Budapest to Passau - River Beatrice Cruise Overview
The Uniworld River Beatrice sails the Danube River between Budapest and Passau, which is one of the most popular European river itineraries. When sailing upstream from Budapest, the River Beatrice has stops in Vienna; Durnstein at the beginning of Austria's Wachau Valley on the Danube River, which is a World Heritage site; Melk; Linz, with a day trip to Salzburg; and Passau.
I cruised this itinerary on the first voyage of Uniworld's Danube River cruise season in late March. The guests were very lucky with the weather, with temperatures mostly in the 60's and sunny. There was just enough rain and cold to remind us that it was early spring. The river scenery along the way was lovely, with green fields bordering the river. The forests and vineyards were mostly barren and brown, but it was fascinating to see the bare vines and trees, knowing that they would be leafed-out in just a few short weeks. Other than the green fields and blue sky, golden forsythia, and flowering fruit trees dotted the landscape, providing some more color to our memories.
My high school friend Maggie traveled with me to Europe to attend the Uniworld S.S. Antoinette in Amsterdam. After the S.S. Antoinette 3-night inaugural sailing, we spent two more days in Amsterdam before flying to Budapest, where we stayed for four nights before boarding the Uniworld River Beatrice. We had a great time in both these cities, and they are certainly worth extending your river cruise vacation in either of them.
We stayed at the Hotel Palazzo Zichy, a 4-star boutique hotel on the Pest side of the Danube in Budapest. It was in a good location, near a subway station and large city market. From the hotel we walked to the Parliament building, the central market, the large synagogue, to sites near the city center, and across the Danube River to Buda. We only rode the subway out to the thermal baths. The hotel had an excellent breakfast, free WiFi, and very friendly, competent staff. It's a good choice for those who prefer a smaller hotel in a good location. The hotel doesn't have its own restaurant, but there are several within easy walking distance.
Although we had a wonderful time in Budapest, we were both excited to board the Uniworld River Beatrice the next morning.
Embarkation on the River Beatrice in Budapest
After a last leisurely breakfast at the hotel, we finished packing and asked the front desk to call us a taxi. We were on the River Beatrice 15 minutes later, arriving about noon. The ship was docked on the Buda side of the Danube, very near the Chain Bridge. Our River Beatrice suite, #411, was on the same deck as the observation lounge and the library. My first impression was that the ship was absolutely gorgeous and not quite as ornate as her sister ship the S.S. Antoinette. Since it was the first cruise of the season, our cabin was ready and we were able to unpack before lunch. Lunch was nice--a big salad, red pepper soup, and freshly made pasta primavera.
After lunch, we walked into Buda rather than take the Uniworld free hourly boat shuttles to/from Pest. This time we climbed up a gazillion steps to the top of the Fishermen's Bastion rather than taking the elevator we had found earlier in the week. We returned to the ship just in time for tea (and snacks) and were glad we had the calories from the long walk (and all those steps) to consume. After tea, we got cleaned up for dinner.
Before dinner, we had a short port talk at 6 pm in the lounge, where we met the Dutch Captain, Portuguese hotel director, and the Belgian cruise director. We had a 9 am Budapest tour scheduled the next morning, returning to the ship for lunch, with free time in the afternoon before the ship sails at 6 pm.
After the port talk, we had dinner at 7 pm. All the suite guests (31 of us) had a private dinner in the aft lounge. We had the same menu as the main restaurant, but our suite's butler served the meal. It was a set dinner--goat cheese/Hungarian sausage appetizer, beef goulash soup, paprika chicken with homemade dumplings, and sherbet topped with Palinka (a Hungarian brandy). It was all very good, especially the dessert.
Dinner wasn't over until 9 pm and we walked out on the top deck to watch the lights on the Chain Bridge and the Parliament. It was a little rainy, so we didn't stay long. We sat in the lounge for a little while and visited with some new cruise mates before going back to the room about 9:30. "Mama Mia" was just coming on the TV and we enjoyed seeing it again.
