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Viking River Cruises along blue Danube attain 'Blue Mind' of happiness

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How to achieve "Blue Mind" -- a happier, healthier, calmer state? Sail along the blue Danube on Viking River Cruises.

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"Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, Or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, And Better At What You Do" is a brand new, intriguing book by marine biologist and conservationist Wallace J. Nichols (Little, Brown & Company).

"Blue Mind, a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment," explains Dr. Nichols. "In an age when we're anchored by stress, technology, exile from the natural world, professional suffocation, personal anxiety...casting off is wonderful."

Casting off is especially wunderbar on the Viking Freya (the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility) for its "Romantic Danube" eight-day cruise between Nuremberg and Budapest.

Rivers and other bodies of water, as Nichols writes, "can help transition from the Red Mind of stress and the Gray Mind of numbed-out depression to the healthier Blue Mind state of calm centeredness." He supports this seemingly self-evident assertion with quotes from psychologists, archaeologists, authors, artists, and others, although not Randy Newman's song "Sail Away" -- "Everybody is as happy as a man can be."

That colorful Rx was just what the doctor ordered, and seemed to work for all aboard. OK, so the Danube is not in fact blue. In fairness, blue is "the rarest color in nature," Nichols acknowledges. And as Stephen King writes, albeit about the Pacific and not the Danube, "I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope."

My similar hopes and dreams about the Danube were dashed. It's green-gray, depending on the amount of sunshine. Ach, well, that was the journey's only disappointment.

Blame Johann Strauss II and his "Blue Danube Waltz". The German word for blue (blau) rhymes with Danau (Danube). And although gray (grau) also rhymes, "blue sounds better and looks better," noted Viking Freya's program director Cornelia Svatek. She seems somewhat like an Austrian version of Cat Deeley, the English hostess of "So You Think You Can Dance", and certainly not like the brash American hostess of a cruise ship in "Sail Away" by Noël Coward.

Cornelia also shared Johann Strauss II's famed quote, "The devil take the waltz."

Actually, blau also means "drunken", avowed Wolfram (wolf raven), our guide in Passau, Germany. "Strauss wrote it for the Vienna Men's Choir, and they get thirsty." He added, "Never, even 150 years ago when Strauss wrote it (in 1866), was the Danube blue."

Our Vienna guide Viktoria pointed to a swimming pool in that city's Danube Canal, and quipped, "It's the only part of the Danube that's blue."

What's in a color? Although the Danube didn't turn blue, we achieved Blue Mind while rollin' on the river.

Here are just a few of the things that changed my mind from Red and Gray to Blue. First, some of the many highlights from the itinerary -- in addition to visiting the glorious cities of Vienna and Budapest -- and second, a few of the numerous highlights about the Viking experience.

Nuremberg:

Martin Luther loved it; Mozart hated it. Martin Luther said it shined "throughout Germany like a sun among the moon and stars." But Mozart, who visited it in 1790, described it in a letter as "an ugly city".

-- Albrecht Dürer House, the half-timbered residence and studio where Germany's greatest artist lived from 1509-1528. The Renaissance master's home is within Nuremberg's walled medieval Altstadt Old Town. Dürer "even depicts what cannot be depicted...all sensory impressions and emotions, in short, the entire human spirit..." said the 16th century philosopher Erasmus.

-- Courtroom 600, Palace of Justice, site of the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi War Criminals from November 1945 to 1949.

Regensburg:

The best-preserved medieval city in Germany, with more than 1,000 historic ancient structures, Regensburg is one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites on this itinerary. The oldest city on the Danube, its structures span almost 2,000 years, including Roman gates from 179 A.D. Its Stone Bridge, built between 1135-1146 -- a marvel of engineering still used today -- was the Danube's only solid crossing for more than 800 years. Its St. Peter's Cathedral is regarded as Bavaria's finest Gothic structure, uniquely enhanced by twin Renaissance towers. Its stained glass windows have survived intact ever since the first were installed in 1220; most date from the 1300s; others from the 19th and 20th centuries. They were buried during World War Two. The town has had about 80 names, seven given by Goethe's Mephistopheles as the devil flew toward it on his magic cloak with Dr. Faustus.

