Added 30 April 2011. Pictures and stories from our Danube river cruise from Budapest to Nurnberg, from April 10 to April 18, 2011.
A Danube River cruise is something I had been considering for a while. Cathy's parents, particularly her mother, thought they might enjoy a river cruise as well. So when a 2-for-1 Danube River Cruise special came up over the Christmas holiday (through Gate 1 Travel), we decided, after some discussion, to take advantage. By then all the cheapest cabins were booked, so we ended up in the next best ones, which are one level up and have a bigger window. It was still quite a good deal, though, as it included flights, the room onboard, all meals (including wine with dinner), and three included city tours.
Booking in December for a trip in April seemed kind of far ahead, but it's surprising how quickly it came up.
The trip over was completely uneventful, which is great. We were on KLM Airlines, so transferred through Amsterdam. The flight, which wasn't quite full, left on time, at 5:30 PM. The plane had an entertainment system for selecting TV shows and movies to watch. So Cathy watched The King's Speech while I viewed The Black Swan. The food was decent, and fairly plentiful, with two snacks and a hot meal during the 7-hour flight. We slept a little bit—not all that much.
We had about a three-hour layover in Amsterdam, but at least it's an interesting airport. Our luggage was transferred for us, which was nice. The next flight, to Budapest, was pretty short, and Jean and I did manage to sleep on that one.
The Budapest Airport was fairly small, and we got through customs and recuperated our luggage pretty quickly. We then booked airport transport to our River Cruise. We knew boarding time there was 4:00, and we were well early of that, but we were fortunately able to leave our luggage there and wander around until our rooms were assigned.
After dropping our luggage off at the boat, we set off to explore Budapest while our rooms were being prepared. The Gate 1 attendant (Mick) had mentioned that we could take a free shuttle boat across from Buda to Pest, and that's where we headed first. After sitting there a while, though, we realized that the timing of getting across and getting back by boat might not work out so well. So we got off the boat and explored Buda (the hilly side) on foot.
Mom, Dad, and I on a boat to nowhere
We didn't know too much what we were looking at, but Buda had plenty of cool-looking statues, bridges, and castles. Drivers were also nice enough to stop and let us cross some busy streets. Cathy and I ended walking around somewhat longer than her parents, kind of winding our way from our bridge to the next and getting various photos. It was a beautiful day—quite warm.
Famous "tongue-less lion" bridge, with city hall in the background
Another beautiful view of the bridge and city hall
The colours of Pest
The first night the boat cruised around Budapest, giving some commentary. But we slept through that. So our next view of it was as part of the included city tour of Budapest, which took place by bus, with some stops. We learned a lot about Sissy, Elisabeth of Bavaria, the Princess Diana of her time. (We would hear more about her throughout our journey.) From the bus, we saw a synagogue and several churches, then stopped at the Place of Heroes. It had monuments to prominent historical figures and a centerpiece to all who have given their lives for the country. There was also an art gallery there—not that there was time to visit that.
We drove down a boulevard that was put in place to lead the way to an Expo site from years past. Unlike many streets here, it was very long and straight, and became increasingly "tree-ed" as we moved away from the city centre and toward the Expo site. As an example of "Hungarian flexibility", she pointed out a site where a hole had been dug to build a new arts center, but then the design could not be agreed-upon. After living with just a hole for a few years, the site was repurposed as a gathering place that is now very popular.
All of that was on the Pest side. We then drove back over to the Buda side and drove up to the Fishermen's Bastion. This was a fun, lively place—kind of like a small town within the big city. (It was also a beautiful day again.) There were artists set up here, a couple dudes with a falcon, a lot of other tourists, and great views of the city.
The view from Fishermen's Bastion
Couple posing with the falconer
Buda is the hilly side
After lunch on the boat, we were free to explore Budapest on our own. We decided to walk over to the Pest side and make our way from the market on down. The market itself was nice, full of great-looking produce, but ultimately not that different from those ones in Waterloo. Just the meat choices varied somewhat. Cathy and her Mom both bought some Hungarian paprika and saffron here. Quite cheap compared to what we pay for those.
