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First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise

By Ted Scull.

Heading into my senior year in college, I had one empty slot to round out my final academic schedule. Sitting with a good friend one day, we both decided to study Russian, the language. We were bound for Europe in the months after graduation, and the professor, though known to be a tough taskmaster, also had a great reputation.

At the end of the first day of class when we had been introduced to the Russian alphabet and how the letters were pronounced, Dr. B. gave us our assignment. Be prepared for a quiz, and if you passed to his satisfaction, you could continue, otherwise you will have to find another course to complete your credits.

We attacked the task with relish and stayed up half the night testing each other, and the next day we returned to class and passed muster. A few fell by the wayside.

The language study included quite a lot of Russian history and politics, and I became so intrigued by the world’s other superpower, I decided to plan a trip there. After graduation from college, I had six weeks between a summer job and starting an academic year abroad in Paris. My friend Bob planned a motorcycle trip deep into Eastern Europe, and we would rendezvous in Paris in October.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR, named after a river in eastern Siberia.

Heading off to Europe

After graduation, I sailed over on the German liner Hanseatic and connected to the boat train for Paris where I stashed my belongings, those not needed for traveling east. At Gare de L’Est I boarded an overnight train for Prague, the start of a month and a half of travel. The next day, while I was beginning lunch in the restaurant car, we made a stop at Pilsen. Cartons of Pilsner beer came aboard, my favorite foreign beer at home.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Prague (Praha) Central Station. * Photo: Ted Scull

Arriving at Prague Central Station late in the day, I had failed to look up where my hotel was located. So, I showed the taxi driver the name, Esplanade, and we took a strange meandering route arriving at my destination about 15 minutes later. When I entered my hotel room, I looked out the window and what did I see – the railway station just two blocks away.

I stayed two full days, seeing the city on foot, and while a beautiful and intriguing place, it had nowhere near the bustle and excitement of Paris. The train to Vienna took just four hours and there I teamed up with another college friend and his new wife for a Danube River cruise all the way to the Black Sea and onward by overnight ship to Yalta.

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Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Vienna & Boarding the Riverboat

All travel from now was through Intourist, the Russian government travel agency. One either picked the tourist or first-class level and the hotel charge included three meals a day. It was only permitted to stay in cities on the Intourist list, and the major ones had a limit of five days. Yalta, an inexpensive resort town, permitted up to four weeks. For travel between most cities, you could choose to fly or take the train.

First Small-Sip Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR at a landing along the Danube, * Photo: Ted Scull

Two nights in Vienna revealed a stunning city of art, music and architecture, and its lively atmosphere would be hard to match in the Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Romanian and Bulgarian cities in route to the Black Sea.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Vienna where private palaces and grounds are opened to the public. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Soviet-owned riverboat Amur (named after a river is eastern Siberia) we boarded had been built on the Danube as one of a pair, qualifying as war reparations for the damage done to Russia in WWII. Its purpose was to bring foreign currency to an economically struggling Russia. The riverboat was white with a red stripe along the main deck and hammer and sickle on the funnel.

Passengers occupied three decks, one full deck of windowed outside twin-bedded cabins with private facilities, and a second higher deck with more cabins, an observation lounge, large windowed dining saloon, and a bar. A wraparound promenade allowed complete circumnavigations. Open space included a large portion of the top (navigating) deck and a small area at the bow one level below.

Danube River

The Danube River & the Black Sea.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Settling In

My first riverboat, fairly new and seemingly well-maintained, was a pleasant surprise, but then I had no idea really know what to expect. Upon casting off, we had some 60 passengers, about half capacity but then it was near the season’s end.

Dinner, however, got off to a shaky start. We were amongst the last to board, and there was no place for us to sit together at the long, shared table. As we knew no one and heard no English spoken among the others, we stood there looking helpless. Eventually one of the stewardesses came to our rescue, and I launched into my first attempt with Russian. She smiled patiently and moved around some chairs and set up a table for three off to one side. After that we would be assigned seats together at the main table. We did meet a few of the European passengers, but overall, not much English was spoken.

