Saturday 10 December 2016

No need to feel blue on a Danube cruise

A well-organised floating holiday with a group of strangers can be fun, finds Liadan Hynes, among the fairytale castles of Hungary, Austria and Germany

Published 06/02/2012 | 06:00

As a rule, I tend to dislike group activities with strangers. Music festivals, gym classes, evening courses. Any sort of prescribed, mass participation activity is anathema to me. So I approached my first trip of organised group travel, living in close quarters with strangers, with a certain amount of trepidation.

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As it happened, it took less than an hour to cast such prejudices aside. On our way to the dining room after arrival, we encountered a charming American woman in obvious distress over her lost luggage. We got chatting, and next thing I knew we were all having dinner together.

Our point of departure was Budapest, our boat docked on the Danube in the shadows of Buda Castle. The MS AmaLegro river cruise boat bears more of a resemblance in silhouette to an extremely luxuriously appointed barge than your typical gargantuan cruise liner.

It sits low in the water, which means you can lie reading on your bed and watch the water and land swishing by -- a river cruise provides endless beautiful scenery rather than boring sea horizons.

Our boat's capacity was 148 -- by the end of the week we'd chatted, if even briefly, with most of our fellow passengers. I thought this might feel claustrophobic, but it didn't.

Our first morning involved a walking tour of the medieval Castle District in Budapest, a heritage site which enjoys restricted access, as most cars are banned. Its elevated height provides stunning views from the famous Fisherman's Bastions of both the Buda and Pest districts.

If I'm honest, I had harboured a certain snobbery about this sort of pre-arranged travel. It was for the sort of uncultured tourists who demand everything watered down and easily digested. One day in, I realised the joys of a schedule someone else has researched, with each city's greatest hits served up on a plate, hassle free. This is particularly true of river cruise travel; you barely notice the amount of ground you're covering, as you're either sleeping, eating, or enjoying the views, from the on-deck hot tub if you so desire. Plus you're spared the hassles of checking in and out, and packing and unpacking, that six destinations in seven days would usually entail.

After a rather action- packed morning, it was back on board for lunch. I'm told that by cruise standards, eating on the MS AmaLegro was restrained. The food was uniformly delicious. It's surprising how quickly three-course meals, three times a day, become the norm. Breakfast was anything from cereal, to pastries to a full fry. Lunch and dinner offered three options for main -- fish, meat or vegetarian, one of which was always a local speciality. You could also choose from salad, soup, sorbet, sweet and cheese courses.

We arrived in Vienna during breakfast on day two, and embarked on a bus and walking tour. The Ringstrasse is almost like driving through a film studio lot peppered with nothing but fantastically grand old buildings.

That evening, we took in a concert, a lovely programme of Mozart and Strauss performed by the Vienna Residence Orchestra. It was at this point that I realised we had become truly institutionalised in the ways of group travel.

"Leave your coats on the bus, don't bother queuing for the cloakroom, the bus will pull up to the door afterwards," our guide urged, while handing us vouchers for our pre-paid interval beverages. I began to wonder how we would cope by ourselves with the normal day-to-day tasks of life post cruise.

The following day, I decided on a lazy day. My mother and our new American friend headed off on the tour to the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, also in Austria.

After a run on the boat's treadmill to stave off actual obesity, I spent the afternoon reading in the lounge and enjoying the beautiful alpine scenery.

Our third country of the week was Germany. While Budapest and Vienna were impressive and beautiful in a grand way, Germany was surprisingly cosy, almost fairy tale-ish.

Passau is a picturesque university town. I was a little churched out by this stage, but St Stephen's Cathedral, a baroque church which boasts the largest organ outside the United States -- more than 17,000 pipes -- would impress even the most jaded palate.

Regensburg, in Bavaria, was, by mutual agreement, the high point of the trip.

"It's just like Disneyland," our American friend exclaimed, looking rather embarrassed. But she was right. The former home of both Oskar Schindler and the current Pope is one of the few German cities not bombed in World War Two. Nuremberg's old city, which we visited the next day, did not enjoy the same luck, but, rather enterprisingly, they took an old photograph from the Twenties and recreated the area, complete with dilapidated, listing old buildings.

If you're lucky enough to visit Regensburg in the run- up to Christmas, the town's very own palace, the 500-room Schloss St Emmeram, home of Princess Gloria Thurn und Taxis and her family, opens its grounds to the public for a Christmas market for the month of December.

The goods on sale were more authentic than other markets, and I still remember with fondness the delicious sausage roll -- Regensburg is home to the oldest sausage kitchen in Germany, dating back to 1135.

On our second last night, we had a gala farewell dinner, so after some shopping we high-tailed it back to the boat to get ready.

We had packed in preparation of almost black tie each evening, only to find that wearing a tracksuit to dinner would have barely raised an eyebrow. Americans are not big on dressing up; jeans and T-shirts at all times were perfectly acceptable. After a week travelling in extreme comfort, we decided to pack all our glamour into one night, and out came the high heels. We were still the only people wearing dresses.

Getting there

Liadan Hynes travelled on the Christmas Markets River cruise courtesy of Sunway Holidays. River cruises are available on the Danube, Main, Rhine, and Mosel rivers, as well as the Douro River in Portugal, the Rhône in France, and the Volga-Baltic waterways in Russia. Sunway has a special offer for the seven- night Romantic Danube cruise departing on 18 April from €1,989 per person including flights, transfers and all-inclusive cruise and sight-seeing programme. www.sunway.ie or phone Sunway 01-2886828

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