Danube Waltz with Viking River Cruises
The Viking Njord is one of six new identical "Longships" launched by Viking River Cruises in 2012. The ship is very modern and I love the contemporary, Scandinavian look. The color scheme of earth tones of browns, rust, oranges, and gray are quite comfortable. Our Veranda cabin was adequate in size, with plenty of storage, and the shower was quite large compared to some I've had on ocean ships. The bathroom had a heated floor (nice for a winter cruise), and a glass shower wall that went from clear to translucent with the flip of a switch. We also had a full balcony as large as those on ocean ships. The Veranda Suites across the hall were quite spacious with separate sleeping and sitting rooms.
This was my first December trip to Europe, and it was as I hoped--cold and snowy--but quite gorgeous. Living in Georgia, we don't get much snow, so we were thrilled to have the winter weather. And, since we were on a ship, it didn't slow us down one bit.
We arrived at the Viking Njord in time for a late buffet lunch on the Aquavit Terrace. This dining venue, which is forward of the Observation Lounge, has both indoor and outdoor seating. It was too cold to sit outside, but the views of the Chain Bridge and Budapest were a great backdrop for our lunch. Soon we were in our cabin.
After lunch, I went for an hour's walk while mom read and napped a little. I got back to the ship about 4:30. By then it was already dark! Ordinarily, this would not be good, but all the Christmas lights were on, and I enjoyed being outside. Mom and I took plenty of warm clothes, and we were glad. It really makes you get into the holiday mood with everyone being bundled up. The largest Christmas market (there are several) in Budapest was held in the square just four blocks from our ship, which was docked on the Pest side of the Danube just downstream from the Chain Bridge. Since it was Saturday, the local shops had many of their winter wares (hats, gloves, sweaters, etc.) on racks outside. The Christmas market was as I expected--numerous kiosks of Hungarian handicrafts, food, and drinks. Since I was out for a walk, I didn't buy anything, saving it for the next day with mom.
We had a nice dinner in the Restaurant our first night on the ship, dining with a couple from Kansas City and another from Arizona. Mom and I both had the fish, which was good.
Our first day on the ship was over, and we couldn't wait to see more of Budapest the next day.
We awoke to a wintry day in Budapest. After a hearty breakfast in the Viking Njord Restaurant, we boarded the four buses for our tour of the city. It was almost the same bus tour I'd done on my four previous river cruises through Budapest, but I always enjoy seeing the places and hearing the different presentations of the tour guides. The views of the Danube from Gellert Hill were much different than I've seen in the three other seasons. It was cold and windy, and we were happy we had our heavy clothes on.
At the last stop on Castle Hill, mom and I sat in a warm cafe and enjoyed a delicious hot chocolate after walking around a little. I was delighted to see that workers had completed the outdoor cleaning and renovation of the Matthias Church near Fisherman's Bastion. It looked much better without all the scaffolding I saw on the last two trips to Budapest. They are now working on the inside, and our guide said you couldn't see much there. Another good reason to make a return trip to Budapest.
We returned to the ship by 12:30, just in time for lunch. I had a salad from the buffet and ordered the hot cinnamon/chestnut soup and Hungarian goulash served over noodles from the menu. All were good. After lunch, some of our shipmates did one of two optional tours: a tour of the Jewish sites in Budapest or a visit to the Godollo Palace, one of Hungary's largest and most important palaces. Mom and I wanted to spend more time at the Christmas market, so we re-dressed in our warm clothes and went over to the nearby Christmas market to browse the kiosks and try some of the food. The place was busy, but not as packed as when I had been there on Saturday afternoon. Most of the wares were certified Hungarian-made, which was nice. We bought a couple of things, and then tried some of the hot mulled wine (gluhwein), standing up at tables with all the other locals and tourists.
