On a splendid Danube River cruise filled with celebratory meals, we had our favorite lunch standing up.
Surrounded by hundreds of Austrians dressed in stylish lederhosen, dirndls and jackets for Salzburg’s Rupertikirtag festival, we enjoyed sausages served on toasted buns, with spicy mustard and a dash of paprika, washed down with Stiegl beers. Without argument, we gathered against the coarse wall of the vendor’s kitchen, embraced the pageantry swirling around us and relished our trip.
Eight of us from Bardstown, Kentucky, cruised on Avalon Waterways’ Envision from Budapest, sailing westward through Vienna and the Wachau Valley, before driving north to Prague. Including extensions on both ends, we had 11 days to enjoy Europe and caught this romantic region during a run of remarkable weather.
The Budapest Marriott, where Avalon guests overnight, overlooks the Danube. Its terrace and riverfront rooms offer sweeping views of the Hungarian capital’s Castle Hill across the river. The hotel is a five-minute riverfront walk from the city’s landmark Szechenyi Chain Bridge and showcases some of Budapest’s most revered sites, so much so that time spent checking in feels like burning daylight.
We’d flown for about 24 hours when we arrived, so we chilled with drinks in the Marriott for an hour. But as tired as we were, we couldn’t resist a walk to Chain Bridge to get our bearings. Budapest is two cities, Buda and Pest, but that’s inconsequential. The Danube separates them and Chain Bridge unites them. The huge stone span was constructed over a decade in the mid-19th century.
We joined the throngs crossing Chain Bridge and surveyed both skylines. Budapest’s riverfront is spectacular, from the stately Hungarian Parliament Building on the Pest side to the Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion built high above the Danube on the Buda side. We picked an outdoor restaurant, Panorama Terasz, where we enjoyed a spirited dinner later that evening.
The following day, we took two guided tours. We sampled the city’s goulash, acacia honey and strudels on a foodie tour and spent time in Budapest’s massive Central Market Hall. With food and produce vendors on the ground floor and textile vendors upstairs, the colorful market encompasses a city block.
We boarded the Envision the next day, met our crew and made way toward Vienna, Austria. Evening meals aboard the Envision were like dinner parties that no one had to host. Our servers always had recommendations for wines and entrees and never missed an opportunity to refill a glass. Since we often went our separate ways, these five-course affairs were perfect for comparing notes and claiming bragging rights.
“In Vienna, we love our indulgences and luxuries,” said our culinary tour guide as we walked to the subway. “I was born here, and my family emigrated to Tucson, Arizona, when I was 12. As soon as I graduated, I came back here to live. Economist magazine recently named Vienna its most livable city in the world.”
Vienna is a European capital for music, waltzes, operas, architecture and art. But it is also a city of sausages, and cheese sausage is their signature snack. Only in Vienna is it customary for formally attired patrons of the Vienna State Opera to finish off an evening of Mozart with cheese sausage and mustard on a roll, enjoyed beneath a canopy of streetlights.
Our group toured its Ringstrasse, a neighborhood of largely Baroque architecture, which includes the opera house, city hall, parliament building, and stately gardens and parks. The city’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Four of us left the ship following dinner for an evening on the Stephanplatz, the beautiful, boisterous square named for the city’s immense St. Stephen’s Basilica.
Durnstein and the Wachau Valley
The sun was rising over a nearby farm, so I left the ship in Durnstein and stole a moment for myself. Of all our stops, Durnstein, Austria, was the most rural, and several of us had previously decided to conquer the trek to its medieval castle.
The Envision’s activities director had years of youthful advantage on us and didn’t mince words. “This is not a walk,” he said, smiling. “It’s a hike. We should be able to make it up to the castle in about 25 minutes.”
We walked into Durnstein and climbed the steep trail to the castle. Many local legends can’t withstand scrutiny, but this castle can. Richard the Lionheart, an English king in the 12th century, was captured during the Third Crusade by Duke Leopold V of Austria and imprisoned there for several months.
The panoramic views of the Wachau Valley were worth our effort. The Danube dissects the scene, and forested hills climb from both banks. The Wachau Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, acclaimed for its unspoiled beauty and for ancient vineyards carved from its hillsides over centuries. Stone walls create terraces for the vintners to work from and are meticulously maintained. The vineyards remain active today, yielding acclaimed white wines, primarily Reislings and Gruner Veltliners.
On the coach to Salzburg, I smiled when our guide mentioned that crowds might be large due to Oktoberfest that weekend. The celebration was actually their Rupertikirtag festival that honors their patron saint, St. Rupert, but the result was the same.
Salzburg, for many Americans, is synonymous with the film, “The Sound of Music,” and our guide handled that with a dry humor that made those sites fun for everyone. He said the average Austrian doesn’t realize what an iconic film that is in America.
