Life Travel

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Danube river cruise floods the senses

Carol Hunt

Published 21/04/2014 | 02:30

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GLORIOUS: A panoramic view of Budapest, the starting point for the luxurious cruise along the River Danube. The city is a cultured imperial city, very conscious of its history
HISTORIC: Carol Hunt at Castle Hill, Budapest. The area is popular with tourists
Duernstein in the Wachau Valley

It's very early on a Monday morning and I'm not quite sure where I am. The soft white quilt I'm wrapped in is unfamiliar, as is the champagne bucket I can just about see on the dressing table, next to a jar of Austrian delicacies and an unopened bottle of Italian wine with two glasses perched in front.

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I peer through the curtains on my right and can just make out a Romanesque castle on the hill opposite. And between me and it is a wide swathe of softly rippling green-brown water. No, I haven't been bold and run away with a sailor; I've just woken up on the first morning of a luxurious river cruise on the Danube. And when I get my faculties in working order, I remember that we are docked on the Pest side of the city of Budapest, and from my French windows I can see, perfectly highlighted against a cold azure morning sky, the scenic rolling hills of Buda.

There's something comforting about having your very own cabin suite aboard a luxurious ship. Last night, I arrived onto Uniworld's River Beatrice (a 160-passenger river cruise ship) tired and hungry, and was immediately escorted to my stateroom. In all truth, I could stay here for a week. There's chocolate, fruit and wine, L'Occitane bath products, a pristine white bathrobe and slippers, lots of channels on the television, and even a pillow menu telling me which one is personally best for my ultimate comfort.

Frankly, I don't particularly care where the boat takes me – last night I dined and met Heiner, Ana and Vladimir, to name but a few of the friendly and professional crew, and I know that they would see me safely through the bowels of Hades, with sumptuous five-course meals accompanied by the very best of local wines and cocktails.

But there's work to do, and during what turns into a three-course breakfast (research, darling, research) I decide, as it's my first visit to Budapest, to take cruise manager Heiner's advice and plump for the panoramic city tour of Budapest rather than the walking one I had originally planned.

The short drive to Heroes' Square shows a city that isn't backwards about coming forwards. It may have been the second city – after Vienna – of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but Budapest has class and elegance; this is no middle-ranking medieval Eastern European city, but a cultured imperial capital very conscious of its historical glory.

There are castles, towers, neo-Gothic splendour and imposing baroque buildings; those with any appreciation of architectural beauty will be entranced. Heroes' Square is militarily impressive and rather intimidating in its overt triumphalism. Or so it appears to a citizen of Dublin, where all our monuments are apologies for tragic failures and dead martyrs.

Between the 36m stone column with the angel Gabriel at its summit, and the innumerable statutes of Magyar chieftains, princes and kings, I am suitably impressed at the military and imperialistic might of the Magyar Empire – albeit a little overawed by the overtness of the self-appreciation – who knew it was the Hungarians who defeated Napoleon?

The nearby Castle District is tourist heaven as it surpasses everything an Irish child thinks Fairytale Mitteleuropa should look like; Cinderella castles, Rapunzel turrets, saints, statues and churches, newly painted neo-Gothic peasant homes, shops and coffee shops serving Kaffee und Kuchen into which we dive for hot chocolate and pastries.

And yet there is a much darker history constantly peering through the beauty and elegance; in these streets, the Nazi German army, assisted by Hungarian fascist allies, made their last stand against the crushing juggernaut that was the Red Army.

Further up the picturesque hill, St Matthias Church looms, and from its neo-Gothic heights the view across the Danube to the Gothic Revival-style Parliament Buildings (inspired by those of Westminster) on the other side is panoramic.

But Budapest is a city that must be walked and experienced – preferably with the help of a local. After lunch we are blessed with the company of a native Corkman, now settled in Budapest, who takes a few of us off to investigate the local sights, the impressive metro system, the opera house and some of the best bars I've ever visited. We walk and drink, talk and walk, and stop for another beer.

From Budapest, we sail on down the Danube, past Bratislava (visits are arranged by Heiner, for those who wish to see it) and on to Vienna. The beauty of travelling by river – apart from the joy of getting to new places without having to unpack and repack – is that when you dock, you are plonked right in the middle of the action.

We head off on an extended walking tour of this sumptuous city, see where Marie Antoinette was born in her mother the Empress Theresa's Winter Palace, listen to an organ recital in the favourite church of Viennese nobility, St Michael's, and get put in our place by Andreas, a haughty Viennese waiter who was not impressed with the laissez-faire timing of the Irish guests to his Imperial cafe.