Some of the restaurants were cooking huge skillets of goulash, some type of creamy chicken (or pork) stew concoction, stuffed cabbage, or "hog knuckles", which seemed to be the most popular. Now I know where all that paprika is used! Some of the outdoor restaurants had skillets of all four of these items. The goulash or chicken stew was served in bread bowls or with huge chunks of bread. The serving sizes were large, but no one seemed to mind dining outside in the cold. Our gluhwein was cool by the time we finished it; I can't imagine how cold the food must get. Before returning to the ship, we had to try some of the "chimney bread", (kurtos kalacs), which is pastry that is wrapped around a cylinder-shaped dowel, then roasted over charcoal. When baked, the hollow pastry is removed from the dowel and rolled in a selection of toppings (we had cinnamon and sugar) and served in a wrapper that looks like either a bag for popcorn or a newspaper (long and thin). One of the best hot pastries I've ever tasted, but enough for six people.
We got back to the ship about 4 pm, and mom decided to read her book and take a nap while I went back out for an hour's walk. The sun was setting, but the lights were on and many people were out walking. What a nice early evening walk.
The Captain's welcome cocktail party and dinner were a good way to get to meet some more of our cruise mates. Mom and I had the white tomato soup (must have used yellow tomatoes since it was a pale yellow color), followed by prime rib for me and caramelized scallops for mom. After we finished our main courses, they brought out the dessert samplers for all of us sitting at the table and then followed with a surprise birthday cake for me topped with a sparkler and accompanied by much singing. I cut and gave everyone at our table a small piece and then shared with those seated around us. What a nice way to celebrate a birthday--in Budapest!
The Viking Njord sailed from Budapest at 9 pm and headed west. I put on all my layers of winter clothes and went up on the "sun" deck and sipped more gluhwein while we sailed away. It was as beautiful as in the summer, and the city was gorgeous at night with all the buildings lining the river all lit up. It was a great ending to our first full day on the Danube.
The next day we cruised the Danube in the morning and arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia at lunch time.
It was snowing hard when we awoke the next morning. The Danube looked cold, and the skies were gray. Mom said the flat, bleak, snowy landscape reminded her of the wintry scenes from "Dr. Zhivago". (I think she was hoping that Omar Sharif would come across the plains in a sled, accompanied by "Lara's Theme") Lots of birds (diving ducks) along the way didn't mind the cold at all. We sailed until noon when we arrived in Bratislava. Mom and I slept in a little, ate breakfast, and attended the presentations on Mozart and making apple streusel.
The Viking Njord docked in Bratislava about noon and then we had an included tour of the city at 2:30. Some on our ship who had visited Bratislava before chose to do an optional home-hosted visit, where they learned about everyday life in contemporary Slovakia. I've never had a bus tour in Bratislava; we've always just had a ride on one of those "trains" or walked into town. This time the bus took us up to Bratislava Castle hill where all the rich folks and ambassadors live, which was a nice addition to the regular Bratislava tour. Since Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, it warrants an embassy and an ambassador's residence. The American ambassador's residence looks a little like the White House and is very impressive. It sits high on a hill top and features a great view of the Bratislava castle and city below. Just a block down the street is the British ambassador's residence. Until a few years ago, it also had great views. However, according to our guide, the Chinese bought the hillside property across the street and built their ambassador's residence there, blocking the British ambassador's view! Guess politics carries over into real estate, too.
It was snowing so hard that we didn't have the spectacular views the embassy staff do from their homes, but we did stop over at the castle for about 10-15 minutes. The Slovakian government is renovating it and trying to make it into a museum, but progress has been slow. I've seen the castle from the city below, and it does have good views of the river and city. Unfortunately, we almost had a white-out from the blowing snow and could barely make out the Austrian/Slovakian border below along the river. Our guide said it used to be the Iron Curtain when they were forbidden to visit Austria. Lucky for the Slovaks--Austria built a huge TV/Radio tower near the border, and the Soviets were unsuccessful in blocking the signal. Therefore, the Slovaks always got uncensored news about their country from outside of the Iron Curtain.
After visiting the castle, we rode the bus down the hill to the old town (about 5 minutes). We then had a 30-minute walking tour, which covered many of the sites I had seen in much warmer weather. It actually wasn't as cold as our day in Budapest, but the few inches of snow on the unshoveled sidewalks make walking tricky. Our guide said that the first big snow of the season always seemed to catch the government off guard. Guess this one qualified since they hadn't done much to clean the streets or sidewalks.
