Embarkation in Budapest
Riding from the airport to the Danube River that splits the city of Budapest into two pieces is an interesting ride. The terrain is flat, but as you get closer into the city, the hills lining the Danube begin to appear. In addition, the drab architecture in the outskirts of the city evolves into something much more appealing, and by the time our bus full of cruise ship passengers reaches the Viking Prestige river ship, the tiredness of airplane travel has already been replaced by the upcoming anticipation of things to come. The European river ship is docked in a prime spot on the Pest side of the Danube, right next to the famous Chain Bridge. We quickly checked in, and my suitcase had beaten me from the bus to my cabin. Ah, the joys of small ship cruising!
At first glance, I already love my cabin. It's got all the necessities I consider important--lots of plug-ins (both 115-volt and 220-volt), plenty of storage space, good reading lights, a magnifying mirror, nice-sized shower with glass door, and a French balcony. Unfortunately, all I can see from my balcony window is another ship, but I know this blank view will disappear when our neighbor sails.
After a long shower and some clean clothes, I was ready for the welcome briefing at 6 pm in the Observation Lounge. It was delightful to see that the Program Director was Marek Snelly, who mom and I enjoyed sailing with on our last Viking cruise between Bucharest and Nuremberg (Eastern European Odyssey) in 2009. Marek was one of the program managers on that cruise (assistants to the program director), and I was glad to see he had been promoted. Marek had enlightened and entertained us on that cruise with a memorable Dracula presentation and a program on growing up in Communist Slovakia.
At the briefing, Marek outlined the next day's schedule. We would have a guided bus and walking tour of Budapest in the morning. While we were touring, the Viking Prestige would move upstream on the Danube River and pick us up in time for lunch. The ship would sail all afternoon. It promised to be a fun cruise, as we could look forward to all the scenic river cruising we would do and places we would see over the next week--Budapest, Vienna, Melk, Passau, Regensburg, and Nuremberg.
Our first dinner on the Viking Prestige followed the port talk. As usual, I didn't have any problem finding some interesting people to dine with. It's one of the joys of cruising for me--socializing with others who appreciate new places and new cultures. The dinner amuse was especially interesting. The waiter said it was a "pork fat" spread, which was served with small pieces of toasted bread. It was actually very yummy, but super rich. Had the consistency of congealed bacon grease, but not a bacon flavor. It did have small chunks of crispy fried pork mixed in. We all thought it was quite tasty, despite the bad name and appearance (and obvious high-fat content). I also had a nice apple salad, followed by a pork cutlet and a Hungarian dessert sampler with a Gundel pancake (pancake stuffed with a nutty mixture and covered with chocolate), an ice cream dish, and something fruity. I skipped the garlic/eggplant soup, but others at the table who are more appreciative of eggplant than I am seemed to like it.
After dinner, the ship had a Hungarian music/dancing show, but I decided to go out for a short walk with one of the other passengers to settle our dinner. It was a gorgeous night, with a full moon. We walked across the Chain Bridge and down to see the Parliament lit up at night. We even ducked into the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel near our ship so she could see the magnificent chandelier.
I was back in the cabin by 10:30 and asleep soon after. The next day we would tour Budapest, a city I've been to several times, but always enjoy revisiting.
A Day in Budapest from the Viking Prestige European River Ship
It was a gorgeous day in Budapest the next morning. The Viking Prestige cabin had heavy curtains that completely block out all light, which was good since the sun comes up very early in Budapest. Lucky for me, the Viking Primadonna docked next to us had left during the night, leaving me this spectacular view of the old Royal Palace of Buda (now a museum) and the Danube River out my port side-French balcony.
I ate a quick breakfast from the sumptuous buffet and was on the bus by 8 am. Like most river cruise lines, Viking uses the audiovox machines and you keep them in your cabin in the charger. They certainly help you hear the tour guide more easily! Passengers are not assigned groups, so you can easily change buses or walking groups each day. One group is the "slow walking" group, which sees everything, but at a slower pace. The ship has a system with little tags and numbers in bowls on the reception desk (e.g. I picked a tag with #4, so I was on bus 4 in Budapest). Helps keep the 188 passengers evenly spread out.
