|Guests head for the top deck as AmaCerto sails out of Budapest and on toward Bratislava. // All photos by Susan J. Young|
First-time river cruisers often take European cruises to cities they have dreamed about visiting for years, or to see fairytale-like destinations they’ve read about in history books. As such, Danube River cruises are among the most popular.
Our itinerary spotlight this month is “Melodies of the Danube,” an AmaWaterways (www.amawaterways.com) journey we experienced last month. This voyage is offered this summer and fall on AmaCerto, AmaLegro and AmaLyra.
Many other river cruise lines including Avalon Waterways (www.avalonwaterways.com), Tauck (www.tauck.com), Viking River Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises), Uniworld (www.uniworld.com) and others also offer their own variations of this Danube itinerary.
Here’s a look at the AmaWaterways itinerary, which features port calls in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, with an option to visit the Czech Republic. All tours below are included within the cruise fare unless specified otherwise.
Day 1 - Overnight flight from North America
Day 2 - Budapest, Hungary: Since the river vessel overnights in Budapest on Day 2 and doesn’t depart until 5 p.m. on Day 3, guests who have air misconnects or flight delays likely won’t miss the boat. That's a welcome perk.
Guests are either met at the airport and transported to the river vessel's berth on the Pest side of the river, or they make their own way to the ship, based on their travel arrangements. Crew are available to transport luggage as guests reach the gangway.
Cabins are typically available in early afternoon, but the staff will take luggage and guests may relax in the lounge with coffee, tea, snacks and light breakfast fare. Lunch is served in the restaurant mid-day.
The first full day in Budapest is free. Guests may relax onboard, get acquainted with the ship, sleep or just head out to explore the city. An evening welcome reception allows guests to socialize and get acquainted.
|An AmaWaterways vessel next door to ours sails the Danube.|
Day 3 – Budapest, Hungary: Today’s city tour takes guests by motorcoach to first view attractions on the Pest side of the river. The first stop is at Heroes Square, one of the city's most visited attractions.
It's a quick on-and-off stop the coach for about a 20-minute stop to view the Millennium Monument, built in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest. The square and its impressive sculptures and monuments honor important figures in Hungarian history.
Then it's back onto the coach for more touring of Pest including a drive through a pleasant park with a historic zoological garden, as well as views of St. Stephen’s Basilica and other sites.
Next, the coach takes guests across the river to the Fisherman’s Bastion, above the Buda side of the city. Clients will walk about 10 minutes each direction from the motorcoach drop off point to reach the 14th Century Buda Castle, where they'll walk the ramparts for the best photographs of the city below and across the river.
Guests who are mobility challenged may choose to avoid the cobblestones and just enjoy a coffee in a shop not far from the motorcoach parking spot; the guide pointed it out on our tour. Otherwise, it's a fairly fast-paced walk.
Again, the visit to Buda Castle is relatively quick, but gives a taste of the city and its history. Then guests reboard the coach for a return to the Pest side and Budapest's Great Market Hall.
This is the place to peruse, buy and sample Hungarian food specialties, as well as purchase wine and spirits and Hungarian souvenirs. Paprika is popular as a souvenir or gift.
Clients might also try langos, a deep-fried Hungarian pastry or, alternatively, hot sausages. The ground floor level of the 100-year-old-plus market building is filled to the brim with fresh vegetable, meat and wine shops.
The upper level is home to cafes, eateries and souvenir shops offering leather goods, hand-crafted dolls and exquisite linens, along with the usual souvenir fare.
Prior to entering the market, AmaWaterways' guests are told when to meet at a certain point. So after touring the market on their own, those who arrive at the appointed time will be led to the coach and transported back to the boat. Others may wish to stay and meander back on their own later.
Important Note: Local guides strongly caution visitors to be mindful of wallets and cameras in the market, as it's a prime pickpocket area. As with any big city, it's good to take precautions. We did and no one in our group had any issues.
Late in the day, the boat sets sail for Bratislava. The sailing out of Budapest and under its many unusual bridges, with palaces and magnificent churches along the way is a tour onto itself. The cruise manager provides commentary as guests head for the top deck to watch the city unfold around them.
|The monument to Soviet soldiers is one stop on the Communist Tour in Bratislava.|
Day 4 - Bratislava, Slovakia: Guests wake up in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital city. AmaWaterways offers two different tours – a city walking tour, and the second, an interesting "Communist Tour" that includes landmarks of the Soviet occupation era.
