Sunday 4 December 2016

River Cruise: A mystery solved on the Blue Danube

uniworld's your oyster

Published 04/05/2015 | 02:30

Just cruising: The 'River Beatrice' sails majestically past the picturesque town of Durnstein in Austria
Just cruising: The 'River Beatrice' sails majestically past the picturesque town of Durnstein in Austria
Anna Coogan gets a spectacular view of the city from Buda Castle
Sachertorte
Passau Glass Museum
Durnstein
Durnstein

Style, attention-to-detail, and the height of service are all in store for Anna Coogan on a cruise through Austria and Hungary.

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It's one of those occasions when you know you should know a name, but your brain isn't computing very well. And Mrs Tollman's name keeps popping up on board the River Beatrice while we're cruising along the Danube, visiting Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Salzburg.

It's clear from early on that her fame has something to do with her cooking, especially her sesame fried chicken with a crispy coating, and which comes with a sweet chilli sauce.

The sign on the buffet had read Mrs Tollman's Sesame Fried Chicken.

Later on, while I'm helping myself to salad, I come across Mrs Tollman's Favourite Salad Dressing, which turns out to be very flavoursome too.

I imagine her below deck in a chef's hat whipping up tasty morsels for the ship's guests. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection boasts the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the river cruise industry - and it's no exaggeration to say that every time I turn around someone is asking if they can/do/get anything for me.

There isn't a quarter hour while we're stretched out on cushioned sun loungers on deck and sailing through the picturesque Wachau Valley in Austria on a sunny afternoon, that someone doesn't offer their services.

The cocktail of the day was Negro Vino, and the non-alcoholic cocktail was Apple Sparkle. All food and drink is inclusive on the ship, and while I settled on Diet Coke, I still felt ridiculously pampered.

When it got a little blowy, I was offered a heated blanket.

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Anna Coogan on an excursion in Budapest

We embark in Budapest, and if it's true that we are all products of our environment, then the chances are if you'd been born in Budapest, you would be playing the violin (every 15th Hungarian is a classically trained musician and the city is home to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music), baking sweet and savoury strudels once you'd finished playing your violin, and enjoying regular and relaxing thermal spa baths to relax your bow hand at the famous Gellert Baths.

As visitors, we got the pleasure of popping to the spectacular Buda Castle on the hilly Buda side of the city, the ancestral home of the Hungarian kings, and from which we enjoyed spectacular views down onto the city.

The Pest side is on the east bank of the Danube, and is the more commercial part of the city. There were way more shops than when I first visited the city over 10 years ago, and when Budapest was much greyer and dingier. Today it's a beautifully restored city.

Excursions to every city on our Danube tour were arranged by Uniworld and included in the price, and given by English-speaking locals. Without fail their English was so good that their jokes were funny ha ha as opposed to "have you any idea what she means?" funny.

Our next stop was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and which has cobbled stoned streets through the old part of town, and a musical heritage which includes past visits from Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Classical music is an on-going theme, and on a couple of nights classical musicians entertained us on board the River Beatrice.

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Sachertorte in Vienna

My heart was won over on our excursion to Vienna "my architecture is better than yours" Austria - when our guide told us to look to the left to see the stunning St Stephen's Cathedral (whoever built the Pro-Cathedral was clearly off on a lot of tea breaks), to the right to see the Museum Quarter, to the left again to see the grand Vienna State Opera, and the right to see the Hofburg Imperial Palace, and so forth.

They were all built with great imperial pomp and pomposity, and look utterly marvellous, and I thought I would require an exorcism my head was spinning so much from all there was to see.

It was a real treat to go to a concert later that evening at the Palais of the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects, and to hear Mozart and Strauss performed and see Viennese waltz dancers swirl about. Earlier in the day we'd gone to the Albertina gallery to see Degas's naked women and Picasso's jumbled post-impressions.

It was later and while we were relaxing in the ship's cheerful lounge (think near comatose) that the mystery of Mrs Tollman finally began to unravel.

I was told the 162-guest River Beatrice - launched by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection in 2009 - and which has already received many accolades for its sumptuously luxurious interiors, is named after Mrs Tollman.

The ship is hugely stylish, and has a magnificent white chandelier which hangs over the welcoming lobby which was handmade in the Vecchia Murano glass factory in Venice, Italy. There's original art work on display throughout the ship, and the walls are lined with silk wallpaper which makes you just want to run your hands along them. The custom-made carpet is a real pleasure to both look at and walk on. Furniture is ornate and flamboyant and very, very comfortable.

