Cruise The Most Famous River In Europe.
Gourmet regional food, unusual wine varietals, Renaissance architecture, and of course, Baroque music composed by Mozart — I am on an Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection cruise on the famous Danube River, visiting capital cities on the most picturesque inland waterway of Europe,
The Danube was considered the longest river in Europe until the Volga in Russia was classified as an European waterway, which is only 45 miles longer than the Danube. Johann Strauss wrote the “Blue Danube Waltz”, but at water level the river was green, but from a hill, when the light refracts just right, it is blue. The Danube springs from thousands of Black Forest brooks in Germany and empties into the Black Sea 1,777 miles later.
Uniworld’s River Princess docked in Budapest.
I am cruising with the award-winning Uniworld, on the River Princess, to visit Budapest, Vienna, an unscheduled stop in Bratislava, and with a motorcoach extension to Prague. From Hungary to German Bavaria, about 65 guests (the ship holds about 120 guests) quickly become friends during a wonderful week of sailing.
Uniworld offers five different luxury river barges on the Danube, with its newest ship, the S/S Marie Theresa, capturing the 2015 Cruise Critics award for best new river boat, making it the 15th ship in the fleet. The scrum of Uniworld ships sail from a pontoon near the Elizabeth Street bridge in Budapest for a week of themed fun. We shadow Uniworld’s River Duchess and the Marie Theresa throughout the voyage upriver.
Our boutique river palace.
Eon pours the drinks; Lucy serves the cuisine.
After checking in with Jana, the River Princess purser, I get my picture taken for the shore excursion ID wallet that was also the wifi key to my beautiful stateroom. The purser’s desk can exchange small amounts of Euros, U.S.. dollars, or English pounds, but get Euros, the currency franca at most ports. Then I checked in with Eon and Ivo, the important-to-know bartenders for the cocktail-of-the-day, The River Princess Cosmo.
Wines, soft drinks, and most beers were included with the cruise. There’s an added price on specialty beers: English Samuel Smith, Organic Pale Ale, and Austrian Gregorius Engelszell, the strongest beer in Austria; Bourbons, whiskeys, and some specialty cocktails were also extra. With the Cosmo in hand I embark on the embarkation luncheon in the Colony Restaurant, located at the stern of the ship, where I first met Martin, the Restaurant Manager, who was usually dressed in a white dinner jacket.
What a great spread of seasonal regional foods. It is late Autumn so the harvest was over; delightful vegetables had landed on the buffet table. Bogdon, the Executive Chef, spooned up a hearty bowl of puréed potato goulash soup accented with red Hungarian paprika. I learned that paprika was incorporated into other dishes, such as meats and the vegetable lasagna, thus making them a goulash.
Uniworld’s Kings and Queen of Cuisine.
The fresh salad ingredients could be embellished with Mrs. Beatrice Tollman’s light and satisfying dressing. The UK-based Tollman family owns Uniworld, and Mrs. Tollman is a cuisine artíste in her own right, and has published her own cookbook. Uniworld’s riverboat Beatrice was named after her. Chef Bogdan commands a galley of four other chefs that surprised us daily with unique entrées and desserts.
We are served themed entrées from each country we visited. The vegetables and smoked meats, like Austrian coldcuts, are sourced locally, but other items are added to the roster, such as Atlantic salmon, New Zealand lamb, and Mediterranean grouper and sea bass — I tried them all. But the filet mignon at the Captain’s Gala Dinner was so tender it had to be grass fed and raised locally and braised locally.
Regally dressed for the Captain’s Gala.
The Central and Eastern European dining crew waltzed around the restaurant nightly with grace, with trays of delectables and drinks, served with cheer. I got a kick out of Czoba, from Hungary, who I nicknamed Czoba the Hun. “It’s better in Hungary”, was his refrain no matter what he served with a laugh. He must be on the Hungary Tourist Board’s payroll — what a promoter. After a few days on the river all pretense broke down and I realized we were traveling with a fun-loving crew, even though they always called me formally “Mister”. Each had a different jovial twist on things.