The bus and walking tour was almost identical to the one I had done three times before, but each guide always has a different story, plus I can't remember everything anyway. We saw the Parliament from the outside before driving up Andrassy Boulevard past the Opera House to Heroes' Square, where we had 10 minutes to make photos before reboarding the bus and riding by the thermal spa where my friend Maggie and I had bobbed around with the locals (Szechenyi Baths), and then by the Great Synagogue of Budapest, the second largest synagogue in the world (after the one in New York City) before crossing the Danube to the Buda side and stopping at the Danube overlook near the Liberation Monument and then riding a little while further to take a walking tour of the Matthias Church and Fishermen's Bastion area. We had an hour of free time before reboarding the bus at 11:15 for the hour's ride to meet up with the ship at Visegrad. The Viking Prestige had left its docking spot near the Chain Bridge in Budapest at about 8:30 and made her way upstream towards Austria and waited for us at this small town. This enabled the ship to reach Vienna at about 8:30 the next morning.
After getting back at the ship, I ate lunch (salad bar and some type of yummy Hungarian dessert) and then chatted with some of my travelers while watching the river scenery. We sailed by the huge Esztergom Basilica, which is the tallest building in Hungary. We could see the church for miles before we actually slid by it on the river. The afternoon passed by quickly, and I went to the Viennese coffee lesson and apple strudel tasting, followed by joining some folks outside in the shade in the Aquavit Lounge for some wine. The first thing I knew, it was time to get ready for the Captain's night party. It was very nice, although not as formal as some I've seen, nor as extravagant food. The two main dishes were a turbot fish and roasted turkey.
After dinner, we sat at the table and chatted for a long time before going to the "Growing up in Communist Slovakia" presentation by Marek and some Slovakian dancing. The next morning we would be in Vienna.
Vienna - Elegant City Filled with Music, Parks, and Museums
It was another beautiful August sunny morning in Vienna. The Viking Prestige arrived about 8:30 and the city tour started at 8:45. The city was lush and green, much different than when I had visited in March and spring was just a promise. It was the first time I had seen someone swimming in the the Danube Canal swimming pool since the other times I've visited have either been off-season or pouring rain.
We walked with a guide through the old city and got a chance to see a few of the Lipizzaner horses in their stables. Our guide said that usually the horses were on a country holiday in July and August, so I speculated that maybe these horses were being punished by making them stay in the hot city. Who knows? It is interesting that these gorgeous animals are born with black hair, which gradually changes to gray and then the familiar white. Mom and I saw them "dance" at the Spanish riding school in Jerez, Spain, and it was a marvelous performance.
After riding around Vienna for an hour and then walking with the guide for another hour, we had an hour or so of free time. I went with a group of the fellow passengers to an outdoor cafe near the cathedral and we all enjoyed the sunshine, people watching, and Viennese coffee. (Since I'm not a coffee drinker, I had ice cream and a bottle of water.)
We were back on the ship by 12:30 for lunch. Had a great fresh salad and some kind of Austrian pasta specialty that reminded me of baked macaroni and cheese, but was more eggy and had some type of sweet spice like nutmeg. Not nearly as good as what my husband's mac and cheese, but still tasty!
After lunch, many of my fellow passengers either did an optional tour to Schonbrunn Palace, or returned to the city center via the easy-to-ride subway. Some traveled to see the spectacular Belvedere Palace with "The Kiss" painting by Gustav Klimt in its museum. I decided to download photos from my camera to the computer and do a little work. However, I got so sleepy I closed the curtains and took an hour's nap, waking up about 4:30 to discover that it was pouring down rain. Fortunately I awoke just in time to get ready for happy hour, the shore talk, the early dinner, and the Viennese concert. Had a nice dinner--cucumber, lettuce, and tomato salad with Gorgonzola cheese, hot potato soup, and wiener schnitzel (made with veal). Very good. Dessert was a sampler of ice cream and an apple pastry. Very good.
We left to go to the optional concert about 7:30, and returned to the Viking Prestige about 10:15 or so. The concert was very good, a nice mixture of musicians, operatic singers, and dancers. Everyone enjoyed it, despite the uncomfortable, small, straight-back chairs and warm indoor temperature.
