Last November, I wrote about a wonderful river cruise trip that did not cruise. With record rains in France affecting the medieval bridges on the Rhone River, the cruise was relegated to bus excursions throughout the South of France. You can read the story in its entirety in the February 2011 issue found on www.crlmag.com under the “Past issues” link. While my husband and I enjoyed the trip immensely, it left me still longing for a river cruise experience or what I called in the article, “Waiting for my Cleopatra moment”. It was my way of expressing my expectation of lounging on a beautiful ship watching the world float by!
Well, as fate would have it, I was able to try once again to set sail on a wonderful European river; this time it was the picturesque Danube on The MS River Beatrice, a Uniworld River Cruise.
From the moment that the ship sailed from Passau, Germany, it was apparent that this ship, this company Uniworld, and its crew were the best in their industry. Under the command of Captain Tom Buining, the crew made the MS River Beatrice a floating paradise. We truly got the feeling that we were the most important people they have ever hosted even though they have a new group of guests each and every week. From Ivo Tzankov (pictured below), our friendly bartender who shared with me his grandmother’s fabulous Sangria recipe (see here: Homemade Sangria Recipe) that we enjoyed on the sun deck, to Executive Chef Manuel Marques who created culinary masterpieces each morning, noon and night, to the hospitality staff who manned the front desks, cleaned rooms and arranged every moment of the week-long excursion; this cruise was pure magic and a study in efficiency.
The itinerary for the trip was designed to highlight the beauty of the towns and cities that reside at the banks of the Danube. While there are many gorgeous locations in this wonderful world of ours, rarely in any one region would you see such locations day after day on a seven-day cruise.
In addition to many side trips that were included in the cruise (like the beautiful Salzburg, Austria), you always had the choice to opt out and lounge aboard the ship. One onboard option is a massage on the deck or in your room. Bicycles were also readily available at each stop and there were opportunities to ride while the rest sailed. One such opportunity was in Austria where the trail took the riders through apricot groves. Think about that for a moment…riding through apricot groves along the beautiful Danube; all your senses awash in beauty.
With stops like Durenstein, Melk, Linz and Vienna in Austria and ending in Budapest, Hungary, there was much to keep us busy, but not too busy to miss great serendipitous moments. One such moment took place on an evening stroll in Linz, which led us to a magical little church. This church was alive with the most magnificent music, yet seemed dark inside (lit only with candles). The sound was so compelling we had to walk up the stairs and enter through an ancient door into the church. We found people sitting in the pews surrounded by five or six foot poles with speakers attached. The speakers (45 of them) surrounded the perimeter of the church and each speaker played the voice of a single person. Sitting in this medieval church surrounded by these speakers with the most wonderful voices blending together, yet allowing for a small turn of the head to hear another single voice, was mind-blowing. It was one of those very moving events that happen only a few times in a lifetime, yet frequently in Europe where they treasure the arts. There were few dry eyes that evening in the church; we all knew this was something very special that we were sharing. Amazingly, we stumbled upon this event completely on our own…we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. My husband and I shared the experience with our newlywed cruise mates from the Capital Region, Peter and Katie VanderVeer whom we met on the trip.
Impromptu concerts and stumbling into some of grandest cultural opportunities are something that I will never take for granted. I plan each trip to see as many small concerts that I can find and very often they are in churches. The Europeans appreciate their churches and allow the buildings to be concert halls when not in worship. It is always extraordinary, and in my opinion, something to be sought out. The setting and acoustics are always surreal.
Back on the ship and sailing the next day on the Danube led us through the magnificent Wachau Valley. Optional helicopter tours were available to everyone, but quite honestly, sailing into this valley is about as beautiful as it gets. It is lump-in-your-throat, heart-poundingly beautiful as the valley and its Riesling vineyards open up slowly in front of your eyes.
We toured Domaine Wachua later that day. The experience was great, but I have had better Rieslings. I would certainly urge everyone to see these wineries, including Domaine Wachau, because there is nothing like the experience of peering out from a balcony over vineyards, especially if you have a great glass in your hand.
If the days spent touring were not spectacular enough, evenings onboard were a blast. Music performed in the lounge area, briefings on the next day’s events (often complete with skits), and great food shared among new friends that you felt you knew your entire life, and of course, the adult beverages made for great fun. All wines are free on Uniworld Cruises, which is a substantial savings.
At the end of each night who wouldn’t love to tumble into bed at night that was expertly turned down and included a sweet treat from the region? We really felt like one week was not enough; after all Cleopatra had 30 plus years of this luxury!
Vienna and Budapest are truly two of the greatest cities of the world. While Vienna is “old world” elegant, proud, alive with music and architecture, Budapest is equally beautiful but in a much different way. Freeing itself from double occupation of the Nazis and Soviets, the warm friendly Hungarian people are anxious to show off their country.
Budapest is unmatched (in my mind) for city panorama. The Danube River splits the city in half by the Buda portion (the hills area) from the Pest portion (lively city area), you cannot help to have your breath taken away many times in a 24-hour time frame, but certainly nothing compares to sailing into the city. I do pity the folks who have only flown into Budapest.
We were all urged onboard to rise and shine early, grab coffee and go up to the deck for our entrance into Budapest. We were running a wee bit late so we were all milling around with coffee in hand. Suddenly there was a universal gasp….Budapest was appearing in front of the ship and it most certainly was worth waking early for!!
How many of these moments and experiences can you have in a seven day period, I mumbled to myself? Once again, I was completely taken back by the experience and so very happy to share it with my husband and all my new friends.
River cruises have become a life plan for me – how many river cruises can I experience in my lifetime? How many times will I be able to totally relax and see so many extraordinary places on board a floating palace like the MS River Beatrice? Sure, there are many cities and countries I will need to see again and stay longer, like Vienna. Yes, there are some that I am happy to see once, but need not return. River cruising gives you the ability to make those choices. You experience small bits/tastes of the world with hopes to later return for a full portion.
In January, I will write more about Budapest and cooking schools around the world as a way to learn the culture.
-The Grateful Traveler