I think it is tougher being a real live human being at Christmas.

Truthfully, I have no right to whine about Christmas.

At Christmas, I’m always around family, and I’ve never missed a Christmas.

Yet, I know Christmas can be as miserable as a stomach virus for someone who is alone with no family. That lonely person might feel just as worn as a frail poinsettia or a now drab door wreath.

On Tuesday, January 3, my wife and I made one last trip to see the Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens.

I continue to be amazed at how strands of colorful lights transform this winter landscape. Others must feel the same way too. The garden’s paths begin to fill as the fading twilight gently shifts into darkness.

Colorful Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter (Photo by Bill Pike)

As we finish up our self-guided tour, we stop in the garden’s library and a meeting room.

In the meeting room, a local group of model train hobbyists have an amazing display set up featuring circus trains— including all of the matching props to fill in the landscape. This impressive exhibition makes adults and children stop in their footsteps. They stare intently at the moving trains as they weave through the countryside.

I’ve always appreciated artwork created by elementary school students. That admiration is extended to the art teachers who guide and support their students in this creative process. In the library, we were treated to a display of Christmas trees decorated by students at local elementary schools.

Instantly, I was impressed by these creations. To me the student art work reveals the pure innocence of their hearts.

One tree from Holladay Elementary School really tugged at my old heart. These fifth grade students had created “The Hope Tree.”

The Hope tree (Photo by Bill Pike)

Along with the decorations they created, each student had written his/her hope for the visitors observing this display.

For many years, my brother-in-law, Eric Henry, in Burlington, North Carolina has been a part of the team and ownership of TS Designs. Sure, I’m biased, but TS Designs makes the best t-shirts in the world. Yes, I said best in the world.

Maybe next Christmas, TS Designs can offer this long sleeved t-shirt.

On the front will be this question: How do grumpy old geezers survive Christmas?

Under the question will be the sad faces of many grumpy geezers.

But on the back of the t-shirt will be these words—They have hope.

Under “they have hope” will be quotes about hope like the following:

“Hope fills the holes of my frustration in my heart.” – Emanuel Cleaver

“To live without hope is to cease to live.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” – Maya Angelou

”In fact, hope is best gained after defeat and failure, because then inner strength and toughness is produced.” –  Fritz Knapp

I hope that you and your families survived Christmas.

And despite my contrariness with Christmas, I hope that we all make it to the next one.

Another church shutters in NC. What others must do to survive.

On November 20, 2022, the church I grew up in held its last worship service in the Burlington, N C building where it operated for generations.

After careful deliberations and following the protocols established in the discipline of the Methodist church, the congregation at Davis Street Methodist Church voted to shut the church doors on Davis Street near downtown and move to a new location.

Sadly, Davis Street isn’t alone in their actions. Aging congregations, tired buildings, economic instability, and the inability to attract new members are among the challenges congregations face across America.

This downward spiral is in sharp contrast to the growth churches experienced post World War II. At that time, church planters had a “if you build it, they will come,” mentality. Churches were built and people came.

Clearly, the pandemic impacted church operations and attendance. But truthfully, churches were already experiencing difficulties prior to the pandemic. Lots of data is available regarding this significant decline.

The latest Pew Research Center report from September 2022 doesn’t hold much hope for a reversal of this spiral. Churches and their congregations aren’t immune from political division, challenges to their doctrines related to sexual orientation, and a longstanding stubborn resistance to change.

Growing up at Davis Street, I don’t recall political bickering, nor conversations about sexual orientation. However, the “turf and personalities” of a church could collide if an impactful change was proposed.

During my growing up years at Davis Street, the pace of the world was slower. Sundays were quiet. Only essential businesses were open. Unless there was sickness, our family was in church every Sunday.

Today, our pace is entirely different. With many retail businesses open, Sunday is a popular day for shopping.

But there is a busyness impacting families and the choices they make over the course of a weekend. In these over-extended families, church might not be on their top five list of planned activities.

In an article in the Spring 2022 edition of the William and Mary Alumni Magazine, Brian Shallcross, General Manager of the minor league baseball team, the Bowie Baysox, talks about how his organization works to bring people to a game.

When Shallcross started his career, the focus was on “discretionary income,” the extra income a family might have to spend.

Now, Shallcross states the focus is on “discretionary time.” Marketers attempt to figure out how to persuade a family that a baseball game is the best option from the multiple options they consider during a weekend.