Ivo floated through the dining room on cue to pour more wine; yes more Austrian Cabernet Sauvignon. His hair-do was a little punkish-mod. Violetta was soon called Vivi; Lucy was smiling tableside with menu suggestions on the plated dinner nights. Albert was remembered as Albania Al. There was super cool George and Gorgeous George. Emilia, my stateroom attendant, kept me in afternoon nutty snacks and a small jar of cookies that I kept perpetually empty. Hey Lucas, how about another Joseph beer (a tap from Austria)? The wine cellar spoke of vintage bottles from Uniworld’s South Africa Bouchon vineyard.
There were snacks throughout the day in the Piano Lounge, the most popular after dinner venue, where pianist Rumyana’s fingers plyed the keyboard while we plyed the Danube. A Bistro menu was available daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Piano Lounge, or it could be ordered in my stateroom. Bistro items included white chocolate brownies, artisan cheeses, fresh fruit plates, and compotes.
Coming through a Danube lock.
During the safety drill Captain Jord stated that there were no life boats on board because the Danube was only ten feet deep and if we sunk just go to the sundeck — for survival cocktails-of-the-day, I presumed. Exposed rocks along the shore line testified to the lack of rain in Central Europe, and because it was late Autumn the river was down. I noticed a freighter churning mud as it chugged upriver.
I must state the amenities in my beautiful stateroom just down the hall from the Colony Restaurant.
A heavy night curtain draws across the sliding door with a French Balcony where I gazed upon the passing panoramas. A digital clock on the table and one in the bath kept me on time for the Activity Director’s (Ibi) talks and announcements in the Piano Lounge.
Each Uniworld ship has its own design.
The Hermes soap was from Paris; the body lotion was Eau d’orange; the Verveine soap from L’Occutane. Our barge was a sweet smelling class act. A heat lamp and rain shower soothed the skin; a make-up mirror for the elegant ladies. Heated aluminum racks warmed the fluffy towels; a comfy Monarch Tupress bathrobe hung in the huge closet, which included a safe, shoe shine kit, lots of hangers, umbrella, a mini fridge stocked to the brim with beers, wines, soft drinks, and pony bottles of gin. A fresh fruit bowl graced the table next to the coffee maker, next to packets of tea.
A large format flat screen TV scissored out over the king-size bed. I had in-room wifi; the ship also had a computer kiosk on the Patio Deck. A sitting chair was in one corner where I read the morning hotel format news digest slid under my door; but the bed was my couch while watching newly released on-demand movies and classic flicks, over 60 in all. I could monitor what was happening fore and aft or in the Piano Lounge from the ship’s closed circuit channel. After slapping on some relaxing balm I turned off the air-conditioning and threw open the sliding door to the Autumn scents of the river.
We shadow Uniworld’s River Duchess into the fog.
We shoved off from Budapest at night because the river authorities were expected to close the Danube down due to a fog belt. The brilliant lights of the Castle and Parliament buildings popped out of the ink of night as we sailed upriver to Eszergom, Hungary, home to the largest church in Europe. I awoke in black and white fog noir. The scene was eerily quiet, no river traffic moved. Slovakia was somewhere out there in the mists; I was determined to find it on a stroll. I returned to the landing pontoon and settled into my stateroom for an impromptu film festival on TV.
Throughout the cruise, guests not only enjoyed regional gourmet food and wine, but also were given escorted tours of sites and attractions that featured prominently in the history of the Danube and her cities and villages. The all-inclusive excursions visited Baroque theatres, Renaissance churches, classic Medieval castles, and wine tasting at museums. A Quiet Vox box was recharged daily in my closet; the battery operated listening device, the size of a pack of cigarettes, made it possible for the tour guides to narrate what we were viewing on city tours.
The Great Market Hall in Budapest.
Normally, the first night was spent onboard in Budapest, but because of the weather, the ship had made the unscheduled anchorage. Uniworld motorcoaches picked up passengers to take them back to the capital for a tour of the unique Great Market Hall. I had arrived in Budapest a few days prior by train, so I had taken in the sights of the split city, such as the Citadel and the Castle.
I bought almonds and smoked sausage at the Great Market Hall known as the farmer’s market, not far from the ship’s berth below the Elizabeth Street bridge in Buda. The upper section of the market features Hungarian embroidery, white peasant shirts, and arts and craft products. Each week a different nation presents its cultural and culinary delights on the main floor. There were stalls of meats, sweets, treats, and wheats baked with chocolate.
The Bratislava Opera House.