The market in Budapest
We continued down the pedestrian mall. We stopped in at a liquor store. On the tour, we'd heard about a couple notable Hungarian wines, one of which was a sweet wine made with the botrytis fungus. We picked up a small bottle of that. (Throughout Hungary, prices were confusing, as they use the Hungarian floren there, not the Euro. And the amounts in florens were always in the thousands! But they were always good at converting to Euros for us.)
Later we stopped at a wine store that said it offered wine tasting. We didn't end up doing that, but the owner did give a nice overview of Hungarian wines, and directed us toward some of the better ones. Mom and Dad bought a Pinot Noir that we later enjoyed onboard.
The "cafe culture" of Hungary had also been emphasized, so we did stop in at a famous cafe. A very gorgeous room. We each had a latte, Cathy's and mine with added cinnamon syrup.
And that was about all we had time for. The tour made it clear that there was plenty to see and do in Budapest if you had a few days here, so I guess we'll just have to go back.
On Bratislava day, we both were awakened early by what sounded, to me, like a giant walking on the roof above us. It was actually that a storm had kicked up overnight, making the usually smooth passage through the locks really bumpy. I got up and out of bed early this morning and went out for a look. I saw another river boat that had crashed into a barge. Inconvenient for those passengers. But I don't think it affected us.
So the weather had changed. It was still sunny, but quite cool.
Mom and Dad had opted to join the Bratislava city tour, but Cathy and I just walked the city on our own. The main thing to see here was the Old Town, which we figured would be obvious to get to, but we managed to walk right past it the first time. Fortunately, we did have a couple maps, so we were able to make our way there. (Bratislava also isn't that big.) That part is quite nice. We saw the main square, St. Michael's Gate, and various other old buildings.
Statue in the park
A street performer we came across
We then visited the Cathedral, which was particularly notable for its beautiful stained glass. We were also allowed to go down into the crypt area, which may have been a first. It was slightly creepy. There really are people buried down there. Fortunately, it was well-illuminated, but a very low ceiling and... It's a crypt!
Next we went up to the castle. It was under restoration, so there wasn't much we could visit inside. But the site was very cool and offered nice views of the city.
The Bratislava castle
Then we went back to town. Cathy was interested in trying Slovakian wine (how often are you going to get the chance?) and we did indeed find a wine bar! Though I was a little dubious, we went in. Our waitress spoke English, and when we expressed an interest in trying a good Slovakian red, she suggested one for us. It was indeed very nice. As was the bill--2 Euros (about $1.40) for 2 glasses of wine. We gave a nice tip.
Before leaving, we had signed up for the optional Vienna by Night tour, which started at 7:30 on our first night in Vienna. Our tour guide for this was a young man named Marcus that Cathy took quite the shine to. The weather had cooled off and clouded over, but for the start, the rain did hold off.
For the first part of the tour, we took a bus ride through the Vienna Woods and up to a viewing area where you could see a lot the city sights. It was quite cool and windy up there, so it wasn't a long viewing period.
Vienna by night
We then were driven back down and to a local tavern to experience the Austrian Heurig tradition. These are family-run businesses where you drink their homemade wine (not spectacular, one must say) and eat pretzels while an accordionist and double bass player performed at the various tables. We had to try to think of Austrian songs they could play. Somebody else grabbed The Blue Danube, so all we could think of were songs from The Sound of Music. They said Eidelweiss wasn't really Austrian, but played it for us anyway. By the end (when everyone had been served their 1.5 L of wine), they had everyone clapping along. It was fun.
The final bit was a drive around the famous Ring Road, where you could see a lot of the prominent buildings illuminated. Quite nice, even in the rain.
The next morning we had the included Vienna City tour, again by bus with stops. It was not a nice day: cool, rainy. It also took quite long time to get to the town centre, because of all the traffic. (We left pretty much at rush hour.) But on the way we were given some history of the city and what the current situation was.
Our first stop was at the Hoffburg buildings, palaces at the centre of town, which we saw only from the outside. But, we were in time to see a couple of the Lipizzaner stallions cross from their training stables to the arena. They are very nice-looking white horses.
One of the famous white stallions
The outside views are impressive
The next stop was across the street from an apartment building with a really interesting, modern art look, in multiple colours, odd angles, and plants growing right out of the sides of the building. You couldn't visit that, but they did build a fairly cool mall across the street to accommodate the many who wanted to come by and look at the apartment. That had some neat art and food shops, and a pay bathroom featuring modern artsy decor (where else is there a bathroom that's a tourist attraction?).
