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Beautiful Budapest seen from the ship’s restaurant.
I was in awe, contemplating the wonders of history as I gazed up the hill to the ruins of a castle, where English monarch Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192.
In contrast to King Richard’s plight, I was enjoying a glass of wine with new-found friends, as we watched the passing countryside of Austria’s Wachau wine valley from the comfort of the lounge onboard Viking River Cruises’ longship Viking Vilhjalm.
This was last May. I was on my first European river voyage, sailing the Danube on Viking’s eight-day, four-country “Danube Waltz” sojourn through Central Europe. Our itinerary included the glorious capitals of Budapest and Vienna. And even better, the surprises of lesser-known gems like Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic and Bratislava in Slovakia.
Of course, just cruising — spoiler alert, the Danube is not that blue — was a joy, its riverbanks lined with age-old villages and castles, monasteries, forests, and vineyards. As a bird enthusiast, I was caught off guard as the river widened dramatically and I spotted a flock of some 50 white waterfowl on the distant shore. Grabbing my binoculars (borrowed from the ship’s friendly staff) — OMG — they were swans! I didn’t know! This is where swans come from. They’re indigenous.
“We used to eat them, but not anymore,” Jochen Kargl, the ship’s Austrian program director, said with a twinkle in his eye.
I was also impressed at how calm the Danube was. So calm my stateroom felt like a hotel room.
And how practical a river cruise is from a visitor point of view. As the region’s main freeway so to speak for millennia — the Vikings, Crusaders, and countless traders all sailed the Danube — many of the cities’ historic centers hug the riverbank where the ship docks. In many ports, it was a short walk into town in addition to taking the guided shore excursions that are included in the cruise fare. Numerous optional tours add to the variety of experiences.
Every port brought surprises. Surveying the town of Cesky Krumlov from the heights of Cesky Krumlov Castle was a true storybook moment and made the hour-plus motorcoach ride from the ship docked in Linz, Austria, through the mountain tunnels of the Chez Republic worth it. Hidden away in remote south Bohemia, the castle’s layout, Trompe l’oeil frescoes and architectural details are original from the 14th to 19th centuries. As in a fairytale, I crossed the short path over its ancient moat and into the narrow streets and red-tile roofed buildings of town. Cute cafes and boutiques — garnets, a local specialty, caught my eye — made my day.
Gottweig Abbey was another highlight. Founded in 1015 AD, the Benedictine monastery sprawls across a hilltop above the Danube and city of Krems, Austria. Sparkling apricot wine, a regional specialty, made a tasty introduction to its palatial beauty. The three-story Imperial Staircase, crowned by a spectacular ceiling fresco (Vatican worthy, according to many) led to room after room with opulent furnishings, frescoes, and paintings. “Napoleon slept here,” our guide said, as we entered a room with an excellent valley view. I was pleased to see that the Benedictines don’t dwell on the past. In addition to us, a group of motorcycle riders were convening within the immense courtyard.
The petite size of Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic, made exploring it easy from the ship. The walking tour took us from Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral, site of 19 royal coronations, through one of the only surviving medieval gateways and into the charming street life. Gargoyles, whimsical Instagram-worthy statues — I posed with Napoleon’s Army Soldier — gift shops and cafes prove Bratislava loves travelers as much today as when it was an ancient stop on the Amber Road trade route linking southern and northern Europe.
In Passau, Germany, we also walked right from the ship, streets lined with Italianate-style buildings, to 17th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral where we enjoyed a stirring concert (just for Viking passengers) played on Europe’s largest pipe organ.
What happens onboard? With only 100 passengers, the ambiance is congenial and cozy. The forward Lounge & Bar and Aquavit Terrace is where everyone gathers for everything: cocktails with piano music, presentations, and live entertainment from the local regions. Floor-to-ceiling windows ensure we never miss the view. The restaurant also sports floor-to-ceiling windows and cuisine that is refined and delicious. The open-air top deck is ideal for cruise days, with plenty of chairs and a putting green, walking track, and chef’s herb garden. The staterooms are spacious and modern, many with balconies, and most with floor-to-ceiling windows.
To learn more, visit www.vikingrivercruises.com.