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Continental Europe

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Five countries, fifteen days, innumerable adventures and infinite delight

By Paul Knowles

Travel journalism is supposed to be an objective pursuit; a credible travel article should deal with the good and the less than good. The quandary is, when it comes to our 15-day, Budapest to Amsterdam river cruise, there is nothing to criticize. It was the travel highlight of our lives. To add a soupçon of credibility – our newly-met travelling companions on our Viking River Cruises' Grand European Tour agreed, to a person. (Photo: Chain Bridge in Budapest; photo by Nancy Knowles)

 

 

What's so great? Just about everything. Let's start with what happens while you are actually sailing. There is, quite, simply, always something to see. While most days are spent in the towns and cities along the way, when the scenery is going to be terrific – Austria's castle-rich Wachau Valley, and the Middle Rhine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for example – the boat cruises in the morning, to give everyone a chance for enchantment. And after dark, there is something magical about sailing past brightly lit villages and towns, as you relax under a blanket with a glass of wine on the upper deck.
The boat – ours was the Alsvin – is specifically designed for European river cruising; it fits precisely into the 68 locks through which we passed (most during night sailing). This is no ocean cruise ship. The Viking Alsvin has an upper deck, a forward lower deck, and a lounge that triples as a meeting place and the entertainment centre. There is a shuffleboard court and a putting green. That's about it... and this is more than enough, because with a daily visit to a unique European town or city, on-board entertainment featuring local performers (from a four-person classical music cabaret to a glass blowing demonstration to regular performances by Bobby at the piano), there is plenty to keep everyone occupied.
Each day's shore tour is included in the basic fee. And they are fascinating – bus and walking tours of romantic cities like Budapest, Vienna and Bratislava; visits to medieval sites like Melk Abbey, Wertheim and Marksburg Castle; sobering stops at World War II sites, especially Nuremberg. There are a few optional tours that can be purchased at a reasonable fee; we would recommend the Mozart and Strauss concert in Vienna, the visit to the medieval town of Rothenburg, and the pub crawl in Cologne! One memorable moment occurred as the tour busses returned to the boat, after a slight delay. The entire crew and staff were on balconies and the upper deck, applauding our return. It might seem contrived, but with only 170 passengers and 52 staff members, it felt like a genuine welcome from newfound friends.
The service is exquisite, yet personable; every staff member went the extra mile, time after time. For instance, our wine steward discovered half of the people at our table liked rosé wine, and so, sought it out in the towns where we stopped.
On-board cuisine was terrific, the work of executive chef Ionel Purice (at 27, the youngest head chef with Viking) and his well-organized galley crew. When friends ask about the highlights of the trip, our memories kick into overload. They range from the magnificent – the grandeur of Melk Abbey, the organ concert in Passau's St. Stephan's Cathedral, the Bishops' Palace in Würzburg, the cathedral at Cologne – to the unique – the tastes of local beers (smoke-flavoured in Bamberg, red in Nuremberg, Cologne's iconic Kölsch); unique art glass in Wertheim; the heart-wrenching displays in the Hungarian Jewish Museum in Budapest. As our excellent program director, Lubomir Krupa, told me, "our goal is to get you as close to local culture as possible."
Throughout the journey, every place we visited resonated with impact of two events: the fall of the iron curtain, or World War II. In Hungary and Slovakia, our local guides openly celebrated their freedom, as they have done since their countries became free in 1989; while throughout the journey, virtually every local tour included comments about damage caused by WWII bombing, and, even more heart-wrenching, sobering accounts of the Jewish holocaust. These are countries whose people are coming to terms with some of the most cataclysmic events in history. It is eye-opening and incredibly gripping.
This is not to suggest that the cruise is a dour affair. It is replete with fascinating attractions, jam-packed with historical and cultural experiences, from Roman (a vast mosaic floor in Cologne) to recent (exploring a working windmill in The Netherlands) to today (the whimsical public art in Bratislava, including the unexpected "The Watcher" bronze – a full-sized figure resting on the edge of a manhole). There is music (where else can you play a hurdy-gurdy during dinner, courtesy "German Night", or enjoy Slovakian folk singers?), and dancing, and laughter – lots and lots of laughter! 
In medieval Regensburg, we were caught in a torrential downpour. So people explored the town in bare feet on cobblestones, shoes in hand. On returning to the busses, there were no complaints – just shared laughter about the adventure.
Speaking of conviviality – finding compatible dining companions can add much to your trip. We were very fortunate; a random group we joined on the first evening turned into a closely-bonded, jovial travelling family before the journey was two days old. These instant friendships were a significant enhancement to an already wonderful experience. So... if you love history, or fine dining, or unique wines and beers, or music, or architecture, or culture, or meeting new friends... well, frankly, the benefits seem unending ... you just might want to sign on to a European river cruise.
I suggested there was no "less than good" part. But there is, just one: leaving the boat for the last time.
For more information: vikingrivercruises.com