These apartment buildings draw a crowd
A poo with a view
The tour then took us back to St. Stephen's Cathedral, and at that point we left the tour to be able to have lunch and spend the afternoon in Vienna. We went in the church, part of which was blocked off because a mass was going on. We mainly used it as a dry place to make plans.
St. Stephen's cathedral: Then (Honeymoon 1992) and Now (2011)
Though a bit early, we decided to head to a cafe for lunch, but picked one near the Hoffburg buildings that was supposed to be renowned. We took a route past the Opera House and checked on the times of the tours for that, since you couldn't just walk in and see the Opera House on your own.
Back at a park we'd first visited on our Honeymoon trip to Vienna. Pictures: Then (Honeymoon 1992) and Now (2011)
The Cafe Central that we had lunch at was a gorgeous old building. Our waiter spoke some English, and the menu had an English translation, so we managed that. We had a bottle of a red blend (one of which was Pinot Noir). Cathy started with a spinach soup with smoked trout that was just amazing. Dad and Cathy both had a ham and cheese sandwich as the main course, which was fine, but it is just a sandwich. I had the schnitzel, which was just great. Light, eggy batter on it. Mom had the special of the day, a ravioli, and that was delicious, with perfect texture. We each selected a cake from the displayed options, and of course, those were great also.
Then we went to visit the Hoffburg Treasury Building. This displayed artifacts such as crowns, jewels, robes, swords, that the Royal family had accumulated. All in all, it was a bit underwhelming. So instead of visiting another building here, we decided to go to the Opera House, as we were in time for the tour.
Lots of other people had the same idea, but they were able to accommodate us, partly by running two English tours at the same time. That was really good. We got to see the rehearsal hall, the special suite that the king used to use for intermissions, and of course, the theatre itself, which was smaller than I was expecting. Much of the Opera House burned down in the 1956, so while the lobby is original, a lot of the other parts are reconstructions. We also found out about how they never do the same opera on subsequent nights, and what that implies in terms of staging and costumes. (Huge work in terms of dismantling and putting back up sets daily, plus storage concerns.) And we learned about the new year's eve ball, where for a mere 250 Euros, you can dance the night away in gowns or tie and tails.
Opera house lobby
And in the theatre
It was really great tour. I would recommend it, whether you're into opera or not.
We then took a taxi back to the boat, and had a pretty quiet evening while many of the other guests went to a Vienna Music concert. (We had been offered tickets to the same while in the city, but in the end, opted out.)
The morning after Vienna, we sailed through the Wachau Valley. A few of the hardier folks went up on the sundeck for that, Cathy just found it too chilly, so she sat in the lounge for that. Regardless of location, Mick (our Gate1 tour manager) gave commentary on what we were seeing. That included the lovely little town of Durnstein, castles, fortifications, vineyards, and so on.
Part of the lovely Wachau Valley
Up on the sundeck that I avoided, but Jean did not
That afternoon we arrived in Melk. We didn't sign up for the tour, but we did pay for the offered shuttle into town. As we first arrived, it started to rain, so we thought that visiting the Abbey would be a good idea. We got help on locating it from the tourist office. Rather than wait for a tour, we decided to just get a guidebook and tour it ourselves.
Outside the Melk Abbey
Though we didn't know it going in, the way the first rooms are exhibited make this certainly the most modern abbey visit I've ever experienced. The overall theme was "The Path from Yesterday to Today", and each room explored a philosophical idea with a mix of ancient artifacts and modern technology—sound, video projections, lighting effects. It was really fascinating. Some of the themes:
Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror
Movement is a sign of life
After that, we visited the courtyard, finding that the rain had stopped, then went into the magnificent library with 100,000 books, a fully painted ceiling, and all kinds of ornamentation.
Need something to read?
A spiral staircase then led us to the church, definitely the most impressive we had seen on this trip. There didn't seem to be any part of it that was not decorated. It had a huge coupola, a magnificent organ, and gold everything.
When they say spiral staircase, they mean it
One weird point: The side altars featured embalmed corpses, dressed in costumes, of saints who dedicated themselves to the church. I'd never seen anything like that before.