A Day in Budapest from the Uniworld River Beatrice
The next morning in Budapest, we were up at 6:50 on the River Beatrice and then to breakfast at about 7:30. We had a driving tour of Budapest at 9 am with three buses. We rode to Hero's Square, and only spent about 15 minutes, but that was long enough. We were amazed how cold it was; you could see your breath. At least the overnight rain had stopped, but it was still damp. The Hero's Square honors all the past Hungarian rulers and conquerors, most of whom I had never heard of. The large obelisk in the center of the square is flanked by the seven Magyar leaders who came to Hungary from Mongolia/Asia in the 9th century. Their names were unpronounceable and impossible to spell for me, but all Hungarian school children know them well. The square also has 14 of the most famous kings of Hungary, starting with Stephen in the year 1000.
After walking around the square, we reboarded the buses and rode around Budapest, seeing many of the sites Maggie and I had already visited. It was fun to grasp one last peek at the Szechenyi baths, the synagogue, the parliament, market, etc. We stopped in Buda on Castle Hill, where we had a guided tour plus went inside the Moorish/Catholic Matthias Church. The frescoes on the church walls have been damaged by moisture. The walls of the church are holding water and the frescoes are coming down. However, engineers have developed a creative way to run an electric current through the walls (we could see the wires) to dry them out.
Following the guided tour, Maggie and I walked over to Budapest's oldest café for a quick strudel (Delicious!) and then checked out a local grocery store and art gallery. Maggie would have liked to spend hours in the gallery since they featured a lot of local artisans' work, but decided to return to the ship rather than walk down the hill. (She might also have missed lunch, which of course she wasn't willing to do. I had already planned to go back to the River Beatrice with the group.) We returned to the bus and back to the ship after a bit more driving around Budapest. Lunch was an excellent buffet, with very fresh salad makings. They have free soft drinks for lunch, but not wine or beer like at dinner.
In the afternoon, we took about an hour's walk along the river, almost to the Margaret Bridge. We returned one block over and came upon a movie crew filming a woman walking along the street, looking surreptitiously behind her and ducking into a hotel. They did two takes. We couldn't recognize the woman since she had big dark glasses on (kind of an Audrey Hepburn look), but someone said their guide told them that a Hollywood movie was currently being filmed in Budapest. Isn't it fun to travel and come across small happenings such as this one?
While we were having free time, many of our fellow River Beatrice passengers took an optional tour to the Puszta for the excellent horse show or to the Jewish synagogue and Holocaust Memorial Center Maggie and I had visited earlier in the week.
The River Beatrice left Budapest at 6:00 pm, and we loved seeing this lovely city for the last time, passing under the Chain and Margaret bridges, by the Parliament and Fisherman's Bastion, Margaret Island, and the city suburbs.
We had a captain's welcome party at 6:30, and Maggie and I had prime seats since we were joining the Captain for dinner after the party. He had five other guests, and the hotel director and cruise director also joined us at the table for eleven. Dinner was excellent, with a salad, appetizer, fish or veal for the main course, and a chocolate concoction and ice cream for dessert. Of course, we all had copious amounts of wine, except for the Captain who shares his duties with another Captain on 12-hour shifts. We had small truffles and cognac to top off the meal. We all felt very special!
After the dinner and all the wine, we both slept much better than the first night on the ship.
Sailing the Danube River on the River Beatrice
The next day, we were sailing on the Danube River most of the day before arriving in Vienna just before dinner. This scheduling allowed us to rest up after non-stop touring for over a week. It also allowed those who just arrived from overseas the chance to recover from their jet lag. We awoke about 7:30 while entering the Gabcikovo lock, which was the largest lock of our Danube river cruise, and were ready for breakfast by the time we came out of the lock. It was cold and foggy when we awoke, but the fog burned off by 9:30, and it suddenly was a gorgeous day.
The buffet breakfast was very good. We had crispy bacon and omelets made to order, along with all the usual fruit and bread. After breakfast, I sat and chatted with some fellow cruisers and Maggie tried to read some about Vienna in the lounge. We had a cruise overview of the rest of the week with Woulter the cruise director before getting to Bratislava. This ship doesn't stop at Bratislava as some river ships do, but we have an optional (i.e. costs extra) half-day tour from Vienna--it's only a 45-minute drive, but takes about 6 hours via ship.