We make an unscheduled visit to Slovakia. Czechoslovakia was formed as a country after the breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian empire after WW1. In 1993 Slovakia broke away from the Czechs and Bratislava (known as German Pressburg) was named the new capital. The River Princess docked downriver from the city and we motorcoached in for a walking tour. Bratislava is a smaller version of Vienna or Budapest, called the “little big city”. Many Viennese drive the short distance to visit the Bratislava Opera House because the ticket prices are much lower; the country is not on the Euro. The central Old Town is lined with museums, churches, street vendors, and artists. A trolley runs through the city for easy access. The city is a great place for lower priced Christmas shopping.
The Hapsburg’s Winter Palace in Vienna.
After docking in Vienna, some passengers rode the provided coach to the Karlsplatz to explore the Nashmarkt, the largest fruit and vegetable market in the Austrian capital. The Karlskriche, or Church of St. Charles Boromeo, was the best example of 18th Century Baroque architecture in Central Europe. I hopped on the coach for the city tour of monuments and palaces along the Ringstrasse, that included the Hapsburg dynasty’s Winter Palace and the Palace of Prince Eugen of Savoy.
Ornate ceiling panel at Eugen’s Palace.
Astounding ceiling panels hark rank and wealth. A sole Rembrandt hung on a wall. Studio after studio of splendid artwork awakened the senses. The bankrupt party playboy Eugen sold his palace to Archduchess Marie Theresa, who was also prolific, bearing 16 Hapsburg children, including Marie Antoinette, who grew up at the Winter Palace, where the Austrian President now resides.
The Vienna Boys Choir has residency at the Winter Palace, as well as the world famous Spanish Riding School. White stallions were trotted by us while on exercise.
Johann Strauss and his brother performed at the 14th Century Palais Palffy and concerts are still held there daily. At the age of six Mozart and his sister also debuted at the Palais Palffy in the Figaro Hall. Strauss also performed at the Kursalon, built from 1865-67 in Renaissance-style, located near the Strauss statue near where the Vienna Woods begin. That evening I gladly hopped on the coach to tour the magnificent Klosteneuburg church and monastery on the outskirts of the city, followed by a delightful exclusive concert of Strauss and Mozart music at the monk’s old dining hall. This was an extra charge of 70 Euros for this exclusive, but well worth it.
Gateway to Wachau Valley.
My favorite stop along the Danube was the quaint village of Spitz. The ship’s cocktail-of-the-day — the Grand Sparkle — said it all: the fog had lifted and the sun sparkled bright in a blue and cloudless sky.
At Duemstein we passed palatial manors and castles as we sailed into the UNESCO Wachau Valley. Duemstein was called the “Pearl of the Wachau”, dominated by the ruins of Richard the Lionheart. UNESCO protects the 15 miles of terraced vineyards from developers. Some guests took the coach to the Melk Abbey in the village of Melk; I took the Spitz village tour to the museum that included apricot brandy tasting after views of the tiny wooden model boats that recounted shipping style changes through the ages on the Danube. We were also treated with chocolate covered apricot roasted seeds, and sea salt covered seeds. Apricots are an essential cash crop for Spitzer farmers.
I didn’t make it back to the ship for more wine tasting, but self-guided myself through the streets and vineyards of Spitz. The Wachau Gorge’s south-facing slopes were perfect for vineyards. The rift was created by the Danube carving through the hard granite and gneisses of the Bohemian Massif. The slopes rise 1,000 feet above the water and are crowned by castles and private wine estates.
Spitz grape vines surround St. Maurice church.
The Danube was the major highway for goods and military for hundreds of years. Fertile deposits of wind-blown loess anchored the vineyards in an amphitheatre called the “Mountains of a Thousand Buckets”, because of the buckets of grapes harvested each Autumn. I wandered around the cobbled streets, past the Late Gothic St. Maurice church, famous for the Apostles (1380) and an altar-piece by Kremeer Schmidt. Atop a hill the fortress Hinterhaus stood guard. I stopped in one of the local Heurigens or restaurant/bars, and enjoyed a glass of Gruner Veltiner.
On the afternoon cruise out of Spitz we passed the castles Aggestein and Shoenbuehel protecting the other entrance to the Wachau Valley. In the evening Rumyana cranked out the hits from the ’70s and ’80s. Yeah, disco.
Cycling along the Danube.
