Gabriella Le Breton, The Daily Telegraph, February 7, 2012
The defining memory of my week-long cruise down the Danube is not the balmy evening I spent watching the lush Austrian countryside slip past as River Beatrice navigated the Schlögener Donauschlinge – the point at which the Danube curls back on itself – to the sound of exuberant birdsong.
Nor is it the sunny afternoon we motored down the narrow Wachau Valley, flanked by picturesque medieval villages, steep terraced vineyards and no fewer than 45 castles. It's not even arriving in Budapest shortly after dawn, passing the splendid parliament building and underneath the Chain Bridge.
No, my defining memory is learning how to play shuffleboard on River Beatrice's sun deck as a storm bore down on us in Linz. The city's large Ars Electronica Center, on the river bank opposite, pulsated with flashing lights in time to booming music, while bolts of lightning lit the mountainous backdrop to the imperial Austrian city. Heavy rain soon forced us to abandon our arena, and sent us scurrying downstairs to the lounge, where the strains of the excellent New Ohr Linz Dixieband drowned out the claps of thunder.
Having joined this voyage anticipating generous portions of history, lashings of Hapsburg architecture and dollops of Strauss, this decidedly contemporary little adventure proved there's plenty more to the Danube than ornate campaniles and schmaltzy music.
It was only my second night aboard River Beatrice, an attractive, 160-passenger river ship launched in 2009 for the American river cruise company, Uniworld, but I already felt entirely at home. The crew was unfailingly friendly, my fellow passengers charming and the boat spacious and immaculate. Furthermore, Beatrice had a superb sun deck for good days, with attractive wrought-iron tables, chairs and parasols, and dangerously comfortable loungers from which to watch the ever-changing scenery.
Comfort and elegance are key to Uniworld, which strives to set itself at the forefront of luxury "boutique" river cruising. Together with her new sister ship, River Antoinette, Beatrice boasts some of the largest and best-appointed staterooms of any river cruise line in Europe, with made-to-order beds, luxurious linens and spacious bathrooms.
Décor throughout the ship is lavish yet tasteful, with a vast white Murano glass chandelier hanging in the atrium, padded walls upholstered in raw silk and gilt-framed paintings adorning the mirrored restaurant walls. Had our days not been spent admiring baroque and rococo architecture, the opulence might have felt excessive, and I did occasionally seek refuge from the crushed velvet and florals in the more muted captain's lounge and library.
I joined River Beatrice in the atmospheric Bavarian city of Passau, which marks the confluence of three rivers – the Danube, Ilz and Inn. It was here that I learnt of the Danube's gender: "We refer to the Inn in the masculine because he's the troublemaker responsible for flooding Passau several times each year," explained our enthusiastic guide Dominique. "The Danube is much better behaved, so she's definitely a woman."
With her source in the Black Forest, the Danube is Europe's second-longest river after the Volga, flowing 1,771 miles through 10 countries and four capital cities to the Black Sea. I enjoyed just a short section of her epic journey, leaving Passau for Linz, from where most guests travelled to Salzburg (two hours' drive away). I chose to join a shorter excursion to the medieval town of Steyr before pedalling around Linz on one of River Beatrice's bicycles.
One of the key benefits of river cruising is that boats typically moor in the heart of the cities they visit, facilitating easy exploration on foot or bicycle. Thus Linz's 13th-century main square was just 10 minutes' walk from the Beatrice and, although a fleet of coaches whisked us to the Benedictine abbey of Melk the following day, it was an easy 20-minute stroll through the medieval town for a slab of rich Linzertorte by the magnificent baroque cathedral en route to the ship.
Similarly, at Dürnstein we were conveyed to a tasting of local wines at the Domäne Wachau vineyard aboard a tiny electric train, but 10 minutes on foot would have covered it. Perched on a ridge overlooking the Danube as it winds through the Wachau Valley, Dürnstein is one of Austria's most compact and most beautiful small towns. Crowned by the ruins of a castle (fine views reward those who make the steep climb to it), it has numerous pretty shops selling local wines, apricot liqueur and pastries. It required great strength to tear myself away from my glass of grüner veltliner, served in the garden of the Sänger Blondel restaurant underneath the town's sky-blue church tower, to return to Beatrice that evening…
Fortunately, an epicurean dinner lay in wait, meaning the food, which was generally excellent (with the odd lapse), was even better than usual. Considerable effort clearly went into the creation of menus that reflected local produce and culinary customs: in Passau we enjoyed Bavarian beer and garlic cream soup followed by seared pike; Dürnstein saw us feasting on Styrian fried chicken salad and duck breast in Burgenland red wine sauce; and in Vienna there was the inevitable Wiener schnitzel and rich Sachertorte.
The Austrian capital city was a highlight of the voyage, with a day and a half spent there. An impressive selection of excursions was available, ranging from city tours, visits to the Spanish Riding School, a tour of the Schönbrunn Palace and an evening concert. River Beatrice was moored 15 minutes' walk from the nearest underground station, from where the city centre was a 10-minute ride, making independent exploration of the city relatively easy. Furthermore, the ship's location by the car-free Donauinsel (Danube Island) was ideal for taking an evening ride along the cycle paths that criss-cross the island.