For churches attempting to rebuild by focusing on young families, it is critical for pastors, staffs, and congregational leaders to understand “discretionary time.” Churches who acknowledge the impact of “discretionary time” might rethink worship schedules that could be more appealing for young families.

But, I also wonder if congregations become too mired in their own church busyness? Does this church busyness and reliance upon worn practices impair congregational vision? Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes.

If churches expect to survive this decline, their pastors, staff, and laity must be willing to take risks. Fear of taking risks, failure to implement overdue changes will only ensure more church doors closing.

With this closing of Davis Street, I imagine some significant seismic shifting came from the graves of its founders. Honestly, I admire the congregation for making this difficult decision.

If churches expect to exist beyond the dismal predictions, their leaders and congregations must make some tough decisions.

I believe churches still have a place in our communities.

But their future depends upon their ability to confront the fear of change.

Note from the author: I was honored to have this op-ed piece published in three North Carolina newspapers on Monday, January 23, 2023. The piece appeared in: The Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News & Observer, and the Durham Herald-Sun.

Cathedrals, Cigarettes, Cobblestones

Late in the spring of 2022, I thought my sister-in-law, Abby, who I consider to be a brilliant woman had lost her mind.

Abby was proposing that our families take my 94 year old mother-in-law on a European river cruise. This trip would be a celebration of my mother-in-law’s upcoming birthday in February 2023, number 95.

All I could imagine was a disaster for my mother-in-law—a devastating fall, an unexpected medical emergency. Luckily, by the grace of God, none of my fears became reality.

Perhaps what is even a greater miracle is that I secured a passport in time for the trip. That’s right, my first passport.

My wife, the Commander Supreme, and our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, coached me on the nuances of saying the right words when I had my passport application interview. They were concerned that I might say something foolish, and I would be red-flagged to a no travel list.

I will be forever grateful to Abby for organizing the trip. In that gratefulness is my Commander Supreme too. I know at times during the trip she felt like she was marshaling two children, her mother and me. Yes, we had some moments of intense traveling impatience, but somehow we completed the trip intact.

Would I go again? Yes, but I need a couple of years to recover.

The flight back home was long, really, really long, and the darn flight tracker provided by the airline didn’t work. Boo technology failure.

Airplanes continue to fascinate me, but those long flights really wear on me. And it is clear as mud that airlines care more about pennies than they do about their passengers. Too bad Piedmont isn’t still in business.

Yet, I’m amazed at how many people are working behind the scenes to make all of this happen. Traveling with a 94 year old allowed us to see more of what takes place in the background.

Every place we visited was special. I can’t name a favorite, but I will give lots of credit to the weather. Aside from one rainy day, the weather was October perfect.

For sure, the cathedrals will stay with me. No matter the city, I’ve never seen anything like those cathedrals. The architecture, the art, the details, and the endurance to build them and to continue to maintain these structures is without question remarkable. But today, in their stunning opulence, I wonder how the needs of the people they serve are being met?

Another surprise for me was tobacco smoke. A lot of people in the places we visited are still smokers of cigarettes. It was so prevalent that I kept playing in my brain the Merle Travis and Tex Williams’ song—“Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!(That Cigarette).

I kept thinking about one line from the song: “Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate, I hate to make him wait, but I just gotta have another cigarette.” I guess when their time comes to meet St. Peter, there will be lots of European smokers at the gates of those cathedrals smoking their last cigarette just before their funerals.

But adding to charm of the age of all the places our feet took us were the cobblestones.

I imagine the supplier of cobblestones from Budapest to Passau lives on a remote tropical island faraway from river cruise tourists, cathedrals, and cigarette smoke.

I loved the worn beauty of the cobblestones and their patterns in alleys and public squares. I suspect the cobblestones could tell us many stories about the ups and downs of life.

And, I would be amiss, if I didn’t compliment, Viking, the cruise line, who took care of us.

I’m sure Viking has some imperfect moments, but I can’t say enough about their personnel, the itinerary, the food, and the ship.

Let me put it this way. Viking does everything they can to spoil their guests so that the guests will want to return.

Yes, they did spoil me. And, at some point in this old life of mine, I hope the Commander Supreme and I can return.

Until that day, I will hold the Danube River cruise deep in my aging heart.

Cobblestones in Linz, Austria (Photo by Bill Pike)

Broken families lead to tragic headlines

Editor, Times-Dispatch:
On Saturday, January 7, 2023, three front-page headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch were about public schools.

