Last summer, I had my first taste of European river cruising. Travelling up the Rhine, past great castles and quaint medieval towns, I realized why they say it’s a trip into the heart of Europe. So when my hosts, Viking River Cruises, asked if I wanted to go again, it didn’t take me long to say yes. And that’s why, in a week or so, I’ll be cruising the Danube on a second European river cruise.
If you’re new to river cruising, I always say it’s like ocean cruising — only different. You get a nice, comfortable cabin on a sleek, modern ship, good food, and a choice of excursions in every port. But there are a couple of hundred other people on board, not a couple of thousand, the beer and wine with your meals are included in your fare, and there are no Broadway shows. And instead of sailing the high seas, you’re following age-old routes along some of the world’s great rivers.
That’s a tale in itself, since many of the great cities of Europe grew up along the rivers — the superhighways of the past. And while the Rhine is the great river of Western Europe, the Danube is the ancient thoroughfare of Central Europe, connecting the capitals of what once was one of the world’s great empires. So cruising the Danube will be a trip into the Austro-Hungarian heartland.
My cruise, called the Danube Waltz, starts in Passau, Germany, a 2,000-year-old city that sits at the confluence of three rivers – the Inn, the Ilz and the Danube. We’ll spend two nights here, getting settled and exploring the old city. with its ancient streets and rococo façades. The daily walking tour — included in the fare, like most river cruise excursions — takes in the town hall, the opulent bishop’s residence, and the huge, baroque St. Stephan’s Cathedral, home to Europe’s largest pipe organ.
Then we’re off, cruising the Danube. First stop is Linz, Austria, where the day tour takes us into the Czech Republic to see the amazing Cesky Krumlov castle, set in an authentic medieval town with lovely views over the river.
Then it’s on to the town of Melk, at the base of the Wachau Valley, for a look at the famous Melk Abbey, with its dazzling interior and a spectacular collection of religious treasures accumulated over its hundreds of years of existence.
Next comes a cruise through the Wachau Valley itself, gliding past age-old vineyards and the castle where Richard the Lionhearted was once held captive for insulting Duke Leopold V. Later, I’ll tour one of the local wineries, for a chance to taste some of the crisp white wine those vineyards produce.
Then, a welcome return to Vienna, one of the cultural capitals of Europe and one of my favourite old world cities. We’ll walk the beautiful streets of the old city, visiting the vast Hofburg Palace and the iconic St. Stephan’s Cathedral. I’ll squeeze in a trip to the royal Schonbrunn Palace, too, and a bite at one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses. And in the evening, a concert featuring Vienna’s musical stars, Mozart and Strauss.
Day six brings us to Bratislava, capital of the Slovak Republic, and our first real taste of Central Europe. The city is easily walkable, so it will be an easy stroll through the old town, viewing elegant art nouveau houses and St. Martin’s Cathedral, where Hungarian kings were once crowned. Later, a cruise through the Danube Bend, one of the river’s most beautiful stretches.
And finally, we reach our destination: Budapest, with its spectacular, neo-Gothic parliament building commanding the Danube (below) and the old and new towns, Buda and Pest, facing each other across the river. Our tour will include highlights like the famous Chain Bridge, the state opera house, and the castle district. It’s a two-day visit, so I’ll have time to visit the famous mineral baths, and I’ve booked a tour to see Hungary’s famous Magyar horsemen show off their skills.
My ship on this cruise will be one of Viking’s trademark longships: the Freya, a sister to the Odin, from my last Viking cruise – you can get a good look at it here. These ships are specially designed for cruising the Danube and Europe’s other great rivers. There are windows everywhere, so you can watch the castles and vineyards slide by when you’re eating dinner, having a drink at the bar, or relaxing in your cabin.
Speaking of cabins, I’ll have a veranda stateroom like this one from my last cruise. With sliding glass doors that open onto the small verandah, I had a great view of the countryside rolling by. There are also staterooms with “French balconies” rather than full verandas, and lower-deck cabins with smaller windows if you want to save some money. At the other end of the scale, Viking longships offer “Explorer” suites with balconies that wrap around the stern of the ship.
Once we set sail, though, it will be all about the places, and the history, and the sights. This is new territory for me, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the cultural highlights of Austria and discovering the Eastern splendours of Hungary. Not to mention the river cruising itself: on my last cruise, I found just watching the towns and hillsides slide by was one of the most enjoyable experiences.
I’ve also booked a few days in Europe before and after the cruise, so you’ll be getting a glimpse of places like Salzburg, and who knows where else. So stay tuned: we’re cruising the Danube.
Photos of Viking Freya cruising the Rhine and Budapest’s Parliament building courtesy of Viking River Cruises