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River cruise ships have been carrying passengers the 3500 km across Europe from Amsterdam on the North Sea to Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea since 1992, when the 171 km Main-Danube Canal was completed. Looking at the map, you can see what a marvelous journey it is! Rivers have played a major role in the history of Europe, and most of the villages and cities along the rivers have existed for hundreds of years. The culture, history, and architecture of the settlements, combined with the spectacular natural beauty of the vineyards, farms, and rolling hills along the river, make this a wonderful cruise vacation option for travelers.
My mother and I covered over half of this grand European river voyage, sailing from Budapest to Amsterdam on the Danube, Main, and Rhine Rivers and through the Main-Danube Canal. We cruised for 14 days on the delightful river vessel the Viking Spirit, visiting four major European capitals (Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, and Amsterdam) and 11 towns and villages along the rivers. We also passed through 68 locks as the Viking Spirit crossed the continental divide of Europe. The cruise covered 1856 km.
This cruise journal has been divided into two parts. Part 1 covers the cruise upstream on the Danube from Budapest to the Main-Danube Canal at Nuremberg, and part 2 covers the cruise down the Main and Rhine Rivers to Amsterdam.
Click here to learn more about the Viking Spirit river vessel.
We embarked on the Viking Spirit in Budapest.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
02 of 10
Budapest - Things to Do with a Day in Budapest, the Queen of the Danube
Budapest covers seven miles of the Danube River, and seven bridges link Buda and Pest.
We arrived at the airport, which is about 15 miles southeast of downtown, in the early afternoon. A Viking representative met us, and we rode a bus to the Viking Spirit, which was docked on the eastern bank in downtown Pest, directly across the Danube River from the 130-foot Liberation Monument.
Mother and I quickly checked in and were in our cabin (along with our bags) in about 5 minutes. We had a small snack, went for a walk around Pest, and unpacked before dinner.
The next day, we had a half-day bus excursion with a local guide (Viking includes almost all excursions in the cruise fare)that first covered the highlights of Pest including
We then crossed into Buda, and immediately the scenery changed from flat to hilly. We rode to the top of Castle Hill and walked along its cobblestone streets to see the magnificent views of Pest from the Fishermen's Bastion. Our guide gave us free time, which mother and I used to tour the Matthias Church and a local flea market.
After lunch, we walked on our own around Pest and stopped in at one of the best city markets I have ever seen.
The Viking Spirit sailed after dark, and it was wonderful--the entire riverfront was lit up, and each of the twinkling bridges looked spectacular.
Our time in Budapest had passed too quickly, and we were sailing up the Danube for Bratislava.Continue to 3 of 10 below.
03 of 10
Tram and Walking Tour of Bratislava, the Capital of the Slovak Republic
The Viking Spirit sailed all night and the next morning, arriving in Bratislava right after lunch. We all enjoyed the Danube River scenery and the chance to tour the ship's small wheelhouse. Those who hadn't been on a river ship before were impressed with the wheelhouse's elevator-like capability. That ability would certainly come in handy whenever we passed under a low bridge.
Bratislava has had a storied past. It was the capital of Hungary in the 16th century and later almost a suburb of powerful Vienna, a mere 60 km upstream. The Austro-Hungarian empress Maria Theresa brought prosperity to Bratislava in the 18th century. The Slovak Republic split from the Czech Republic in 1993, and Slovakia became its capital.
We rode a motorized tram around the old town, followed by a walking tour of the pedestrian area with a local guide. Bratislava is dominated by a huge castle on a hill overlooking the city. The old town on the river banks is filled with wonderful baroque and art nouveau buildings, and our guide told some marvelous stories of the city on our walking tour. We all enjoyed his tales and the interesting architecture.
The citizens are very proud of the restored Opera House, which is now the Slovak National Theater.
Although Slovakia is a member of the European Union and the euro is the official currency, prices are much cheaper in Bratislava than in nearby Vienna, so the Viennese help keep the Opera House filled.
We had the captain's welcome party and dinner that evening, and didn't sail away from Bratislava until 11:00 pm, so some cruisers walked back into town after dinner. Next stop Vienna.
Bratislava Photo Gallery - 12 photos of old town BratislavaContinue to 4 of 10 below.
04 of 10
A Day in Vienna - Austrian Capital City of Coffee and Culture
We arrived in Vienna early in the morning. Vienna is definitely one city that we needed more time to explore. The Viking Spirit docked near the Vorgartenstrasse U-1 metro station and a Church often referred to as the "Mexican Cathedral". We did a bus tour of the city after breakfast, stopping first at the magnificent Belvedere palace and followed by a drive around the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard that circles the city. Many of the sites on the "Ring" are worth visiting if you have the time, especially the Opera House and the Hofburg palace with its marvelous collection of jewels.