We visited three of Bratislava's outdoor Christmas markets and were happy to see and hear some young people on stage singing and dancing traditional folk and Christmas music. Very festive. Since they turned on the Christmas lights about 4:00 or 4:30 when it got dark, we got to see the city at its best. Like Budapest, there were many kiosks selling handicrafts, but even more selling food and drink. Our guide described many of the traditional dishes for us, but it didn't make them sound any tastier to me. Her description made them seem way too heavy and greasy, but maybe they tasted better than described.
Our tour ended at the largest Christmas market, and we only had a short walk back to the ship. We weren't sailing until 11 pm that night, but mom and I were ready to get out of our wet, cold clothes. We came back to the cabin and I worked on my notes and she read her book before getting ready for dinner. We had a cocktail party at 6:15, followed by another nice dinner. I had Greek salad, sea bass, and chocolate chip ice cream; mom had shrimp cocktail, a hearty soup, and ice cream. Some of our cruisemates ate in town and had a nice Slovakian meal. There was an onboard show of local dancing and singing. It's always nice to get a small taste of the regional culture.
The next morning we were in Vienna and it snowed some more. I was so glad we took our warm clothes and boots. Made the touring much more enjoyable.
The next morning the Viking Njord was in Vienna and it was still snowing, but none was sticking, so walking around town was much easier than in Bratislava. High temperature was about 28 degrees, so boots, long underwear, sweater, jacket, scarf, gloves, and hooded coat were still the dress of the day. Sure felt good to return to the ship and shed those 10 extra pounds of clothing, but we never got cold outdoors!
Our group of river cruise travelers saw an interesting thing at the dock in Vienna. Just outside the windows of the ship's Restaurant was an almost life-sized poster plastered on a large column that was advertising an exhibit at the Leopold Museum. The photo had some unusual subject matter--it was a photo of three naked, but very cute young male athletes proudly facing the camera while standing on a soccer field. We all got a chuckle and started with stories about nude soccer in Austria, etc. Later, using the ship's free Wi-Fi, I Googled the Leopold Museum, and it turned out that the featured exhibit was titled, "Nude Men -- From 1800 to the Present Day". Since artwork often features nude women, guess this was a good example of equal treatment for men, and I'm sure this poster boosted attendance at the exhibit.
We did a driving and walking tour of Vienna. The city looked so pretty with all the Christmas decorations up! We completed the tour at St. Stephens Church, and mom and I used our free time to sit in one of Vienna's cafes and have one of the about 60 different types of Viennese coffee for her (melange was her choice, which is espresso with hot milk and cream) and tea for me.
We returned to the ship at 12:30 just in time for lunch. We had already decided to not do either the optional afternoon tour to Schonbrunn Palace or the optional evening tour to the Viennese concert since we'd been before. I highly recommend these two optional tours to all who visit Vienna, but we wanted to have more free time in the city.
After lunch, I donned my winter gear again and went for a 45-minute walk along the Danube River. We took the 3 pm shuttle back into town to go to Vienna's largest Christmas market at the Old City Hall. We went late so we could be there when the lights were prettiest. The market was truly magical. It covered the whole park in front of the Old City Hall, which was a huge area filled with booths, much like the weekend fairs at home, but these go on for about a month. The market featured all sorts of handicrafts, toys, jewelry, hats, gloves, etc. And, of course lots of food and gluhwein.
Mom and I especially loved the way they had decorated the large trees in the park (not Christmas trees, just regular oaks or whatever) with lights. Everyone on the ship commented about this technique, which was similar to what we saw in Budapest and Bratislava. Must be a central European custom.
We were back on the ship in time for the nightly briefing, cocktails, and dinner. Only about 20 of us skipped the concert, and mom and I had drinks/dinner with two newly-retired women from Nashville and Richmond who were about my age. They've been friends for a while and like to travel together. We were joined at dinner by a mother/daughter (about 30 and 50) from Richmond. Fun coincidence since they had heard that another person from Richmond was on board but this was their first meeting. Fun dinner. And, of couse we had Viennese wiener schnitzel and a delicious potato soup.
The next day, the Viking Njord would be in one of Austria's loveliest areas--the Wachau Valley of the Danube River.
