The following is from my european vacations diary and is a review of the AmaWaterways Danube river cruise from Vilshofen to Budapest
Day 1 Friday – Nuremberg
After an uneventful overnight flight to Charles De Gaulle (CDG) where I got to practice a little French on the long suffering airport staff, I transferred to the Nuremberg (NUE) flight and was less accomplished in German. The flight was fun, as the smaller planes usually are. The onboard breakfast was a short black coffee and a sweet bread, the signal my European adventure was underway.
Having penetrated the medieval inner city walls, built to keep the likes of me out, by taxi I arrived to check in the Hotel Saxx. A mid-priced, modern, and stylish hotel on the town square where the Christmas markets are held. Despite having a case of the travelers’ nerves which is a combination of jet lag and fear of being in a foreign country with little local language, I forced myself out the door to explore the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg . This was much more interesting than first suspected, construction began in 1037 and it had been added to and redecorated ever since. Replete with a full armory of things to stick into an enemy, a charming little chapel and even a 164 foot well for water. Nearby is the St. Sebalduskirche (church), which looks more like a cathedral with two massive spires and vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows. Upon exiting my sense of smell carried me to the Bratwursthäusle for a plate of sausage, sauerkraut, potato and Ein Bier! In Bratwursthäusle and most beer barns, everybody shares a table. The hostess billeted me with a wonderful German couple and an elegantly dressed Bavarian lady. The gent offered the bread around the table and the cutlery. Everyone ordered sausage and beer. When the beer arrived, we all said “Prost!” which was very convivial and made me feel welcome in Germany.
After a quick walk around the markets I returned to the hotel to phone home and have a nap. At 5.30 p.m. back out there again for a bigger walk using the Pegnitz river for orientation. The river is lined with quaint little Tudor style houses and down by the Spittlertortur, a big turret on the city wall are Turkish fruit vendors and more Christmas Markets being set up. A cute little restaurant Cafe Luftsprung presented itself as the perfect place for dinner. It was next to my orientation landmark the Pegnitz and full of locals. Everything was in German, but with a little thought you can work out the menu. I had a couscous based dish with eggplant (what else in Bavaria?), accompanied by salad, potato gratin and a pilsner!
Nuremberg is a beautiful city with three concentric city walls for protection. The buildings are medieval, and many were rebuilt after WWII. The locals are Bavarians, but the taxi driver will inform you, unsolicited as the good ones do, that they were originally Franconian and were consolidated as Bavarian by Napoleon Bonaparte. The French and Germans have been meddling in each other’s affairs for some time now, with interesting results such as the Alsace-Lorraine with has swapped hands several times. At the northern edge of the Altstadt (old town), surrounded by red-roofed buildings is the Hauptmarkt (central square) which contains the 14th century Schöner Brunnen, a 60 foot tall gilded fountain with tiers of 40 figures who represent philosophy, the seven liberal arts, the four Evangelists, the four Church Fathers, the seven Prince-electors, the Nine Worthies, Moses and seven Prophets.
Day 2 Saturday – Nuremberg & Embarkation
The Documentation Center is a WWII museum at the old Nazi Party Rally Grounds. It has a spike (an elevated walkway) driven right through the building to represent the impact of the Nazis. Inside you tour a series of photographs and artifacts whilst listening to the accompanying narrative. This is a very well put together exhibition on the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi) rise to power using propaganda, manipulation, appropriation of and the direct seizure of power. The museum thoughtfully and honestly details the destructive and hateful acts of the Nazi’s. The tour culminates with the Nuremberg trials and honestly shows what the Nazi cult did to the world. Afterwards you can go to the rally grounds and picture the mass hysteria and adulation of hundreds of thousands. The Germans have elected to honestly face their history, own it and document it as a warning to all mankind. You leave in a much more thoughtful and sober mood than when you enter. But not everything in life is Disney smiles and happy endings.