Passau:

-- St. Stephen's Cathedral's concert on one of the world's largest organs, with almost 18,000 pipes, soars close to a religious experience. Bach and Mendelssohn sounded richer than ever on this organ, played by Ludwig Ruckdeschel, in the magnificent Baroque cathedral.

-- Passau Glass Museum has the world's largest Bohemian glass collection, with more than 30,000 exquisite pieces. They span from 1680 and 1950, from baroque to Biedermeier to art nouveau to art deco and modern. Opened by astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, this almost overwhelming display of beauty will send you over the moon.

Melk:

Melk Abbey, one of the most famous, gorgeous, and enormous in Austria, has a library where you can see, and smell, more than 16,000 centuries-old, leather-bound volumes. (Deeply inhaling the rich scent, a British woman told me, "Can't get that from a Kindle.") In the 11th century, Emperor Leopold II gave the gigantic royal palace to Benedictine monks. They've practiced there ever since, even throughout the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars. "Without a legitimate battle there is no victory" (2 Timothy 2,5) is inscribed above the high altar. The Benedictine abbey was rebuilt in the early 18th century, as the butterscotch and white-trimmed Baroque masterpiece it is today. It's a major standout in Austria's Wachau Valley, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Inscribed over the doors to Melk Abbey's marble hall is Chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict, "Guests should be received as Christ would be."

This and another Benedictine principle, "Lethargy is an enemy of the soul," could be mottos of Viking River Cruises (VRC) and its ever-working, ever-welcoming Viking Freya staff. So, here are a few highlights of VRC itself:

Staff:

The emblematic moment of elegant service came my first night aboard, as this sole solo traveler entered the dining room filled with couples and families. Maître 'd Petar Kovacevic gallantly extended his arm to me and asked, "May I help you find a seat?" I felt like curtseying gratefully.

Cuisine:

The scrumptious, sumptuous meals feature local farm-to-table products, like apricots (marillen) along the Wachau Valley. These delicacies even rate the European Union (EU) seal "Wachauer Qualitätsmaille". Here's my own seal of approval: they're among the most delicious I've eaten anywhere, even from a fruit peddler in Istanbul. One dinner aboard focused on local mushrooms.

No mere farm-to-table, Viking Freya has its own rooftop-to-table herb garden. No parsley, but sage, rosemary, and thyme -- and lavender. (The rooftop also has, natch, shuffleboard -- and also a mini golf putting course and a maxi chess set, with 1- to 3-feet-tall pieces. Other games, like a music trivia quiz and "Liar's Game" are played in the ship's glassed-in Aquavit Lounge.)

Wine:

VRC is the only river cruise line to have its own winemaker, Erhard Mörwald, a fifth generation vintner in the Wachau Valley. These private-label wines, complimentary with meals, were even better than ones I've tasted at the Austrian Embassy. But I did not utter what that famed Benedictine monk Dom Pèrignon supposedly bellowed when he allegedly invented or discovered champagne 421 years ago this August: "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!"

Bathroom:

The stateroom's bathroom floor heats up; just dial whatever temp your tootsies desire.

The opaque shower stall wall turns transparent with a flick of a switch. "It prevents a claustrophobic feeling," hotel manager Jodok Greber explained while showing me around my stateroom. I'd thought it was to heat up a different feeling (what's the German translation for Honi soit qui mal y pense?)

With all this and more, fellow passengers attested to their own "Blue Mind" state of mind.

"Viking's just A plus, A plus," said a passenger from North Carolina, so he surely knows about (southern) hospitality.

One woman said, "It's more than I even dreamed it would be."

Nary a disparaging word was heard, at least by me.

So, as Dr. Nichols concludes "Blue Mind" -- "I wish you water."

And I wish you Viking River Cruises.

For more info: Viking River Cruises, www.vikingrivercruises.com/, 800-706-1483.

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