After our drive around the Ringstrasse, we did a short walking tour of the old town, followed by free time. Mother and I explored the magnificent Gothic St. Stephan's Cathedral and visited a coffee house. Jochen had given us a briefing on Viennese coffee house etiquette, and we couldn't wait to try it. We returned to the ship for lunch.
That afternoon, we rode the U-bahn (subway) to Schonbrunn, the spectacular summer residence of the Hapsburgs. Viking had an optional excursion to the palace, but we opted to go on our own with another couple. The palace and history of the Hapsburgs was fascinating and well worth the entrance fee.
After dinner on the ship, we did an optional excursion to one of the old palaces for a Strauss and Mozart concert, which was excellent. A small quartet played classical favorites, and there were two vocalists and a pair of dancers. Given the chandeliered setting, it was a wonderful evening. We sailed at 2:00 am for Melk.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
Cruising the Danube River through the Wauchau Valley of Austria
When we awoke our fourth morning on the Danube, the Viking Spirit was sailing through beautiful countryside and surrounded by tree-covered mountains. Around each bend in the river there seemed to be an ancient castle, quaint village, or steeply terraced vineyard. We were sailing along the 24-mile long picturesque Danube Wachau Valley of Austria between Melk and Krems. The Wauchau Valley is a narrow gorge where the Danube flows between the foothills of the Bohemian Massif and the Dunkelsteiner Woods.
As the Viking Spirit cruised upstream, we passed several picturesque villages with steepled churches reaching for the sky, including Krems, Split, and Willendorf.
The most famous Wauchau Valley village is Durnstein, home of the castle where Richard the Lionhearted was kept prisoner in 1193. The ruins of the castle remain high on a bluff overlooking the Danube. We passed Durnstein while eating breakfast, and I had to make a mad dash and retrieve my camera from the cabin. Fortunately, on the Viking Spirit, everywhere is nearby, so I didn't miss the photo opportunity.
Shortly before arriving in Melk, we passed the Schonbuhel Castle, which is often called the "Watchman of the Wachau". Schonbuhel has stood on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Danube for 1100 years. The castle was owned by the Bishops of Passau and was rebuilt in the 19th century.
We arrived in Melk in mid-morning.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
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A Day in Melk, Austria - Home of the Melk Benedictine Abbey
At mid-morning, we saw the towers of the ochre baroque abbey at Melk. We rode a bus to the top of the hill where the abbey stands 200 feet above the village and walked down the stairs from the parking lot.
The Melk Abbey was built by the Benedictine monks over 900 years ago. The abbey has suffered numerous fires, the plague, and war damage through the centuries. Its present high baroque form was constructed in the early 18th century, and many of era's most famous painters, sculptors, and stucco craftsmen worked on the abbey.
A visit to the abbey is well worth your time, because it is magnificent. The 640 foot Imperial Corridor runs the length of the museum, and its walls are covered with paintings of Austrian royalty. The Marble Hall has some spectacular stucco, and its ceiling fresco is impressive. The view of the village of Melk and the surrounding countryside as seen from the outdoor balcony is lovely. Anyone who loves books will enjoy the Melk Abbey Library with its 100,000 volumes of mostly religious leather-bound books. The baroque abbey church is one of the most ornate I have ever seen, with stucco and gold leaf covering everything in sight. The church builders' goal was to demonstrate what heaven looks like. It certainly is beautiful, although it was a little surprising to see the skeletons of two dead saints exhibited.
After touring the abbey, we walked down the hill to the village of Melk and spent some time exploring the town before walking back to the ship. In the afternoon, we had an onboard Viennese coffee house that included some delicious apple strudel before sailing for Passau.Continue to 7 of 10 below.
07 of 10
Passau, Germany - The City on Three Rivers
Passau is in a beautiful setting at the junction of the Danube, Inn, and Ilz Rivers. Early in the morning of our sixth day on the Danube, the Viking Spirit docked next to a small park on a point near the three rivers' junction.
We had a walking tour of the old city, where we learned about the city's history and saw the markers on the buildings for the numerous floods caused by the three rivers. Some of the marks dated back to the early 16th century. In addition to horrible floods, old town Passau has seen the Romans, Charlemagne's troops, the crusaders, the Turks, and Napoleon's legions.