We had a lovely day on the Danube. It was sunny, but a little chilly outdoors on the top deck. After a long, leisurely lunch, we had a quiet afternoon watching the world go by. We saw many fruit trees and forsythia blooming, but most of the hardwoods are just budding. We had a streusel-making (and tasting) demonstration in the afternoon, and soon it was time to get ready for our early dinner. After the streusel and tea snacks, neither of us were very hungry, but we managed. I had wiener schnitzel and Maggie had fish. Very good.
While we were eating dinner, the River Beatrice arrived in Vienna. After dinner, it was time to go to the optional Viennese concert. The concert was excellent. It was about 1.5 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. They had a small classical group (three violins, cello, bass, piano, piccolo/flute, clarinet, and percussionist) who were excellent, along with a pair of dancers (ballet/ballroom) and two operatic singers (male and female). The program was varied and in a gorgeous old theater, the same one my mom and I had visited in 2005. We did a nighttime drive around the city on the way back to the ship.
Returning to the ship at about 11 pm, we had frankfurters and goulash soup for a late night snack. It went well with a nice merlot.
Off to bed since we had an early wake-up call to tour Vienna.
A Day in Vienna from the River Beatrice
Maggie and I were up with the 6:45 alarm for our full day in Vienna on Wednesday, and we were again lucky with the weather--sunny and in the low 60's. After our usual filling breakfast (my omelet and yogurt, Maggie's peppers and salad stuff), we were at a lecture on Austria in the lounge by 8:30. The lady was very informative but also funny, so we all learned a lot about the history of Austria and the many rulers of old, including the Habsburgs, who ruled from the 13th to the 18th century.
The tour bus left at 9:30 for a city tour of Vienna. I was a little surprised that we didn't go to Belvedere, the gorgeous palace (now a museum) on the edge of town as we had done on my two previous times in the city, but I really enjoyed seeing the library and the training center for the Lipizanner horses, both of which were new to me. We rode the bus and walked around the city until about noon when we finished the tour at St. Stephen's church in the center of the old town.
Uniworld is introducing alternative "choice" tours for those who have visited some of these ports of call previously. I think this is an excellent idea, and will serve as a good incentive for travelers to repeat itineraries. River cruises usually have tours included with the fare, but it's always a city/village tour that is perfect for first-time visitors but not necessarily for those who have visited before. Although river cruise lines have optional tours in some ports, these always cost extra. However, Uniworld now has "choice" tours in Vienna and Linz. Since my friend Maggie had not been to any of our ports before, we did the regularly included tours, although the alternative tours sounded very interesting. For example, in Vienna, the "choice" tour was "Vienna as the Viennese Do", which included a driving tour of the city, followed by a walk through a local favorite park, a stop at a coffee house and at a wine tasting, and a more extensive walking tour of the city that provided a chance to see many sites not on the regular tour. The "choice" tour ended at St. Stephens Cathedral, just like the regular tour did, but the participants took the subway back to the ship rather than a coach. Uniworld also had an optional tour to the lovely Schonbrunn Palace in the afternoon.
After our city tour, we met up with a good friend of Maggie's daughter from high school. He met an Austrian woman when he was studying in Berlin in 2005, and they got married last December. He currently is teaching ESL at night in Vienna while his wife works as a graphic designer. It was very nice to have our own private tour guide, and David told us all about life in Vienna, from an American's perspective. We walked around some more of the old town, visiting Secession, a small art museum, and having lunch at a delightful outdoor Israeli restaurant in the Naschmarkt area. This market area features all sorts of fresh fruits, meats, and veggies to sell, but also has dozens of small restaurants, most of which with indoor and outdoor seating. Since our day in Vienna was only the second nice day they had in weeks, it seemed like everyone was eating outside. Very fun. Maggie and David had hummus, tabouleh, and other middle eastern vegetarian delicacies, while I had almond chicken with a yummy hot/sweet chili sauce. We also had some fried sweet potato puffs that were chopped sweet potatoes, onions, and chives deep fried like a hush puppy. Of course, we tried some Austrian beer. After lunch, we did some more exploring and visited a few shops, but didn't buy anything.
