Viking’s Romantic Danube

Dürnstein on the Danube river is the Krems-Land district in Austria. It is one of the most visited towns in the Wachau region.

Dürnstein on the Danube river is the Krems-Land district in Austria. It is one of the most visited towns in the Wachau region.

 

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We sailed on the Romantic Danube itinerary in early August from Nuremberg, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary, aboard the Viking Bragi, one of Viking River Cruises’ newest Longships. The itinerary is one of the company’s most popular, thanks to the idyllic scenery complete with castles and farmland along the way, as well as a fascinating series of locks all along the Main-Danube Canal. Small, historic villages; cathedrals; a most-notable abbey; the grandeur of Vienna and then Budapest round off this weeklong cruise.

Life Onboard

Unique areas of the ship: Viking makes no secret that river cruising is all about the destinations, and it makes it easy for guests to watch the world go by as they sail the Danube. We especially enjoyed the region between Passau, Germany, and Melk, Austria, acclaimed as one of the most enjoyable regions of the Danube Delta for spotting castles high up on hills and an abundance of wildlife (more than 300 species of birds, including eagles, egrets, vultures, geese, cranes, ibises, cormorants, swans and pelicans are found here from spring to fall). You’re also seeing villages that are thousands of years old, castles and wine country (hello, Riesling), with vineyards extending up into the hills, and plenty of apricot trees. The Danube is a huge part of life in these regions, you’ll often see families picnicking along the river, or friends cycling along the bike paths. You’ll see houseboats on shore with people seeming to live off the land and even the occasional native bathing in the river without the slightest sense of modesty. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so it’s protected from development; there’s nary even a bridge in sight.

Viking sister ships meet up in Melk, Austria.Pictured: Viking sister ships meet up in Melk, Austria.

Daytime was splendid, but, we say, there’s something downright mystical about sitting up on that top deck at night as the vessel makes its way through the twists and turns of the banks of the river. On our August cruise it was downright sultry; the air was thick as velvet, all the more enjoyed with great friends—a notable couple from Edinburgh we’d met on board who shared a bottle of their favorite Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc with us.

Note: In Budapest, Viking makes an overnight stop. Be sure to go to that top deck to see the city’s grand buildings and bridges lit up in all their grandeur; it’s the very same backdrop you’ve seen in Viking’s memorable TV ads.

Dining: Breakfast is a standout on Viking, with buffet stations offering fresh fruits, bakery goods of all sorts, hot and cold cereals, yogurts, cheeses, eggs, and breakfast meats and lox. There’s also an omelette station and waiter service providing menu entrée items.

Lunch is served buffet style with fresh salad offerings and usually a hot dish, such as pasta. Attentive waiter service is on hand to provide beer or wine or select items from a menu. A unique offering was the Austrian feast provided on the day we sailed from Melk to Vienna, including ever-flowing local beers, sausages of all sorts and pretzels, which we knew were local since we’d seen a bakery truck pull up to the ship that morning to make the delivery. 

Vineyards and Quaint towns fill the well-protected landscapes along the river.Pictured: Vineyards and Quaint towns fill the well-protected landscapes along the river.

For dinner, Viking offers cuisine that accompanied the destinations we were visiting, such as a “Hungarian Farmer Plate” as an appetizer one evening, which included salami, ham, bell peppers and Körözött, a spiced-cheese dip (think paprika) with chunks of bread. Another offering that night was roasted eggplant and garlic soup. Note: Each night bottles of wine, that also match the destination, are available for purchase. On this evening, options were Teleki Siklosi from Villány-siklós, Hungary, and a Stierblut Bikaver from Szekszard, Hungary.

Aside from other special menu items served nightly, Viking provides standbys for every dinner, such as chicken, salmon and Caesar salad.

Dining Between Meals: Stations outside the lounge house neat coffee machines that serve excellent cappuccino and latte. It’s convenient for an early morning wake-up to bring back to the room; fresh-baked Danish and doughnuts are served as well. Cookies are served in the afternoon.Treats themed around destinations were offered in the lounge on certain days; German Tea Time was scheduled for the day we headed from Nuremberg to Regensburg and a traditional Austrian Tea Time that included apple strudel was included when we sailed to Vienna.