Sadly, six days into the new year, one of those headlines reported another school shooting.

This one did not fit what has become a predictable pattern of shooter intrusions. Unfortunately, a Newport News first-grader brought a gun to school and shot his classroom teacher.

Regrettably, I’m not surprised.

For too long in America, one of our essential assets—our families— have been quietly eroding.

In an August 2022 report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “nearly 24 million children live in a single parent family in the United States, or about “one in every three kids across America.”

That instability impacts our neighborhoods, schools, judicial systems, the human infrastructure systems created to assist families—and our future.

Continuing to neglect the erosion of our families will only ensure more tragic headlines.

We can’t legislate our way out of this mess. Nor can the Treasury print enough currency to fix it.

What can we do?

We must value time.

Valuing time means taking the time to listen and learn from our families who are in a battle everyday to survive.

Additionally, that listening must include the overloaded professionals who work in the trenches everyday to support these families.

From that listening and learning, we must commit to the challenging work of breaking the entrenchment of our ineffective systems.

Perhaps you have followed the remarkable recovery of Buffalo Bills’ defensive back Damar Hamlin. After being injured in a game with the Cincinnati Bengals, well-trained medical personnel with urgency and precision saved his life.

Our families in America are in need of the same urgent, resuscitating intervention.

With every second we lose, another heartbreaking headline is developing.

Bill Pike

Author’s note: This letter to the editor appeared in the Sunday, January 15, 2023 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Day Eight: Passau, Germany

I knew Tuesday, October 18, 2022 had potential. As we gathered to start our morning tour of Passau, Germany, a beer truck was parked close by. And the person in charge of the truck had several crates of beer stacked up being prepped for delivery.

Beer truck Passau, Germany (Photo Bill Pike)

We enjoyed our tour of Passau, and that enjoyment wasn’t grounded in access to beer. Yes, beer is part of Passau’s community and culture, but the city offers much more.

Again, we had an exceptional tour guide. A young man who covered all the bases and more. He gave us tips about the twelve local breweries, shared insights about church politics, and made a perfect recommendation for the afternoon.

According to the Viking Daily, Passau is known as the “City of Three Rivers.” Swirling around Passau are the Inn, Danube, and Ilz Rivers.

Historically, salt “white gold” made Passau an important trade center. Additionally, local metal smiths gained recognition for high quality knife and sword blades that were stamped with the Passau wolf. Some warriors believed that the wolf stamped on the blade made them invulnerable.

As noted in other stops on this trip, fire had an impact. During the 17th century, the city was hit hard by destructive fires. Gradually, Passau’s Old Town was established with beautiful churches and homes. I had a tough time controlling my desire to constantly take pictures.

In Passau, the city is graced with the stunning St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This cathedral is home to the largest pipe organ outside of the United States.

But, I liked our guide’s honesty in talking a bit about the local churches.

First, like in America, church attendance is in decline. Our guide shared with us that there is a church tax in Germany, and I didn’t quite follow the purpose, but having worked in a church for twelve years I found that interesting.

Additionally, the guide indicated that not paying your church tax could impact your access to a church for a wedding, and possibly employment.

And speaking of weddings and celebrations, our guide made sure that we saw a public beer tap in the square just outside of the Old Town Hall. He told us families gather around the tap after a wedding.

Beer tap in public square Passau, Germany (Photo Bill Pike)

Also in the city is the University of Passau with about 12,000 students. Our guide conveyed that the students were quite helpful to city residents during a recent flooding of the rivers.

At some point, we said goodbye to our guide. We purchased tickets for a midday concert featuring the famous pipe organ, and prior to the performance, we simply wandered in and out of the shops in Old Town.

Some interior renovations are taking place in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, but that didn’t detract from its beauty or the magnificent performance by the organist and the 17,974 pipes, 233 stops, and four carillons.

Interior St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Photo Bill)

After the concert, we found our way back to the ship for lunch, and we made plans for the afternoon.

After lunch, more walking around Old Town took place, and we eventually made the walk across the river to begin the hike up to the Veste Oberhaus.

Dating back to 1219, this fortress sits on top of St. Georgsburg mountain which is only 344 feet above the valley floor. Today, the building and grounds are home to a museum, a youth hostel, and a restaurant. The views looking over the routes of the rivers and the city are spectacular. We explored a lot, and then we decided to stop in the restaurant, named the Das Oberhaus.