For 600 years, Passau was the largest sovereign bishopric, and the Bishops of Passau were very wealthy, powerful, and independent of the emperor.
Our walking tour was followed by the noon organ concert in St. Stephan's Cathedral. Passau's cathedral has Europe's largest church organ with 17,774 pipes and 233 registers. The sounds produced by this organ are certainly impressive, but I thought the organist's choice of music could have been more diverse. Each song seemed more somber than the one before! I kept waiting for something a little less funereal.
After lunch on the Viking Spirit, we walked back into the old town and explored the narrow pedestrian streets and quaint shops. Many river ships were docked along the banks of the Danube, and the town was filled with tourists. Since we were there in late October, it must really be busy in the high-season summer months.
The next stop was Regensburg.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
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A Day in Regensburg - The Danube River's Oldest City
Regensburg is the oldest city on the Danube River, and the last one we were able to visit on the Danube on our voyage west from Budapest since the river is navigable only a few more kilometers upstream. Regensburg was founded by Marcus Aurelius in 179 AD, but the Romans had a fort on the site as far back as 90 AD.
We arrived in mid-morning, and the first thing we saw was the ancient Stone Bridge across the Danube with its 16 curving arches. This 1017-foot long bridge was built in the 12th century and is an amazing piece of medieval construction.
We had a walking tour from the ship, and loved everything about this picturesque village from the old 12th century sausage kitchen on the edge of the river to the magnificent St. Peter's Cathedral towering over the old town.
Regensburg even has a statue honoring Don Juan of Austria, the illegitimate son of a local girl (Barbara Blomberg) and Austrian Emperor Charles V. Don Juan led the Spanish navy in the defeat of the Turks in the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. Barbara Blomberg's old home has a marker indicating that "the emperor slept here".
We were in Regensburg on a Saturday, and the old town was filled with local families and tourists. The unseasonably warm weather in Regensburg was wonderful, and like everyone else in town, we enjoyed sitting outside at a small cafe driking a local beer.
At 5:00 pm, the Viking Spirit left Regensburg and sailed towards the continental divide of Europe, Nuremberg, and the Main-Danube Canal.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Nuremberg, Germany - Bavarian City on the Main-Danube Canal
When we awoke the next day, we definitely could tell that we were in the Main-Danube Canal rather than the river. After arriving in Nuremberg about 10:00 am, we had a bus and walking tour of Nuremberg, followed by free time for the rest of the day.
Nuremberg (sometimes spelled Nurnberg in German) is Bavaria's second largest city after Munich. Although today's Nuremberg citizens point to the charming old town and fantastic Christmas market as tourist highlights, most people still connect Nuremberg with the Nazis. The Nazi war trials held in Nuremberg after World War II are the first thing that comes to mind, and a visit to the outside of the courthouse where the trials were held was one of our tour stops. My mother remembered the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg from the old movie newsreels, so when we visited Zeppelin Field, where Hitler led many of those rallies, she could vividly remember the numerous times she saw those same fields at the theater. The tall columns around the field, once topped with a swastika, were torn down, so only the grandstand remains.
We did a walking tour of old town Nuremberg after our bus tour. The red sandstone buildings and mostly Gothic architecture were really charming, and the city walls surrounding the old town still remain. We all tried the tiny Nuremberg sausages (delicious), but many of the shops were closed since it was a Sunday. We ended our tour at the huge city square, where Germany's largest Christmas market is held each year.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
10 of 10
Main-Danube Canal Connects the North Sea and the Black Sea
River ships could not sail all the way across Europe from the North Sea to the Black Sea if the Main-Danube Canal had not been completed in 1992. Planning for the canal took 70 years, with another 32 for building it. The canal connects 10 European countries, more if those bordering the North Sea are counted.
The statistics of the Main-Danube Canal are impressive --
- 171 kilometers long, 4 meters deep, and 55 meters wide
- the canal climbs over the 175 meters high continental divide
- 16 locks, 7 weirs, 3 steel channel bridges, 5 concrete channel bridges, 115 road, train, and pedestrian bridges
- 75 km of dams and 5 pumping stations
- a $5.8 billion price tag
We all enjoyed passing through the numerous locks on this voyage, and some of the passengers (mostly men) always wanted to be up on the top deck "supervising" the captain and the crew as they navigated the Viking Spirit through the locks. The lock gates had various mechanisms for opening--some swung on hinges like a door, some raised up like a gate, and a few even swung out like a table top.
As we traverse the Main-Danube Canal, this article is continued in part 2--the voyage from Nuremberg to Amsterdam.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.