Freaky dead person exhibit in the church
After being dazzled by that, we headed to the small carless town for a bit of shopping before our shuttle back. After visiting a few shops, we stopped in and did a bit of wine-tasting, and learned about the Austrian wine industry. It produces primarily white wines, but a few reds as well. Cathy bought one bottle here and her parents got a couple. We then shuttled back to the boat.
We were in Linz for a couple hours fairly early in the morning. The weather had now started to both clear and warm up. We came across a big flea market taking place, so wondered through the booths of clothes, jewelry, CDs, antiques, books, and so on. None of us bought anything, though. Then we wandered other parts of town, which was really lovely, clean and with a mix of historic and modern buildings. Based on window displays, it had a lot of intriguing stores, but we were too early for most to be open. Be nice to go back someday, when they were.
Before reaching Passau, the boat passed through a more narrow, twisty part of the Danube, with a nice little village on the side. We got some commentary on that, and Cathy actually spent some time on the sun deck, finally.
A nice part of the Danube
We had a couple of hours to spend in Passau. Again, we mostly just walked around, focusing particularly on the extensive pedestrian mall. It was later in the day, but some stores were still open, and there were a lot of people about. Unlike Linz, though, here we felt the two-hour visit was about enough time.
Passau was very Bavarian
Our visit to Regensburg included a walking tour for everyone, so we were divided into five groups. It started a little later in the morning, and it was nice to sleep in a bit!
Regensburg is marked by a very large, ancient, impressive bridge that makes it impossible for cruise ships to pass through the Danube at that point. Boats actually back up there and go through a side canal instead.
It also has a very impressive church. We were there Passover Sunday morning, however, so that limited how much we could visit the church. We were able to go in and listen to the boy's choir from the back—a choir apparently as good as the more famous one in Vienna. And we could see that the church itself was incredibly ornate, second only to the one in Melk (on this trip). One couple from the boat did attend mass, but said it was incredibly long. They left early.
One particularly interesting thing about it was that construction did not get completed in the 1500s, when it was first built, and was picked up some 200 years later, in the 1700s. That's when it reached its full, very impressive height. Over the years, it had become very blackened with acid rain and so on, so restoration efforts are underway.
The very tall Regensburg Cathedral
The town itself featured a lot of narrow cobblestone streets with the original buildings intact. Our tour guide said it was the most Italian of German cities. Much of the architecture was Italy-inspired, including some tall buildings built for no purpose other than to look tall. Really. The top floors contained nothing at all—they were just tall!
Most of the stores were closed that day, as it's the law in Germany that stores be closed on Sunday, but cafes and bakeshops were open, and Italian-like cafe culture is popular here. It was by now sunny and getting fairly warm again, so you could imagine how nice it would be to sit and enjoy the place. In a more German tone, beer and sausage are also very popular here. And, we actually saw people in lederhosen, not as a costume, but just as normal thing you might wear.
In the afternoon, we had signed up for another optional tour with several parts. Unlike all the others, really, where we'd had quite young tour guides, this one was led by a middle-aged German woman who had a bit of school teacher air. The first part was a bus ride up to Liberation Hall, which none of us had heard of before. But it is impressively huge, and another thing that has no purpose (that I can tell) other than to look impressive and huge. It was built to celebrate Germany's victory over Napoleon in the 1800s. Because 18 German states had joined to defeat him, the number 18 featured prominently in the design: 18 sides, 18 large statues, multiples of 18 posts in the lower part, and so on.
After getting the tour overview of the place, we had some free time to we walked up some of the steps to get the view, and peaked inside the building. (You can go in, but you have to pay to do so.)
Hard to tell from these photos, but Freedom Hall, is huge
While back on the bus, we got other information about this part of Germany. On thing she discussed was the solar program, where you could get solar panels put on your roof, either just for water heating, or also for electricity. Then what you generate and don't use is sold back to the utility company. You also get a discount on what you use from that, since that means you're not using the pooled electrical resources. The investment pays off after about 20 years. You definitely saw solar panels all over the place here—including on McDonald's buildings and things like that.
The next stop here was to get on a smaller boat to go through Danube Gorge. It was just a beautiful day, so we sat up on the sun roof. We got some commentary as we went through. We noticed quite a few kayaks and canoes in the water, and people walking on paths all along the gorge.