It was an early morning bike fitting before the 20 km cycle along the Danube to Passau while the River Princess made a technical stop at Engelhardzwell, Austria. After signing a waiver we spread out along the paved path leading to Passau, Germany, under a sprinkling of rain. The ship had dozens of its own bike available for guests at anytime on the sundeck, but we geared up with new road bikes from a local tour operator. Other passengers opted for the onboard Kaiserschmarm baking demonstration by Chef Bogdan and Pastry Chef, Nenad. I hoped they saved some for us, but not likely, the seadogs. But the lively and smiley Uniworld host, Janet, was like a forest sprite that met us half way to Passau with a pop-up beer garden of wine, beers, water, pretzels, and a chocolate covered type of pastry, and other goodies. Recharged, we pedaled on to view the River Princess slipping through a lock.
Passau, Germany is known as the town of Three Rivers, where the Danube, Inn, and Ilz converge on a narrow peninsula where the medieval Old Town is located. Passau was once a provincial Roman town and artifacts can be seen at the Kastell Boioto museum.
Listen to the pipe organs at St. Stevens church.
Passau was rebuilt in the 17th Century after a fire. In the town center rises the Cathedral of St. Stevens, famous for the world’s largest pipe organ with over 17,000 pipes. A single console plays all three of the church’s organs and there are daily concerts open to the public. There are many churches in Passau’s Old Town but St. Stevens’ three onion-dome tower is the most predominant. Most Danube Christmas markets open in mid-December but there were many great shops in Passau, especially for glassware. Visit the Glass Museum and the Modern Art Museum and Art Alley. Above the town the fortress Veste Oberhaus guards the north; to the south, on a hill, was Pilgrimage Church “Mariahill”.
River Princess in an Austrian lock.
Because of low water in the Danube our final port-of-call was not Nuremburg, but Vilshofen. Before arriving to the German village, perched at a height of 315 feet above the Danube ,was the gleaming white temple modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, from an idea by mad King Ludwig I.
The next day motorcoaches took passengers to the medieval but industrial city of Regensburg for a walking tour that included the Dom (1275), a sample of Germanic Gothic style. The Adler apotheke is the oldest pharmacy in the city (1610) . The stone bridge was built from 1136-1146. Schottenkflche or the Church of St. James, is a Romanesque basilica of the 20th Century. A stroll along Kollenmarkt leads to the old Town Hall, site of the perpetual Diet (1663 to 1806). Or stroll along the Danube along the Herzoopark towards Hundsmekehr Strasse; the Prebrunnturn Tower (1292) pops out of the garden. Some guests visited the BMW auto factory for a taste of modernism.
I stayed in Vilshofen to continue my medieval shopping spree; the town had modernized with pastel colored shops. For the first time Uniworld is offering four December Christmas market cruises to the towns along the Danube.
The Danube is alive with the sound of music.
After the Captain’s Farewell Reception in the Piano Lounge and Captain’s Gala Dinner in the Colony Restaurant the Bavarian four-piece oompah band, Premium Bavariacum, entertained us with sounds from the mountains and vales of lower Bavaria.
The next norming,, it was difficult to say auf wiedersehen to the crew.
Most passengers opted for the two night Prague extension, with a luxury stay at the Art Deco Imperial Hotel in the City Centre near the Old Town Square, which is a pedestrian area. The next day our guide, Darina, squired us around the beautiful Prague Castle and St. Vitus Church, then down to the, Charles Street Bridge, and the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square.
The St. Vitus church at Prague Castle.
Prague, Praha in Czech, is a history lesson that comes to life. The city is on the UNESCO City World Heritage list. Prague emerged from two golden ages: The Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Charles IV, and a Baroque period during the Hapsburg Counter-Revolution. The city was spared bombing during WWII and the city shines today with church spires and unique homes. The biggest Christmas items seemed to be the Bohemian Crystal. Visit the National Theater on the Vltava River. or use the same ticket for the funicular to Petzon Hill.
Read about the Prague City Card for discounts in Jetsetters Magazine.
The River Princess is slated for refurbishment in 2016, so you have no excuse to cruise the capital cities, “The Jewels of the Danube”, in luxurious splendor. But the real jewels of the Danube are Uniworld’s fabulous boutique riverboats. I was blue because my Danube cruise was over.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor of Jetsetters Magazine.