Cabins/staterooms have made-to-order English Savoir beds (designed originally for the Savoy and Claridges Hotels in London).The bathroom has floor-to-ceiling marble, L'Occitane bath products, thick towels, and a sumptuously soft bathrobe.

A favourite spot was the Captain's Lounge and Library, which is decorated sedately in beige and cream, has a juice bar, beautiful views out the rear of the ship, and a very hushed atmosphere. We were a bit bold and had a rowdy game of Scrabble.

Beatrice Tollman is the President and founder of The Travel Corporation, which owns the company Uniworld, which runs the River Beatrice.

I only discovered the full significance of Mrs Tollman when I was later reading Independent.ie, and catching up on news from home. The story I was reading was about the reopening of Ashford Castle.

Read more: €75m spent on Ashford Castle labour of love

It transpired The Travel Corporation also own the Red Carnation Hotel Collection - which are the new owners of Ashford Castle.

I asked around and discovered Beatrice had personally overseen the decor inside the River Beatrice, so I'm not surprised to see the new interiors of Ashford Castle are so spectacularly swish.

And having sampled Mrs Tollman's food (she has also written a cookery book), I'd go as far as to say the restaurants in Ashford Castle are in very safe hands.


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Durnstein, Austria

Other excursions on offer in Austria included to the village of Durnstein and Melk Abbey, and while many travellers opted to go to Salzburg, I went to Linz which was the European Capital of Culture 2009, and is vying eagerly with the other cities of culture on the Danube.

The following is a sample of the food which was served as part of the 'Saveur Menu' (every morsel of food from Eggs Benedict in the morning to a club sandwich was totally delicious); onion tart with Limburger cheese, grilled prawn with creamy horseradish sauce, Black Forest ham with cornichons, mushroom risotto with lobster, and slow-roasted beef tenderloin with peppercorn sauce,.

We ate it all. I'll just say portion sizes were dainty and designed to encourage us to enjoy everything. (I will not say we were fast becoming very porcine-like at the table.) But you really do have to throw discipline overboard and just go with the flow of food when you're on a river cruise.

Style, attention-to-detail, and the height of service are three things which the River Beatrice prides itself on. When I walked down corridors, members of staff immediately stopped whatever they were doing and stood with their backs to the wall until I had passed. I did wonder how long it took Kate Middleton to get used to this level of service when she became Duchess of Cambridge.

River cruises are expected to be one of leading tourism trends this year. They're not cheap, but everything on board tends to be included - and their growing popularity is seen as an indication that luxury holidays are back on the agenda, with rivercations being one of the holiday options set to replace staycations.

They're marketed at age 60 and over- though some offer 'family cruises' in July.

There's one big drawback however - you get very used to having things handed to you, and then all too soon, it's back to reality.

Book the best value cruise holidays with Independent Travel here!

Getting there

Enchanting Danube all-inclusive 8 day luxury river cruise prices start from €2,249 per person sharing a category 2 stateroom. This 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 on-board entertainment, signature experiences, all gratuities, and free Internet and Wi-Fi. Flights are from approximately €199pp with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com). Call Uniworld on their free-phone number 1800 98 98 98, log onto Uniworld.ie or visit your local travel agent.

Three to try

Sweet as sacher

Our guide had warned us that the Sachertorte might be a little bit dry, but you can't visit Vienna and not try out the local dessert. "It is why we eat it with cream" was his advice. There are many cafes around St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna where this chocolate cake is served, and sampling it makes for a lovely way to pass an hour, especially if the sun is shining. It's also an opportunity for people-watching in the Austrian capital.

Pause in Passau

The last stop on our river cruise was Passau in Germany, when the mood was more reflective and ripe for an interesting exhibition. Passau Glass Museum is home to the world's largest collection of European glass. There are over 30,000 exhibits from the various periods of glass art from Baroque, Rococo, Biedermeier, Art Nouveau and Art Deco right through to the Modern. Don't be a bull in a glass museum, tread carefully!

Delve into Durnstein

Durnstein is one of the smallest towns in Austria, and the River Beatrice docks right beside it. It's basically one long street, off which there are smaller picturesque streets, and only an estimated 800 people live there. It's one of the most visited places in the Wachau region because of its quaintness. It's also the starting point for a 17-mile cycle through the Wachau Valley which some of my fellow - and fitter - travellers embarked on.

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