Boating to the Abbey
Our stop was at the Weltenburg Abbey. The highlight here was yet another church! It was quite impressive, though. Built by two brothers, one of the most interesting features was the domed ceiling that wasn't really a dome shape. It was just a flat roof painted to give you that optical illusion. The overall design was to keep things fairly dark at the bottom, partly by not having too many windows down there, representing life on earth, then a brighter middle section with a lot of gold, and an illuminated top, representing heaven.
Detailed view of part of the impressive 'Terror' Altar at the Weltenburg Abbey and a bunch of tourist thinking "It can't be a flat ceiling"!
The monks here also make beer. The explanation was that years ago, they had been drinking beer during Lent, since you are allowed liquids during this fasting time. But they were wondering, given that beer is so delicious, if this was really OK. So they had some beer sent to the pope. In one version of the story we heard, the beer went bad on the way. In the other, the pope just wasn't a beer fan. Either way, after tasting the beer, the pope said they could definitely drink that during Lent, as that was punishment enough.
We were each served a glass of the beer made here (with a pretzel). And you know? It was really good! It didn't taste very beer-y at all. It had a smooth richness to it that was quite nice. It was called Asom beer. Probably not available here. Too bad.
Beer. We like it! Hey Mickey!
Then, bus ride back to the boat.
As it doesn't seem to make sense to cover items about the boat itself on a day-by-day basis (which would get a little repetitive), I'm including it all in this section. Our boat was called the Amadeus Classic.
Our boat hanging out with its sister boat in Budapest
On a River cruise, unlike the big boats, every room gets a window. As I already mentioned, we had the higher deck ones with a slightly bigger window. The room itself was fairly small, with two single beds that can be pushed together to make a queen. It also had a chair, desk with mirror, and closet. The bathroom was actually a pretty good size, fitting two people in the shower if you're so inclined.
Rooms were cleaned at least twice a day, and you always got a fresh supply of towels and TP. The beds and pillows were pretty comfortable. I generally slept really well.
The ship was not fully booked—only 120 passengers and I think that capacity is about 148 people. We were the only Canadians; everyone else was American. That was a bit annoying in terms of getting the weather report, as they always seemed to give it only in Fahrenheit. But by the end we'd asked for Celsius translation so many times, they finally started giving both.
The staff were generally quite good, a few outstanding. Most seemed quite young—early 20s. And most were Romanian. A Gate 1 staffer also travelled with us—Mick, from Budapest.
The ship had a front bar area with a dance floor and viewing windows all around. We often went to sit there, sometimes drinking proseco or sparkling water.
On top was a sun deck with a small pool and chairs. Cathy found it too cool for most of the trip to spend much time there, but I went there several times for photos.
"Big chess" on the ship sun deck
Other than that, there was a small shop, a spa and fitness room (which we never used). And of course, the dining room.
For most tours, we were given a little box with headphones that allowed the guide to speak in a normal tone of voice, and we could hear what he or she said through the headphones. A really good idea for walking tours.
Every day, usually 15 minutes before dinner, there was a “port talk” that would outline the next day's activities and give any special news. During dinner, a printed schedule for the next day would be delivered to our room.
Each night they had music in the bar. The first night Hungarian musicians played there, but Cathy and I unfortunately slept through that. Cathy's parents said they were quite good. But the onboard musicians were also pretty good. One played guitar, the other keyboards, and they programmed in the drums and other instrument sounds. They mostly played US popular music: Eric Clapton, Santana, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles.
Cathy and I did take advantage of the dance floor on a number of occasions, trying out our jive in particular, but with some cha-cha and samba as well. The other passengers cheered us on - maybe all those dance lessons were worth it?
When we did have afternoons onboard, they offered quizzes you could work on. We did do especially well on one, in which each was kind of a trick question. We got them all right! So did one other couple on board. The cruise director was very impressed, saying she'd never had a case where more than one couple got all the questions right and of course she doesn't say that on all the cruises. We won a mug for our efforts. (Actually, a nice mug, with a cartoon map of the Danube.)
Mick also gave certainly presentations on board, such as what life was like before and after communism in Hungary, and information about Mozart and Strauss (Senior and Junior).
