River Cruise: Going with the flow on the Danube
Four countries in nine days? Well that sounds rather exhausting doesn't it?
Yet our odyssey, Hungary to Germany via Slovakia and Austria in less than 10 days, was as unruffled as the Danube itself in high summer as it cuts a wide and stately path though central and eastern Europe.
We were travelling in some style too, and so a little out of our comfort zone.
In recent years we had become too familiar with feckless independent travel where the main worry was making sure the rucksack was feather-light and shorts and T-shirts baggy and comfy.
Put simply, we cherish our independence and so really did not know what to expect on an all-inclusive luxury river cruise.
Would we have to dress for dinner? Would we have to sit at the same table each night, with the same people. Might we feel 'trapped,' - bit players among a relatively small cast of just 120 or so mainly older guests.
The worries melted away when an eclectic band of travelling companions of all ages, clients of the blue chip escorted vacation operators, Travel Department, gathered in the usual haphazard Irish way in the arrivals hall at Budapest Airport.
Laszlo, our guide and companion for the next day in Budapest, before we went on board the Amadeus Brilliant was a charming and lugubrious Hungarian straight out of central casting, with a walrus moustache and a penchant for black humour that made us feel right at home.
When it came to his city, Laszlo, a former senior airline executive, was a fount of knowledge and a born raconteur. He also gave us a wonderfully laid-back overview of the adventures ahead.
That night we stayed in a city-centre hotel. It was to be the hottest night of our holiday - well over 30c - and many of the 25 or so Irish guests reported the following morning that the air-conditioning was sketchy, though ours worked fine.
But a wonderful breakfast replenished tired limbs after our late-night arrival, and we were left to our own devices for the morning, taking a stately promenade into the sultry heat of downtown Budapest.
Later we gathered again for a relaxing air-conditioned jaunt in a coach through the city's main sights and finally gathered above the city for wonderful cream pastries, strong coffee and ice cold Hungarian beers.
On arrival on board, each guest had their suitcases whisked away (this was a rucksack-free holiday, after all) and were briskly brought to their cabin by one of the female stewards all with impeccable English. No pesky waiting around to "register." Amadeus Brilliant is one of a number of vessels operated by the family-owned Lueftner Cruises, who are among the best-known organisers of river cruises on European waterways, and have been in business for more than three decades.
The cabin was extremely impressive - spacious, well appointed and with a large sliding picture window, perfect for watching the world go by.
Top quality linen, plenty of storage space and a soothing colour palette, gave the cabin a 5-Star feel.
It was hard to concentrate on a gritty crime novel when there was a fairytale of hill-top castles and forts floating by in glorious technicolour.
That's one of the major differences of a river cruise compared with a sea cruise. Around every bend of the Danube, a new vista presented itself and I could happily have stayed in the cabin for hours looking out the window.
That night we attended the obligatory safety briefing and pep talk from the captain and enjoyed a sumptuous dinner. Also on board was a group of French Canadians, a large contingent of Germans and a smaller smattering from Sweden and Denmark, as well as a few couples from China and Japan.
Guests stayed with their own group but you could sit at a table of your own choosing and we tended to move around during the week.
Breakfast was a buffet, though you could order eggs of your choice from one of the most attentive staff.
Lunch and dinner were waiter-service with wine included gratis with the evening meal.
There was live music each night. We Irish were shown up a bit by a number of couples from the Far East who put on amazing displays of ballroom dancing, foxtrot, tango and quickstep.
Staff were well trained, friendly and extremely professional. Drinks after dinner were signed for, to be settled up at the end of the cruise and were reasonable in price - a little lower than Irish prices, we found.
Generally given the standard of accommodation, food and the sheer pleasure of the all-inclusive cruise experience, the entire trip represented very good value for money.
There was also tea, coffee and pastries in the late afternoon and it took a will of iron not to enjoy the hospitality in full. I have pitiable levels of resolve on holidays and packed on the pounds - seven in nine days. Yikes!.
After a wonderful night time cruise of Budapest, the Amadeus Brilliant serenely headed up the Danube. Some time during the night or early morning we crossed the border into Slovakia and after breakfast boarded a coach that whisked us into the capital Bratislava.