The food was decent and forgettable: soup, some sort of meat (occasionally fish), potatoes, and a vegetable for lunch and dinner. Breakfast offered a dollop of large lump red caviar, bread and a boiled egg. Drink choices were soda, beer and wine.

Our ports were Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Iron Gate (passage), Giurgiu, and Ismail.

The Iron Gate

The Iron Gate today has been tamed by a dam and locks.* Photo: Ted Scull

The real excitement began the next morning when we were underway. I had never sailed along a major river before, not even in a small boat, and this river was just amazing, taking us from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Black Sea, from democracies to Communist dictatorships. The era was the height of the so-called Cold War — for some, us against them, but it was more complicated than that. One could not simply say that Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania could be lumped together willy-nilly or that all four felt the same toward Moscow, capital of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Communist propaganda

Communist propaganda showing a heroic worker shoveling land mines marked US. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED: Mother Russia River Cruising.  by Ted Scull

Tricky Navigation

Back to the Danube. We were going with the flow and moving rather fast. From time to time we came up behind slower traffic such as powered barges and others that needed a tug to push or pull the load. They needed to be overtaken, and at the same time make sure there was enough room to pass, and taking into account the bends in the river, plus if anything was coming upstream.

First Small-Ship Cruise

A twin funnel sidewheel towboat down bound on the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Barges and tows moved very slowly, and for the most part we were faster, bigger and more maneuverable. Cargoes consisted of coal, iron ore, rock, gravel, petroleum products, lumber and grain.

Following a few meets and overtakings, I began to realize that people actually made their homes on the barges. Clothes lines had laundry drying, some carried bicycles, and others an open deck for relaxing, attractively surrounded by plants.

Our vessel had an illustrated booklet of national flags so we could understand where the traffic came from or was going to. The Rhine-Main Canal was not open yet so southern Germany was as far inland as one could go.

During the day we passed the upbound sistership Donau with an exchange of whistles. Curiously, there were no cheers or waves between the sisterships, just people lining the railings. And we never saw another riverboat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

AMUR’s sistership DONAU (Danube) heading upriver. * Photo: Ted Scull

Bratislava

Our first port was Bratislava, a major city in Czechoslovakia, and before that a longtime German city with the name Pressburg. The Ottoman Empire attacked many cities along the Danube using it as the conquering route inland, but Pressburg never fell.

Because we were the only native English-speaking passengers on the boat, we were pretty much on our own, so we made our own way from the landing to the attractive city center and main square, churches that dated to the 14th and 15th century. Making a loop, we passed through small squares and along narrow lanes that led to wide boulevards. A fortified citadel towered over the city, but then there was not the buzz there is today.

Budapest (Two Cities)

Budapest was altogether different. Originally two cities, Buda and Pest were separated by the Danube, with the former overlooking the more important side with an imposing gothic-style Parliament modeled after the British counterpart fronting on the river.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Gothic-style Parliament building, modeled after the Btitish Parliament fronting on the Danube at Budapest. * Photo: Ted Scull taken aboard riverboat AMUR

Impressed by this architecturally rich city, we set out from the Pest side where riverboats dock today. Once a wealthy city, Budapest built the first subway in Continental Europe, had the first public telephone system and first telephone exchange, and stimulated by an order from the Parliament builders, the first mass production of light bulbs.

We zigzagged amongst the monumental buildings, many in Art Nouveau style, crossing to Buda on one suspension bridge to then climb up to the medieval battlements to a viewpoint overlooking the Danube. Winding back down, we took in the famous Gellert Hotel and its spa to then to cross back over a handsome suspension bridge decorated with tongue-less lion statues. The architect was said to have committed suicide when he saw the empty mouths at the opening ceremony.