Cocktails anyone? Viking provides house wine and beer at no charge during lunch and dinner. Passengers can upgrade to a Silver Spirits Beverage Package which provides cocktails, specialty regional beers, espresso drinks at the bar, and bottled sparkling and still mineral water during lunch and dinner and any time during the bar’s opening hours. A bottle of local sparkling wine is also served in one’s stateroom. The ship’s lounge hosted an active social scene; it was busy throughout the day (we loved the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace where one could lounge yet still be close to the action). 

Freedom Square in Budapest is one of the city’s cultural draws.Pictured: Freedom Square in Budapest is one of the city’s cultural draws.

In the evening, the pre-dinner cocktail scene was quite active (bar snacks were provided) and after dinner, a resident musician played the piano. On our final evening, local performers staged a fun Hungarian folkloric show.

Nice Note: Viking encourages guests to bring local wines back to the ship and does not charge a corkage fee. We purchased a few bottles of Riesling in Melk, Austria, and in Budapest as well.

Unique Amenities: The chef’s herb garden on the top deck was a lovely surprise, complete with mint, basil and thyme. The top deck also has rows and rows of chaise lounges, all the better to watch the scenery drift by. There’s also a putting green and a walking track.

Technology: Wi-Fi access is included in the pricing and we had a strong signal throughout the cruise, except for the odd moment when the ship might be descending into a lock. Guest room TVs were 40-inch flat-panel Sonys for movies on-demand and cable news. 

Accommodations: Our Category A cabin, 205 square feet in size, was cleverly designed so all of our clothes and accessories fit in closets, drawers and shelves. The full-size verandah provided a good retreat that we considered a must for watching the river in private. Other amenities were a refrigerator, a safe, hair dryer, plus bottled water replenished daily. Note: Robes and slippers are available upon request, just ask. Bathrooms are intimate in size, but showers are large enough to move around in comfortably. Fresh fruits were delivered daily.

Fellow Cruisers: On our August cruise there was a mix of American and UK travelers, skewing from age 40 or so and up. Many were retired professionals who are now active travelers, always making the dinner conversation exciting. It felt like we made friends for life with some and missed them when we were home, which is always a good sign.

Crew: Thomas Koessler, the ship’s hotel manager, made guests feel extremely welcome at every opportunity. Alex Kugler, the program director who was the go-to person for all things Viking, ensured shore excursions went well, provided lectures and updates on ports and even played the piano one afternoon in the lounge to introduce (or reintroduce) guests to the music of Mozart. Kugler can also tell you where to get the best beer and sausages in any port on the itinerary.

Repeat Cruisers: Why do clients come back? A couple we spoke with volunteered immediately that they were on this cruise because they “like the way Viking does business.” On a past trip (a China river cruise), they experienced flight delays that could have prevented them meeting the ship before it sailed. When they finally landed and transferred to their hotel, a Viking representative appeared at their door at midnight to accompany them to their river cruise vessel so they could sail at embarkation. Similarly, another couple faced air delays getting to our cruise, but seemed quite calm about the experience, saying, “Viking made sure we were okay and got us onboard. They took responsibility to get us to the cruise.”

Sailing: Most shore excursions with good local guides are included in the pricing; some with a more intense experience are provided at a nominal fee. On the Romantic Danube itinerary, these included a Mozart & Strauss concert on the evening we sailed into Vienna, which we felt was an ideal way to be introduced to this cultural city and well worth the money. 

Well-Preserved Historic Enclaves dot the banks of the Danube.Pictured: Well-Preserved Historic Enclaves dot the banks of the Danube.

In Budapest, we drove as a group to Domonyvolgy in Hungary’s horse country, which gave us the chance to meet locals and see the beautiful landscape outside of the city. Transportation in each port was always available on clean, very modern motorcoaches provided by Viking. Bottled water was always offered as we disembarked for each excursion and was readily available in the lobby for those who ventured off on their own.

Top Tips While in Town

The cruise line includes a book highlighting each port along the Danube and city tours deliver a comprehensive overview for each as well. We recommend scouting out these finds during your free time.

Nuremberg: Ninety percent of this storied city was destroyed in WWII; it’s been rebuilt and now thrives. We had plenty of time to explore the Main Market Square, where the famous Christmas Market is held. There’s plenty to do in summer as well, with shops and cafés readily accessible. Keep the kids at home in mind, Nuremberg has always been known for its toy factories. Today you can buy metal toy vehicles and miniature railways in the gift shops. There’s also a Toy Museum. Try to make time to visit Albrecht Dürer’s House.

