Tuesday 22 October 2019

Dream time on the Danube: A river cruise with WhatsApp, a Wellness Officer and 'huge freedom'

Niall MacMonagle takes a luxury cruise on the River Danube on board U by Uniworld's 'A Ship'...

Uniworld's A Ship making its way down the Danube
Uniworld's A Ship making its way down the Danube
The suites all have balconies
Bamberg Town Hall

Niall MacMonagle

From Frankfurt to Regensburg, by autobahn, takes four hours. The same journey by luxury U River Cruises, via the Main-Danube Canal and the Danube itself takes a leisurely seven days through stunningly scenic Bavaria. Way to go!

We had hardly stepped on to the gang plank in Frankfurt of the aptly-named A ship before our bags were taken and delivered to our room. A complimentary neck and shoulder massage from Andrei, the ship's Wellness Officer, and a glass of bubbles in one of the two bars meant we relaxed into a week that began well and simply got better and better.

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Shipshape is the word. The A's sleek matt-black exterior and its muted interior decor in silver, grey and chrome, offset by Tracey Emin and Allen Jones artworks, Andy Warhol vibrant limited edition prints, whisper sophistication. Below deck Picasso, Matisse, Chagall lithographs line the corridors and the words porthole and cabin do not apply.

The bedrooms are beautifully designed, the bathrooms gleaming. You just know that everything has been planned with comfort in mind - from BeeKind toiletries, great storage space, wardrobe lights, reading lamps to excellent wi-fi. The television even links to a "dashcam" on the prow.

Picture windows in bedrooms and lounge provide ever-changing, moving images of the river and its banks: red-roofed villages, churches, castles, dramatic tree-covered hills, sloping vineyards, cyclists, walkers, waving fishermen, children on their way to school. On the spacious top deck is The Ice Bar in cool blues, and deckchairs, double sofas, tables and banquettes run the length of the ship. On deck the soundtrack, by day, was birdsong.

On day one, Saturday, after a splendid dinner on board, our hosts Miklos and Karina gave us a guided tour of Frankfurt by night. By happy chance it was Museum Night. The streets were thronged, there was street theatre, music, food stalls, beer, beer, beer - and yes, I had to have a frankfurter in Frankfurt.

Karina and Miklos, young, inventive, enthusiastic and totally at ease with themselves, with each other and with everybody, were the perfect guides all week.

Sometimes we sailed at night, sometimes during the day but every day we went ashore. Our cruise took us to Miltenberg, Gemunden, Karlstadt, Wurzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Regensburg.

On Sunday morning the ship docked in Miltenberg, prettiness itself, and we hopped ashore and went our own way to explore the town. In the afternoon biking, a brewery visit or a hike to Miltenberg Castle were on offer. Miltenberg, "Die Perle des Mains", with its lovely half-timbered houses and cobbled streets boasts what is reputedly the oldest German Inn, Zum Riesen (it means At the Giant's]. Founded in 1411, Martin Luther, Albrecht Durer, Napoleon, Richard Strauss, Elvis Presley all stayed there.

I saluted those strange bedfellows with a glass of local Apfelwein.

The A has 50 bikes on board and day two, at Gemunden, a group of about 20 of us opted to cycle the 24km from there to Karlstadt along a safe and wide cycle path, taking in two ruined castles and beautiful countryside. We pedalled by fields of strawberry and tomato plants, wheat and maize fields, passed vineyards - everything in straight lines and in order.

Day three, like every morning, began with a continental breakfast for early risers and a three-hour brunch beginning at nine. Juices, smoothies, fruit, yoghurt, cereals, breads, croissants for a start. Cheese, cold meats, salmon. Porridge, scrambled egg, bacon, tomato, sausages, waffles, French toast. David the chef cooked breakfast omelettes to order. We were certainly set up for the day.

But everything about this cruise experience was special. Everything has been thought through. Small is beautiful. Just 120 passengers, from Cyprus, Australia, Columbia, Brazil, Offaly, the UK, Belgium, South Africa, Germany, the US, Galway, Canada, ranging in age from twentysomething to 79, were there for a variety of reasons - a honeymoon, a golden wedding anniversary, a return visit, the slow and easy beauty of it all. And an international, English-speaking crew of 40 created the happiest and easiest of atmospheres.

For me, one of the very best things about this cruise was its easy, relaxed informality. None of this dressing up for dinner nonsense, though you could if you wanted to. Their policy, 'No shirt, no shoes, no service'.

Next day on to Wurzburg with its Unesco-listed palace, once home to a prince-bishop. From its ziz-zag staircase can be seen the world's largest fresco, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's Allegory of the Planets and Continents (Australia had yet to be discovered).

Wurzburg's striking Romanesque cathedral is dedicated to St Killian, a Cavan man, and the city's famous statue-lined bridge is a popular meeting point with its own pub.