We said goodbye to David about 4:30 or so and headed back to the ship on the subway (called U-Bahn in Vienna). We were back at the ship by about 5:15 and rested a while before our nightly briefing in the lounge. The cruise director gave us a short German lesson, but I think I'm hopeless.
Dinner was the lamb for me and fish for Maggie. Both were very good. After dinner, we had two older men from Bratislava who were musicians. One played the piano and the other the violin, Pan flute, and a couple of Slovakian instruments including a holeless flute and a huge instrument that looked and sounded much like an Australian didgeridoo. (I'm not sure how the indigenous Australians got to Slovakia or vice versa, but it's certainly interesting.)
Bed was at 11-ish. The next day we would be in Durnstein, Austria in the morning and Melk in the afternoon. We would sail the Wachau Valley over lunch and have an outdoor barbecue on the top deck.
Durnstein, Melk, and the Wachau Valley on the Danube River
Our next day on the Danube River was a great day for us. It began not so good--we had to set an alarm to get up at 6:45 so we could get breakfast, hike up to the ruins of the Durnstein Castle, and explore this small village on the Danube River before our 10:15 trip to the winery.
So, we were up early, ate a hearty breakfast (can't miss a meal), and off the ship before 8:00 am headed for Durnstein. The River Beatrice had docked in Durnstein at about 7:30 am, having sailed from Vienna at midnight. I should have made Maggie the leader because my "dead reckoning" took us the wrong way a little bit. We managed to walk through the village and back before finding the turn. The sign said "20 minutes" to the castle ruins, but it took us 30 since the climb was so steep.
This Durnstein castle is famous because Leopold V, the Duke of Austria, held King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) for ransom at the castle for three months in 1192-1193. Maggie and I were the only ones on the steep trail, and we wished we had borrowed the Nordic walking sticks from the ship. We stopped often to make photos (and rest). It was a hard uphill climb, but the views at the top were worth it. We had one small problem--it poured rain for about 5 minutes on us, but we quickly found shelter in the castle and didn't get too wet. The castle is in ruins, so the climb is mostly for the view and for bragging rights.
We were back down in the village of Durnstein by 9:30, allowing enough time to browse the shops but missed the ship's included walking tour. Maggie bought some gifts for those back home. Back on the ship, we only had time to repack our stuff before catching the small "train" to the nearby Domane Wachau.
We were at the winery over an hour and a half, enjoying an excellent tour with one of the vintners. This winery is a cooperative of 700 vintners with only 1000 acres of grapes. Our guide was British but had moved to Durnstein 25 years ago. He met an Austrian girl while on a Spanish holiday, fell in love, and lived in Durnstein ever since. We toured the chateau and the cellars before having a tasting of five white wines. The wines were very diverse, and the tasting was excellent.
The River Beatrice sailed from Durnstein at noon, and we had a barbecue on the top deck while we sailed through the lovely Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site lined with steep vineyards and tiny villages. The warm sunny day made the sailing marvelous. Maggie and I opened a bottle of wine, which we sipped while enjoying the nice spring weather and beautiful river scenery.
One of our fellow passengers was training for the Paris Marathon, so she ran the 18+ miles from Durnstein to Melk. She left Durnstein a while before us, and we caught her about 2/3 of the way to Melk. She stayed with us for a while--I think the ship was going 12 km/hour and she was running about 10. She ended up running the route along the river in a little over 3 hours. What a good athlete she is, and what a lovely place for a long run.
We arrived in Melk at 3 pm and immediately boarded the buses for the Melk Abbey. It's really beautiful and hasn't changed much since I was there two years ago. We used the audio vox machines and had a good guide. At the end of the tour, we had a Benedictine monk who played the organ for us (about 10 minutes) in the ornate baroque church. He is 80 years old and has been playing at the Abbey for about 60 years.