Cruising the Wachau Valley
The next morning I woke up about 7 am and opened the curtains to a huge fog bank. Oh no! For about 5 minutes I thought--we won't be able to see the picturesque Wachau Valley of the Danube. However, the fog lifted and we had a glorious day sailing through one of the loveliest parts of the Danube. As we sailed by Durnstein early in the day, I couldn't hardly believe that my friend Maggie and I had hiked up to the old castle on a previous cruise. From the river, the climb to ancient Durnstein Castle looks much more difficult than it really is.
Most everyone on the ship gathered on the sun deck to enjoy the views. The Wachau Valley is lined with steep vineyards, picturesque villages, and old castles and churches. We enjoyed an Austrian lunch outdoors on the top deck of the Viking Prestige. The sailing was very fun, and the free beer, hot dogs, sausages, and dancing contributed to the festive atmosphere. The morning was European river cruising at its best.
The leisurely cruise on the Danube was over way too soon, but everyone was excited about touring the famous Melk Abbey.
An Afternoon in Melk
The Viking Prestige arrived in Melk about 12:30 pm, and I decided to go with three other travelers to rent bikes and ride along the river. Austria/Germany (and other European) countries have bikes to rent from roadside unmanned stations. When you find a place to rent a bike, you call a phone number provided at the site, give them a credit card, and they give you the code to unlock the bike and charge you about 1 euro per hour (or 5 euros for 24 hours). Some places you don't have to call; you just swipe a credit card through a card reader to unlock the bike. They send you a text message with the code to unlock the bike. We got the bikes and rode off towards a bike trail. I noticed I was having trouble keeping up; the bike felt very sluggish. After a short while, one of the other riders got behind me and noticed I had a flat tire! I insisted they go on ahead and returned to Melk. Had to walk the bike back because it went very flat very soon. Needless to say, walking a bike a couple of miles is a pain. Plus, it was very hot. But I survived.
Those who took the included tour of the famous Melk Abbey fared better than I did. The abbey was founded in 1089, and the original building was rebuilt in the baroque style at the beginning of the 18th century. Anyone who hasn't been to Melk should take this included tour. Buses take passengers up to the top of the hill where the abbey overlooks the town of Melk. After the tour, you can either ride the bus back to the ship or walk down the hill and through the quaint village to the ship. The quiet abbey, marvelous library, ornate church with its gilded interior, lush gardens, and terrific views make the trip worthwhile.
My unintended bike-walking tour got me back to the ship about an hour before we sailed. I think the other three riders weren't too far behind me--it's amazing how much faster you can ride! The cool shower was one of the best ever, as was the diet coke I bought at a store near where I dropped off the bike. (I had carried a bottle of water, but had consumed it on the walk back to the bike rack.)
After getting cleaned up, Makek the program director did a presentation on Mozart (in costume). Both funny and dramatic. I laughed because Marek's Mozart wasn't too much different in make-up, voice, and manner than his Dracula impersonation on our 2009 cruise. To celebrate my surviving the bike hike, I drank a small carafe of wine before dinner.
Went to past cruisers party and had fun time with everyone in the library on the back of the ship. Had nice appetizers, open bar, and special Aquavit that had been carried in barrels all the way to Australia and back from Norway to make sure it was properly mixed/aged/whatever. Too much like moonshine for me, but managed to get it down. We had an international dinner. Appetizer was a fixed group of four "tapas", with a baba ganoush/hummus spread, green beans and ham rolled up, tuna Nicoise salad, and eggplant caviar and chickpea mousse. Soup was borscht without the sour cream. Main courses were a vegetarian ravioli, veal in mushroom sauce, or fried catfish. I got the "order anytime" poached salmon and Caesar salad, which was delicious, followed by ice cream for dessert.
After dinner, I went to Marek's presentation on "future cruises", where they served a surprise of spring rolls when he was discussing the China cruises and a generous shot of vodka when he was discussing the Russian ones. Needless to say, with the beer (for lunch), wine, Aquavit, and vodka, I'm surprised I was still stone sober. Guess it was spread out enough through the day and accompanied by enough food.
A Day in Passau, Germany
It was another warm, sunny day in Passau, the German city at the junction of three rivers. I decided to skip the Viking-included walking tour and do a little exploring on my own. As much as I appreciate (and learn from) a guided tour, it's also fun to see a place at your own pace, stopping where you want and how long you want. With a river cruise, you usually dock right near the old towns, and the ship will provide a map for you to go off on your own. Since the tours are included in the fare, you never feel like the staff is pushing you to buy a ship's tour! The Viking tour included a good overview of Passau, concluding with a concert on one of the world's largest church organs at St. Stephan's Cathedral.
