By Lisa Skriloff, Editor, Multicultural Travel News
An AmaWaterways river cruise, onboard the AmaStella ship on the Danube River, such as “Melodies of the Danube,” (the cruise my boyfriend John and I joined for Multicultural Travel News,) offers the traveler a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the culture of five different countries in 8 days, all with only unpacking once.
Our May 24th departure took us from Budapest, Hungary up the Danube through Slovakia to Austria and Germany. And the Czech Republic too when you include our port excursion day trip to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of 6 such sites that this cruise featured. Cesky Krumlov is also included in the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List” as were several other places this trip brought us to, (Durnstein, Vienna, The Danube itself!), now all crossed off our list.
Seamlessly gliding from one country into the next, I only knew we had crossed borders when my phone alerted me with a Verizon text message, such as, “Welcome to Slovakia – Talk, Text, Data for $10 a day.”
Our cultural experience started on board with the daily menu selection evocative of each country we visited. Sacher torte, warm pretzels with mustard, Wiener Schnitzel, Weisswurst…. All of these menu options were heartily consumed as we soaked up each country’s culture. The Danube starts in the Black Forest and its namesake cake was served more than once.
Also onboard, a global range of international passengers; Countries represented on my trip, besides the U.S.: Canada, Holland, Germany, Argentina, India.
As each stop deposited us in another country we came to know its treasures via cultural experiences such as Austrian wine tasting, German Oktoberfest, Hungarian folklore show and a bachelor party Slovakian style, some of which were provided by the cruise line via walking tours or onboard, all of which were made possible by being on the cruise.
While all meals on the ship are included in the price of the cruise, we did skip some to sample the local restaurants in each town.
Also included with each meal, unlimited wine and beer. John, perhaps signaling his intention to take full advantage of the abundant beer available, nicknamed our ship the Stella Artois (though in reality he drank the local beer.)
For the first night’s dinner, we tried out the Chef’s Table restaurant, a specialty restaurant serving a chef’s choice tasting menu to only 28 guests. But unlike other cruise lines, there was no surcharge applied to this specialty restaurant dining experience.
Chef’s Table specialty restaurant on the AmaStella
Also unlike other cruise lines, daily shore excursions are included in the price of the trip.
When it comes to touring, we’re a little offbeat and seek the off-the-beaten path experience. Luckily there were as many as five paths to choose from each day as we were presented with different shore excursion options and “on your own” time.
Each day’s choice of walking tours featured a “gentle walkers” tour in addition to the regular walking tour. On top of those, there was the active walkers tour, which covered more ground in the time allotted. Having tried the active walkers tour, I came to call it the New Yorker’s walking tour, as it went at my typical speed walking around Manhattan. There was also a daily sightseeing hike and a bike tour, (bikes are provided) created in partnership with Backroads (which we never tried.)
What a relief to be able to continue our fitness regimen while on vacation – as the walking tours provided. Our daily goal at home is 10,000 steps. Some days we hit 20,000+. All that delicious food and I still lost 2 pounds despite daily dessert and late night snack. Once I saw my favorites on the daily menu choices, I declared to John at the beginning of the trip “I am going to have bacon and ice cream every day.” Which I did. Not to mention Ice Cream Social day when I had ice cream twice.
Yes, on this cruise you can “Do your own thing” or choose from among organized tours graded by level of difficulty from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult. The hike up to Bratislava’s Castle, for example was graded Level of Difficulty 5, the guided bike tour along the Danube was a 3, while Durnstein walking tour and Melk abbey visit was a 1.
So comprehensive was the cruise literature grading each activity that even the Strauss and Mozart concert evening during a night out in Vienna (sit and listen to music) was labeled as a “1” in degree of difficulty. (John remarked that if it had been a Wagner concert it might have been labeled a “5.”)
For help in free time at port planning, the Cruise Manager was a wealth of information having a comprehensive knowledge of each town. I did stump him once when he remarked “Funny. No one has ever asked me about the Snow Globe museum in Vienna before.” Though he had heard of The Third Man Museum.
In Budapest, our first port of departure, our ship was in walking distance to the main pedestrian shopping street so we headed up Vaci Uta towards the Square. AmaWaterways’ detailed trip program had spelled out what would be included on the next day’s tour so we made our own itinerary for that first afternoon of arrival. Armed with my advance investigation and research, my book, “1000 Places to See Before You Die” directed us to Gerbeaud for our lunch of Hungarian Goulash soup and chicken paprikash, followed by a stop at nearby Szamos coffee house for a look at their chocolate making mini production line. As we made our way back to the ship we detoured to see the Synagogue, the biggest in Europe and only second in the world to the New York City’s.
Scenes of Budapest
All that in the first afternoon of arrival, and then back to the ship in time for the welcome reception and safety briefing. Our fabulous tour manager conveyed the Gemütlichkeit, warmth and friendliness, that set the tone for the cruise as he introduced the staff and crew and started the dialogue that introduced passengers to each other.
Following our dinner, it was time for the Illumination cruise as our ship traveled under 7 bridges — some so low you could practically reach up and touch them– passing the Parliament, Gellert Spa, museums, the castle and other notable buildings and then docked for the night.
The next day, after the overnight in Pest, we were offered a choice of a regular walking tour, a gentle walkers tour or a castle hill hike. There was also a Late riser’s tour for those who wanted an extra 40 minutes of sleep.