We toured Mirabell Gardens, where several scenes of Maria with the children were filmed, before crossing the Makartsteg padlock bridge (where loves are pledged) to stroll down an old town street, Getreidegasse. Mozart was born there, and his home still stands as a five-floor museum. The Getreidgasse storefronts maintain medieval signage above their doors that identified cobblers, post offices, farriers and others for residents who could not read.
Our guide took us as far as Hohensalzburg, the medieval fortress overlooking the city. Never besieged, the structure is largely intact, and the self-guided tour is excellent. We hoped to have a beer in its alpine beer garden, but the weather didn’t cooperate.
Several members of our party stopped in the old town to purchase watercolors from a street artist. Afterward, we found our sausages and beers and celebrated with the locals.
At dinner on the Envision that evening, our friend Mark said, “You know, they seat everyone for dinner at one time on this ship and offer all of us great service. It’s impressive. These servers make everyone feel special night after night.”
A Day on the Danube
We had what I’d call a river day as we neared Passau and Regensburg, Germany. A spirited cornhole tournament was held, and while two Bardstown teams joined the fray, a couple of guys from Virginia and Wisconsin won. They and their wives met on a tour a few years ago and have been traveling together ever since.
The chef prepared a “Sky Grill” lunch on the top deck, and everyone gathered for grilled burgers, pasta salad and a beer. It was an outstanding meal in a pastoral setting. We were docked in Engelhartszell, a tiny town in Austria, beside a golden church. Many cathedrals on the Danube were painted this regal yellow, which was a highlight of Baroque architecture that reflects the wealth of God. The most striking example we visited was the Melk Abbey, near Durnstein.
Another friend, Vicky, suggested Avalon could add some river commentary to their app for cruising time. “If I knew I could put my earphones in and learn something about a castle or church we were passing, I’d definitely do it,” she said.
Regensburg, Germany, is one of the Danube’s best stops. It’s a university town filled with students, most of whom live in its medieval core, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Landmarks include its Stone Bridge, old town’s Roman-built architecture, several churches and what many consider to be the world’s oldest continually operated restaurant, Wurstkuchl, or “Sausage Kitchen.”
We entered via 900-year-old Stone Bridge, which is limited to pedestrians and bicyclists. Regensburg’s cobblestone streets encourage pedestrian traffic; motorists are few and defer to walkers and cyclists.
Our cruise director gave us meal tickets for Wurstkuchl, and we were invited inside to have sausages and sauerkraut in an 800-year-old dining room just off the kitchen. A busy terrace outside offers great views of the Danube and Stone Bridge.
Avalon’s Blue Danube Discovery cruise with extensions includes three world-class cities in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, our final stop. The “City of 100 Spires” is the capital of the Czech Republic, or Czechia, and has its own vibrant riverfront on the Vitava River. Its Charles Bridge is an art-filled landmark, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, where street painters set up shop and travelers admire 30 Baroque statues. The original statues created in 1683–1714 have been preserved elsewhere and replaced with replicas.
The Prague Marriott that Avalon uses was ideal for walking into the heart of its old town. We got our bearings and could be at Staromestske, the old town square, by walking several blocks. Prague’s timeless timepiece, its medieval Astronomical Clock, holds court there and was built initially in 1410. Massive and ornate, it draws a crowd each hour to observe its ancient mechanical wizardry. At the top of the hour, the parade of the Apostles begins, only to be countered by the death knell of a humorless skeleton.
Prague Castle stands on a hill on the opposite side of the Vitava from its old town square. It, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part for being the largest castle complex in the world. Its oldest structures date to the 9th century. We spent the morning of our last day touring it, then spent our final afternoon enjoying the labyrinthian streets of old town Prague.
River Cruise Kudos
Travelers hear that a primary reason to take a river cruise is you pack and unpack once. That’s true, but based on our Danube cruise with Avalon Waterways, I can think of several reasons I’d offer first:
• The ship’s crew was delightful. From the captain, cruise director and chef, to the housekeeping and foodservice staff, the crew of the Envision was courteous and engaging. Most of us prepaid our crew’s tips and chose to give some additional gratuities anyway — they were that good.
• The Envision was immaculate. From bow to stern, the ship was a first-class way to travel. The décor was contemporary, the staterooms were stylish, the sky deck was always clean, and the lobby was efficient.
• The food was great. The ship’s chef told me he regularly leaves the Envision to source local produce like saffron or vegetables. His soups were exceptional, and he said most took 8-10 hours to prepare. Choices for entrees and desserts were the hardest decisions we made all week.
• The complimentary happy hours were always festive but never taken advantage of. Travelers enjoyed sharing stories but were always attentive during the cruise director’s preview of the following day’s activities.
For more information on planning a river cruise for your group, please contact Avalon Waterways at 866-821-2752 or go to globusfamilygroups.com.