Durnstein is a very small village in the Wachau Valley of the Danube River in Austria. The Viking Njord stopped in the village for a few hours in the morning so that we could explore the town. I had visited Durnstein once before with a friend, and we both loved this quaint little spot. We docked about 7 am, but mom and I slept in and didn't walk into town until almost 9 am. An hour was plenty to see all the highlights except for the castle ruins of where Richard the Lionheart was held captive for several months in the 12th century. I had hiked up to the castle to see the views of the river when I visited during warmer, drier weather. This time the path was slippery and muddy, so I skipped it.
Some on our ship did an optional walking tour of Durnstein that included an organ concert at the lovely town church. Durnstein was too small to have a large Christmas market, but some of the permanent shops were open, and they all had local handicrafts and Christmas items. The Viking Njord sailed for Melk at 10:30 am.
We hadn't been sailing long before it started snowing hard in the Wachau Valley, but it stopped before we arrived in Melk at 1:30. Along the way, the onboard chefs led a gingerbread decorating class on the Aquavit Terrace, which many people participated in. We all oohed and aahed over the many cute villages and old castles and churches along the way. The Wachau Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so no bridges cross the river and the towns look much like they did a couple of hundred years ago. Vineyards line the hills, but this time of year we only saw bare vines. The valley was still spectacular, especially in the snow.
We had a traditional Austrian lunch in the Observation Lounge at 12:30, and those who didn't want any of the three types of sausages or the Austrian/German potato salad, etc. ate in the Restaurant. We enjoyed the free beer and the Austrian meal while sailing for Melk.
Tours from the Viking Njord started leaving the ship for the Melk Abbey at 2 pm, and mom and I went with the 2:15 group. We've been to Melk Abbey a few times, but it was still fascinating. They did have a relic on exhibit to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of a saint's death. What was the relic? His lower jawbone! To the Abbey's credit, the presentation of the jaw bone was very nice, in a gold/silver/jeweled "holder".
After touring the Melk Abbey, mom rode back to the ship on a bus and I walked back to the ship with one of our fellow passengers. We almost beat the bus back and although it was very cold, we enjoyed the walk on the rocky, snow-covered road. The small town of Melk did not have a Christmas market, but we enjoyed strolling down the main street.
We were back on the ship by 4:30 or so and read our books for a while in the lounge, followed by a presentation on Christmas traditions in some European countries, Christmas handicraft time (decorating bookmarks, candles, etc.), and a presentation on Viking cruises in 2013. The cruise director then talked about our included tour to Salzburg the next day. High temperatures were supposed to be below 20 degrees, so (as was getting to be usual), we wore most of our clothes.
Dinner was at 7 pm. Mom had a salad with figs and greens, followed by pork medallions. I had a Caesar salad and baked black cod rolled in nuts, which was very good. Continuing the nutty theme, I had walnut ice cream for dessert.
Arriving in Linz in the early morning, we didn't have time to see much of the city until after our included tour of Salzburg. Returning to Linz about 5 pm, we had the chance to get off the bus at the Linz Christmas market or ride back to the ship. I decided I needed the walk, but mom chose to ride back on the bus. I walked around a little in the market enjoying the Christmas lights and holiday spirit. The market was small but seemed quite local, and I was glad I took the time to walk around in the city square. (And yes, I got a Linz Christmas market mug!) The walk back to the ship was relatively short.
At 6:30 we had the daily briefing and the disembarkation talk. We had dinner with two women from Kansas City who are long-time friends, and the mother-daughter from DC we ate with on an earlier night. Nice dinner. I had a yummy salad, shrimp appetizer, and pan-fried salmon. Mom had the salad and a bowl of corn soup. We skipped the entertainment but heard later it was good.
We enjoyed a real winter wonderland the next day. The Viking Njord docked in Linz, Austria, and we rode buses for the 2-hour ride to Salzburg in the Alps. It had snowed hard in the area the day before but was clear and cold the day we were there. Lowest temperature we saw on the bus thermometer was -12 degrees Celsius, which is about 10 or 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, it warmed up into the 20's by the time we got to Salzburg! And, since it wasn't windy, we were all comfortable in our now-usual winter wear--long undies, long-sleeved shirt, sweater, slacks, hat, gloves, and winter coats.
