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[Note: This post was originally published on another platform on April 6, 2011)

Graceland Mansion Living Room

Graceland Living Room, Memphis Tennessee

William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, two sons of the South born 15 miles apart in Mississippi, were mama’s boys, barely high school graduates, champion substance abusers and of course artists at the pinnacle of their fields. They were also property owners, each purchasing large estates as soon as they could scrape the money together.

I recently visited both Graceland, in the Memphis suburbs and Faulkner’s lesser-known home, Rowan Oak, about 90-minutes south in Oxford, Mississippi. It was impossible to approach these places – especially Graceland – with an open mind, but that turned out for the best, because the contrast between what I was expecting and what I saw actually intensified the experience.

First consider the fact that they even have names.  You would expect a nouveau riche rock-and-roll star to give his new home a fancy title, but you wouldn’t really think that the greatest American novelist – a true artistic soul – would be so pretentious.  In fact it’s worse; Graceland is named after Grace Toof, the aunt of the original owner, so Elvis had no part in choosing that metaphorically apt name.  In contrast, Faulkner himself came up with “Rowan Oak,” which is also the name of magical tree in Celtic mythology.   Faulkner gets points for originality and romanticism, but still, it’s the kind of affectation you’d expect from the plantation owners in Gone With The Wind, not a Nobel Prize-winning writer.

What I did not expect was that Graceland and Rowan Oak would be about the same size.  Graceland is really not that big.  A classic Colonial built in 1941, it’s a comfortable home, but it’s smaller than about a dozen houses within a ten-minute walk of where I live.  Probably considered a mansion in its day, by today’s standards it’s only a lower-upper-class home.  The rooms are nicely proportioned, but there aren’t that many of them.  And the kitchen?  Well, let’s just say that this would be the first thing to go in any HGTV makeover.

Rowan Oak Living Room

Rowan Oak living room

Rowan Oak, a Greek Revival home built in the 1840’s, is almost as big as Graceland, with large spacious rooms and a gentile atmosphere. (To be fair, Graceland is definitely larger if you count the subterranean space – it has a huge cellar with numerous game and trophy rooms).  Faulkner bought the property in 1930, when he was only 32 and barely supporting himself with his writing; he struggled for years to pay for the upkeep and repairs, at one point even taking a job as a maintenance man at the local power plant.   In other words, he wanted to be true to his Muse, writing novels that were barely comprehensible to a popular audience; but he also wanted to live the life of a country squire even if that meant diverting time from those novels to churn out semi-trashy short stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and spending years writing Hollywood screenplays.

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak entrance

What’s most striking and unexpected about Graceland and Rowan Oak is their handsome grounds.  Both are 15- to 20- acre estates set in average middle class neighborhoods where the other houses sit on half- and quarter-acre lots.  They have beautiful sweeping lawns with paddocks and riding areas.  They are both fantasies of how landed gentry would live.  One of them even has a “meditation garden” – and it’s not Rowan Oak.

What makes them different is their overall ambiance and how they reflect on their owners.  Each is decorated to appear as they did when Elvis and Faulkner lived there and this has not been a benefit to Elvis’ overall image. As a poor boy who suddenly found himself rich, he spurned antiques and other classic decor as “old,” insisting instead that all his furnishings be new.  Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to die in the 1970s, a decade that now appears to be a bad joke all the way around.  I doubt that many of us would emerge with enhanced reputations if our 70’s interior decorating were exposed to the rest of the world.   To be fair to Elvis, though, much of the house, especially the living room and dining room, is actually quite tasteful (although I bet that, as in many homes of that period, these formal rooms were rarely used).  The famous Jungle Room is certainly over the top, but kind of fun and the TV and game rooms in the cellar are not that different from the game rooms of my youth.

In contrast to Graceland, which is frozen at the moment of Elvis’s death, Rowan Oak hearkens back to a period before Faulkner was famous.  Faulkner died in 1962 but it is clear that no fifties or sixties decorators ever set foot there.  I wonder if this is really the furniture that was left there in 1962 or if an attempt was made to recreate the years (in the 30’s and 40’s) when Faulkner was writing his masterpieces?  The furnishings aren’t the high-end antiques that Elvis scorned; these are just old tables, chairs and couches that were probably in the family for generations.  The house does have a lived-in feeling (lived in by the Waltons maybe) but there’s nothing to suggest anyone lived there after World War II.  The most revered item in the house is Faulkner’s Underwood manual typewriter, which could have come off the set of The Front Page.  The two concessions to modernity are a radio from the last 1940s in his daughter’s room and an air conditioning unit installed in his wife’s room the day after his funeral.