Following the tour and short organ concert, Maggie and I strolled through the town of Melk and walked back to the ship, arriving at 5:30.
We had an "Epicurean" dinner that evening, which featured Austrian/German wines paired with regional food. We started in the bar with a sparkling wine (kind of like German champagne) and had two white wines, an excellent red, and a dessert wine with the meal. It was almost a fixed menu, with fried cheese, salad, chicken consomme, duck breast or salmon, and crème brulee/ice cream for dessert.
We were back in the room by 9:30, and ready to see Linz and Salzburg the next day.
Salzburg - A Day of Mozart and the Sound of Music
The next day was a day of Mozart and the Sound of Music movie. We were up at the now usual time of 6:45, and had a big breakfast followed by getting on the bus at 8:30. Uniworld makes us charge up our own Audio Vox systems each night, which is good and bad since we have to always remember to bring them. Plus, we have to take them back to the ship when we have free time after a tour, rather than give them to the guide to take back for us. But, it's nice to know your equipment is working before you get on the tour bus.
Two buses went to Salzburg, and one bus went to the other free choice tour to Steyr and Gmunden, two small towns in the Austrian mountains. The ride to Salzburg was about two hours, and we stopped briefly at a "truck stop" for a coffee break. The truck stop was on a gorgeous lake, and the snowy Alps in the background made for a beautiful setting. It's the lake that is seen after the wedding of Maria and Captain Von Trapp in the movie and is in the town of Monsee. The church in Monsee was used for Maria's wedding since the one in Salzburg attached to the nunnery was deemed too plain by Hollywood movie makers.
We arrived in Salzburg about 10:45, and we had a walking tour of the old town until about noon. The day was very gray, and on occasion, a little drizzly. We just used our hoods, although we had carried the umbrellas. Salzburg is Austria's second largest city, but the old town part is very quaint. We walked all over with the guide, going up and down the narrow streets and through the small alleys. I think all of us were a little worried that we would not be able to find the meeting place when we had free time! Our guide was very knowledgeable, but he did tend to go on and on. Although his English was exceptional, we had to laugh because he continually mispronounced the word "heirs" when telling us the history of the Austrian empire. For example, "he had no male heirs" came out "he had no male hairs". Maggie and I couldn't look at each other--I was afraid we would start laughing. Poor guy. I can only imagine how many foreign words I mispronounce!
Our Salzburg walking tour ended about noon, and we had three hours to eat lunch on our own and explore the shops and market areas. Maggie and I had lunch in a warm, dry restaurant. She had fish/vegetable strudel and I had grilled pork. We both tried an Austrian beer and they went down easy.
After lunch, we browsed some of the shops before retracing our route looking for the Furst candy shop, where Paul Furst invented the Mozartkugel (Mozart ball), a candy made with a ball of green pistachios marzipan dipped first in milk chocolate and then dipped in dark chocolate. It was like a treasure hunt as we went up and down the small streets. We found two couples who were also looking for it. We finally found the shop and bought a couple of pieces. Delicious, and amazing that the Furst employees still make each piece by hand. Almost 1.5 million are sold each year, but I only bought two for one euro each.
We hooked up with the guide in front of Mozart's birthplace and walked back across the river dividing old town from modern Salzburg to the buses. We rolled away from Salzburg at 3:30. Our guide had told us that if we couldn't make the 3:00 meeting place, to ask someone where the train station was and take a train back to Linz. He certainly didn't count heads at Mozart's house, but everyone made it.
The sun came out for the first time while we were walking back to the bus. The mountains were breathtaking (and so snowy) as we rode back to Linz.
After a quick tour of Linz, we arrived back on the ship in time for both of us to shower before the disembarkation briefing. Like most river ships, the process was very easy. We have to put the bags outside the rooms with our tags attached only 30 minutes before the bus takes us from Passau to Munich. Tips are not included on this cruise, and we have to pay with cash, no credit cards. Suggested amounts are about 13 euros per day.
