TRAVEL: The heart of the Danube

Lifestyle | Wed 19 Jul | Author – Business & Finance TRAVEL: The heart of the Danube
Aggstein-Castle, Wachau Valley

Colin White discovers numerous gems along the picturesque Danube River.

River cruising’s recent rise in popularity is evidence of how the industry has shaken off its old fashioned reputation to become the coolest way to travel in 2017, now viewed as an ideal way to see a multitude of interesting destinations over a relatively short space of time.

The Danube has seen a huge jump in passenger numbers over the last few years, largely put down to a major increase in the number of high-spec cruise ships now in operation. Luckily for this intrepid passenger, it’s a particularly luxurious cruise ship that lies in wait.

Spanning four countries and taking in seven stop-offs, Uniworld’s Enchanting Danube is one of the jewels in its boutique river cruise collection.

Kicking off in charming Budapest, the cruise then winds through the Wachau Valley, wrapping up in the German ‘Town of Three Rivers’, Passau.

Leaving Dublin, not even a 6am departure can dampen this traveller’s excitement for the trip ahead. After a comfy coach trip from Budapest Ferenc Liszt Airport, the full splendour of the SS Maria Theresa – my home for the next eight days – becomes apparent.

Named after one of Europe’s longest reigning monarchs, the cruise ship boasts a Royal Suite, ten suites and 64 staterooms. Its elegant public spaces include the Viennese Café and Baroque Restaurant; Bar du Leopard, a favourite gathering place for guests; a fitness centre; a heated swimming pool and Serenity River Spa; the intimate Lipizzan Cinema; and the Habsburg Salon with a full-service bar.

With limited space to work with, the design of this ship is impressive; it’s incredible that so many luxurious amenities have been afforded without any compromise on passenger comfort.

Day one of the trip is about settling in; there are no planned activities and guests are free to explore Budapest at their leisure.

With the ship not departing the city until after the Captain’s Welcome Reception and Gala Dinner the following evening, passengers have two days to enjoy Budapest. Fortunately, it’s a city one could happily explore for considerably longer than that.

STEAMY AFFAIR

Baroque Restaurant

Baroque Restaurant

Budapest’s natural warm spring waters have resulted in several impressive thermal baths. Many are a century old, and a visit to one of the many baths dotted throughout the city is highly recommended. So too is a trip to one of the city’s many ruin bars.

Located in the old Jewish quarter of Budapest, these are drinking establishments situated in the ruins of abandoned buildings left to decay after World War II. Budapest’s underground bar scene is one of the most unique things about the place and, along with the thermal baths, are standout attractions in this great city.

On day two, a city bus tour takes us – via luxury coach – through both the Buda and Pest sides of the city, stopping at the beautiful Buda Castle and the historic Heroes Square.

Uniworld has rolled out nifty audio headsets across its luxury cruises. During guided tours by local experts, the compact devices offer voice amplification, even in noisy surroundings. The neat technology also allows passengers to have a wander during the tour without missing any vital information. It’s this kind of attention to detail that elevates the Uniworld river cruise collections above many of its competitors.

The day is capped off by the Captain’s Welcome Reception and Gala Dinner. The food offering on the SS Maria Theresa is something to savour. The outstanding cuisine is complemented by exemplary staff, who are on hand to offer a seamless fine-dining experience. There’s plenty on offer too; nothing seems too much to ask and every whim is entertained with a smile.

It’s incredible that so many luxurious amenities have been afforded without any compromise

The Baroque Restaurant is the main dining venue on board and its open seating plan lends itself to a relaxed atmosphere. Superb regional produce is on offer throughout the whole cruise (the Hungarian goulash a particular highlight), with all gastronomic tastes catered to.

Meal times are also a wine lover’s dream. Introduced by the ship’s sommelier at the end of the daily pre-dinner cruise briefing, wines are expertly matched to the local region. The quality of the wines on offer throughout the cruise is exceptional, from Hungarian reds (the wine world’s best kept secret in my opinion) to Austrian Rieslings: sensational.

HERE COMES THE NIGHTTIME

Habsburg Salon

Habsburg Salon

The fun doesn’t end with the delicious dessert courses and cappuccinos in the Baroque Restaurant. Après-dinner entertainment is on hand in the Habsburg Salon to keep the party going. As all cruises in the Uniworld collection offer all-inclusive packages, it seems foolish to retire at this early hour – a theme that continued throughout the week, despite efforts to refrain from the Habsburg Salon’s excellent range of local beers, spirits and wines.

Despite the late finish, the idea of missing out on the scenic Slovakian town of Bratislava the following morning wasn’t an option. Having visited the city eight years previously, I was interested to see if it had transformed. Had it lost its charm? Thankfully, no.