The city tour takes in major sights, including the Old Town Hall, the stunning Mirbach Palace and Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral.
The Communist Tour’s first stop is at the Slavin War Memorial, perched atop a mountain that overlooks the city. The memorial is a moving tribute to the 6,800 Soviet soldiers who died trying to free Bratislava from the Nazis during World War II.
Designed by architect J. Svetlík, the monument was completed in 1960. Cruisers will need to walk up more than 60 steps to the monument level.
At the momument site is a cemetery with six mass graves and 278 individual ones. The impressive ceremony hall, laden with flowers and other tributes, is the main part of the monument and encircled by a colonnade.
The monument is amid a peaceful park that's planted with trees and shrubs brought from the former Soviet Union. But while the monument is well-tended, be advised that the locals have a bit of a mixed view of the site.
Clearly, they appreciate the extreme sacrifice of the Soviet soldiers, but they also remember that soon after “liberation” the Soviet Army took control of their nation for decades of oppression.
One photo hint? Tell clients that they will get a great view of the city from the eastern side of the monument.
Then it's back to the tour vehicle, a restored 1947-era bus, with new air conditioning that’s not the best. But the transport gives an authentic flavor of the time, as the guide describes the city's former life under Soviet rule.
This tour also passes other Cold War sites including the Radio Building and Liberty Square as well as some – but not all - historic sites also seen on the regular city tour.
The tour ends at Bratislava Castle for a short amount of free time – less than a half hour on our tour – and then a return to the ship. Guests have a bit more free time in Bratislava before the ship sails to Vienna.
After dinner, AmaWaterways offers an optional Mozart and Strauss concert in a picture perfect Vienna concert venue, such as the Hofburg Palace or Palais Auersperg.
|Cruisers on a walking tour of Vienna admire the architecture and a monument to the end of the Plague.|
Day 5 – Vienna: The Baroque elegance of romantic Vienna unfolds during a whirlwind guided motorcoach tour of the downtown area near or inside the Ringstrasse, or ring road.
Among the sites? Guests will spot the Vienna Opera House, Parliament building and more, before disembarking the coach at St. Stephen’s Cathedral for a walking tour in the downtown area. We were given a few minutes to pop inside.
The walking tour continues on throughout the downtown area and winds by a 1679-era monument dedicated to the end of the Plague; it’s located within a pedestrian friendly shopping area. Clients will peruse yummy pastry and coffee shops, along with high-end shops.
Near the famed Spanish Riding School of Vienna, the guide stops to allow cruisers to view a video about the horses and their skills.
Better yet, the walk continues to the school's stable. Standing outside, but with views into the courtyard and stable area, cruisers delight at seeing the white heads of the famed steeds pop out of their stable doors. It’s a brief but rewarding encounter.
The tour then continues to the Albertina, a graphic arts museum, where guests are left on their own for about 45 minutes to enjoy a cappuccino or latte at an outdoor café, visit the museum or access the museum’s clean rest rooms.
Then it’s back on the bus, with views to the famed Hotel Sacher and the Café Mozart across the street.
The remainder of the day is at leisure. For those eager to continue their cultural immersion in Vienna, the line takes guests off the boat for a traditional “Viennese Wine and Music” evening in a wine village near Vienna.
|Cruisers tour magnificent Melk Abbey with its museum and ornate church.|
Day 6 – Durnstein and Melk: While the big cities like Budapest and Vienna entice clients for sure, it’s often the smaller port destinations that enchant the river cruise crowd.
That's the case for the two towns on today's itinerary. Arriving in early morning in Durnstein, Austria, guests disembark for a line-led walking tour into the medieval town.
|The blue Baroque Stiftskirche is visible along Durnstein's waterfront area.|
Tell clients to be sure their camera has a photo card with plenty of space. The town is filled with 16th century town houses and wine taverns, stone walls, impressive stone buildings and small passages.
There are superb photo opportunities around every nook and corner of this town.
A “gentler” tour via motorized train is offered by AmaWaterways to those with mobility challenges or those who just want to avoid the walk into town.
The most interesting part of the so-called "toy train" option is that it actually takes guests briefly into the surrounding vineyards of the Wachau Valley, motors by huge wine processing facilities and enters an adjacent village.
All tours in Durnstein include a wine tasting at a local vintner, where guests enjoy sizable glasses of different wines as well as Apricot brandy and liquor, specialties of the region.
After this morning tour, active guests might explore the Wachau Valley on an afternoon guided bike tour from Dürnstein to Melk; it’s capacity controlled so tell clients to advise the cruise manager early in the cruise if they are interested.