Elvis gets a bad rap for tastelessness and trying to rise above his station – kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies – but I think people should cut him a break.  Graceland is a little garish but not as bizarre as I’d heard;  what critics really object to is the 70’s itself and the refusal of Elvis’ fans to treat it as a joke.  Maybe some of that cynicism should be directed Faulkner’s way.  He too aspired to rise above his station but he worked harder than Elvis did at creating his own myth.  Or maybe we ask too much of our artists.  In the end they are human too, with the usual delusions, dreams and ambitions.  It’s one of the reasons we go to see where they live: to remind ourselves not just that they are people, but to hope that a little bit of the immortality they created will rub off on us.

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Our ship in Passau, where we started the cruise

Almost everyone I know who watches “Downton Abbey” is fascinated by the idea of a Viking River Cruise.   Those ads are irresistible come-ons to a certain demographic of the population: those white, upper-middle-class Americans who would like to display a continental flair but haven’t had the time or opportunity to acquire one.  My wife and I are empty-nesters who had never been on any cruise, never mind a river cruise, but found the ads so compelling we decided to take the plunge:

The Value Proposition

The ads always implied a degree of luxuriousness that I always thought was out of our price range.  So I was surprised when I received a mailing last January that promoted a “two-for-one” sale and actually looked at the cost.  We had been planning to go to Prague, Vienna and Budapest anyway, and the brochure advertised a Danube cruise that included Vienna and Budapest (but not Prague, alas) for a lot less than I had expected.  And when I called to book the cruise I was further informed that the price included the cost of the airfare.

This seemed too good to be true.  But I’m happy to report that it wasn’t.  My wife and I are just back from the cruise and we agreed that we never could have flown to Europe, rented a hotel room and fed ourselves for the price of the cruise — certainly not for that level of comfort.  I hardly think that Viking would want to present itself as a budget option for a European vacation, but the bottom line is that if you plan this right, it’s actually cheaper to take a cruise then to try to arrange everything yourself.

I say this because here’s what’s included in the price of the cruise: airfare from many major US cities; transportation to and from the airport to the ship; overnight accommodations; daily tours; all meals (including wine at meals, and yes, there were people who drank champagne at breakfast); and some post-dinner entertainment or briefings.  To veteran cruisers, this is not news but to me it was a surprise at how easy everything was, in addition to being affordable.

To achieve a rock bottom rate we booked the cheapest cabin, which was on the lowest deck of the ship.  The cabin itself was two-thirds underwater and our view was out a portal that you could peer through only when you were standing up.  The room itself was very nice — modern but smallish. There was a TV, a closet and a bureau, just like a hotel room. The bed was extremely comfortable and the feather pillow was the best I’ve ever rested my head on in any hotel anywhere.  The only weird aspect of the cabin is that the bathroom and shower are encased in glass walls.  The glass was clear when we checked in and no one explained that you could make them opaque by hitting a certain switch; so the first day was a bit awkward.  But even with the clouded glass walls you want to make sure that you and your companion have already achieved a degree of personal intimacy because there’s no sound-proofing.

Our cabin — note the glassed bathroom and shower and don’t forget to switch from clear to opaque glass

The rooms on the second and third decks were somewhat larger, although with much nicer views.  These cabins either had French balconies (basically floor to ceiling picture windows) and actual verandas with two chairs and a small table. There are also a handful of suites with separate living rooms and bedrooms (which cost twice as much as our semi-submerged stateroom).  Under the right circumstances, I’d think about upgrading to a French balcony to get the extra light. I don’t think the verandas are worth the extra expense, though, because it’s not clear when you’d be sitting there; you don’t really want to be planted on one side of the ship when the boat is cruising (given that there are sights on both sides of the river bank); worse, when the boat is docked, it’s likely as not to be tied up to another Viking ship so there is no view at all except for the cabin of another ship.

Given the wide variety of prices, it’s interesting that everyone is treated the same regardless of what deck they’re on.  I suppose this is an American conceit — that everyone is equal.  This is not like the airlines with their first class and economy section.  Regardless of how much we paid, we all ate the same food, had access to the entire ship and went on the same tours. So, yay democracy!

The Ship Itself

If a big ocean cruise is like a floating resort, a Viking River Cruise is like a floating boutique hotel.  The ship only has space for 190 passengers and offers none of the features that attract folks to a rowdier ocean cruise (i.e., no casinos, climbing walls, pools, or daiquiri bars).