Bratislava is one of the youngest capitals in Europe and this youthful exuberance lends to the city’s vibrancy. The mostly pedestrianised Old Town is a joy to explore, both during daytime and later, when the city’s night owl’s come out to play.

The city is compact and easily traversed on foot. Its combination of history, architecture, tradition, culture, art, food and nightlife make visiting Bratislava an immensely pleasurable experience.

Back on the ship, we set sail for Austria’s capital, Vienna, a city famed for its cultural events and musical history.

Before arrival, there’s ample time to relax on the plush deck of the luxurious SS Maria Theresa. Less than three years in operation, this floating palace combines historic artwork with modern technological elements.

Maria Theresa lobby

SS Maria Theresa lobby

Meandering through the beautiful Austrian countryside is a joyous experience as the ship cruises the Danube Bend, populated with small scenic towns at the foot of stunning forest hills: the essence of serenity.

After the relative quaintness of Bratislava, Vienna feels like a celestial metropolis. The city is steeped in history, but also has modern characteristics. The city’s combination of Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture provides a charming vista and exploring the city is akin to visiting some sort of grandiose museum. The city boasts truly superb infrastructure and is one of the safest cities in Europe for tourists to visit.

The ‘City of Music’ has a deep artistic heritage and has been home to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Johann Strauss. Indeed, an exclusive early opening art tour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum is arranged on day four of the cruise. Housed in a palatial building, it is the largest art museum in the country and the guided tour introduces masterpieces from five millennia, including works by some of the world’s greatest artists. An early morning Bellini cocktail on the sensational cupola terrace rounds off a memorable experience.

Luckily, it continued to be unseasonably warm and a guided walking tour around some of Vienna’s key sights is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

The outstanding cuisine is complemented by exemplary staff, who are on hand to offer a seamless fine-dining experience 

Music is a huge part of Viennese culture and its composers have created a legacy that has lasted to this day. The city, also known as the ‘City of Waltzes’, was home to the renowned Johann Strauss, ‘The Waltz King’ responsible for the popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century.

Indeed, guests are treated to an exclusive private Royal Anniversary concert, celebrating Maria Theresa’s 300th birthday and legacy in a Unesco-designated Viennese palace. The concert is a real treat and had been earmarked as a specific highlight prior to the cruise. It didn’t disappoint either, as some top-notch musicianship, opera singing and traditional waltzing were a feast for tired eyes amidst a splendid setting.

Interesting Facts

GOING UNDERGROUND
After London, Budapest has the oldest underground train system in Europe. The line opened in 1896 and is known as the Millennium Underground.

WHAT THE FALK?
Since 2014, Budapest’s Falk Miksa Street has been home to a life-size bronze statue of TV detective, Columbo. It is thought actor Peter Falk may have been related to the Hungarian political figure the street was named after.

BORDER PATROL
Bratislava is the only European capital city that borders with two other countries: Hungary and Austria.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS
Bratislava and Vienna are the closest two capitals in Europe – only 60km from each other.

SOME CITIES
The Danube River is unique as it runs through four capital cities, more than any other river.

STOP WINING?
Vienna is the only world capital that produces ‘significant quantities’ of wine within its city limits.

PRIME REAL ESTATE
Vienna has been voted the world’s most liveable city for the last seven years in a row.

WWII FACT
During World War II, an estimated 10,000 died in a Melk concentration camp.

KING COUGHS UP
Upon returning from the Crusades, the English King Richard the Lionheart tore up the Austrian flag and refused to share his spoils with Leopold V. Consequently, Leopold V held the English king prisoner in Dürnstein Castle from 1192 to 1193. He was released after the payment of a ransom of 150,000 silver marks.

THE DISTILLERS
With over 14,000 distilleries, the Black Forest has the world’s highest density of spirit distilleries in the world.

WATER CARRIER
Around 10 million people in Europe get their drinking water from the Danube.

JUST PASSING THROUGH
The Danube River passes ten different countries.

A DIFFERENT TACT

SS Maria Theresa Exterior

SS Maria Theresa

Now at its halfway point, and after visiting three cities in three days, the cruise takes on a different character as cities give way to picture-postcard villages and larger towns brimming with charisma.

First up is Dürnstein. Known as the ‘Pearl of the Wachau’, it is one of Austria’s most beautiful small towns and boasts a colourful history. I can’t help but compare the village to a film set; winding cobblestone streets, and picturesque archways, paths and views take the breath away.

