A stunning cruise down the Danube
Tom Coogan winds through Vienna, Budapest and Salzburg on a luxury boat trip to remember.
Picture yourself inside an exquisite music box that chimes to the histories of the world's most beautiful cities as it floats idly by.
Sounds like the sort of opium inspired dream that would keep Sigmund Freud awake. But it is a very real experience, and one that is available aboard the River Beatrice ship, on which I spent seven days sailing along the Danube from bustling Budapest in Hungary, to picturesque Passau in Germany.
The soothing rhythms of the river carry no residues of the ravages of war, plague and conquest that characterise this critical corridor through Europe, on which empires rose and crumbled. However their stories are written majestically along its banks replete with magnificent castles, fortresses and cathedrals .
The signature of Uniworld, - which operates this celebration of indulgence - is six-star luxury; it must have taken me at least three seconds to be seduced. I embraced Anthony Bourdrain' s credo that: “your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
Budapest was an excellent starting point. Buda comprises the-hilly side of the city; Pest, is made up of the flatlands. Saint Stephen was the country's first king crowned on Christmas Day in the year 1,000. He keeps watch over his city from Castle Hill which today is a UNESCO world heritage centre.
The city boasts its own Champs Elysee leading up to the majestic Heroes Square. It is no wonder that Budapest is also known as the Paris of Eastern Europe. The city is a giddy union of East meets West and it sizzles with energy. Hungary succumbed to the spell of Hitler and came under the Jackboot in 1944. It was liberated by the Communists; alas the Russians loved its bath-houses and spas so much, they hung about until 1989.
On then we sailed intrepidly towards Vienna, freighted down with the finest wines and produce that the region has to offer in such abundance.
Vienna's remarkable contribution to music is inescapable. Johan Strauss junior's Blue Danube has sent couples sailing across dance floors for centuries. The Waltz was considered too risque a dance for the aristocracy until it was embraced by the delegations at the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Napoléon in 1814. One of the many privileged offerings on the cruise was an opportunity to take lessons in the Vienesse Waltz in the very room where Beethoven wrote his one and only opera Leonora. My heroic partner in this perilous exercise was Uniworld's Carole Carmody, who is happily learning to walk again.
A curious fact about the “City of Music” in which Beethoven lived for decades is that he was forced to move home up to 40 times because the locals were driven berserk by the din he made while becoming the world's most renowned composer.
River cruising is a uniquely relaxing experience the waters of the Danube have a tranquilizing effect on the senses, and when one augments this with the copious vintage wines on offer one could easily find oneself stupefied. To avert such dangers an ingenious programme of events is offered daily. The workout required to merely navigate one's way through the assortment of cutlery necessary to do justice to the exhaustive and imaginative evening meal was sufficient for some.
On we sailed to the delightful town of Durnstein. Here we indulged in a wine tasting at the Nikolahof vineyard in Wachau. We played alcoholic bingo working our way through the list. Parts of the cellars were built by the Romans some 2,000 years previously, a sobering thought in itself. Later, Peter, the ship's well-being manager, took us on a 33km bicycle ride through the Wachau Valley where the apricot bushes were in full bloom. Cycling is an excellent way to remind oneself of the consequences of not being able to say no.
The following day found us in Salzburg which owes its name to the salt mines that lie under the Bavarian Alps. It was near here, in the shelter of the mountains that Hitler built his Eagle's Nest and dreamed up the plans that would lead to 62 million deaths in World War II.
Amadeus Mozart was born here and his prodigious abilities at the age of five were sufficient to enchant the local Bishop Prince Colloredo to finance a European tour of a far more beneficial nature.
Despite his genius and unrivalled collective works, these days he vies with Julie Andrews for the position of the city's most enduring icon.
The fine dining, the carefully chosen wines, the camaraderie, and the consummate professionalism of staff makes this cruise a very special experience. Alas, all dreams come to an end eventually including river reveries. Our final destination was the beautiful city of Passau in Germany. Here we embarked on a river hike and visited a beer garden.
It was a relaxed way of easing us out of the hypnotic spell that the Danube seems to cast.
Enchanting Danube all-inclusive eight-day luxury river cruise prices start from €2449. This six-star river cruise experience includes seven nights in a riverview stateroom; return airport transfers; all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks), Captain's Farewell Gala dinner and a fine dining experience; and unlimited onboard drinks including wine, beer, cocktails, minerals, tea and coffee. Also included is a full programme of daily excursions, evening onboard entertainment, signature lecture and free internet and Wi-Fi. Flights are approximately €199pp with Aer Lingus.