As nice as it was, this is not a high-end luxury cruise.  Their target market seems to be the upper 5% not the upper 1%. Nevertheless, the common spaces were casually elegant and great places to hang out.  The ship has three decks of common areas.  The top deck is an outdoor space with deck chairs and tables that extends the full length of the vessel.  When you’re up there you understand why Viking calls them “longboats.” It takes a long time to get from aft to stern.  This is where you want to be when there’s daytime cruising and you want to see both shores of the river.

The next deck down houses the lounge.  This is a fairly swanky bar with floor to ceiling windows from which you can also watch the passing scene.  It’s a mellow space during the day and the gathering place for all passenger briefings and the late-night entertainment.  Off and on throughout the day, we were treated to a pianist; he was a perfectly decent guy but for my taste, his repertoire was a little too heavy on show tunes and other American standards that you’d get in any dive piano bar.   Off the glassed-in lounge was an outdoor lounge where you could have casual meals or get patio bar service.  Also on this level was the “library,” which consisted of a bookcase of books and a few comfy chairs, and the Internet center, which comprised two wired PCs.

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The Lounge

Beneath the lounge was the main reception area and concierge desk attached to a large formal dining room (again, with floor-to-ceiling windows).

And that’s it in terms of amenities. When you weren’t touring on land, you basically had to entertain yourself by reading, looking out the window, taking a nap or drinking.  The ship does have Internet service but it was spotty (this was the most vocal complaint from the passengers).  I was never prevented — for long — from getting email or social media and I was able to access NYTimes.com (but not the WSJ.com), so I wasn’t as unhappy as some other passengers.

In terms of actual cruising, the ship spent a lot more time tied up at the dock then it did moving from place to place.  We cruised for one extended period during one afternoon, complete with narration of sights on the shore; we also cruised one day from 7:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. so we could experience a dramatic entrance into Budapest.  More often the cruises were at night.

A highlight of cruising was going through the locks.  I never knew the Danube had locks but there they are. We had to navigate nine of them on this voyage.  This was fascinating to watch for a couple of times.  After that, not so much.  We went through most of the locks at night anyway (which was actually a problem for me because the banging of the ship in the lock woke me up.)

How About the Food?

This is the question that everyone asks.  The food was fine, considering that we all ate at the same time.  My wife and I had all our meals on the ship (except for one lunch) and you could either eat off a menu in the dining room or have a buffet in the outdoor lounge.  Breakfast was the same every day: a big spread of egg-, yogurt- or bread-based choices, plus meat, cheese, muffins, smoked salmon, etc.

We never ate lunch in the dining room, preferring the casualness of the outside lounge, but the menu had three choices each day plus buffet options too.  Upstairs in the lounge we ate buffet-style with sandwiches, salads, soups, etc.

Dinner was at 7:00 p.m. each night in the dining room.  The daily menu had three first course options, three main course options (meat, fish and vegetarian) and multiple deserts.   And of course all the wine you could drink.

The food was uniformly good.  My main complaint was that — like the piano music — it was too Americanized.  A lot of steak and a lot of fish that people would recognize from home.  The one night we went completely exotic was the best night — an Austrian feast, with all local delicacies.

The advantage of this approach is that you almost certainly will not get a bad meal.  The downside is that you never get the thrill of finding a really great local restaurant and experiencing something out of your comfort level.  Another downside is that there was just too much food around all the time.  With so many options it was hard not to overeat at breakfast and lunch; and it was hard not to overindulge between meals, with a frequent afternoon tea, and cookies and coffee available 24-hours a day.

Your 150 New Best Friends

For me the most daunting aspect of the cruise was the prospect of interacting with a ship full of strangers for seven days.  I mean, what if someone wanted to talk to me!!  In the end I shouldn’t have worried because there was an unspoken etiquette that everyone would attempt to be friendly to everyone else.

Viking markets to Americans and the clientele was overwhelmingly USA.  I was not the only passenger who had been seduced by the Viking ads on Downton Abbey — this was a frequent refrain.  At least half the other passengers fell into one large demographic group: white, married, upper-middle-class, heterosexual, Americans aged 55-70 — the kind of people who would be interchangeable at a suburban country club.  Usually one spouse was retired, frequently both.

Outside this basic norm there was one single guy traveling alone, two Japanese-American couples, one large group of unattached women, one couple with a sulky teenage daughter, a British couple, a German couple, an interracial couple, a gay couple, a couple of dozen passengers over 70 or under 55 and then a handful of oddballs to add color.