In a week in which so many culturally relevant and fascinating places were visited, Dürnstein is a personal highlight. The scenic walk to Dürnstein Castle provides fabulous views of the Wachau Valley and it’s with a hint of sadness that our visit here is a brief one, as a different type of adventure lay in wait.

Winding cobblestone streets, and picturesque archways, paths and views take the breath away

Feeling energised, a bicycle ride through the Wachau Valley – beginning in Dürnstein and ending in Melk – is tackled. The cycle is 35km in length, but the pace is leisurely and doesn’t require athlete-like levels of fitness to enjoy.

Quite surreal is the fact that for many sections of the path, cyclists travel parallel to the SS Maria Theresa. It’s another impressive touch from Uniworld and is typical of how the cruise has been master planned, right down to the smallest detail. There’s even time for a picnic before arrival in Melk, a city best known as the site of a massive baroque Benedictine monastery named Melk Abbey.

Interestingly, the abbey contains the tomb of Saint Coloman, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy while en route to the Holy Land, as well as the remains of some of Austria’s first ruling dynasty.

Melk is truly gorgeous and as the sun continues to shine, a feel-good factor is evident amongst passengers ahead of another gastronomic feast on-board the SS Maria Theresa.

A PERFECT STORM

After another night of revelry in both the Habsburg Salon and Bar du Leopard, the ship arrived in Linz, a small city boasting a young population with a discernible vibrancy. The energy of the city is helped in turn by a perfect combination of sunshine, a large student population and the feel-good vibes that weekends oft provide.

Linz is a city of industry, culture and nature, surrounded by spectacular natural landscapes and is one of the world’s most future-orientated locations – a city at the heart of technological advancements.

Linz is Austria’s third-largest city and became a Unesco City of Media Arts in 2014. It is also home to the Johannes Kepler University, one of Europe’s most renowned educational centres.

FOREST FROLLICKS

MariaTheresa suite

SS Maria Theresa suite

Entering Germany, the fourth and final country visited on this magical adventure, we arrive in Passau on the Austro-German border – the ideal location to wind down and process the many sights and sounds from the previous week.

An early morning walking tour allows guests to gather their bearings – not difficult in a compact city with numerous focal points along the great Danube.

Passau is a magical medieval city and its cobblestone streets lead up to the baroque St Stephan’s Cathedral, home of Europe’s largest pipe organ. Known as the ‘City of Three Rivers’, Passau is where the Danube meets the Inn and the Ilz Rivers.

Like Linz, the city is known for its student life, and its enchanting side streets, quaint churches, historic museums and a captivating embankment are a delight to explore.

The Black Forest is surprisingly close and a hike along the Ilz River provides an opportunity to burn off some calories from a week of indulgence. It’s a region that boasts vineyards, valleys, panoramic views and a sense of serenity.

Returning to SS Maria Theresa, there’s time for a quick dip in the heated indoor pool – the height of decadence – before Captain’s Farewell Reception and Gala Dinner.

If life is about creating magical memories, Uniworld’s Enchanting Danube cruise delivers in spades through its wonderfully curated programme of events. Hop on the river cruise bandwagon – you won’t regret it.


MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS

Bratislava

Old Town of Bratislava

  • The Old Town of Bratislava is the historic medieval centre of the city, known for its many churches, riverfront and cultural institutions.
  • Károlyi-kert is the eldest garden of Budapest. Designed in French style, it is known for its beautiful plants and flowers, romantic pathways, and its relaxed atmosphere.
  • The Hungarian Parliament Building lies on the bank of the Danube. It is still the tallest building in Budapest.
  • Budapest’s Gellert Baths provides 70 million litters of warm thermal water daily from its 118 natural thermal springs.
  • Kunsthistorisches Museum is the Museum of Art History in Vienna, housed in a festive palatial building on Ringstrasse, and is crowned with an octagonal dome. Opened around 1891, the inside of the building is lavishly decorated with marble, stucco ornamentations, gold-leaf and paintings.
  • Melk Abbey is a Benedictine abbey above the Austrian town of Melk, overlooking the Danube River. The abbey contains the tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau and the remains of several members of the House of Babenberg.
  • Dürnstein Castle was built between 1140-1145 by the family Kuenring, and in 1645 it was demolished by a blast carried out by the Swedes under General Torstenson. A model of the city and the ruin are on display at Dürnstein Abbey.
  • Lentos Art Museum, which opened in May 2003, is among the most important museums of modern art in Austria. The appearance of the building is remarkable for its transparent glass casing, attractively lit at night.
  • Budapest’s cool ruin bar scene is not to be missed. Highlights include Szimpla Kert and Kuplung.

Where to book

Uniworld provide travel destinations through its River Cruise Collection.

For more information, visit uniworld.com/eu