After lunch, I took a taxi to the docks where normally you meet the ship for embarkation. Instead we had motor coaches for a short ride to Vilshofen. AmaWaterways had the buses ready as the Danube was under threat of closure between Regensburg and Vilshofen due to low water levels. Pretty impressive planning and operational organization, considering that until the last minute even they did not know what would happen. At all stages AmaWaterways kept us informed. They even proffered a complete alternate itinerary which I am glad we took as it was even better. They always had the whole thing under control. That’s how you tell a good operator, they cope seamlessly when things change from the plan.
Upon embarkation of the AmaCerto the guests were welcomed aboard by the staff lining the twin staircases and individually escorted to their cabin. We then assembled in the main lounge for a welcome drink an introduction to the staff, the ship and how things would run (like clockwork) for the next 8 days.
At the end of the briefing, we were invited into a hospitality tent dockside for an Oktoberfest beer festival. This was great fun as there were local beers, an ‘Oompah’ band, dancing and the staff were traditionally dressed in Lederhosen (leather trousers) and Dirndl (ruffled apron dress). After a beer and hot pretzel, we sauntered back on board for dinner. As each guest arrives (by stairs or elevator) in the main restaurant the Maître D asks if you would like to join a group or prefer to be in your own company. Every meal you have the option to be social or find a nice little intimate nook depending on how you fee. It is all executed with warmth and care and you are made to feel most welcome. The mixed group I sat with were great fun and we enjoyed a surprisingly good dinner. Cruise guests are from all over the world and are mostly American and British. Ages ranged from some very well behaved 8 year old children to the sprightly and energetic septuagenarian Jim (mostly well behaved) on his fifth cruise with AmaWaterways. An impressive first day.
Day 3 Sunday – Vilshofen – Passau
Breakfast was another serendipitous occasion, everything from cereal, breads of every variety, fresh fruit, smoked salmon, bacon & eggs or an omelet for you made by the chef. All washed down with coffee tea, juice and even a glass of Champagne for those who appreciate an early morning stimulant. Vilshofen an der Donau, has cobbled streets, bridges, street sculptures and a Maibaum. Raising and dancing around the maypole on the 1st of May is a tradition going back to the 16th century to celebrate the end of a long dark winter. Back on deck and we got under way and smoothly cruised, no waves on riverways, to Passau. Getting through the locks is tremendous fun. It is a wonder how engineers contrive such devices and fun to watch the captain and crew work to a precision of inches (or centimeters) in Germany!
Before the cruise and each night, you are given a menu of different tours and activities to choose from the next day. The 120 or so guests are split up into little groups of 10-15 with their own tour guide. Some groups are slower walking and others are for more energetic activities like cycling between towns. I ended up with the some of the people I met at dinner the previous evening and we joined a local cheery guide, Sonia on her fabulous tour of Passau. Located at the confluence of the rivers Danube, Inn and Ilz, by the Austrian border, Passau was part of the Roman Empire for 400 years, an independent prince bishopric for 600 years and was annexed into Bavaria in 1803. The setting of the Old Town, created by Italian baroque masters in the 17th century, shows soaring towers, picturesque places and enchanting promenades. Sitting high above the rivers, the majestic fortress Veste Oberhaus on the Danube’s side and the Pilgrimage Church on the Inn’s side frame the city.
We learned the how to tell the difference between the Gothic Period buildings (young, slender and tall) and the Baroque (older, shorter and horizontally challenged). It is a cute little town with lots of little cobbled laneways no wider than 4 feet, that twist and turn through the town. We remarked that high water mark from flooding was still held by the 1501 flood although 2013 was a close second. St. Stephan’s Cathedral is now one of my favorite cathedrals in Europe and a beautiful example Baroque architecture. The Catholic church’s building practices were to preview the wonders and riches promised to the faithful in the afterlife. St. Stephan’s certainly does that and I highly recommend anyone join this group and be mesmerized by the beauty and presence inside. Back on board and another great dinner accompanied by local wines with some friends I had met in our wonderings.