This was one of a number of optional bus and walking tours that were available to guests at relatively modest additional cost. We opted to take four tours during the nine days and were glad we did so.
The history of this part of central and eastern Europe has been both turbulent and complex and the tour guides - different for each city - were professional and knowledgeable.
For older guests, the escorted coach tours (all air-conditioned) took the hard work out of sightseeing. For example, we visited Bratislava Castle, situated on a plateau overlooking the city. It would have been an arduous uphill trek for seniors, but the coach brought guests to the front gates to enjoy spectacular views over the city and both Austria and Hungary beyond.
We certainly packed in a lot during our Danube river cruise. On arrival in Vienna we decided to skip dinner on board and do our own thing taking a taxi into the historic city centre around the cathedral while other guests went into the city to enjoy a Mozart recital.
Salzburg was a delight and that particular walking tour of the achingly pretty heart of Mozart's home town also included a wonderful lunch in a typical Austrian restaurant.
Some of the smaller cities proved an unexpected delight, Passau in the heart of Bavaria is known as the 'City of Three Rivers' with the Danube joined by the River Inn from the south and the River Ilz from the north and that confluence of three rivers has historically caused severe flooding problems - most recently in June 2013. Its history also includes the ignominy of being the site of three sub-camps of the infamous Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp during the war.
The medieval centre of Regensburg in Eastern Bavaria is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - testimony to the city's status as the cultural centre of southern Germany in the middle ages.
It's a must-see city and I would heartily recommend the tour of this picture perfect town which is rightly regarded as among the top sights and travel attractions in Germany
Low water levels in the Danube meant our river cruise was slightly truncated. In high summer there is always a chance this might happen.
For us it meant that the Amadeus Brilliant could not make the journey between Passau and Regensburg so coach transfers were arranged and it made little difference to the overall enjoyment of these two lovely cities.
It did mean we had a slightly longer coach journey to our final destination of Munich after we spent one final night on board for the captain's dinner.
This was an excuse to get dolled up. The dress code for this gala night was smart casual and at this stage most of the Irish guests had become old friends.
We stayed the following night in Munich after a whistlestop tour of the city including the BMW museum. That last night we enjoyed a final meal together in an atmospheric Bavarian Bierkeller - the perfect full stop to a truly memorable holiday.
Three to try
One of the smallest places we visited on our Danube river cruise and one of the most delightful. This picture perfect Austrian village in the Krems-Land district is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the Wachau region and also a well-known wine growing area. The village is just a few minutes walk from where the Amadeus Brilliant ties up. The region is famous for its fine Reislings.
Stephansdom, or St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, is a highlight of any tour of the Austrian capital and sits in the centre of a large pedestrianised area full of high end shops and cafés where they serve the best apple strudel. It is said that Beethoven discovered the true extent of his deafness when he saw pigeons flying from the campanile of St Stephen's as the bells called the faithful. The great composer could not hear the bells toll.
In the centre of this pretty city stands the historic sausage kitchen which claims to be the oldest public cook house in Europe. We recommend asking for a "selection", which includes a variety of the locally produced sausages served with mustard and sauerkraut. In the summer you can eat outside on wooden benches and enjoy a local beer. Not the "wurst" sausages we've ever tasted. In fact, they were nearly the best.
Danube river cruise. March 31 incl. Munich, Vienna and Budapest - six nights €1,299 (price Incl tours of Munich, Budapest and Vienna and the Schonnbrun Palace). April 4 Danube River Cruise incl. Budapest, Bratislava and Munich, five nights, €999. Incl city tour of Bratislava, Munich & Budapest. April 20 Classical Danube River Cruise, nine nights €1,799. Incl. city tour of Vienna, Bratislava, Munich, Budapest, and Schonnbrun Palace. June 25 Danube River Cruise; Munich, Vienna and Budapest six nights €1,399. Incl tours of Vienna, the Schonnbrun Palace, Munich & Budapest. June 29 Danube River Cruise including tours of Budapest, Bratislava and Munich, five nights €1,199. Other optional tours available.
See traveldepartment.ie. Tel:01 6371650
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