We ate dinner with three very fun couples from New York, San Francisco, and Jacksonville. I had a yummy veggie pasta, Caesar salad, chicken consomme, and beef roast; Maggie had the salad, a beer cream soup (yummy, but rich), and the beef. The dessert was a Linzer torte with ice cream. One of the couples was celebrating their 30th anniversary, so we had a bottle of champagne with the dessert.
After dinner, we had an Austrian combo--singer, drummer, and keyboardist--called Wiff Hanz Hanz. I was randomly selected to be the tambourine girl (not really a life long dream) on one song along with three other passengers who played various instruments. Great fun.
Passau, Germany on the Danube River
The good weather gods smiled on us for our last full day on the River Beatrice. It was our best day yet--sunny and in the high 60's. We arrived in Passau about 9 am, and we all gathered outside on the top deck to get a look at this lovely city at the junction of three rivers.
We had a 1.5-hour walking tour at 9:30 with a young grad student as our guide. Fascinating to me that Germans associate themselves with their state (e.g. Bavaria) more than their country (e.g. Germany). He said that no one ever wears a German flag lapel pin, they would wear one from their home state like Bavaria. The guide thinks many Germans are still a little embarrassed about World War II.
The guide also told us that he has never paid taxes since he has never made more than 12,000 euros a year (and he must be about 30), and he briefly discussed the German church tax. If you are a church member, you pay 8 percent of your income as a church tax to your church. (no separation of church and state here) This tax is found elsewhere in Europe and many think it has directly related to a big decrease in church membership. You can still attend services even if you are not a member, but you can't have a Christian burial. I can see a large number of senior citizens suddenly joining churches a few years before they think their lives will end!
We went into the Passau St. Stephens cathedral, which was the second largest in Europe at one time. (It was the Catholic archbishopry responsible for the Austro-Hungarian empire.) It has been under renovation for 89 years, and the outside was covered with scaffolding two years ago and still is. Apparently, the church was badly damaged in a 17th-century fire, and they have been working to hold it together since then. We didn't have an organ concert (like the other two times I visited Passau) since they don't start until May, but we did have one in Melk, which was plenty for us. I was surprised to learn that the statues decorating the walls and ceiling of the church were made in place, using a wire frame stuffed with straw and then covered with stucco. The straw rots, leaving the chicken wire frame and stucco, making the huge pieces very light weight. The ceiling frescoes were painted from scaffolding, much like Michelangelo did at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. We thought it fascinating that the artists wore a halo of candles when working to illuminate their work. From the scaffolding, they could only see a small part of the fresco at a time and used a grid pattern to enlarge their original sketches. I always admire the ceiling art in these old churches, but haven't paused to think about the effort involved!
After our tour, Maggie and I wandered down into the pedestrian shopping area for an hour or so before returning to the ship for "our last lunch". Don't think we were the only ones eating more heartily than usual.
After our late lunch, Maggie and I walked across the bridge and hiked up to the old castle overlooking the Danube. It was a very strenuous hike (200 steps and a VERY long steep incline), but the views made the hike worth it. We sat up on the top of the bluff and rested a while before hiking back down. The exercise made us very thirsty, so we had a German beer at an outdoor cafe on the walk back to the ship.
We were back on the ship by 5 pm, and Maggie started her packing while I showered--we got HOT on our trek. Glad we never needed the long underwear we carried to Europe and loved how quiet all the towns were. Passau gets over 2 million tourists per year, with about 100 river ships per week in town during the high season. We were the only ship docked the day we visited. March is looking better and better as a travel month!
The Captain's farewell reception preceded dinner. A couple from NY/NJ were celebrating their 40th anniversary, so we had a bottle of champagne, singing waiters, and a special dessert. After dinner, we went back to the cabin, packed, and were in bed about midnight. The alarm went off at 5 am, and we left the Uniworld River Beatrice at 6:30 am for Munich, arriving at 8:30 am for the first leg of our flight home.
Our "Enchanting Danube" cruise on the River Beatrice had been a wonderful one. It was fun for me to experience places I had visited before with an old friend, sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm for European river travel with her. The River Beatrice is a gorgeous river ship, and her Captain and crew do a marvelous job of keeping the guests happy and making the river cruise experience both educational and enjoyable.
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