A view from Veste Oberhaus (Photo Bill Pike)

Das Oberhaus had numerous splendid views of the city from its outside seating platforms. The ladies ordered wine, and Art and I had draft beer from the famous Augustiner Brewery in Munich.

In Germany all brewers must abide by the Munich Purity Decree. The Purity Decree only allows water, hops, and malt in the brewing process. I ordered a dark lager, and it was superb.

Augustiner Beer (Photo Betsy Pike)

We made our way down from the top of St. Georgsburg, and walked back across the Luitpold Bridge.

Continuing to be charmed by the architecture and the cobblestone alley ways winding along shops and homes, we decided to make one more stop for beer. From the alley entrance we entered a restaurant that had an open air patio looking out on to the busy street and the graceful river as a backdrop.

A Passau alley (Photo Bill Pike)

The local brewery Lowenbrau was featured here.

Our server here could not have been more kind and graceful in taking our orders and answering a few questions.

From here, we made the short walk back to the ship.

We met at 6:45 in the dining room for the Captain’s farewell toast, and a final wrap up from our Program Director, Mario.

Dinner was another delicious treat, and I think we all knew we were going to be missing this elegance when we returned to the reality of our stateside homes.

Toward the end of dinner, there was a flurry of activity related to birthdays. Of course, the Viking staff knew this trip for us was in honor of Betsy’s mother and her upcoming February birthday, number 95.

Our favorite waiters with Betsy’s mom (Photo Elizabeth Pike)

It was tough to say goodbye to our favorite waiters, Mehi and Jazz. Their skills in serving us were impeccable, but speaking for myself, I loved their humor even more.

Earlier in the day, we had learned more about the system for leaving the ship in the morning. We attended to the final details of packing, and made sure our wake up times were all cued up.

Wednesday would be a long day of travel from Frankfurt, Germany back to Dulles in Northern Virginia.

Tis The Season For Potholes

On a recent Saturday morning run, I was just past the intersection of Westham Parkway and Beechwood Drive in my Richmond, Virginia neighborhood.

I noticed two potholes near the double yellow lines. Seemed unusual for potholes to be so close to the center of the road, but there they were.

I’m sure being a road surface is challenging. Vehicle weight, weather whims, and driving habits impact the asphalt.

All it takes is a tiny fissure on the blacktop, and we have the beginning of a pothole.

As I trudged along this familiar route, I thought more about those potholes. I reasoned that a tiny fissure in the life of a human being can quickly become a hollowed hole of never ending struggles.

In our communities, I sense that teachers, preachers, mental health providers, and families are in a struggle. Their morale is battered with a worn weariness that treads upon any chance of hope.

Without question, the pandemic had an impact on public schools, churches, mental health providers, and families.

Attempts to recover from the impact of COVID-19 will take a long time. That prolonged recovery is grounded in this reality: schools, churches, mental health providers, and families were already experiencing difficulties prior to the pandemic.

Personally, I’m not sure how teachers maintain their sanity. They are constantly in the sight lines of politicians who in many instances have no earthly idea of what it takes for a teacher to survive in a classroom. Yet, research bears out that the skills of the classroom teacher are often the pivot point in making a positive difference in the life of a student.

For many years, researchers have documented the decline in church attendance. The latest Pew Research Center report from September 2022 doesn’t hold much hope for a reversal of this spiral. Preachers and their congregations haven’t been immune from political division, challenges to their doctrines related to sexual orientation, and a longstanding stubborn resistance to change.

When it comes to mental health, America is in a crisis, a crisis that our country is reluctant to admit. Sadly, for many Americans, the most reliable means for solving a conflict is to pull out a gun and shoot. How many more lives are we willing to lose courtesy of this mentality? How many lives could have been saved if we were better equipped to provide mental health services to trigger pullers?

Clearly, I’m not an expert, but my career working in our public schools keeps bringing me back to a recurring concern—the erosion of our families.

In an August 2022 report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “nearly 24 million children live in a single parent family in the United States, or about one in every three kids across America.” During my career, I worked with many successful single parents, but that wasn’t always the norm.

I can only imagine the strain endured by a single parent— working multiple jobs, attempting to support children with food, clothing, health care, and education while housing the family in a rundown motel.

Repairing the two potholes on the road in my neighborhood is simple.

Repairing human potholes is complicated.

How might we start the repair process for our human potholes?

A good starting point is to understand how schools, churches, mental health providers, and nonprofits who work with families are already communicating and collaborating.