Regensburg is the oldest city on the river, having been created as a Roman fortress in 179 A.D. In fact, when we were there excavations were in pursuit at the harbor to uncover the remains of a Roman port. The scenic city, home to the impressive medieval Stone Bridge, endured relatively little bombing during WWII save for the railway station and the German Messerschmitt aircraft factory. 

Tip: Down by the river, near the Stone Bridge, a must visit is the Historic Sausage Kitchen of Regensburg. Be sure to save time for a plate of sausages with sauerkraut (we found a plate of eight sausages was ideal for two) and some draft beers, no matter how early it is. This could be one of the top meals of the trip. Good Sign: The locals eat here, too. Service is friendly and accommodating. 

More on Dining: Regensburg actually has many Italian restaurants and gelato is sold all over the city in the summer.

Shopping: This is a good place to purchase traditional Bavarian outfits. Locals still wear them on occasion. We suggest Moser Trachten GMbh at Donaustaufer Straße 172b.

Passau: This German medieval destination is known as the City of Three Rivers, where the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz rivers join. It’s also why the city experienced record flooding last June. When we visited in August, it was readily welcoming visitors with just some shops and restaurants right at the harbor still under repairs. 

The extremely grand St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home to the world’s largest cathedral organ, is a must-see here and is included on the city excursion. Neat Treat: At the end of our guided tour, we were all given tickets to an organ concert, the music of which resonated remarkably through the enormous cathedral. Don’t pass up this opportunity if it’s offered to you.

Note: Passau’s city center is immediately accessible from the ship. We visited its shops and cafés easily from the ship throughout the day, feeling quite like a couple of locals.

Melk: The included tour of this Austrian town visits the very notable Melk Abbey but we opted for a pleasant 20-minute walk from the ship that took us right into a village filled with charming hotels and cafés. A local festival included a farmer’s market and the chance to see locals enjoying a holiday of wine drinking and relaxing. It’s easy to purchase local wines and schnapps in Melk, where service is welcoming and friendly. That afternoon we sailed to Vienna through the Wachau Valley, one of the most scenic routes along the Danube. Be sure to watch every moment of it, this is not a time to catch up on a nap.

Vienna: Since we arrived in the evening and stayed overnight, we had a full day in Vienna before sailing to Budapest. The city tour will show off the exteriors of all the significant landmarks and ends at the very significant St. Stephen’s Cathedral. With a totally free afternoon, try out one of the city’s famous coffee houses, where it’s totally acceptable to buy one cup of coffee and sit for hours. We chanced upon the Sky Bar and Restaurant atop the famous Steffl department store (Kärntner Straße 19 1010; be sure to save time to shop), where we sat outside and enjoyed cappuccino and a very beautiful apple strudel with cream. The best part was the chance to sit with sophisticated locals enjoying conversation while staring out over St. Stephen’s and the city’s skyline. We hear there’s live music in the evenings and can’t wait to go back.

Another Vienna must is a visit to Hotel Sacher; you can nab a view of its historic and charming interiors if you go for a drink at its famous Blaue Bar. You can also enjoy having some sacher torte at Café Sacher Wien, which is where the chocolate dessert delicacy is said to have been invented.

Budapest: When the city tour wraps up in the old town castle district of Buda, you’ll find yourself outside of Matthias Church looking right at the Hilton Budapest Hotel in Castle District. This is an ideal place to refresh (think bathroom break), and the Icon Restaurant is a great place to enjoy views of Budapest’s famous Parliament Building and the Danube. On the way back to where the motorcoaches wait to return you to the ship there’s a casual beer garden that also serves up Hungarian dishes buffet style, there are also shelves and shelves of Hungarian wines to sample. Note that, in Budapest, museums are closed on Mondays and be sure to have small change on you if you need to use public restrooms. Back at the ship, you’ll find you’re docked within easy walking distance of the Four Seasons Budapest, where the lobby lounge connects to the hotel’s historic Páva Udvar (Peacock Passage), which sits under a grand glass cupola. Be sure to stop here on your free evening to enjoy some live piano music. Good to know: In Hungary, the euro is accepted but is not the local currency. If you pay in euros you’ll receive change in forints.

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