Some of the group plump for waltzing classes – and what better place to learn the three-step than the home of the famous Strauss family?

We eat wiener schnitzel for lunch, drink local beer and fall in love with the tragic story of the beautiful and melancholic Elisabeth of Austria (Sisi), the Diana of her day, fated to die by assassination at the age of 62.

In the nearby Judenplatz (Jewish Square), I see five teenage boys dressed in elegant jackets and ties, reminiscent of posh English public schools. Our guide tells me they are training as waiters in the nearby Haus der Wiener Gastwirte, one of the oldest establishments in the Jewish quarter of the city (interestingly, 50 per cent of Austrian teenagers choose to train in trades rather than attend university and, consequently, are in apprenticeships from an early age).

Sadly, where over the centuries nearly a hundred synagogues were established in Vienna, only one, the Stadttempel, survived the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. And, confusingly for a denizen of the birthplace of Wellington, I am once again told that it was in fact the Austrians who defeated Napoleon. Once again, who knew?

In the evening, we attend a special Viennese concert – and come away dancing to Strauss and Mozart's sublime music.

The River Beatrice sails on and, the following morning in the ancient winery of Nikolaihof, deep in the Wachau valley (not far from the castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned on his return journey from the Crusades), young Nicholas shows us four massive oaken casks, each made to celebrate the birth of himself and his siblings. As heir to the family business, Nicholas explains that the farming philosophy of their vinery is bio-dynamic; without the use of chemicals, enzymes or yeast.

With all the fine wines, exquisite four-course meals and continual variety of patisserie treats on board, a little exercise was badly needed. So in the afternoon, a group of us let the ship take off without us as we cycled the 30-odd kilometres from Durnstein (a favourite secret haunt of Diana and Dodi) to Melk. For me, this was the highlight of the trip – to cycle along the banks of the Danube, through the lush green countryside and tiny picturesque villages of lower Austria was simply sublime.

Before we leave Austria for southern Germany, we dock in Linz – where both Adolf Hitler and Ludwig Wittgenstein attended school and where the Nazi Anschluss with Austria was announced – and from there spend an afternoon visiting the historic town of Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart and the Holy Grail of von Trapp family devotees.

It is picture-postcard tourist heaven, and I make sure to stock up on their famous Mozartballs – delicious dark chocolate balls of marzipan – but what I really love is the trek, the following day, from beautiful Passau, along the placid river Ilz, in the bucolic Bavarian countryside.

Our final goal and the reward for our efforts? The Biergarten where I am told that, in Bavaria, beer is considered so important, it is designated a food group. I'll drink to that.

The trip came to an end with a special dinner of fine dining in the company of the captain on board the River Beatrice. And for those of us eager to try and replicate the exquisite meals we had sampled during the week, an envelope of recipe cards were left in our staterooms.

I said goodbye to my stateroom, thanked the amazing staff and started plotting visits to all the new friends I had met on board.

This is only the beginning ...

Getting There

Enchanting Danube all-inclusive eight-day luxury river cruise prices start from €2,449 pp. This six-star river cruise experience includes seven nights in a riverview stateroom, return airport transfers, all meals and unlimited onboard drinks including wine, beer, cocktails, minerals, tea and coffee. Also included is a full programme of daily excursions, onboard entertainment, free internet and wi-fi. Flights are approximately €199pp with Aer Lingus. Experience Uniworld's new itinerary – Bordeaux, Vineyards and Chateaux, departing May 25, for as little as €1,799 pp. Call Uniworld on (01) 775-3803, log on to Uniworld.ie or visit your local travel agent.

Take Three

Food and Wine

The River Beatrice had an Epicurean Adventurer Program (they spell it the American way) that shone a spotlight on the region's wines and cuisines. The scheme included private wine- tasting in the Wachau Valley, a saffron workshop with a Wachau saffron grower, a luscious Austrian dessert-making demonstration and a special food and wine pairing dinner. Yum.

Exercise

Cycling through the Wachau Valley – a delight of colourful vineyards, tiny medieval villages on romantic cobblestones by the banks of the Danube. Between Durnstein and Melk lies the tiny St Michael's Church. Originally built to protect the Wachau from the Turks, the church holds the skull remains of locals who died during various plagues – as a warning and reminder to those who followed.

Culture

Ruin Pubs are located in formerly abandoned buildings and are very popular hotspots. Most are open year-round, but some are temporary outdoor pubs, open from May to September. Live music with the best Hungarian bands, charming retro decor, a unique atmosphere and late opening hours make them perfect for party. We went to Szimpla and I'd fly back for a weekend just to visit it again.

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