Day 4 Monday – Linz & Cesky Krumlov
This morning I joined a small group touring Linz with Jim an erudite septuagenarian with abounding energy and zest for life (I began to suspect the morning glass of Champagne). Harold, our local tour guide and raconteur took us to stand outside the house that Mozart gave his first performance. We toured the Lentos Art Museum and the Hauptplatz or main square and spied the striking Ars Lectronica Cente (Museum of the Future). After lunch on board I joined a group going for a quick ride to Cesky Krumlov in Czechia (the Czech Republic) again with Harold the tour guide. It had snowed overnight, and the little Gypsy villages and countryside was beautiful, but Cesky Krumlov was stunning. A city in the South Bohemia region it’s bisected by the Vltava River, and dominated by its 13th-century castle. The castle has Gothic, Renaissance and baroque architecture, an 11-hectare garden and an original 17th-century baroque theater. The panoramic views of the old town and the winding river from the top of its bell tower are spectacular. My travel buddy for the day Jim, battled up the cobblestone hill and around the grounds with his walking stick and we adjourned for a well-earned lunch of pork loin, sauerkraut, dumplings an original Budweiser (Czech) beer. We returned to the ship and had a quick change for dinner at the Chefs table. Each person gets a least one night to enjoy the chef’s special degustation menu. In the aft of the ship is the dining room that seats up to 20 guests all deck out in their finery.
Dinner was superb:
- Hors d’oeuvres were glass of Champagne with a Feta Cheese, Panna Cotta, Matcha with dill sauce, cucumber and brioche.
- Appetizers were scallops, tiger prawns, yellow beet, tahini hummus, avocado and sepia ink, then a laksa soup, a hickory salmon, sea bream, chardonnay foam, followed by blueberry sorbet.
- Main course was braised beef, golden beets, green asparagus, pumpkin mash potato and pumpkin gratin.
- Dessert was a nougat gateau, green apple sorbet and almond chocolate pearl with a fresh fruit platter and European cheese selection.
- The local wines were – White: A Sandgrube 13 Gruner Veltliner, Red: Sandgrube 13 Blauer Zweigelt. With the Californian 770 Miles Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay also available.
The Chefs table is highly recommended, but you will eat exceedingly well every night as this is a major focus area of co-owner Rudi Schreiner.
Day 5 Tuesday – Melk & Dürnstein
This morning we cruised to Melk and after breakfast a trip up to the top of the hill to Melk Abbey. The church and library are astounding highlights. The monastery was founded in 1089 but the present abbey was built in the 18th century. The Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Maria Theresa put it simply when she said in 1743: “I would regret it, had I not been here.” The marble hall has a flat ceiling which an exquisite Tromp L’oeil that makes it look curved. The Melk Abbey church is richly decorated with elaborate carving and much gilding and domed ceiling to the heavens. The library where the monks learned and transcribed books has over 100, 000 volumes from before 1500, through the 17th century and into today. In the afternoon we visited the 1,000 year old city of Dürnstein in the Wachau valley, famous for wine and the unspoiled town. Perched on the top of hill it hasn’t been able to expand so everything is preserved from the last 500 years. We shopped in some little stores filled with authentic goods such as the little river pebbles incorporated in silver bracelets, necklaces and earrings by lady who goes down to the Danube every day in search of pretty stones. To end the evening, we went to a cellar and tried three varietals in a local Wachau Valley wine tasting.
Day 6 Wednesday – Vienna
A morning tour of Vienna, home to Mozart, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud. The city is also known for its Imperial palaces, including Schönbrunn palace which was the Habsburgs’ summer residence and the Hofburg Palace which was very interesting to me as it has an excellent collection of armor, weapons and Imperial crowns, coronation robes, scepters, orbs and mitres as well as gem-studded reliquaries. St Stephens Cathedral. Which has a beautiful roof. Then the Wiener Christkindelsmärik at the Rathaus (City Hall) for a quick walk through and some hot chocolate. At dinner another guest told of how she had always wanted to see a Lipizzaner horse show and even though they were booked out, the concierge got her two tickets with a days’ notice. On both AmaWaterways ships I have been on, Cruise Manager/ Concierge/ Confident were excellent very professional but friendly and approachable. I went back out to the Christmas markets to walk around at night while the lights are brightest and watch the skaters, drink a mug of mulled wine, listen to the music and buy some gifts for the family. Remember to take cash as not all vendors have credit card facilities. Here is a blog about the top ten Christmas markets to visit on a cruise https://www.bluedanubeholidays.com/top-10-christmas-markets-to-visit-on-a-cruise/.