In those collaborations, it is important to identify what works, what doesn’t, including the courage to disassemble ineffective practices.

Additionally, the assessment must include a careful analysis of data and trends so that more effective templates of service can be implemented.

Assessing community real estate is essential to the process. How might blighted store fronts, empty school and church buildings be repurposed into housing and community service centers for families?

And there is another critical piece, assessing a community’s human resources. How do we utilize the skills and experiences of people who are active, but retired? How might we retool individuals who are looking for employment that will give back to families in a struggling neighborhood?

But the real question is this: do we understand that potholes are more than a seasonal challenge?

Teachers, preachers, mental health providers, and struggling families experience the reality of their pothole entrenchment everyday.

We are at a crisis point.

Continuing to ignore the needs of our human infrastructure is unacceptable.

On December 14, Virginia’s Governor announced plans for reforming mental health. This is a long overdue starting point.

Yet, I fear these proposals will fall victim to the very predictable potholes of political division on both sides of the aisle. Our political inability to play nice will only continue to hurt people.
As the holiday season rushes by us, weary hearts of people in the battered potholes of life need hope.

Our politicians need to deliver.

Two potholes on Westham Parkway (Photo by Bill Pike)

Day Seven: Linz, Austria

What do the Romans, Mozart, and Hitler have in common? The answer, the pretty Austrian city, Linz.

Yes, a long, long time ago, the Romans started a settlement here.

Mozart wrote the “Linz” Symphony and “Linz” Sonata during a three day visit to the city. The house where he stayed and worked is still standing, but there is no tour of the home.

And quietly, our tour guide told us that Adolph Hitler’s family moved here shortly after his birth from an Austrian village near the German border. Hitler spent his childhood in the city, and he considered Linz his home.

Our tour started in Linz’s beautiful, Hauptplatz, the town square. According to the Viking Daily, the square is the largest in Austria. No matter where our tour guide directs our attention, we have lots to see and ponder.

The Town Hall, stately homes, a railway line, the Trinity Column, courtyards, and the beginnings of Old Town capture my interest.

A courtyard in Old Town, Linz, Austria (Photo by Bill Pike)

The railway line is in constant use as it quietly arrives and departs in the heart of the square.

But, I’m drawn to the Trinity Column. The statue was designed and constructed to acknowledge a grateful thanks by the people of Linz for being a bit “lucky” with the challenges that surrounded them in their early history. The Column stands in at 66 feet in height, and stone masons worked with white Untersberg marble in its design.

The Trinity Column (Photo by Bill Pike)

Our tour guide kept us moving. We walked a lot, but thanks to her expertise, we took in this section of the city with great detail and a broad lens. She even took us back in time for a quick view of some Roman ruins. But more importantly, our guide, left us with a plan for the afternoon.

Roman ruins (Photo by Bill Pike)

After lunch on the ship, our plan was to revisit Old Town for more exploring, and to take the steepest mountain railway in Europe to Postlingberg hill and a pilgrimage church that dates back to the 18th century.

Railway cars in the Linz center (Photo by Betsy Pike)

Thanks to my tour guides, Betsy and Elizabeth, we figure out how to purchase tickets at the Town Hall for the railway ride. Our timing is good for catching a rail car that will take us up 1,768 feet to our destination. There is lots to see as we cross the Danube and work our way up the hill.

In 1898, someone figured out that a rail line up Postlingberg Hill to the Pilgrimage Church was a good idea. They weren’t wrong, the train ride was worth it.

Pretty church on top of Postlingberg Hill (Photo by Bill Pike)

No question, the views looking down over Linz are as predicted— beautiful, and the church isn’t shabby either. We enjoyed our walk around the building and a quick self-guided tour inside. Locals also know the church as the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary.

Gradually, we worked our way to the railway line to catch the train to take us back into Linz. Once across the Danube, we returned to the Old Town area for more exploring of the shops.

As I followed Betsy and Elizabeth around, I wondered if any of our footsteps today would have been paths that Hitler had taken during his childhood. And, I also wondered, how Hitler became such an evil monster.

Additionally, my mental meandering takes me back to World War II. My guess is we probably walked through sections of Linz today that had been heavily bombed. Linz was a constant target as the city was a major hub of activity for the Germans.

In Stephen Ambrose’s book, The Wild Blue, B-24 pilot George McGovern said this about flying over Linz: “It was terrible, hell can’t be any worse than that.”

