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Islander columnist travels to the multi-hued Danube

By Staff | Jul 10, 2009

The very first impression I had of the Danube River during my recent riverboat cruise is that the famed subject of the Strauss waltz isn’t blue at all. Depending on where you were on it the river was brown, green or black but never blue. Maybe it was once but it certainly isn’t any more. But does that take away its luster and appeal? Hardly.

The Danube snakes along for hundreds of miles from Eastern Europe down through Austria and Germany. It measures almost 1,800 miles and has been an important highway between central and Eastern Europe from antiquity. The famous waltz “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss became a symbol of the imperial Vienna.

Its contours are varied and within miles of each other through the journey down river are factories and plants followed by bucolic forests, rustic meadows and centuries old castles. The contrast can be so startling that the unexpected always seems to be the norm.

My wife and I signed up for a Danube river cruise because to us the European river cruise is more aesthetically pleasing than the giant Caribbean cruise ship experience. We’d experienced European river cruises twice before. We did a Rhine River cruise some years back and followed that up with our first Danube cruise 11 years ago. We liked both so much that we looked forward to another one.

A Danube cruise is the best way to experience the storied landscapes, cultural heritage and centuries-old architecture of the Old World. On a Danube cruise you’ll discover Europe’s vineyard-lined valleys and beautifully preserved medieval towns in countries such as Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Romania. Along the way you’ll marvel at the cathedrals, castles, churches and parliament buildings that ushered in the era after Christ.

Our Danube River cruise started in Budapest and wound its way to Bratislava, Vienna, Durnstein, Melk, Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg. We sailed through the beautiful Wachau Valley in Germany with its rolling hills and countryside.

Times have changed though. When we embarked on our first Danube cruise the ships were considerably smaller and the appeal was more limited. We were the only Americans onboard with a passenger list consisting of all Europeans. The capacity of the ship at that time was around 100 and there were about 40 passengers. As it turns out, the stops along the Danube were the same then as they are now. The difference now is that European river cruising has become a major business and there are considerably more companies around today with more ships to choose from.

Today the ships are about a third bigger than those 11 years ago and the passenger capacity is around 150. Many river cruise ships have been built during the past 11 years and many more Americans are availing themselves of this delightful way to spend a luxurious week to 10 days in Europe.

What’s especially appealing about a river cruise is that you are truly pampered from the time you board to the time you disembark. Plus you don’t have to live out of a suitcase. Even though you get to tour some fascinating cities and villages you always get to return to the ship in time for a bountiful dinner and a good night’s sleep in a bed whose acquaintance you have made during the course of at least a week.

We did a lot of research on European cruise ships. There’s been a lot of consolidation in the industry during the past 11 years and old line companies were bought out by the newer conglomerates. And new companies have come from out of nowhere. Such is the case with the cruise ship line we chose AMA Waterways. The price and the amenities were just right including the fact that a limitless amount of wine at dinner was included at no additional cost.

AMA Waterways is only a few years old. It’s headquartered in California, which is very unusual in and of itself for a company specializing in European river cruises. It was originally called Amadeus but when the management of the company learned that a competitive ship went by that name it changed its name quickly. Today all its ships start with the three letters “AMA”. Our ship is called Amalyra and it debuted in March of this year. Contrary to our experience 11 years ago most of the present passengers were American.

During the course of every public address announcement on the ship by Kata, the Hungarian cruise director, we were serenaded by her standard greeting: “Wonderful, very well and good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” Her attempt at colloquial English was very charming.

Our journey started in Budapest, Hungary, a beautiful city that had been cut off from the western world during the Second World War and then the iron curtain. The Danube separates what had been two historically separate municipalities Buda and Pest until they united to become what is now a two million population urban center in a country with a total of 10 million people.

Budapest is famous for goulash and paprika. For women, the city is famous for a special ointment that natives swear removes wrinkles with ease. It is called Helia-D and if you’re visiting Budapest one day you must seek out a pharmacy and find it. The results may indeed more than pay for the price of the trip. The line of products includes specially patented extracts of sunflower stalk that benefits the skin in secret ways.

What struck us about Budapest as well as the cities we toured during our river cruise is the number of pedestrian malls that have sprung up. Having been brought up in New York where autos rule it’s refreshing to walk for miles without having to turn to your left or right to avoid oncoming traffic. More American cities can learn from this trend.

In Budapest look for Vaci Utka Street which is the main shopping street in the pedestrian shopping mall. It’s about a mile long. There are many outdoor cafes you can choose from for your people gazing, Hungarian beer and goulash rush.

On the famous Chain Bridge which crosses the Danube from Buda to Pest are cultural events every weekend from June 20 to Aug. 16. The bridge is closed to traffic for eight-themed weekends with performances by bands, theater groups and dancers.

In Passau, a town on the Danube that is also flanked by two other rivers the Inn and Ills St. Stephen’s Cathedral houses the second largest church pipe organ in the world. Organ concerts are held daily between May and September. If you’ve never experienced the resonance and body numbing experience of an organ with this kind of musical power then you’re in for a treat.

Our last stop on the cruise was Nuremberg which has its own charming pedestrian mall and town square. The city is best known for its role as a Nazi stronghold in pre-war Germany and the famous Nuremberg War Trials in the Palace of Justice after the war.

We bid a fond adieu to the Amalyra in Nuremberg and boarded a bus for the almost all day journey to Prague. Along the way we stopped for a visit and lunch in a charming town some 80 miles from Prague, Karlovy Vary, also known in the U.S. as Carlsbad. Karlovy Vary is in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic and is a compelling tourist attraction even though it’s off the beaten path.

It’s known for its healing waters, hot springs and baths. You can drink its healing hot springs right in the center of town. There are 14 thermal springs and they can be sipped from special porcelain or glass cups with spouts. The hottest one has a temperature of 163 degrees Fahrenheit. Treatments are reputed to aid digestive and metabolic disorders.

Scenes from the recent James Bond movie “Casino Royale” were filmed in Karlovy Vary and if you close your eyes you can picture Beethoven and the famous German author Goethe taking walks together on the cobblestoned streets of this old town.

Lunch at the Embassy Hotel Restaurant on Nova Louka is a must when you visit this healing old Czech Republic enclave. And then on to Prague as the final city on our tour. What can you say about a city where almost every single building is historic, stately and unique?

Walking through Prague is like walking into a medieval wonderland. We stayed at the President Hotel which is right around the corner from Paris Street, an upscale shop and restaurant lined street that leads right into the Old Town Square. Prague is indeed a world attraction for visitors because I have never seen so many tour groups from so many countries, including the U.S. The Old Town is crowded with shops, historic buildings, outdoor cafes and charming out of the way Czech style restaurants.

You must visit the famous castle and cathedral high on a hill overlooking the city and walk down the lengthy series of steps, across the Charles Bridge and into the Old Town. It’s a long walk but it will give you a unique perspective of the architecture and layout of this ancient city. And while you’re still catching your breath as you leave the Castle grounds stop for a moment to witness the hourly changing of the guard.

And, finally, I cannot for a moment neglect to point out the pampering and upscale accommodations aboard the Amalyra. While not the traditional size of a Caribbean cruise ship which accommodates thousands of passengers, the Amalyra represents the breed of European river cruises which are much cozier and in many ways more pampering. For instance, food is cooked to your personal liking.

A European river cruise is the perfect blend of elegance and old world charm. To my mind there’s no better way to literally sample the history, culture, food, and sites of Europe. Try it.