I strolled around a little, sat and drank a diet coke and used the Internet in a cafe, ran into one of the other Viking Prestige passengers and had a beer, and then met up with a group for a late lunch at a restaurant called Bouillabaisse. It was outstanding, although the poor German waitress had to walk us through the entire menu since they didn't have one in English. I had tuna with a zucchini/tomato sauce and some of my fellow travelers got scallops in a champagne butter sauce, the signature bouillabaisse, or some other fish dish. All were accompanied by wine and hot garlic toasted bread. Yummy!
Although I certainly needed the exercise, there wasn't enough time to hike up to the Oberhaus fortress and enjoy the view, as I had done on an earlier visit to Passau seen in the photo above.
I didn't get back to the ship until about 3 pm or so (we sailed at 4), so it was a long lunch. After the beer, wine and big lunch, I obviously had to take a nap, just waking up in time to get cleaned up for dinner. By dinner, word has spread through the ship that Viking had "leaked" a big announcement about their new longships--they had planned to launch four new ships next year, but due to the demand, they are launching six, four in March and two in the summer. Quite a feat for the shipyard and for Viking River Cruises.
Dinner was one of the best. I had a hard time selecting from the two appetizers, finally settling on the mushroom risotto with a chili sauce on the side. The other one was an artichoke salad, which also looked delicious. The main courses were halibut or osso bucco. I got the halibut since I thought it would be lighter. Also had an excellent spinach/sour cream soup.
Two big meals did me in, and I decided to call it a day and go to bed early. We would be in Regensburg the next morning.
Morning in Regensburg
Regensburg, Germany was our next Danube River stop on the Viking Prestige. The Viking Prestige docked near the old stone bridge and the historic Regensburg sausage kitchen (Wurstkuchl), which has been serving sausage since the Romans built the stone bridge about 900 years ago. Sausage and sauerkraut are the only things on the menu, and thousands are sold each day.
The ship had an included walking tour of the old town, which reportedly has over 1,000 historical buildings from across the ages. The Romans built the stone bridge, and the city was a religious center in the Middle Ages. The old town still has several interesting churches of various styles. Like many river towns, Regensburg is fun to explore on your own, but taking a guided walking tour on your first visit ensures that you see the most fascinating buildings and hear the interesting stories.
Regensburg always seems have weddings taking place at the city hall, so I found a sidewalk cafe and sipped a diet coke while watching the happy couples and their friends and families. Many of the attendees had on traditional German dress, although the brides mostly wore white gowns much like American brides. I also peeked in St. Peter's Cathedral and meandered through the narrow streets for a while before settling into an Internet cafe with my laptop.
Walking back to the ship for lunch, I noticed many of my fellow Viking Prestige passengers enjoying an outdoor lunch at the historic sausage kitchen. I returned to the ship and enjoyed a salad and a small dish of the blue cheese pasta. Everyone was raving about how good the minestrone soup was, but I decided to have the dark chocolate ice cream and caramelized apple slices instead. We had some fun onboard during lunch. A German accordion/clarinet musician entertained us, but we couldn't stop talking about his wonderful beard/mustache, which must have had a ton of hair gel on it.
The ship was supposed to sail for Kelheim at noon, but the Captain got word that another river ship was blocking one of the locks. So, those of us taking the afternoon excursion to Weltenburg Abbey and the Danube Gorge boarded the buses right in Regensburg for the hour's drive to Weltenburg. Everyone else stayed on the ship, and picked us up on the Main-Danube Canal in Kelheim late in the afternoon.
The Weltenburg Abbey and the Danube Gorge
The drive through the German countryside from Regensburg to Weltenburg was lovely (about 45 minutes), and we even rode by the home of Pope Benedict XVI (before the Vatican) near Regensburg. He was a college professor of theology and religion before he became a Cardinal, one of Pope John Paul II's closest confidants, and then Pope himself.