Upon returning from one bombing mission over Linz in April of 1945, McGovern, in his plane, the Dakota Queen, counted 110 holes in plane’s fuselage and wings. He was amazed that the plane could stay in the air from being hit with all that flak.

Our day walking and exploring Linz had been tension and stress free. This was a significant contrast to what the citizens of Linz experienced during World War II.

Slowly, we made our way back to the ship. Before dinner, we had our first briefing about the upcoming disembarkation. Yes, we had one full day ahead of us before catching a plane back to America.

Dinner was delightful, and the chef and the servers continued to spoil us.

After dinner, we had an extra entertainment treat—the Salzburg Sound of Music Singers. Their performance affirmed why some acknowledge Linz as a leading cultural center in Upper Austria.

Day Six: Gottweig Abbey, Krems, and the Wachau Valley

If raindrops greeted our tour of Vienna on Saturday, then fog was to be our greeter on Sunday morning, October 16 in Krems, Austria. No matter where my eyes wandered, fog shrouded every view.

Our destination this morning was the Gottweig Abbey, and the ride to the Abbey was pretty, but at times the comments of our guide were hampered by the fog—“if you look over there, no, no sorry, you can’t see it.”

A fog shrouded tower at the Gottweig Abbey (Photo by Bill Pike)

And while the fog was an unwanted intruder, its hovering gray could not conceal the beauty of the Abbey’s buildings, grounds, and artwork.

Construction of the Abbey goes back to the 11th century. Like many cherished buildings, it survived a severe fire in 1580 followed by a devastating complete burn down in 1718. But the emperor at the time saw the value of the site and assigned his architect to reconstruct the Abbey.

The value in this land and buildings was confirmed again in 2001 when UNESCO proclaimed the Abbey as a World Heritage Site.

Today, the Abbey is still full of life. Forty monks provide care for the facility including its vineyards and orchards. The making of wine at the Abbey dates back to 1083.

Our tour wove us around the grounds, through assorted buildings, and a quick peak at the cathedral where a service was taking place with a guest choir.

Yes, the interior designs are stunning including the variety of artwork showcased on wall panels and ceilings. We learned the guardian angels of ceiling frescos stumbled upon a mixture of cheap bread and glue as a good tool for cleaning these beautiful artistic creations.

A ceiling fresco and a wall panel at the Gottweig Abbey (Photo by Bill Pike)

What I liked about the Abbey is that it still holds an active role in the community. The fertile land encompassing the Abbey is used by the monks to wisely harvest valued timber, row after row of grapes for winemaking, and beautiful orchards full of apricot trees. A thoughtfully designed visitor’s center and gift shop for sampling their agricultural products is a part of our visit.

One of the many products available at the Gottweig Abbey store (Photo by Bill Pike)

And one final observation about the Abbey, I sensed a serenity, a calmness up on that hilltop. Something that we could all use a dose of in the hectic pace of our lives.

After the Abbey, we had a short window of time to explore Krems by foot. For myself, if there was one regret about our Danube cruise, it would be that I wish we had more time to spend in Krems.

On this foggy, Sunday morning, Krems was still sleepy. But no matter where we looked, we loved the simple beauty and vistas we discovered. The homes, shops, and churches perched above the river were postcard perfect.

A cobblestone path in Krems (Photo by Bill Pike)

Despite not being able to spend more time in Krems, the afternoon promised to be very special. The ship would be sailing us through the stunning Wachau Valley.

After lunch, we made our way to the top deck of the ship. For almost two hours, we were treated to striking views of castles, towns, vineyards, and churches carved into the landscape on both sides of the Danube.

Our program director pointed out all of the landmarks with historical and cultural significance. Way up on a hilltop, I marveled at how an ancient castle was constructed and continued to endure for all these years.

But in truth, the land, the majestic rolling hills were the stars for me. I particularly loved the terraced vineyards, carefully planted to utilize every foot of this rich terrain.

Those grape vines were now wearing weathered leaves with blended hues of gold and yellow casting stunning images never to be forgotten by me on a perfect October afternoon.

Vineyards on the hillsides Wachau Valley along the Danube River (Photo by Bill Pike)

And seeking more perfection of the bounty found in the Wachau Valley, we headed toward the lounge where Chef Mihai would provide instruction for making an Austrian favorite, apple strudel.

We received our usual late afternoon briefing about our next stop, Linz, Austria.

For dinner this evening, the menu featured a taste of Austria, and after dinner we had the opportunity to play the game, Majority Rules.