River Cruise: Dancing on the Danube
From Communisim to a luxury cruise...
Muriel Bolger takes an enchanting journey through Europe on Uniworld's luxurious River Beatrice.
The first time I saw Budapest was a year after the fall of Communism.
I had just left a gleaming, pristine and opulent Vienna and headed off on a misty, grey morning in a less than state-of-the-art bus. Hours later, we passed the border stations, with their caped guards and money-changing posts. Our first stop was the famous indoor market. It was closed by the time we got there.
Only later did we discover that our Hungarian driver didn't have money for the toll roads and had taken the (very) long way round.
Rain and mist didn't add to the first impressions. Dilapidated grey buildings; deserted grey squares. Even the few people on the streets seemed grey. The twin capitals of Vienna and Budapest couldn't have been more different. One was like a radiant bride on a summer's day - the other impoverished and forgotten.
But that was then.
I've been back to Budapest countless times since, and watched the city undergo a protracted makeover; its architecture and boulevards restored to their majestic glory. I've been to the opera for less than €20 and bathed in thermal baths, both in and out of doors. I've sat where Franz Liszt supped his morning coffee and remembered a dark past in the gardens of Europe's largest synagogue.
The Hungarian parliament building in Budapest
The reason for my latest visit was a river cruise on the Danube, aboard a rather luxurious Uniworld ship called the River Beatrice. An eight-day trip through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany sounded very appealing indeed.
On our first night, Budapest puts on a show, with one side of the river illuminated from the sprawling castle district in the Buda hills, and the other - Pest - by the city's wonderful bridges and parliament building. The days of Communism seem long gone and, as we ready for bed, our river cruise sets sail on the Danube.
The following morning, we wake in Bratislava, the capital of Hungary for almost three centuries before World War I (I never knew that before!). The jury is still out on whether these opulent river vessels are ships or boats, so a group of us decide to call them sh-oats.
Our sh-oat feels like a floating five-star hotel, where all you have to do is unpack and forget about everything. The beds and cabins are uber-comfy. The captain changes the scenery for you and, without any fuss or queuing, we're effortlessly transported from one location to another.
Everything is included - tipping, drinks, cocktails and trips. There's no formality about life on River Beatrice, either - I enjoy leisurely meals with people from Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Brazil and the States throughout the cruise.
Linzer torte... a treat en route
Vienna is a highlight (no change there). During our stop, I visited Prince Eugene of Savoy's winter palace, where someone, somewhere, has decided to add 'modern installations' to the beautiful rooms. These included a ginormous inflatable Jacuzzi. I fled in search of some real art and ended up in the Albertina Museum, with its recently acquired Impressionist collection.
There is a lot of hype about Salzburg right now as it celebrates 50 years of The Sound of Music (the day trip here is an optional extra and not included), but I explored Linz instead - visiting the spectacular new opera and theatre house with a behind-the-scenes tour. I didn't put my name down to live like a hermit in isolation, 900 steps up, in the Türmerstube hermitage in St Mary's Cathedral.
They were over-subscribed anyway!
This being part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, legends and stories about Sissi and the Emperor Franz Joseph abound. One evening, a hilarious and highly entertaining sketch of their life together is performed by visiting actors, complete with audience participation.
The Danube, all 2,800 kilometres of it, flows through some of the most beautiful parts of Europe, and when it behaves itself, it's a benign, meandering and peaceful waterway. Every few years, however, it asserts itself - causing havoc as its thundering waters invade homes, stripping everything in its path. June 2013 was one of those times. The flood waters reached an all-time record height of 10.5m.
Thankfully, all was calm - although not blue - as we navigated our way along (legend has it that the river is only blue to those who are in love).
However, it was on the Danube that 'Riverdance' took on a whole new meaning for me, when performers from a private dance academy came to give us lessons in the original Viennese waltz. Tailed, bow-tied and gloved, my partner schooled me in the etiquette of accepting a gentleman's request to dance, the hand-kiss, the steps and the all-important 'schunkle'. That's a move preventing you from getting dizzy from all the twirling and whirling at a ball!
I waltzed off a few calories, but not a fraction of those consumed on a trip where cafès and pâtisseries are an art form in themselves. They have cakes called after everywhere en route. We had Dobos torte in Budapest, Sachertorte in Vienna, strudel in Durnstein, Linzer torte in Linz - you get the picture.
Now back home again in reality, everyone asks me: river or ocean cruise? I have to reply river. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
What to pack
There's plenty of free time on river cruises, so if you fancy a countryside amble in Durnstein, or a cycle to pick up the vessel at its next station, pack suitable cycling gear and comfy walking shoes (they're a good idea in cobbled towns anyway). All tours make provisions for 'gentle walkers' too.
An eight-day 'Enchanting Danube' river cruise costs from €2,249pp with Uniworld (uniworld.ie). The price includes all meals, unlimited onboard drinks including wine, beer and cocktails, a full programme of daily excursions, onboard evening entertainment, signature experiences, all gratuities, Wi-Fi and airport transfers. Flights are extra.
Need to Know
Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly from Dublin to Budapest. Hungary is not in the Eurozone, so you may need forints for spending (though many places accept euros). You can change money onboard. Don't forget to try one of the ship's signature cocktails, either - they're included in the price!