I felt there was a touch of serendipity to my impending trip on the River Danube aboard SS Maria Theresa. My middle name is Marie Therese. Enough said.
I've been on river cruises in the past and I fervently believe it's the way to go. A chance to travel from country to country and small town to big city without packing and unpacking and waiting around at airports.
We boarded Uniworld's Maria Theresa, in Budapest. That's another great thing about river cruising. The boats are often able to dock really close to the city itself so you can stroll into the centre.
My cabin was opulent; and there was plenty of storage room, hangers in abundance and a lovely little balcony to sit and watch the sights.
Budapest - made up of two original cities Buda and Pest - is a far more vibrant city than when I visited some years ago, although I loved it then too. The Chain Bridge connects the two original cities and is lit up spectacularly at night.
A cafe culture abounds and we were lucky enough to be there during blazing sunshine which encouraged the locals and tourists to soak up the atmosphere over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee in the many outdoor restaurants. We chose Parisi 6, very much a local restaurant in the city centre. A three-course meal of goulash soup with green paprika, followed by Hortogaby-style pancake with free range chicken, paprika and tomatoes, finished off with somloi galuska, a dessert with chocolate walnut cream on sponge cake, all came to the princely sum of €12.
There were three afternoon excursions from the boat. A panoramic city tour on a bus, a cycling tour or a 'do as the locals do' tour. I opted for the latter, which involved a metro ride to the Lehel Market. It was very much a market for the locals. Based in a purpose-built hall it housed an abundance of flowers, fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, paprika and salamis. You can buy a two-course meal for €3 and a large beer for €1 in the top-floor restaurants. Happy days... Back to the city centre and a break at Szamos Gourmet Palace for coffee and dobos (sinfully layered chocolate cakes with caramel on top).
There's so much to explore in Budapest. The Royal Palace, on Buda Hill, is visible from everywhere in Budapest and is a spectacular sight. First built in 1265, it has been ruined and rebuilt many times over the years. It is now home to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. A stroll around the Pest side of the city is a must. Statues pop up everywhere. The Basilica of St Stephen is another great feat of architecture. Josef Kauser went to Italy to study the renaissance and returned to decorate the building with Venetian mosaics and coloured marble.
We continued our meander through the beautiful Karoly Garden and on to the massive Market Hall, where we sampled more salamis than I knew existed. I bought a beautiful leather weekend bag for €10 in the same market 15 years ago and it's still going strong.
Then it was back to the boat for more food, and it's spectacular on Maria Theresa. Breakfast is an array of all you could wish for. A buffet of meats, cereals, juices and hot food. Omelettes are made to order and fresh coffee is brought to the table. Lunch is buffet as well and again the choice of food is extensive and hugely tempting. The chef chooses dishes from whatever country you're in and there are always fish dishes and salads. And a dazzling selection of desserts.
Dinner is more formal, and Mrs Tollman, owner of Uniworld and a renowned chef, makes recommendations. And good ones too. Hungarian palacsinta, a chicken and cheese pancake with paprika sauce and sour cream for starter was divine. The slow-roasted pork chop with a Cabernet reduction was sublime. Wine flowed and there was a great feeling of bonhomie. The boat was small enough to get to know people and big enough to avoid them if you feel so inclined.
Luckily a retired air stewardess entertained us on many occasions. It was her third trip with Uniworld and she was planning more. The bar opens at 9pm and as the captain said playfully "you decide when it closes".
Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, was our next call. It's a sweet little city. Only 60km from Vienna, it's much cheaper and more compact. Yet another castle towers over the city and yet again statues abound. Bronze men appearing out of manholes. Bronze figures leaning over garden seats. They're everywhere. And everywhere too are stunning buildings. St Martin's Cathedral witnessed 19 coronations, the courtyard of the Old Town Hall with its Renaissance arcades is host to many concerts in the summer months, the Primates Palace - a stunning pink edifice.
And then it was on to Vienna. What a stunning place. I opted to go on an excursion to a very intimate recital celebrating the music of Strauss and Mozart. I'm not a huge fan of classical music but when it comes to things like The Blue Danube I go weak at the knees. Held in a wood-panelled room with brilliant acoustics, it was fabulous. I'm a convert. The coach took in a night-time tour of Vienna and I have never before seen such amazing buildings - all illuminated. One grander than the next. It's a melting pot of culture. There are 1.8m people here and they have four opera houses. Kohlmarkt, the main high end shopping street is seriously classy with impressive buildings down every side street.
Going for a stroll through the centre we were lucky enough to come up close and personal with some of the white stallions from the famous Spanish Riding School.
The cruise ends in Passau, Germany, and many of the cruisers were extending their trip by staying in hotels for another few days. So that's four countries with no hassle, tons of glorious food, copious drinks and lots of smiling faces looking after my every whim. As I left for home I wondered who was going to feed me, pour my drinks and generally indulge me. I'll have to go back for more cosseting on a different Uniworld trip.
The Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ all-inclusive seven-night Enchanting Danube itinerary visits Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany and is priced from €2,799 per person (flights not included).
This price is based on a Category 5 stateroom and two people sharing. Also included: unlimited beverages and all meals onboard (seven breakfasts, six lunches and seven dinners), welcome and farewell gala dinners, six days of excursions, all transfers on arrival and departure days, all gratuities both onboard and offshore.
To book or for more information call 01 7753838, see your local travel agent or visit www.uniworld.com