By Ron Stern | Global Gumshoe
Viking River Cruise’s “Romantic Danube” tour sails one way between Budapest, Hungary and Erlangen, Germany. Passengers decide if they want to sail east or west along the Danube, depending from which city they’d like to continue their tour of Europe or fly home.
This cruise is offered from March through the end of the year. Every port of call along the route hosts a variety of artistic and cultural events in each month, but visitors in December, like me, enjoy the opportunity to visit their Christmas markets.
Designed for comfort and smooth cruising on Europe’s many rivers, Viking’s fleet of elegant Viking Longships are, in essence, floating luxury hotels. The Atla, for example, has 95 exterior staterooms with comfortable beds, an en-suite bathroom with shower, and a 40-inch flat-panel Sony TV with an “info-tainment” system featuring on-demand movies, so guests can relax after a long day of touring.
The lounge is where travelers gather to watch the scenery go by, while enjoying a cocktail or pleasant conversation with their fellow passengers. Each evening, the ship’s program director provides a briefing here about the following day’s excursions.
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style in the dining room, or you can choose daily specials from the menu. Lighter fare is offered in the Acquavit Terrace, adjacent to the lounge.
Dinner is casual and passengers are free to sit at any table they like. The tables are adorned with glistening white linen and sparkling stemware. The Swiss-trained executive chefs prepare upscale meals that represent the region and are artfully plated and presented, and complemented with wine from the ship’s extensive collection.
After having perfected the river cruising experience, Viking seems to have great service down to a science — from the room stewards to the dining staff who all genuinely seem happy to be of service.
The Danube River runs through Budapest, dividing the two cities of Buda and Pest, which together make up the capital of Hungary. The Viking cruise ship, the Alta, is berthed near the famous Chain Bridge, constructed in 1849 and the first permanent structure to enable pedestrians and vehicles to cross the Danube from one city to the other. Like so many landmarks in Budapest, it was damaged during World War II and subsequently rebuilt.
After boarding the Alta, guests spend the night on the ship. The next day, you can take part in various optional guided excursions of the city.
One of the most famous landmarks here is located on the Buda side — Buda Castle. Situated on “Castle Hill,” tourists can explore its varied turrets, porticos and passageways, and particularly enjoy the scenery overlooking the Danube.
One of the most popular spots in the district is Fisherman’s Bastion. This ornate Gothic terrace with seven towers offers splendid views of the ships plying the Danube, as well as the city of Pest on the east bank of the river. In front of the bastion is the Matthias Church, more than 500 years old.
In the evening, the ship sets sail east along the Danube to Vienna, the capital of Austria. Vienna is known by many nicknames because of its tremendous history. It was home to many notable composers throughout the decades, in particular Mozart, and is known as the “City of Music” and the “City of Waltzes.”
Be sure to visit Vienna’s Old Town, where you’ll be able to stop in and feel the majesty of half a dozen ancient churches including Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This Gothic structure was consecrated in 1147 and has long been one of Vienna’s most well-known tourist destinations.
The large open plazas and streets surrounding the cathedral are filled with pedestrians and visitors exploring the retail shops, sidewalk cafes and historical buildings and statues. While you are there, be sure to stop in at Demel, a historic pastry shop (founded in 1888) for some hot chocolate and a piece of strudel or cream cake.
Schönbrunn Palace is a must see, in particular for those interested in women’s history. It was the residence of Maria Theresa — the only woman who reigned over Austria, Hungary and a host of other countries as the last ruler of the Habsburg monarchy.
If you’re taking this cruise during December, be sure to visit the expansive Christmas Market in Vienna, held at the Town Hall. Viennese and tourists alike throng through the red-roofed stalls, eating food while shopping for Christmas presents and decorations.
After journeying through the scenic Wachau Valley, the ship will dock at the city of Melk. Despite its relatively small size — only 5,000 inhabitants, it has many historical landmarks, including its Benedictine Abbey with a vast library of medieval manuscripts.
Guided tours of several wineries in the area are also offered.
After a night cruise from Austria into Bavaria, the ship will arrive at Passau, famous for St. Stephen’s Cathedral. St. Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian faith, and as such there are many churches in the Western world named in his honor.
Worshipers and visitors alike will be awed by the cathedral’s pipe organ, the largest in the world. It is not actually one single organ but rather several placed at strategic spots throughout the cathedral and controlled from a single console. Concerts are held at specific times on most days throughout the year.
Regensburg’s Old Town is one of the best preserved in all of Europe, with more than 1,000 medieval buildings still standing.
The Regensburg Cathedral, also called St. Peter’s Cathedral (in honor of Simon Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles), dominates the city and brings worshipers and tourists from all the world.
Guided excursions from the Atla include general city tours or ones focused on Jewish or WWII history. If you’re here in December, explore the quaint Christmas Market and sample one of their half-meter bratwursts with a glass of local beer.
Erlangen is the last stop on this romantic route but not the end of your visit to Germany. Tour buses will take you to the historic city of Nuremberg, a half-hour away. Well known for the events that took place here prior to World War II (the Nuremberg Race Laws) and afterwards (the Nuremberg Trials of war criminals), today this city of over 500,000 inhabitants is an important industrial center with a burgeoning economy.
In December, it is also home to one of Germany’s largest Christmas markets. Regardless of the season, here you can sample some traditional fare such as small-sized Nuremberg bratwursts in a crispy roll with mustard as well as pretzels, German mulled wine (Glüwein), and many other local specialties.
The route of emperors and kings
Up until the 20th century, sailing on the Danube was the easiest way to travel in Europe, especially for the members of the Habsburg monarchy who wished to visit their possessions.
Today, sailing aboard a Viking river cruise ship is the height of luxury, and their attentive crew works hard to make sure that every aspect of your time aboard is enjoyable. If you want to see Europe in a unique way, consider taking this “route of emperors and kings.”