Belgrade

For the stop at Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital, Marshal Tito, the dictator, did his best to keep the Soviet Union at bay. We tied up in a small cove off the main channel and had a bit of a climb to reach the city center. The city has foundations of many previous incarnations.

Belgrade experienced 115 major battles, and since Roman rule, has been completely destroyed 44 times, had 40 different names and served as a capital of five different states. It was a bit much to even try to take but a superficial overview in the time allotted.

First Small-Ship Cruise

It’s a bit of a climb from the Danube to the center of Belgrade. * Photo: Ted Scull

Drama at the Iron Gate

Continuing on down the Danube, we next came to the Iron Gate, a dramatic series of gorges created by the Transylvanian Alps crossing the river. The Danube changes its character to a rapidly flowing torrent with waters roughed up by its narrowing and dropping fast enough to create dangerous rapids. Our pace quickened, and I could sense tension in my body. To the left we passed a pair of steam locomotives standing by to haul the upriver traffic. Now, for safety reasons, that traffic had stopped to permit the downriver traffic to pass.

Today, the rapids have now been tamed by dams and locks providing safe navigation and hydroelectricity. The passage is scenic and safer but no longer genuinely dramatic.

Welcome to Romania (Not)

Cruising overnight, the Amur eased up to a landing marked Giurgiu, a river port with road access to Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Across the river was the port of Ruse in Bulgaria. Our crew had the lines ready to hand over to the Romanian receivers but they just stood there looking at us. With our boat now alongside the floating landing stage, the captain ordered the crew to jump ashore and tie up the boat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Landing station at Giurgiu, Romania before troops arrived to prevent going ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

The men hesitated, and then without any warning, a contingent of Romanian soldiers marched around both sides of the terminal and stood at attention. A Romanian officer yelled something across to our captain, now standing outside the pilothouse, first in Romanian (a Romance and not a Slavic language). There was silence, and the Romanian officer gave an order, and his troops lowered their weapons then took several thumping steps forward.

That was it, we were not welcome. Our captain rang the telegraph, and we moved off the landing and made a wide arc to dock at Ruse, across the river in Bulgaria.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ruse, Bulgaria’s most prominent government, a billboard to post portraits of heroic leaders. The red letters are a salute to the 9th of September. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not Wanted

The Romanian demonstration provided an official snub against Russia, something that increasingly became a pattern prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later. As the Bulgarian stop was scheduled for the upriver transit, nothing was planned, so we simply spent a few hours ashore wandering through a sleepy, medium-size Bulgarian river city.

With a full moon rising above the river, we proceeded in the growing darkness, and during the night, the Danube would turn north and then east through Romanian territory. In the morning we eased over to a landing at Ismail, a Romanian port about 50 miles in from the Black Sea.

RELATED:  Cruising the Danube River on the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan.

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube River with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Changing from a Boat to a Ship (Small)

The Amur pulled up astern of the small Soviet passenger vessel Kolchida. Those who were leaving here, including our trio, disembarked and walked forward a few hundred feet to the Black Sea ship and boarded for our one-night voyage.

We sailed about an hour later through the marshy, flat Danube Delta. There were lots of birds about and still enough evening light when the ship sailed out into the Black Sea for the overnight sail to Yalta.

The Kolchida on the Danube

The Kolchida.* Photo: Ted Scull

Chess, and the Winner Is …

Some Russians my age approached me asking, in Russian, if I played chess, and when I indicated yes, they set up a table at the stern. About a dozen others, college students returning home, surrounded the two players. Everything happened so fast, with my Russian opponent moving his pieces very quickly. I did not play that way. I concentrated as hard as I could and tried not to take too long, and after about 20 minutes, I had him in checkmate. I was not sure how it all happened. Did he let me win? Anyway, I was rewarded with a beer with the ship now rolling to the Black Sea swells.

Dinner was just passable as I assume all the ingredients had come from Russia, while the riverboat took on stores in Vienna its turnaround port. It would be an introduction to the Russian menus that would little from day to day and eventually became a non-topic. You just ate what was put in front of you. Then I took to my bunk, and in the morning, when I awoke, we were approaching a steep coastal landscape with Yalta sprawled at its base.

Yalta and Beyond

My friends stayed several days, and I remained in a seafront hotel for two weeks, as it was cheap and I could practice my Russian on anyone who would talk to me. My tourist level included a guide and car every five days, so I managed to see the site of the Yalta Conference and the Valley of Balaclava, the location for the charge of the Light Brigade, a battle between the British and Russians.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted atop a large hill overlooking Yalta and the Black Sea. * Photo: Tony Milbank

Leaving Yalta, I then another five weeks, traveling independently by train, and in between, a 21-day tour starting out in Moscow and then to Stalingrad (now Volgograd), followed by a two-day paddle steamer voyage to Rostov, Sochi, Kiev, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

First Small-Ship Cruise

Soviet sidewheel riverboat at a landing on the Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Again, on my own, by train to Riga, Latvia’s capital, Moscow, Warsaw and Paris where, in the latter, I resided for eight months. But that story is for another day.

RELATED:  Danube River Cruise with Aboard the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan. 

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Looking Back

My basic Russian came in handy when traveling on trains, trams, buses, seeking directions, ordering meals and having a minimal chat. Visiting the Soviet Union was time well spent, if not unsettling at times.

During the group tour, one member, a young English fellow who spoke fluent Russian, vanished about 10 days into the itinerary, and there was no explanation forthcoming from our guide.

Ted in Red Square

The author in Red Square, Moscow.

On the riverboat between Stalingrad and Rostov, some of us apparently fraternized a bit too much with the Russian passengers. We were relegated to one lounge and sat at separate tables at one end of the dining saloon.

When in Moscow, I meet some students in Red Square, and they invited me to their homes. Later, when I returned to the city by train, I was discreetly handed a message as I walked along the platform warning me that my friends would be arrested if I met up with them again.

Ted in Paris

The author on the Pont Alexandre III, Paris, named after a Russian czar,

Soon after settling in Paris, my friend from college, who shared the Russian language class, came to visit for several days. We exchanged stories and there were plenty. He then sold his motorcycle and headed home. We still connect all these years later.

My six weeks in the Soviet Union and eight months in Paris were life changing. I had grown up quite a bit by the time I stepped onto the pier in New York.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise Was Just the Beginning …

Beginning with the Danube just after graduating from college, I became smitten by rivers and river cruising. When I had the time and money, I began to collect them with subsequent travels: Rhine, Rhone, Moselle, Elbe, Soane, Volga, Don, Nile, Yangtze, Mekong, Amazon, and closer to home, St. Lawrence, Ohio, Mississippi, Columbia, Snake and less than an hour’s walk, the Hudson.

Every one is different and has stories galore to tell, and I find them all intriguing in their unique ways.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Pandaw’s colonial design fits well into the Mekong River setting. * Photo: Ted Scull

The growth of river cruising has been a phenomenon, adding a fabulous new way to see our world, and so much of it developed along rivers. They provided routes of discovery, development, conquest, retreat and travel before decent roads and steam railways.

Leisure cruising started first on the Nile in the late 19th century on a river that was the most important geographical factor in the development of early civilization.

Nile River cruise vessel

SS SUDAN recalls the early style of Nile River cruise vessels. 

Modern river cruising has developed so fast, especially in Europe, and the resulting competition has driven innovation and cruise ship-style luxuries. Travelers can still choose between the plain and fancy.

I happen to prefer the riverboats that don’t try to be the be all and end all of the latest luxury cruise package. I like to concentrate on the river, its scenic delights and commerce and to go ashore in ports to see what this river is responsible for.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Today’s much larger riverboats, seen here on Russia’s Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

My favorite riverboats have been the 1926-built Delta Queen, built for transportation, then a long life of cruising with a genuine link to the past, the outstanding replica stern-wheeler, American Queen, and Pandaw ‘s fleet of small-size boats with their fetching colonial atmosphere.

I would also be more than happy to sail again in the likes of the Amur, the riverboat that began my story. It gave me the initial entry into a new means of travel and the results are evident. I don’t know what happened to her, but her sister Donau has continued on for decades, most recently housing cyclists who sleep on board and cycle from a different port during the day.

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The wide AmaMagna

Danube River Cruise on the New AmaMagna.

By Gene Sloan.

Like other passengers who have traveled before on European river ships, I am stunned when I first walk onto AmaMagna.

The lobby of the new AmaWaterways vessel on the Danube seems to go on forever, and it’s not the only space that is improbably large.

The wide and spacious AmaMagna lobby area

The AmaMagna lobby is BIG! * Photo: Gene Sloan

As a steward leads me and my wife, Nicole, up the main stairway toward our room, we encounter a cabin hallway so ridiculously wide that it almost seems like a deliberate poke at the competition: Look at what we can do.

The hallway is just the appetizer. When the steward swings open the door to our room, the true magnitude of AmaMagna’s differences with other river ships becomes evident. At 355 square feet, the cabin is as spacious and inviting as any you’ll see at a fine hotel on land. It boasts a sumptuous queen-size bed, large seating area, oodles of storage space and a full step-out balcony.

Spacious Ama Magna balcony cabin

An Outside Balcony cabin, the most common category of cabin on the vessel. * Photo: Gene Sloan

This is not a one-off suite, mind you. I am staying in an Outside Balcony, the most common category of cabin on the vessel. More than half of AmaMagna’s 96 cabins are as big or bigger.

At 72 feet, AmaMagna is nearly twice as wide as most other European river vessels.

AmaMagna is wider than other river boats

The massiveness of AmaMagna’s extra width becomes evident when it docks stern-to-stern with a “normal” size AmaWaterways ship, the one-year-old AmaLea, in Passau, Germany. AmaMagna is roughly 34 feet wider. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Its size allows for far bigger cabins than is typical on European river ships, far more dining venues (there are four in all), more lounge areas, a larger gym and spa zone, an enormous sun deck, and such unusual-for-a-river-ship amenities as a cinema that doubles as a gaming room.

In short, AmaMagna is all about abundance, including — and this is key — an abundance of total space per person. While it is far bigger than most river ships in Europe, AmaMagna doesn’t sail with all that many more people.

Aimed at an upscale crowd, it’s designed to carry just 196 passengers at the most. That’s just six more than Viking Cruises puts on river vessels half its size.

The result: A space-to-passenger ratio so high that AmaMagna is now an instant outlier among the river ships of Europe.

As far as European river cruising goes, it is, indeed, a quirky vessel.

Boutique on board AmaMagna Danube River Cruise

The AmaMagna’s spacious boutique sells Bavarian-style Dirndl dresses for those who like a classic look! * Photo: Gene Sloan

Aiming at the Small-Ship Ocean Cruiser 

With its bigger cabins and multiple eateries and lounges, AmaMagna feels more like one of the small, upscale ocean ships operated by the likes of Windstar Cruises or Ponant than a traditional river ship, and that’s by design. AmaWaterways co-founder Rudi Schreiner is hoping to lure more small-ship ocean cruisers to river cruising with the vessel.

In doing so, he is making a bold bet. There’s a reason few river lines have deployed a ship this wide and spacious in Europe (only Crystal Cruises has operated a similarly sized vessel in recent years, but it will be leaving the line’s fleet later this year).

AmaMagna is so thick at its middle that it can’t fit through many of the locks on Europe’s main waterways, some of which measure just 12 meters wide — about 39.4 feet.

The wide AmaMagna

The 72-foot wide AmaMagna. * Photo: Gene Sloan

That means its range of travel is greatly limited.

AmaMagna essentially is forever trapped on the Danube below Vilshofen, Germany. Because of its size, it never will be able to transit the Main-Danube Canal to the Main, Rhine and Moselle rivers as many smaller river ships do. Extended voyages that take in parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland and the north of Germany are beyond its capabilities.

