Cruising the Blue Danube
Steaming up the Blue Danube on the AmaDolce, this river cruise puts up some impressive numbers: we visit five countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic), including four European capitals (Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and Prague), in seven days, covering more than 400 miles of terraced vineyards, alpine vistas, eye-popping baroque abbeys and craggy peaks crowned with centuries- old castles. But the number that many travellers may just love the most? Zero. That’s the number of times each day you need to unpack and repack your suitcase. On this river cruise, Europe comes to you—a novel place and a new adventure waiting at the doorstep every morning. And that’s a beautiful thing.
One of several cruises offered by AmaWaterways (which recently won recognition as the best luxury river cruise company by Luxury Travel Advisor), the springtime Romantic Danube cruise is a surprisingly intimate experience. Far from the massive mega-liners that ferry passengers around the Caribbean, river cruise ships are fairly small vessels by comparison; the AmaDolce holds just 148 cruisers and is long and low enough to sneak under relatively squat bridges, meaning it is often able to dock right in the center of town. Cozy lounges provide a great setting for passengers to get to know one another and enjoy the local musicians who entertain cruisers on many evenings.
From the moment you step on board, you will be treated to a five-star experience, one where staff pay great attention to detail.
AmaWaterways offers a fleet of new ships with larger staterooms than most other river cruise lines. Most rooms include balconies and all are equipped with an entertainment system that provides high-speed Internet access, 12 television channels and a wide array of movies on demand, all free of charge. Washrooms feature spa-grade amenities and triangular showers, which are specially designed to conserve space while allowing cruisers enough room to raise their arms without bumping the sides.
The ship’s small size also means there’s no space for cold storage, so meals on board are always fresh. At every port of call, two or three chefs make an early-morning visit to the local food market to buy provisions. Once purchased, these fresh ingredients are combined to create delicious meals that reflect the local cuisine in the region where you’re sailing, from goulash to bratwurst to schnitzel. Wines are also sourced locally and free-flowing, topped up just like water at the dinner table, if you so desire.
The beauty of this cruise is that you actually spend relatively little time on board—much of the sailing takes place as you sleep and each morning presents a new destination to explore (excursions are included in the cruise cost).
The Danube, Europe’s second longest river, runs almost 1,800 miles from its headwaters in Germany’s Black Forest all the way down to the Black Sea. We embarked in Budapest, a city of steep cliffs and soaring spires that dramatically straddles the river and was originally three towns—Buda, Óbuda and Pest—before they were linked by the famous Chain Bridge and officially united in the 19th century. Historically part of both the Ottoman (Turkish) and Habsburg (Austrian) empires, it’s a place where east meets west. The tour includes the city’s hilltop castle, sweeping and grand Heroes’ Square and Hungary’s domed national parliament buildings, a truly breathtaking structure set on the banks of the Danube.
A couple of days upriver from Budapest, Vienna looks every bit the imperial capital that it once was. The former home of the Habsburg family, who ruled a vast multinational empire that covered great chunks of Europe, it is a city of palaces, cathedrals and other emblems of royal power. A highlight is the approximately 300-year-old Schönbrunn Palace, the exquisite baroque and rococo summer home of the Habsburgs; the family would routinely decamp central Vienna to spend the warm months in Schönbrunn’s 1,441 rooms with their 1,500 servants.
While grand is good, cruisers often feel that it’s the smaller towns along the way that end up stealing their hearts. Dürnstein is especially charming, an Austrian town of fewer than 1,000 people, with sloping cobblestone streets and a bright blue town clock that’s straight out of a storybook. After a brief walking tour, we assembled in a café for fresh bread, chocolates and a tasting of local reds and whites, then worked it off by climbing to the ruins of a castle that is in the slow process of becoming part of the rocky peak that looms high over the village, a castle where the legendary King Richard the Lionheart was briefly imprisoned several centuries ago.
Salzburg is also a favourite among the cruisers. Set on the edge of the Alps, the city is famous for three things: its mountain vistas, being the hometown of Mozart and The Sound of Music. Our walking tour included all three: we passed the tall yellow building in the centre of town where Mozart was born, saw the palace garden where some of the “Do-Re-Mi” singing and dancing scenes from the movie were filmed and wandered through
the passageways and pedestrian shopping streets where one can find everything from excellent Austrian sausage to savory chocolate to high-end jewelry.
Tiny Vilshofen served as our disembarkation port, and this Bavarian town also entertained us. On our last evening on the boat, we gathered by the river for local brew, sweet fried bread and a
healthy dose of music by a German folklore band. From there, we boarded a motor coach for Prague, our final destination. The transfer took most of the day and included a stop in Regensburg, a larger Bavarian city founded by the Romans back in 179 AD.
Prague, like Budapest, is a city of spires— around 1,000 towers and spires, at last count, and the fact that it was left virtually untouched during the Second World War means that the city’s most historic and beautiful sites have remained (more or less) in their original form. These include the city’s famous Astronomical Clock, finished in 1410, which chimes every hour between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Old Town Square in dramatic fashion (a small skeleton ringing a bell while the biblical Twelve Apostles file past, as well as the Charles Bridge, a lovely span lined with statues that dates back to 1357. Standing in the centre of the bridge, the magnificent Prague Castle complex crowns the hill above Lesser Town on one bank, the dark towers and steeples of Old Town on the other.
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