Day 7 Thursday – Budapest
The Christmas markets in Budapest were great fun with interesting tools and at least one third was traditional food including a pig on a spit! We had a splendid lunch at a local restaurant and then walked through the town. One of the happy things to come out of the Iron curtain was that many cities were put in a deep freeze for decades and missed the 1960 – 1990’s attentions of Property ‘Developers’. This resulted in the preservation of many buildings that were built to impress, and cheap materials and workmanship was a poor reflection on both the builder and owner which carried social and economic consequences. They are now being refurbished and as a consequence Budapest is a very beautiful city with loads 16th to 19th buildings. Even the prison is interesting and carries many stories and history. The Matthias Church in the Buda Castle grounds is different from most others with more Slavic or eastern influences. The roofing tiles are durable pyrogranite ceramics and arranged in a beautiful almost Persian Carpet pattern. The interior has spectacular orange, brown, golden hewed frescos reaching from floor to ceiling, beautiful stained glass windows, far reaching arches, century old wooden pews and medieval remnants. The view from Fisherman’s Bastion, a panoramic viewing terrace with fairytale towers, are wondrous. You can see the river, The Hungarian Houses of Parliament and Margitsziget island. A river cruise from Budapest is definitely on the ‘Return To’ list.
Day 8 Friday – Vienna & Bratislava
Bratislava in Slovakia is a small town of around 600,000 residents. The pedestrian-only, 18th-century old town is known for its lively bars and cafes. Today there is still 90% home ownership, thanks to the communist era apartment complexes at Petrzalka. It is said that when the Soviets left, Slovakia split from the Czech Republic so the two leading politicians could avoid a confrontation and share power. The Czechs and Slovaks are still very friendly. There are beautiful old buildings everywhere including the Bratislava Castle. The tour guides regaled us with stories such as how they used to eat cod for Christmas. Father would bring it home live and put it in the bath for 1 week. The kids would get to know and love the fish, even naming it. Finally, they would enjoy a fish dinner and only the older kids would realize why the cod was no longer in the bath. There was another tradition where the boys touch the girls with a willow swish (symbol of health and beauty) and in return they have to give the boys a gift of chocolate or cake. Not sure whacking girls with tree branches will bring you much more than an interview with the local constabulary these days.
Day 9 Saturday – Vienna
A last breakfast was shared with one of my all time favourite fellow travellers, Jim. A private car rolled up at my allotted time to whisk me away and back the States. 5 countries, so many castles and cathedrals all from the comfort of a floating boutique hotel. Every detail is considered, and they solve problems on the side of the guest every time. This is what people miss when they select the cheapest price, in all things. The seller has to reduce costs at every opportunity and cannot afford to be thoughtful, kind and generous. On the cheapest tours and cruises, you are bussed in and out like cattle. Jostling with scores, if not thousands of other selfie seeking consumers. Avoid them if possible, if this is the only way to travel then my advise is to use the tour as a reconnaissance and protect your down time to explore with like minded folk or on your own. Value does not mean cheap; value is having your expectations exceeded by a professional and caring organization. AmaWaterways are sincere, which is a key difference.
Wow, what a classic European adventure. The crew and staff are hardworking, sincere, thoughtful and kind. Exactly the sort of people that should be in hospitality. The food is excellent in all the various locations on and off the ship. The accommodations are stylish, spotless and very comfortable and there are many places to be alone or in company. Most of all the locations are stunning as Kristin Karst, Co-Owner of AmaWaterways says: “Ocean liners take you to locations, river cruises take you through them.”
Central Europe is beautiful, the countries are close together and rich in history. The fact that we had small groups with expert local guides that gave us a special window to places, people and stories that are now a treasured lifetime memory.
Here is a link to the some of the AmaWaterways cruises we offer on the Danube: