Cruising the Romantic Danube
Moonbeams danced playfully on the surface of the Danube, competing with reflections from Budapest’s myriad lights, as the Viking Egil cruised unhurriedly past stately 19th-century architecture and impressive monuments in Hungary’s capital city, adoringly called the Queen of the Danube.
The “Romantic Danube” itinerary was Viking River Cruises’ notable way of introducing guests to the unadulterated beauty of Budapest and a prelude to the sights and events to come on this 8-day sail on one of Europe’s most fabled rivers. The Viking Egil would take guests from Budapest to Nuremberg, Germany, with stops at storied places such as Vienna, Austria, and Passau and Regensburg, Germany, before docking in Nuremberg, Bavaria’s second-largest city.
Budapest was an auspicious beginning to the journey, offering ship guests access to enchanting historic grand cafes, ornate baths, festive markets, stalwart castles and glittering palaces. In addition, a thriving nightlife centered in the Jewish Quarter, District VII, has fostered a bohemian drinking scene that developed around antiquated courtyards and dilapidated buildings stylized with eclectic art.
The river divides the city, with hilly Buda on the west portion and lowland Pest on the east. The two sides were united in 1873 and both offer something unique for visitors. The Castle Hill Funicular climbs slowly to the pedestrian district of old Buda and the nearby Royal Palace, which today houses the Hungarian National Gallery. A stroll through cobbled streets leads to Matthias Church, the coronation church of Hungary’s last two kings, and should include a stop at the Matthias Fountain, a bronze installation that depicts a hunting expedition.
Down the hillside, several bridges cross the river to Pest, where sights such as St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Hungarian State Opera House await. Popular Varosliget (City Park) opens on to Heroes’ Square and its imposing monuments, and is a short ride on the city’s metro line from most any station. The World Heritage site also is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts. In this city of abundant cafes, it’s wise to visit one for a delightful pastry or sour cherry dessert before going back onboard in time for the ship’s morning departure. Viking offers a two-day pre-cruise option in Budapest that allows guests to more fully explore this grandiose city.
The ship leaves Budapest in the morning, and early risers are treated to the incredible vistas of the fabled “Blue Danube” as the Egil wends its way through the Danube Bend, considered one of the most beautiful sections of the river. For the next 40 miles, it snakes through northern Hungary, past peaceful farmlands, an ancient castle and steep hills draped in an emerald tapestry. The passage between the Borzsony and Pilis ranges features majestic church steeples rising from inviting villages and historic cities — a contrast to the elegant and graceful architecture that is a signature characteristic of Vienna, Austria’s capital city, and the next stop on the voyage. Vienna was the center of arts and intellect during the reign of the Habsburgs and beyond.
The City of Waltzes, as it is known, is the heart of Europe’s classical music scene. Mozart and Strauss composed many of their finest pieces here, and their compositions can be heard on an optional tour in a historic venue, where costumed singers and dancers take the stage to the strains of Strauss waltzes and selections from Mozart’s The Magic Flute performed by the Vienna Residence Orchestra.
Vienna’s impressive musical history is matched by the splendidly styled architecture that lines the Ringstrasse, the wide boulevard encircling the inner city. Here, Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic and other stately structures — from the Hofburg Palace to the Vienna State Opera — dazzle visitors with their magnificent facades. The gracious boulevard was laid out on the site of the old city walls in the mid-19th century. Striking palaces, sophisticated public buildings and superb residences are situated along this wide avenue.
But Vienna has a more intimate side as well. Well-manicured footpaths lead through green parks and formal gardens while cozy and welcoming Viennese cafes and coffee houses sweeten the visit with coffee and the city’s famed delectable Sachertorte. A high-spirited heurigen (wine tavern) dinner is also offered to passengers and it features a toast to the year’s wine harvest. On the outskirts of Vienna at Neustift am Walde, wine flows freely while samples of delicious local dishes on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace or in the rustic dining room make for a memorable and festive optional outing to help celebrate the season’s wine harvest. The drinking, live music and dancing are a fitting end to a Vienna visit before sailing on to Krems, Austria, a small university town at the eastern end of the Danube’s picturesque Wachau Valley.
Krems is surrounded by terraced vineyards that help create some of the best riesling and gruner veltliner wines in the world. The included tour is to Gottweig Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on a hilltop just beyond the city’s cobblestone streets, taverns, wine bars and coffeehouses. The monks produce a sparkling apricot wine from grapes grown in vineyards surrounding the monastery to help with the cost of upkeep. Tours and sales in the restaurant and gift shop also help to maintain the abbey, which is supported by the Viking tours.
Within its majestic walls are a number of antiques, rare coins, impressive collection of books and manuscripts and an extensive art collection composed of French, Dutch and English masterpieces. At the conclusion of the visit, the ship sails on through Wachau Valley en route to Passau, one of Bavaria’s oldest cities.
Valley sights feature a panoply of terraced vineyards, sloping forests, quaint villages and castle ruins dotting the hillsides. The 18-mile cruise skirts past wine-producing areas dating back to Celtic and Roman times, and during the Renaissance, when more than 30 monasteries served as wineries.
Located at the confluence of the Inn, Ilz and Danube rivers, the strategic position enabled the city to grow to great economic and political power, thanks in part to the salt trade, or “white gold,” as it was called. The prosperity is still evident in the graceful arcades, colorful houses and the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home to one of Europe’s largest pipe organs. The organ, with more than 17,000 pipes, is said to have inspired Franz Liszt to write his “Hungarian Coronation Mass.”
For more down to earth music, opt to participate in a festive Octoberfest-style celebration in a stunning rural setting among the rolling green hills of the Bavarian countryside. At Gut Aichet, a sprawling riverside farm, ample amounts of home-brewed beer, old-style music and sumptuous Bavarian treats such as brezen (pretzels) along with assorted breads, spreads and locally cured ham help celebrate the spirit of Bavaria. Singing and dancing to Schlager music (traditional music combined with popular entertainment) round out the festivities.
After Passau, the sail is nearly complete with only Regensburg and Nuremberg left to explore. Regensburg is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and the oldest city along the Danube. The Old Town’s Neupfarrplatz square is a cross section of history — having served as an ancient Roman fort, a thriving Jewish quarter, a bustling marketplace and the site of Nazi book burnings. The 12th-century Stone Bridge is a masterpiece of medieval engineering with its 16 arches and it still carries pedestrian and bicycle traffic today.
The second-largest city in Bavaria, Nuremberg teems with half-timbered houses and Gothic churches topped with magnificent spires. Almost demolished during World War II, the city’s remaining medieval walls span some three miles and include original gateways and 80 original watchtowers. It was a backdrop for key events in World War II, first as the site of Zeppelin Field’s Nazi rallies and later as the site of the war crimes trials at the Palace of Justice.
Things to see before the journey officially ends are the vendor stalls at the main market squares, one of Europe’s most celebrated Christmas markets famous for its gingerbread and its Gothic Schoner Brunnen, or “Beautiful Fountain,” and the old Jewish cemetery, one of the last remaining vestiges of the Jewish presence in Nuremberg. The Nazis were particularly zealous in their abuse of the city’s Jews and the infamous Nuremberg Laws were declared in Nuremberg during the Nazi party congress in 1935.
Despite this dark history, Nuremberg is still one of Germany’s most renowned and intriguing cities. This is the last stop on this marvelous journey before disembarking, but is shouldn’t be the last river cruise — there are far too many more destinations to discover.