On day four the ship sailed all day but many opted for a bus excursion to Rothenberg, joining the ship again at Kitzingen. Rothenburg's a fairytale walled town on Bavaria's Romantic Road. Crooked, half-timbered houses and artisan workshops in 700-year-old buildings make this a very special visit. And shop now for Christmas! The town boasts the most extravagant Christmas shop I've ever seen. Kathe Wohlfahrt is open all-year-round.

Day five we arrived early in Bamberg, a Unesco-heritage site. We couldn't visit the famous cathedral - they were burying the bishop - but we toured the Library, the magnificent Residence and rose gardens, and we really enjoyed the simple pleasure of lunch in a cafe/bakery dating back to 1427. Their cheesecake beats New York's. Watching school kids come in to buy their sandwiches and pretzels, we felt part of the ordinary, on-going life of the town. And such moments sum up one of the real pluses of The A Ship cruise. We would go our separate ways, had ample time to explore and a floating hotel welcomed us on our return.

Nuremberg, day six and from its castle a panoramic view. Its most famous son is Albrecht Durer - and the house where he lived is now a fascinating museum. From the audio guide we learned that the stylish curls in the self-portrait, painted at 28 in 1500, were created by curling tongs.

Nuremberg's darker history - its Nazi rallies and subsequent trials - has not been forgotten and is showcased at The Documentation Centre with an exhibition that confronts Germany's dark past. It's a past that should never be forgotten and you learn there about the causes, and the horrors of Nazism and its aftermath.

Each day, this cruise gives you many opportunities and huge freedom. Screens announce menus and daily programmes, WhatsApp kept everyone informed and there's no being herded about on shore on our many stops. In each new city an orientation walk by our host introduced us to the town and we explored on our own. In most destinations the ship docked right in the centre but in Bamberg and Nuremberg shuttle buses ferried us to and fro.

Last stop Regensburg, dating from Roman times and since 2006 a Unesco World Heritage Centre. Its cathedral is stunning, as is the city's medieval architecture. Nuns and priests - young ones - everywhere. We visited the Ostdeutsche Art Gallery and our eyes were opened to artists we had never heard of. Dult, a big twice-yearly beer festival and fun fair, was in full swing. The place buzzed. So many young people in lederhosen and dirndls made me wonder if Central Casting played a part!

After busy, varied days we sat down every evening to leisurely, delicious meals. According to the woman from Offaly, the trick is to lose a stone pre-cruise because you'll just put it back on on board. Fresh produce was delivered every day. Soups, salads, pastas, delicious main courses, perfectly-cooked vegetables, cheeses and desserts, desserts, desserts.

The ship has its own pastry chef and baker - and on the final night the surprise dessert did not disappoint. It was a WOW! Let's just say it involved 10 staff, drums, lights, singing, dancing - oh, listen, you'd have to be there. And there was a special offer while we were on board, so every evening an Open Bar for an hour meant drinks were on the house.

Activities on board included exercise classes, facial yoga (I know, I know but I'm converted), painting, cocktail mixology (mine was gin, angostura, elderflower, rosemary). We even had a visit and pretzel demonstration from a 13th generation baker whose family first baked a pretzel in 1522. Bavarians keep it in the family.

Board games, a silent disco, karaoke, a Latino night... At the 1970s disco we disgraced ourselves yet again - but who can stay sitting when "you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life"?

There's a gym, a laundry room, tea and coffee available 24/7. And this eco-friendly ship glides along at 10km per hour, purring engine hardly audible. We passed through 48 locks, the most dramatic 80ft deep, extraordinary engineering achievements. Impressively, while waiting, the crew hopped off and recycled glass, cardboard, tin cans in containers on the bank or they cleaned the already-very-clean ship's windows.

In the dining room the words "Love is what you want. Tracey Emin" are enclosed in a fluorescent heart.

On The A Ship, love is what you get.

Take Two: Top attractions

The ship's the star

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The suites all have balconies
 

The ship itself. It couldn't have been more comfortable (the suites, above, all have balconies) or pleasant, and we had great conversations and laughs with passengers and crew alike. Next summer we plan on doing the Regensburg to Budapest trip.

Beautiful Bamberg

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Bamberg Town Hall
 

Refused land by the Bishop in 1386, the plain people of Bamberg created an artificial island and built their Town Hall in the river. Two fingers to authority. And it still stands, beautifully frescoed.

Getting there

Niall travelled on this cruise with U River Cruises.

Prices for the eight-day cruise start from €899 per person departing on August 17, 2019. Other dates are available, currently on sale from €1,299pp.

The Germany's Finest itinerary travels from Frankfurt to Regensburg and includes seven nights in a waterview stateroom, three meals daily, six days of onshore excursions and various onboard activities such as rooftop yoga and mixology classes.

To secure the €899 price, bookings must be made by phone at 1800 98 98 98 or at your local travel agent.

For more information about U River Cruises, visit ubyuniworld.com.

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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