The old abbey at Weltenberg sits right on the Danube River and is subject to bad floods in the spring and fall. Cruise ships don't go by the abbey because they join the Main-Danube Canal near Regensburg and leave the Danube River. This canal connects the Danube and Main (and eventually the Rhine) rivers and was completed only in 1992--just 20 years ago! It enabled commercial barges and river ships to move between Amsterdam on the North Sea all the way to the Black Sea in Bulgaria. The Danube River from Kelheim (which is upstream from Regensburg) past the abbey is restricted to small ships and is one of the most scenic sections of the Danube River.
After touring the Benedictine church at the Abbey, we had a delicious soft pretzel and a dark beer called Weltenburger Kloster that is made at the abbey. We also had a little free time, so I walked up the hill to get a better view of the river. Some people went down to the river and stuck their feet in, and one of our group even went in swimming with some of the locals (in his clothes). He said the water was quite cold, but refreshing.
After 1.5-2 hours at the abbey, we walked the short distance down the river to the small river ships that carried our group on a 20-minute ride on the Danube back to Kelheim. The tall rocky cliffs overlooking the river were quite scenic and we enjoyed watching the kids swim in the river, although our guides said it was quite dangerous due to the many whirlpools.
When we got to the small ship Kelheim dock on the Danube River, we found that our ship the Viking Prestige had been delayed in the nearby Main-Danube canal due to the breakdown of another ship in one of the locks. Instead of meeting the ship at 5:30 pm, we were going to meet it at 7:30 pm. So, instead of the buses taking us to the meeting point on the Main-Danube canal (about a 10 minute bus drive), we went up to the top of a nearby mountain to visit the large Liberation Hall monument built by Ludwig I (not the mad king Ludwig II who built the Neuschwanstein Castle). We were all tired from the heat, so many on the three buses just sat in the hilltop cafe and had a cold drink or ice cream. Some of us walked to the monument (about 1/4 mile or so) to hear the guide's impromptu stories. About 6:45 we got word that the ship was on its way and would be arriving at a little after 7 pm. So, we quickly got back on the buses a little earlier than expected and rode down the mountain/hill to the meeting point.
I had a quick shower and was at the nightly meeting 30 minutes later. I can be quick when food and drink is at hand! Dinner was quite good. I had a salmon main course, which was excellent, as were the appetizer and soup. The waiters did a baked Alaska parade (with sparklers). We finished off the meal with Palinka, a very strong apricot brandy from Hungary (home of our maitre'd). It was better than the aquavit and vodka, but still too strong for me.
Nuremberg - Medieval and World War II City
Our last full day on the Viking Prestige, I was awoken by a bad thunderstorm, and the rain was pelting the windows. Fortunately, the weather cleared up and it was one of our nicest days--a good breeze and not as hot as most of the other days. We were supposed to arrive in Nuremburg at 9:30, but one of the locks was out of service for a while, and we didn't get to the docking point on the canal until about 12:45 pm. So, our intrepid cruise staff moved the two tours to the afternoon. One was the traditional city tour, stopping at the Nazi Zeppelin parade grounds and the old castle before walking down into the city. The second tour added more World War II sites like the Documentation Center and a stop at Room 600 at the Courthouse where the Nuremberg trials were held in 1946. I took the first one so I could have a little more free time.
I had been to Nuremberg before and remember well how the city was almost completely destroyed during World War II. I hadn't been to the old castle, which featured great views of the city. Our group walked down into the old town before splitting up for an hour's free time. I bought some Nuremberg gingerbread cookies at a shop on the square, checked my email, and had an iced tea in a Starbucks near the gorgeous old fountain. We were back on the ship at 5:30. The glass blower from Wertheim gave a demo at 6:00 pm and I think several people bought the glass thermometers and other hand-blown items mom and I had purchased a few years ago when the Viking Spirit stopped in Wertheim.
Dinner was at 7 pm, and we had some delicious paprika/cheese spread for an appetizer, followed by white asparagus soup. Most everyone got the duck or flounder at my table, but I had the steak and baked potato (I was ready for some "plain" food). It was a fun evening for our last night on the Viking Prestige.
The next morning, the 184 of us onboard started leaving the ship in Nuremberg as early as 3:45 am. Many (like me) had a short ride to the Nuremberg airport; others had a longer ride to Munich. A large group were continuing their cruise tour vacation by taking a post-cruise extension to Prague, which is about a four-hour drive from Nuremberg. No matter where we were going, we all took home fun memories and more knowledge of the fascinating ports on the Danube from our week on the Viking Prestige.
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