The pace of a river cruise is noticeably slower than that of an ocean cruise, with less distance covered and more time spent in port. However, the end of our cruise in Budapest still seemed to come all too quickly. After a brisk but informative tour of the main sights on both the Buda and Pest sides of the capital, I spent the afternoon admiring brides and grooms emerging from the immense St Stephen's Basilica, watching celebrated Hungarian authors signing their books at a busy book fair, and devouring cakes at the noted Gerbeaud Café on Vörösmarty Square.
My day in Budapest allowed just enough time to give a feel for this historic yet vibrant city, leaving me with the desire to return. But perhaps this is the essence of a river cruise – to give passengers a taste of each place, while leaving them hungry for more. And while I would have loved more time in the spots we visited, I wouldn't swap our lazy evenings motoring leisurely down the Danube for the world.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Danube passes more capitals than any other river: Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade and Vienna
Danube cruise essentials
Titan Elegant River Cruises (0800 988 5867; titantravel.co.uk ) offers the “Enchanting Danube” cruise on board River Beatrice from £1,849 per person, including seven nights’ full-board cruise, complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, shore excursions, flights and the Titan VIP Home Departure Service.
Book by the end of the month, and save up to £500 per person on the “Enchanting Danube” voyage departing August 5. Single supplements have also been waived on selected departure dates (April 1, April 22, July 1, July 29, August 5, August 12 and August 26), saving up to £950 per person.
THE INSIDE TRACK
By travelling from Passau to Budapest, you sail downriver and thereby gain more time in each destination than when sailing upstream from Budapest.
River Beatrice offers cabins in five categories. If money is no object, plump for a suite – they’re spacious and come with a butler, free laundry service and other extras. Cabins on Deck Three are the same size and offer the same amenities (and more attractive décor) as the more expensive staterooms on Deck Four.
When alfresco dining isn’t possible in spring and autumn, an alternative dining option is offered in the cosy captain’s lounge. Seating up to 32 people at tables of four, this intimate setting is popular, so book early.
Do explore on your own, be it on an indulgent shopping afternoon in Vienna, pre-dinner drinks on Linz’s main square or an evening stroll along the tow path in Dürnstein.
Visit Vienna’s famed mile-long Naschmarkt, which has sold fresh fruit, vegetables, exotic herbs, cheese, baked goods, meat and seafood since 1793. Today, it offers everything from organic vegetables and lobster to Chinese herbal remedies and Israeli shakshuka.
THE BEST EXCURSIONS
The Passau walking tour gives an excellent overview of the city but it’s the organ concert in St Stephan’s cathedral which makes this excursion unmissable. With 17,984 pipes and 233 stops, the organ is one of Europe’s largest.
“Vienna as the Viennese do” is a superb excursion for those already familiar with the city, visiting some of its less-known historical corners.
The Budapest city tour is a high-speed but effective introduction to the city, whisking guests around key sites such as Heroes’ Square, the State Opera House, Parliament Building and Pest’s Castle Hill.
THE BEST CAFÉS
Café Stephansdom, Passau £
A quirky café serving Passau’s finest cakes, with a large sun terrace overlooking the cathedral; also has an adjoining chocolate factory, which crafts exquisite pralines (Domplatz 2; 0049 85149 05574).
Gerbeaud, Budapest ££
Iconic café, serving extravagant Hungarian confectionary since 1858. Franz Liszt used to wash down rich Esterházy cake with fine Chinese and Russian teas in the Parisian-inspired café, which also serves superb breakfasts (Vörösmarty tér 7-8; 0036 1429 9000; gerbeaud.hu ).
Demel Café, Vienna £££
Celebrated café and confectioner located by the Hofburg since 1888 as Emperor Franz Joseph’s “Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery”. Demel still operates as a café and confectioner, meaning visitors can watch the chocolatiers at work before enjoying freshly baked Sachertorte. (Kohlmarkt 14; 0043 1 5351 7170).
THE BEST HOTELS
You may wish to extend your stay in Vienna or Budapest, or require a base at the start and/or end of your cruise:
Hotel Wilder Mann, Passau £
The “Wild Man on Town Hall Square” has served as a resting place for illustrious guests since 1303. Today it boasts 49 elegantly appointed rooms and a fine restaurant, and represents excellent value for money (0049 851 35071; wilder-mann.com ; double b&b from €80/£67 per night).
Hotel Palazzo Zichy, Budapest ££
Named after the aristocrat and politician Count Nándor Zichy, who once inhabited the 19th-century mansion that houses part of the hotel; comfortable and centrally located with generous breakfasts and free afternoon tea and coffee (0036 1 235 4000; hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu ; double b & b €90/£75 per night).
Hotel Sacher, Vienna £££
If you only have one night in Vienna, blow the budget and stay at the exceptional Hotel Sacher (Franz Sacher invented the torte; his son established the hotel in 1876). In the heart of the Old Town and as rich, indulgent and timeless as the cake (0043 1 514560; sacher.com ; double b& b from €385/£335 per night).
WHAT TO AVOID
- Don’t ignore the crew when they advise you to duck as River Beatrice passes under the locks which dot the Austrian section of the Danube. You really do need to duck on the terrace.
- Don’t arrive late at the buffet lunches served on River Beatrice as the food disappears quickly.
- There are occasions when River Beatrice moors next to another ship, so avoid whipping open your curtains in the morning unclothed.
- Avoid the hassle of getting to and from the airport by booking through Titan HiTours, which includes a door-to-door airport pickup and return service.