Since the snow was fresh and clinging to the trees, the ride from Linz to Salzburg could not have been more enjoyable. The 4-lane road was cleared of snow, but the surrounding rural countryside was almost surreal--brilliant white, with touches of green on the fir trees, and touches of bright or pastel color on the sides of the houses, all of which sported roofs packed with snow. You could easily see why this part of the world has a different type of evergreen tree--these huge Christmas-like trees were heavily laden with fresh snow, but none were snapped like the tall, spindly trees we have at home.
We arrived in Salzburg before 11:00 am and had a walking tour until about noon. The city looked much different than in the summer when I visited before. Since the Christmas markets were open, it was still busy, and the Christmas decorations made the town look very festive. At the conclusion of our tour, mom and I stopped for a coffee/hot chocolate at the town's oldest continuously-operating coffee house (opening in 1703) to warm up. After our drinks (always expensive when you sit down inside and have table service--over 7 euros for our 2 drinks), we wandered the Christmas markets and explored the narrow passageways and shops. Mom wasn't hungry for lunch, but I had one of the many sausage sandwiches you could buy at the markets. Cheap, but you have to stand up at a table and eat outside. The one I tried was a Bosna--a hot dog shaped bun with two skinny frankfurters and topped with mustard, onions, and a little curry. Delicious, and I'm not a curry fan.
Mom and I did have another cup of the gluhwein so we could add another mug to our ever growing collection. Another good deal--a cup of wine (including the mug) for 4.5 euros each. We now know that most of the markets don't use paper cups. Instead, they charge 4-5 euros for the hot wine in a ceramic mug, but you can get 2.5 euros back if you don't want to keep the mug. Since most people seem to continually drink the watered-down, spiced wine, they don't want to keep the mugs. Nice to use the recycling rather than the paper. (Budapest did paper cups since they are not on the euro, but accept euro coins. It would get very confusing for them to have to try and give different types of change back to different customers, especially when the markets are so busy.)
We met up with our group at 3 pm and reboarded the buses for the return trip to Linz.
The next day was our last port of call and fourth country on this river cruise--Passau, Germany.
Our last full day on the Viking Njord dawned bright and sunny in Passau. We docked right in front of the city hall, so it was a short walk to the Christmas market in the Cathedral square. We had a guest lecturer speak about the European Union at 8:45 am, and our walking tour started at 10 am. Our guide, Bridget, was one of the most enthusiastic I've seen in a long while. She was also very knowledgeable, so it was a fun and educational tour.
We walked the university city and I think everyone was very impressed. I knew it was a nice port since this was my fifth visit. Of course, the cathedral has another section covered with scaffolding. Guess they just work on those old buildings full time. No organ concert on this trip (like we've had before) since they are not held daily in the winter. Mom and I both thought the music was way too depressing, so we didn't miss much. Our walking tour included a stopover in a gingerbread shop, where we sampled the three types they make and sell this time of year. It went down well with a glass of the gluhwein!
Back on board for lunch, I had a nice salad, cauliflower soup, and a dessert with berries and cream. Mom had a salad but passed on the rest. She said she was full of cookies. While mom packed in the afternoon, I went back into Passau for a long walk. I made lots of photos in the late afternoon sun since the pastel colors of the buildings (many are painted yellow, pink, or green) really stands out when the sun is low. I also browsed in the Christmas market for a while with a cup of hot gluhwein in hand to keep me warm.
We had the Captain's farewell cocktail party, followed by dinner. I had a steak filet and mom had the lobster thermidor. Like me, she prefers lobster with just butter and thought this one was a little too rich. They had Christmas carol singing in the lounge after dinner, which was a nice ending to our wintry cruise.
This Christmas market cruise on the Viking Njord was so much better than I expected. I knew Viking provided a great travel experience at a good value, but I was nervous about the cold weather. Since I took plenty of warm clothes, I actually enjoyed many of the ports more than when it is sweltering (and crowded) in the summer. It was fun to see Europe in the winter, but I have to admit it would not have been quite so enjoyable if we had experienced a week of cold rain rather than the snowy conditions. I'm not a great shopper anymore (have too much junk already), but these quaint markets with their local handicrafts and fascinating food and drink were certainly fun and entertaining. Everyone seemed to really be filled with the joyous holiday spirit. And, it wasn't just the gluhwein and snow!
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