One night, they offered up a “crew show,” which is apparently a tradition on cruises. We were warned that the crew weren't necessarily trained actors or dancers, but it was a fun little show, mostly of comedy sketches. The final number was a Romanian dance featuring kissing, which members of the audience were invited to participate in. (We were sitting too far back to make our participation possible.)
The trip included all meals onboard, and that's what we did, with the exception of one lunch in Vienna. Fortunately, the food was pretty good. Breakfasts were always buffet style and had good variety: various cereals, three types of yogurt, a lot of fresh and some can fruit, smoked salmon, cheese and tomato... Breads were always fresh (made on board, apparently). It was a bit hard to find brown bread sometimes, but that's the only complaint. And though I usually didn't bother with it, there was always some hot stuff also, like scrambled eggs, bacon, baked beans, and sausage.
Lunch was at a fixed time (which varied slightly depending on the day's itinerary) and was usually four courses: salad, soup, main (choice of three), and dessert (choice of two). Now, portion size wasn't generally enormous, but that's still a pretty big lunch. Some days they had us line up for the salad, which I just found annoying. Other than that, salad is salad. As for the soup, except for finding them a bit salty, they were usually good. The mains at lunch weren't always as reliably good as the dinner ones, and some of us ended up with some fairly appalling items some days. Dessert was always fine. Ice cream was usually one of the choices.
Each afternoon, tea, coffee, and cakes were offered around 4:00. We occasionally partook of that. Most nights, a snack was offered around 11:00. We only tried that out once.
Dinner was also at some fixed time. The first and last dinners on board were particularly elaborate multi-course meals, with a couple of main courses in there, a sorbet chaser, that sort of thing. No choices in these, but enough food that you could get by if one course wasn't to your taste. But I found both of the "big" meals quite good.
Other days, it was just four courses, along the same lines as lunch. A few of the mains offered during the week were very good, notably the roast duck and the lamb. They were also good about not overcooking the fish. The wines they offered were Austrian ones made for them, and both white and red were quite nice and pretty food-friendly. They were also quite generous with the refills.
One of the best meals onboard: Duck, potatoes, and broccoli
Other passengers definitely skewed older—a lot of retired people. Many of these people had travelled extensively—a really mind-boggling number of other cruises, trips. Obviously, they came from various parts of the States: New York, Las Vegas (yes, people live there), near Chicago, Austin. Tables were for six, so my parents and I usually sat with one other couple. And it was very much a couples kind of trip; I wasn't aware of any singles on-board, other than one family with their teenage daughters.
It seemed that only later in the week did we get to talking to some couples closer to our own age. We got on particularly well with a couple we sat with the last night, who were in their early fifties (but looked younger) and had four children and ten grandchildren! They were married at 16. This was their first trip to Europe. They gave us some interesting suggestions for if and when we went to visit the Las Vegas area.
A river boat doesn't move all that quickly (about 20 K an hour?) and a river doesn't have sea swells, obviously, so most of the time you don't "feel" like you're on a boat that much. That is, it's very smooth. On the Danube, there are lot of locks to go through. That's also surprisingly smooth (as long as there isn't a storm). It's amazing how close the boat is to the walls when you do that. But the rising up in them, you don't sense that much.
Our final destination was supposed to be Nurnberg, Germany. However, problems with the locks prevented the cruise ship from leaving the Kehlheim area. For us, it really made no difference. We weren't going to see Nurnberg anyway; once there, we would have just gotten on a bus from the port to the airport in Munich. So now we would do that from Kehlheim, and the distance was about the same.
So that's what we did the next day. We drove on the Autobahn in a bus - would have been more fun in an appropriate German sports car! We were in plenty of time for our flight to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, we had less time between flights, but I did manage to pick up some Belgian truffles here. Our final flight home was slightly delayed as they had to wait for a new crew, but didn't seem to make much time difference in the end. We were on a 747 for the first time. Didn't care for it. It was really crowded (seemed to be pretty full); it was way too hot; and our entertainment system (Cathy's and mine) just wouldn't work. Certainly the least pleasant of all the flights.
But then we got through customs and back home with no issues.
For more photos, see Jean's Picasa site
Also this blog post, Vacation stats
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