Those not so inclined may simply stay on the vessel as it sails to Melk.
Upon arriving in Melk, guests disembark for a tour of the impressive Melk Abbey, one of Europe’s largest Baroque monasteries.
Let's just say the abbey church is grandiose. It's definitely an "ooh" and "aah" moment. There is also an excellent museum, an incredible library and more. Tell clients to look up the staircase; it makes an unusual photo.
Most guests opt to walk back to the boat or stay in Melk a bit before returning to the ship. Transport is provided at the tour's end for those who choose to go immediately back to the vessel, which overnights in Melk.
|Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site|
Day 7—Linz: After a morning arrival in Linz, Austria's second largest city, guests head out for a guided walking tour along the Landstrasse to the city’s main square. Along the way, sites include St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Marian Column, Landestheatre and St. Martin’s, the oldest church in Austria.
After a late morning brunch, AmaWaterways includes what amounts to a “highlight” of the voyage for many guests. Passengers may choose from three different, full day tours.
One heads for the “Salzkammergut” region, the Austrian Lake District that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site; guests explore Gmuden on the shores of Lake Traunsee.
The second option is an excursion to the fairytale-like Czech town of Cesky Krumlov. Nestled in the hills just over the Austrian-Czech border, it’s a preserved medieval town with a fairytale look and setting.
Or, guests might indulge their passion for “The Sound of Music,” with the excursion to Salzburg; this tour takes guests on a city walking tour and to sights affiliated with the book/movie as well as with Mozart, who was born in Salzburg.
While no lunch or attraction admissions were included in our Cesky Krumlov tour, and some guests were disappointed upon arrival that a castle tour wasn't included (although we visited the courtyard and gardens of the castle), it’s a great value for the guided tour and commentary.
Essentially, we had a seven-and-a-half hour tour, guided commentary, a robust walking tour to the major town sites, and then two hours of free time in Cesky. It was plenty of time for those who wanted to visit attractions or enjoy a relaxing meal at a sidewalk café.
One tip for your clients? Many of the restaurants in Cesky do not take credit cards for payment. After being told "no" at one establishment, we simply looked for a hotel restaurant with a sidewalk cafe and, presto, it did.
|In Vilshofen, cruisers enjoy Oktoberfest and mingle with the locals, who are often eager to showcase their German culture.|
Day 8 – Passau and Vilshofen: On this last cruising day, the ship sails through Upper Austria, arriving at the German city of Passau, where two rivers join the Danube.
The walking tour of Passau includes a visit to St. Stephan’s Cathedral, which boasts the largest cathedral organ in the world. Another option is to explore the city by bicycle.
Old Passau is a city of cobblestone, uneven streets and pavements, and some grades. Guests walk back to the ship on their own after the tour.
After the touring is over, the ship sails to Vilshofen, a charming 1200-year-old Bavarian town.
AmaWaterways uses Vilshofen as a turnaround and port of call and plans to expand that in future years, given the friendliness of the locals.
Whenever they visit, guests enjoy Oktoberfest in Vilshofen during their shore visit. AmaWaterways clients are treated to local food and beer, as well as Bavarian folk music and dancing.
Day 9 - Vilshofen and Munich: The cruise ends early a.m. in Vilshofen, with guests heading by motorcoach to Munich, with a stop in the Medieval city of Regensburg en route.
Three nights are then spent in Munich, the capital of Germany’s Bavarian region. This itinerary also includes an option for guests to go directly from the ship for several days in Prague, if clients so desire.
Day 10 – Munich: AmaWaterways provides a coach tour of Munich followed by a walking tour of the Old Town. Sites include the famous Glockenspiel at Munich’s New Town Hall and the Frauenkirche, the “Cathedral of Our Lady.”
The afternoon is free for independent exploration.
Day 11 – Munich: Today’s out-of-town excursion is a scenic drive through the Bavarian Alps to Neuschwanstein Castle, which is a fairytale-like structure built in the 19th century by King Ludwig II of Bavaria as an homage to the grandiose operas of composer Richard Wagner.
After a tour of the castle, cruisers then visit Fussen, Bavaria’s highest town and home to St. Mang’s Abbey.
Day 12 – Departure and Flights Home
One plus of this itinerary on AmaWaterways? Most of the shore trips, except a few optional excursions like the Vienna theater night, are included in the cruise fare. So are wine, beer and soft drinks at dinnertime.
For all the inclusions and more information, visit www.amawaterways.com