Wednesday 21 November 2018

Going with the flow on the Danube

Danube Cruise

The MS Danubia makes its way serenely along the Danube, through the heart of Central Europe
The MS Danubia makes its way serenely along the Danube, through the heart of Central Europe
Constance takes the sun on the top deck of the MS Danubia, passing by Esztergrom

Constance Harris

Cruising down the river, on a Sunday afternoon. With one you love, the sun above, waiting for the moon.

When my sister was a baby and devilishly hard to get to sleep, we used to swing her in our arms and croon Cruising Down The River (on a Sunday Afternoon), a 1948 tune by Nell Tollerton and Eily Beadell. Though fast in most versions (even the wonderful Connie Francis cover), we always sang it slow, a loving waltz, lulling her to sleep.

Those lyrics always made me think it must be the loveliest thing on earth to boat down a river. And what more beautiful journey could there be than on the river that inspired one of the most beautiful waltzes - The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss ll.

The magic of arriving into magnificent cities such as Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest in a manner that people have done for centuries, is something to be experienced - especially when it comes to an awe-inspiring beautiful river frontage such as Budapest's.

A significant birthday is an excellent blackmailing tool to be leveraged easily on soft-touch friends. Having set my sights on the Danube Cruise, a full-board, escorted holiday with the Travel Department, I inveigled my best friend to come with me.

The Danube is remarkable. Rising in the Black Forest mountains of western Germany, it joins the waters of the Black Sea, after winding its way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine.

The ancient Greeks sailed their way into Europe and established trading routes using the Danube. The Romans used it to mark the boundary of their vast empire. The royal family who were at the centre of so many European conflicts of recent centuries, the Habsburgs, came from the lands of the Danube.

Religion's historical importance in European politics is very apparent as you travel the Danube, seeing extraordinary basilicas, such as at Esztergom, and churches prominently presiding over the river.

We squeezed a lot of history and culture into our river cruise. The excellent Travel Department guides were oracles of information and learning as we visited jewels on the Danube such as Vienna in Austria, Bratislava in Slovakia and Budapest in Hungary.

You learn unexpected things on trips like this. Such as a different European viewpoint. Being westerly Europeans, we are unaware that our news is dominated by the agenda of Ireland, the UK, Germany, France and Belgium. But travel south, say to Budapest, and you hear a very different European attitude. One that is about closed borders and self-sufficiency. Despite EU payments to support the opposite. In Bratislava, they seemed to value the progress the EU has brought, if not that they earn a quarter of someone in Ireland.

One learns a lot, too, from shopping in a country. Zara in Vienna was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G (and better than what we see), while H&M in Bratislava was nearly half the price. Is that because wages are low (€900 per month), I ponder. Everywhere becomes a busman's holiday because I work in fashion journalism and love learning. Everyone else on the cruise enjoyed shopping simply for shopping's sake.

In Vienna, where our cruise kicked off, every street screams 'Former Great Imperial Power' (my title) just from the sheer size of the buildings. The diversity of stores and elegance of their fronts was staggering. There's no Sunday trading which means the city is peaceful (and staff get proper rest and family life). Dogs are everywhere - supermarkets, restaurants - without all the brouhaha that goes on in Ireland.

Food was good quality, nourishing and value for money (except in the museums). Chocolate is a national passion. There were salad bars, pan-Asian places and so on. I recommend visiting the Naschmarkt (open weekdays only), a 19th century market with great restaurants and cafes also.

Part of our Travel Department itinerary was a guided tour of Schonbrunn Palace, the vast home of the Empress Maria Theresa whose children included Marie Antoinette. If you ever wondered at Vienna's place in European history, as a former superpower (and why Adolf Hitler was convinced of his authority), this place will set you clear.

The number of palaces and museums in Vienna is truly staggering. Which is why sojourning to great tea-room-like restaurants such as that in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, is a must. Chocolate and coffee are essential to build up one's strength before museum-ing.

Next day, it was on to Bratislava. The Travel Department gave us a fantastic guide in Juraj Berdis, who has a PhD in urban development but preferred guiding ("less bureaucracy"). He was the wittiest guy and had us laughing our heads off (while simultaneously educating us) as he walked us around Bratislava for several hours. Passing a tourist shop with a tacky window display, he murmured: "There is nothing that says Bratislava more than an African cat." We didn't want our tour with him to end.

Bratislava was one of the first cities to be conquered by the Soviet Union. In the squares around the Opera House (built in 1886), there are still some Italian-like piazzas and beautiful soft-hued buildings with Rococo features and medieval streets. So you can get a glimpse of the beauty that must once have been this country's, before the Soviets.

Today, Russians are back, this time as rich men, building ultra-modern architecture mansions with intense security systems. Within kilometres of the Austrian border.

The Irish were building here, too. Eurovea Galleria, the shopping centre I found H&M in, was built on the banks of the Danube by Ballymore Industries.

For all that it was under communist rule, there is still a lightness to the city we found appealing. The short train trip from Bratislava to Vienna is valuable to know about, especially if you are an opera lover; the same performers in Vienna come to Bratislava, where opera is massively subsidised by the state (the Soviets were great about valuing and supporting the arts). You will pay €35 for the most expensive ticket in Bratislava whereas in Vienna a regular price is €150.

Of all the cities we visited, Budapest's river approach was extraordinarily impressive. It is the one you will see featured on river cruise brochures. At night the view is like something out of Disneyland. The palaces, the cathedrals, the boulevards that line the river were all created to highlight the (former) power and place, wealth and taste, of this city. It is decayed elegance.

River cruises are holidays that are about amazing, historical cities that one gets to visit without the soul-destroying stresses of airports. They are, for all the sightseeing one does, relaxing and sociable.

If you have never done a cruise holiday, there are a few things to know. Meals are generally a communal affair; one tends to share a table with fellow travellers. Think Agatha Christie novels set on trains and boats and you get the idea. (And yes, everyone you meet is as fascinating.)

Cruise holidays are ideal if you are a solo traveller (or have nothing left to say to each other). I met a livestock farmer who rarely gets to leave his farm and has found cruises to be the perfect solution to forget his cares and meet friendly people. I agree.

River cruising is for people who are active, who love to get out and about and appreciate culture, be it historical, artistic, or cafe society in a different city.

They have the added bonus of you being able to sit on the deck and effortlessly enjoy the landscapes of Europe. Quaffing something nice... cruising down the river...

Sunday Indo Living

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