About Danube Cruises

To savor the secrets of Europe's cities and seek out their history, nothing beats a river cruise. And for sheer romance laced with eons of rich history, nothing beats the Danube.

The Danube is Europe's second longest river, meandering 2,850 km. across the continent from its source in Germany's Black Forest Mountains to the Black Sea, visiting nine countries – Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine and a full Danube cruise may take you to most or all of them.
It's an experience totally unlike an ocean cruise. Sleek and slim, the ships, are built to fit the river's requirements -- small ports, low, ancient bridges, and sometimes shallow water. Yet passengers are often amazed at the level of luxury the ships offer – compact but well appointed staterooms, nightly entertainment and good food. Buffets at breakfast and lunch and full table service at dinner provide excellent and copious meals with myriad choices for picky eaters or people on special diets. In fact, diets were severely tested by the variety of desserts and between-meal treats.

A resident pianist entertained frequently while special evening programs ranged from a Gypsy band to folk dancers to a quartet of classical singers. And the genial approachability of Symphony Captain Fabien Stein laced each phase of the journey with fascinating historical perspectives and good fun.

Best of all were the shore excursions – with a qualified local guide or on our own. Often there was time for both – getting the lay of the land with a guide, then wandering off for leisurely shopping or new discoveries.

Long before expressways and airports, Europe's mighty rivers were its highways and on their banks major cities flourished. And because they relied on the river for both business and transportation, the city gates tended to face the river. That's the huge appeal of the river cruise – the ship docks just steps from the medieval heart of the city, where winding streets lead to ancient walls, fortresses, castles, cathedrals and quaint shops.

Our Danube idyll took us from Nuremberg to Budapest with stops at Regensberg, Strasbourg, Melk, Vienna and Bratislava.

Nuremberg and Regensburg are two exquisite neighbors along the Danube, very similar at first glance thanks to their ornate old buildings, cobbled streets and medieval touches. But there's a huge difference – Nuremberg is a 'new' city. During a fierce one-hour Allied air attack in January, 1945, some 90 per cent of Nuremberg's medieval center was destroyed. But the city rose again, almost immediately, rebuilt stone by stone to an exact replica of its old self.

Noted for gingerbread and succulent little roasted sausages, Nuremberg is also a paradise for lovers of fine craft. In the shadow of the ancient city wall, the Craftsmen's Courtyard is a collection of workshops and stores selling the works of 13 craftsmen, including fine pottery, exquisite leatherwork, toys and glass, jewellery, dolls and teddies. Two tiny restaurants serve local specialties. The Craftsmen's Corner is open year-round but the city is also justly famed for its Christmas market, which features all of the above and more.

Regensburg, just downstream, was almost untouched by the war. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its roster of delights begins with a river-front Roman fort built in 179. Once the capital of Bavaria, Regensburg's wealthy past is reflected in its splendid town houses built in the Italian style in the 14th century, and its fine Gothic cathedral, built in 1634, with soaring twin spires added in 1869.

Now it's on to Passau and a short bus ride to Salzburg. Lavish costumes and Mozart-style wigs are much in evidence here, as the town commemorates its most famous son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and its most famous film, The Sound of Music. Another highlight is the famed Salzburg Festival, an annual banquet of outstanding music. A visit to Mozart's home, now an interesting museum, is a must for music lovers. The city itself is a walker's delight with ancient buildings lining narrow streets but some of the prettiest horses and carriages are a temptation to abandon walking for a gentle ride through the city.

The glorious Benedictine Abbey at Melk is vast and loaded with treasures. The single disappointment – it's now a co-ed school run by the monks who leave distillation of the splendid Benedictine liqueur to their colleagues in Italy. No free samples! The town is made for walking – cobble stoned streets lined with 16th century houses and restaurant/taverns.

The port for Vienna is a hefty bus ride out of town but the old city continues to deliver its kitschy style of romance amid baroque buildings that include the Hofburg Palace, the Vienna Opera House and St. Stephen's Cathedral. A small group of Vienna choir boys provided a brief concert.

More accessible is Bratislava, capital of Slovakia where a whirlwind tour led us along steep streets below the 13th century Bratislava Castle, past the gothic St. Martin's Cathedral and along pedestrian-only streets of smart shops and tempting cafes.

Final stop, Budapest, another revelation as we explored the twin cities of Buda and Pest with their Budapest thermal spas, vast parks and splendid buildings. The city market is a huge shopping emporium while Andrassy Boulevard, blessed with more than 30 theatres, is called the Broadway of Budapest. But Budapest's crowning glory is the magnificent Parliament Buildings, overlooking the Danube, a gingerbread confection of marble, gilt and stained glass, where the crown jewels are stored.

The all-inclusive nature of the Danube cruises makes for easy budgeting. All meals and entertainment and most shore excursions are included. The passenger list is a pleasant mix of North Americans and Europeans, predominantly Germans, but most crew and staff speak several languages, including English.

By Isobel Warren
Photos by Milan Chvostek

Isobel Warren and Milan Chvostek are a Canadian husband and wife team of journalists who sailed from Nuremberg to Budapest with Allegro Holidays and Blue Danube Cruises.