Sep 29, 2014

Cruising the Beautiful Blue Danube

River cruising is very different from cruising on the ocean. There is a proximity to the experience; a sense that at any moment, around the next bend, charming hamlets, time-weathered fortresses or even hillside vineyards will appear discovers Nick Walton.

Travelling central Europe by river is fascinating; it’s a chance to see how the mighty waterways of Europe, like the Danube, have shaped and influenced the landscapes around them, how they have forged economies and civilizations on their banks, and how man has worked to protect himself from the rivers’ temperaments. For travellers rivers also boast more than their fair share of mystery, and many before us have been tempted by what might lie beyond the next river bend.

Budapest, where my Danube journey begins, is a great example. The river waltzes its way through the centre of this beautiful city, bringing the traditional two halves – Buda, to the west, and Pest, to the east – together as one. On either side of the Danube high embankments are testament to the city’s efforts to control the waterway but nevertheless many of Budapest’s most lovely and important buildings, from the gothic towers of the Hungarian Parliament, the largest building in the country, to the historic Buda Castle, are within stone’s throw of the swirling waters. 

My wife Maggie and I continue past the parliament and its cleanup crews, walking down stone arcades punctuated with bronze busts of city elders past, through vibrant gardens, and over the famous Chain Bridge towards our ship, the Scenic Pearl, a slender, modern river cruiser berthed only a short walk from the centre of the city.

No one does Europe’s rivers quite like Scenic Cruises. Its fleet of state-of-the-art ‘space ships’ are some of the youngest cruising the Danube, offering new levels of luxury on the water and enhanced exploration on terra firma. Our stateroom could have been teleported straight from a modern boutique hotel; there is a queen sized bed dressed in luxury linens, plenty of storage space, a complimentary minibar, a spacious bathroom (for a ship), a flat screen television and high speed internet, and my personal favourite, a spacious balcony that becomes a glass-encased sun lounge with the press of a button. The modern elegance continues to public spaces like the Panorama Lounge, with its full-height windows, marble bar and attentive bartenders, and to the top deck, the very best spot when cruising. With Scenic’s all-inclusive tariff, which includes everything from meals and drinks to excursions, butler service and airport transfers, all you have to do is focus on enjoying your cruise.

There is still time to explore timeless Budapest before the ship sails and we make our way on a Scenic excursion to the historic Castle Hill neighbourhood, where we walk with a guide down cobblestone streets in the shade of towering churches to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a look out across the city, the river a belt of celadon cutting between the limestone buildings. It’s a beautiful last view before we delve into the hill below with a visit to the Hospital in the Rock. 

Once an air raid shelter and active hospital during the German siege of Budapest, the Hospital in the Rock also treated citizens during the 1956 revolution before reverting to a nuclear bunker in 1958. Now a museum, complete with staged surgeries and ‘recovering troops’, its 10 kilometers of narrow lime-coloured corridors and cramped confines are a telling reminder of the hardships the city has faced in the past. 

Scenic Cruises specialize in excursions so while we’re exploring the tunnels beneath Castle Hill other passengers are walking the city’s historic city centre on guided tours or taking a dip in one of Budapest’s acclaimed natural thermal baths. We rejoin the ship in the late afternoon, setting sail for Vienna with a cocktail event as the sun slips below the peaks of Buda. 

River cruising is very different from cruising on the ocean. There is a proximity to the experience; a sense that at any moment, around the next bend, charming hamlets, time-weathered fortresses or even hillside vineyards will appear. Because of this there aren’t conventional lecture sessions; instead each guest uses a digital device that’s part MP3 player and part tour guide. Using GPS, the Scenic Tailormade device slips into a pocket and with headphones gives real time commentary along the route, whether you’re sitting on the top deck, in your sun lounge or even in bed. Tour guides can also use the device when leading excursions, meaning groups don’t have to yell their way across Europe. 

That night I watch eagerly as we pass through out first river lock. We’re very fortunate; the recent floods played havoc with the system of locks on the Danube but by the time we make our way north the congestion has cleared and it’s clear sailing into the towering concrete ‘chamber’, where we wait patiently, only feet away from another ship, as the water level beneath us rises to that of the river to the north. I watch from the ship’s top deck as the water level within the chamber inches towards the slightly turbulent waters beyond. Eventually the river spills over into the chamber, the gates slipping into the depths to allow our passage onwards.  