We made it a point to eat with different people every night and in the end I feel like I learned more about America than I did about Europe.  Some of the people we met included:

  • A Japanese-American from Hiroshima who survived the atomic bomb because his father had moved the family outside the city limits several weeks before the attack.
  • A couple who’d raised their family in Fairbanks Alaska and have been on seven Viking river cruises.
  • A guy from New York who’d trained as a priest but became a lawyer for the New York State prison system, and a hard-partying couple from Texas whose son actually did become a priest.
  • Beekeepers from Maryland who use localized bee stings to treat arthritis.
  • A couple who’d lived in Santa Monica all their lives and whose daughter-in-law is in charge of costuming for several TV shows.
  • A perfectly happy couple from Charlottesville who were each on their third marriage and whose son was also on his third marriage. The husband was a HUGE Sound of Music fan who admitted to being videotaped several times dressed as Maria and singing and twirling, “the hills are alive…..”

Our strategy was to walk into dinner about five minutes late, identify a table with interesting-looking people and ask if we could join them.  They’d almost always be relieved they didn’t have to eat alone like the sad sacks in a junior high school cafeteria.  Twice we sat with two sets of couples who had gone on the cruise together, but instead of being fifth wheels, we found ourselves acting as new blood for four people who might have gotten a little tired talking to each other.

There was also a group of five couples who’d met last year on the Rhine River tour and enjoyed each other so much that they’d planned to go as a group this year. They always sat together and boisterously enjoyed themselves, becoming the de facto popular kids table.  My wife and I never got to be chummy enough with anyone to exchange email addresses or Facebook accounts but we still felt a pang of regret when the tour ended and we realized we’d never see these folks again, given that we all had these shared memories.

In Between Eating and Sleeping

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Budapest was beautiful, especially at night

Since the ship doesn’t spend a lot of time cruising and the passengers are very get-up-and-go types, the land tours are crucial to the success of the cruise.  I’d never appreciated the importance of a program director before, but on our ship, The Freya, our host was great.  The rarest of species — a funny German — Oliver was the glue that held the tour together.

The passengers met every night at 6:45 for Oliver’s 15 minute briefing on the coming day’s activities.  As part of the cruise package there were six daily tours and numerous additional ad-ons for special outings — concerts,  a winery tour, a chance to see palaces or the Lipizzaner stallions in Vienna, a visit to the Jewish quarter in Budapest.   We went on all the regular “included” tours, which usually left at 8:30 a.m. and lasted for two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours.  These tours usually involved a combination of bus and walking, with narration from local guides throughout.  The guides ranged from very good to excellent — the best ones were in the former Eastern Bloc countries of The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, who had grown up under communism, despised it, and were hilariously sardonic and cynical about their former regimes.  All of this made me grateful to have grown up in the U.S.  Being caught between the Nazis and Soviets, never mind their losses in World War I and the wars with the Ottomans, these countries have experienced a lot of tragedy.

Our stops were at a number of smallish cities I’d never heard of — Passau Germany, Lintz Austria, Durnstein Austria, Meltz Austria and Bratislava (the Capital of Slovakia) —  and two world capitals: Vienna and Budapest.  The half-day tours were fine for the smaller towns but not really adequate for the big cities.  Between the half-day tour and the half-day of free time, we only scratched the surface in Vienna and Budapest and of course, we never explored any of the local restaurants.

Still, everywhere we went was remarkable.  We had a full-day visit to Cesky Krumlov — an amazing little restored city of The Czech Republic that is like stepping back into a Disney fairy tale. Elsewhere we saw three gorgeous St. Stephan’s cathedrals, each more fabulous than the rest.  We visited a local winery. where we had an EXTREMELY convivial wine tasting. We saw an Monastery that was so sumptuous that it looked like a Tsar’s weekend palace.  Great stuff everywhere from a civilization that peaked 200 years ago.

Each night there was some kind of activity planned on the ship.  A lecture on Mozart, another lecture on Austrian history, a night of games, a dance party another night.  We skipped a lot of that, being too tired at 9:00 p.m. for those kind of activities (although somehow we managed to stay up past midnight watching The Sound of Music on our cabin TV. But that’s another story.)

Will We Do It Again?

Sure, I’d take another Viking River Cruise, although probably not right away.  I still want to see Prague and Berlin and not just for one day.  But the idea of floating down the Rhone or Rhine rivers through wine country sounds very enticing.  In the meantime, Poldark is returning to Masterpiece Theatre and we can reminisce about our cruise at the beginning of each episode.