Our morning tour began with a visit to the Great Market hall, then we boarded the bus to drive around the Pest side and then to Buda, the hilly side, for a visit to Buda Castle, Mattias church and Fisherman’s Bastion.
Everyone on the walking tour was provided with a personal Quiet Vox audio headset device and individual ear buds so we could tune into the tour guide and not miss a word even if we trailed behind.
The cruise manager has done an excellent job of vetting every local tour guide — each was knowledgeable not just in the Michelin guide history of their city but each imparted the local culture and flavor of each country.
Our guide in Bratislava, in particular, stood out. So enjoyable was his repartee, I suspect his night job is stand-up comedian. Or perhaps Communism breeds an outlook with a sense of humor.
Who knew that Bratislava was the Las Vegas of Eastern Europe for English bachelor party weekends. That was the explanation our guide gave as to why one guy among a group of friends was spotted wearing a chicken outfit and in another group the bachelor fiancée was wearing a Dutch girl milkmaid outfit and blonde braids.
Our orientation walking tour ended in the Park Hyatt Hotel square and with free time at our disposal, and armed with the city map (the cruise line provides one for each port) we made our own hike up to the Bratislava castle for a bird’s eye view of our ship docked on the Danube. A 10-euro tram ride up was available but we had our daily steps goal to meet.
Our cruise took us into the heart of 3 European capitals in the first 3 days. Along the way, traveling up the Danube on our first day of cruising, we passed Hungary’s largest church. Announcements are made so we knew when to gather on the top deck. Or we could view the shoreline scenery from the comfort of our cabin balcony. While our active walking tours each day were the highlight of the cruise, that was a close second to simply watching the scenery going by — of castles, churches, ruins, and fishing huts– from our balcony chairs.
After Budapest and Bratislava, we arrived in Vienna and 3 busloads of passengers were taken to an Austrian Heuriger, a local wine tavern, prepared to welcome us all.
In Vienna, our full day included a city tour by bus around the Ringstrasse as the guide pointed out buildings we could visit on our own later during free time. Then, off the bus for a walking tour thru Vienna’s historic city center, itself another UNESCO World Heritage Site, by the Spanish Riding School, the gardens and ending up at St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
We had a long list of possible free time activities but couldn’t get to them all. We didn’t make it to the Ferris Wheel or The Third Man Museum but did hit the flea market then lunch at nearby Cafe Savoy for a Wiener Schnitzel and beer.
Wiener Schnitzel at Cafe Savoy, Vienna
The afternoon we had our private waltz lesson at Elmayer School, which I had booked in advance by email a month before our trip. (See related article “Dancing, Dining, Docking up the Danube on an AmaWaterways River Cruise.”)
That evening’s ticket to the Strauss and Mozart concert by the Wiener Hofburg Orchestra was the only extra cost as all shore excursions are included in the cruise.
At our next stop at Weissenkirchen, we were offered a choice of 5 excursions, but only one of them included wine tasting, so that’s the one we selected. A beautiful walk along the Danube banks, with the guide in our ear with her stories of this land of Richard the Lionhearted, up into the town of Durnstein for the wine tasting and also, from local apricot trees, some apricot marmalade and apricot schnapps tasting.
Our ship had already departed Weissenkirchen when the passengers disembarked for this tour, and we met up with it at Ybbs.
From there we cruised up the Danube in the Waccau Valley, also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and arrived in Grein where our group was given a private tour of Austria’s oldest residential castle, with a folklore show and sparkling wine reception. You can be sure we counted the 80 steps of the staircase up to the castle towards our daily total.
Austrian folk dancers
was amused to learn from the cruise manager’s onboard instructions and introductory remarks, that if we ever were late returning to the ship from a shore excursion and were left behind (though they give you an ample grace period), since the ship is only traveling 7 miles an hour we could always catch up in a taxi.
Next stop was Linz and of course Linzetorte was served onboard — the oldest cake recipe with a city in its name.
We chose the afternoon bus excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage city Cesky Krumlov, a medieval town just over the Austrian-Czech border. After our guided walking tour of the historic center and castle, we visited the Egon Schiele Art Center and had a beer and pretzels in an outdoor garden restaurant along the river. John spotted the Krumlovanka Hat store and bought a felt hat of excellent quality made of rabbit hair. He knew it was “Excellent Quality” because that’s what was printed on the inside band.
Our penultimate port was Passau, where 3 rivers come together so we dubbed it the Pittsburgh of Europe. We followed the local guide for a walking tour then visited the Glass Museum on our own with 30,000 items in their collection of vases, pitchers, bottles, wine glasses, pendants and lamps from the period 1650 to 1950 with a special focus on Art Nouveau.
That afternoon we arrived at our last port, Vilshofen, Germany. And that evening there was a goodbye party for all passengers in a dockside tent for our own private Oktoberfest. We joined our new found and lifelong friends at picnic tables for glass after glass of local beer, fat pretzels while listening to Bavarian folk music and our Emcee Miss Beer Queen of Vilshofen. (Level of difficulty 1.)
A family-owned company, AmaWaterways offers river cruises with 20 ships that sail Europe’s Danube, Rhine, Moselle, Main, Rhône, Seine, Garonne, Dordogne, Dutch and Belgian Waterways and Douro rivers. Between July 2017 and Dec 2018 AmaWaterways offers over 300 cruises on the Danube. Learn more at www.AmaWaterways.com.