We cruise through Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia early the next morning, passing under the city’s Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising, known locally as the UFO because of the flying saucer-like restaurant atop its central pylon. Up river we pause in the shadows of the medieval castle Burgruine Dürnstein, where King Richard was once imprisoned, so that passengers can make use of the ship’s electro-assisted bicycles and rise along the riverfront. 

Arriving in Vienna, Austria, by noon, we board Scenic buses and backtrack across a picturesque landscape of yellow canola and towering wind mills. Other passengers are touring Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace or visiting the Spanish Riding School, home to the famous Lipizzaner Stallions, but Maggie and I choose the walking tour through Bratislava, another historic capital that’s enjoying a tourism renaissance. 

It’s a beautiful day in Bratislava, the midday sun gleaming off the golden halos of saints carved in stone at the entrance to the Old Quarter. High above, crowning a forested hill overlooking the Danube, the flags dance in the breeze atop the formidable Bratislava Castle. The city is increasingly geared towards European tourism, but on our weekend visit the nightclubs and restaurants of the cobbled old quarter are shut and the sun warms the smooth stone facades of merchant homes and family chapels. Here and there tiny crown insignias on the ground depict the traditional procession route for royal weddings and at the centre of town, in a leafy square, a weekend market sells hand-knitted Christmas tree decorations and truffles the size of golf balls to church goers leaving mass at St Martin’s Cathedral. 

Maggie and I spend the afternoon back in Vienna making the most of the sun. The city has long tamed the Danube, splitting the waterway into the old Danube, a man-made channel known as the New Danube, and another channel called the Donaukanal or Danube Canal. Because of this sophisticated flood prevention system, Vienna was spared much of the damaged caused by the recent floods.

In Europe’s capital of culture we stroll around the city’s New Palace and through the rose gardens of the Volksgarten before stopping for a Viennese coffee in the bustling Pestsäule pedestrian mall. Even with exceptional excursions along the route, Scenic’s itineraries always allow plenty of “you” time. That evening, as the sun sets behind the eye catching Kaiser-Jubiläums cathedral in Mexikoplatz, guests dress in their finery and depart the ship for the majestic Palais Liechtenstein, for a champagne reception amidst the Prince of Liechtenstein’s private art collection, before a private performance of ballet, opera and classical music, including Strauss’ famed Blue Danube waltz. It’s a truly enchanting evening held within the gilded intimacy of a regal reception hall and a far cry from usual conceptions of cruising. 

It couldn’t be more of a contrast the next day as we take turns to slip down wooden slides worn smooth by the behinds of Austrian miners, deep within the mountains surrounding Salzburg. Scenic’s tour into the Hallein Salt Mine, also known as the Salzbergwerk Dürrnberg, isn’t for the claustrophobic, but if you’re ok with close quarters it’s a fascinating opportunity to see the origins of Salzburg’s name and prosperity up close. The mine has been worked for over 7,000 years and is now an interactive museum where tourists can dress in white overalls and brave the chilly air of the endless tunnels which run beneath the Dürrnberg Plateau, learning the value of salt in ancient times and how miners toiled in the depths so that the nobility might have their precious mineral.

We visit Salzburg, Unesco-listed thanks to the preservation of its baroque architecture, on another guided walking tour, this one ending at St Peter Stiftskeller, the oldest restaurant in Central Europe and once a place of pilgrimage for high society plying the river. Today Salzburg is better known as a backdrop to The Sound of Music than for its salt empire, and each year hundreds of thousands of tourists visit to sip coffee laced with Mozart chocolate liqueur (the composer was born here) and pose before the city’s iconic fountain. But Salzburg’s wealth came not just from the salt in its mountains but from the city’s proximity to the Danube, that vital highway north and south that made trade so practical. 

As clouds begin to gather on the high peaks in the distance, the river, and our schedule, calls to us and we return to the ship for a final meal – a delectable silver service Table La Rive degustation, matched with South African wines and served in the intimate Portobello's restaurant. Through floor-to-ceiling windows life on the river around us continues as the evening’s light fades across the water, the day ahead promising to tempt travellers with new, undiscovered destinations, just around the river bend.