On the flipside, it is now the undisputed new Queen of the Danube. Under development for nearly a decade, it offers an elegance and spaciousness that is unique on the rivers of Europe.

A Boutique Hotel-Like Feel  

Walking into my room (cabin 313), I am struck by its enormous depth. Just inside the doorway, there is a front hall-like entryway that connects to two separate bathrooms: One with a large, walk-in shower and double sinks; the other with a toilet. It’s the sort of space-gobbling indulgence you generally only see at a boutique hotel on land.

Ama Magna's large cabin bathroom

The very spacious bathroom with double sinks and a large shower. * Photo: Gene Sloan

From the entry and bathroom area, you walk through closable doors into the heart of the room, which alone would be bigger than many river-ship cabins. The room is filled with high-tech (and presumably expensive) touches, some more useful than others. I love the USB ports next to the bed and the large, flat-screen television that offers free on-demand movies.

But the iPad on the desk that is configured to serve as a remote control for the room’s lights and air conditioning system seems a little superfluous. I’m also a little puzzled by the super-low bed-side tables (Nicole literally fell out of bed one night reaching for her iPhone on one of them).

The Main Lounge with its centrally located bar and plush seating serves as a central meeting point for daily briefings, a nightly “Sip & Sail” happy hour where cocktails and other drinks are available at no extra charge, and evening entertainment from an on-board piano player. But there also are two smaller lounge rooms just a few steps away, with the ship’s cinema in between them.

The Ama Magna's Main Lounge & Bar

The comfy Main Lounge with its centrally located bar. * Photo: Gene Sloan

At the back of the vessel, a “Zen Wellness Studio” includes a relaxing, glass-walled lounge with a bar where you’ll find a fruit-spiked “detox water of the day” as well as fresh juices. Its primary function is as a waiting area for the two massage rooms, located just behind a partition.

The Zen Wellness Studio is also home to the fitness room, which has two running machines, two sit-down bikes, a rowing machine, free weights and — just outside on the balcony — four spinning machines. This is quite a respectable spread for a river ship in Europe, where fitness rooms often are afterthoughts (the biggest river cruise operator, Viking, doesn’t even have fitness rooms on its ships).

The Ama Magna gym faces the Danube River

The impressive gym. * Photo: Gene Sloan

No Shortage of Eateries

Just below the Main Lounge, the 140-seat Main Restaurant is the primary venue for meals. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style with additional a la carte items available from servers (made-to-order breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, poached eggs and waffles; lunch brings burgers and specialty pizza).

The Main Restaurant aboard AmaMagna

The 140-seat Main Restaurant aboard AmaMagna. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Dinner in the Main Restaurant is a sit-down affair with changing four-course menus. Diners have a choice of three entrees each night, mostly Continental dishes such as pan-fried Atlantic sea bream with a prawn caviar sauce, baby spinach and quinoa; or slow-roasted beef “Rossini” with duck pate, truffle jus, glazed vegetables and pumpkin mash.

Pan-fried Atlantic sea bream on the Ana Magna

The pan-fried Atlantic sea bream with a prawn caviar sauce, baby spinach and quinoa. * Photo: Gene Sloan

One deck down from the Main Restaurant is The Chef’s Table, an intimate, 36 seater open for dinner only that offers an elegant, seven-course tasting menu that chefs partially prepare in front of patrons. With unchanging dishes, it’s meant to be done once per cruise.

The Chef’s Table restaurant on AmaMagna

Lovely presentation in the The Chef’s Table. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The Chef’s Table aboard the AmaMagna

The Chef’s Table. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The Chef’s Table sits side-by-side with Jimmy’s Wine Bar & Restaurant, a 60-seat, dinner-only eatery that serves the same dishes as the Main Restaurant each night but in a casual, family-style format. It features large, communal tables where each course is delivered on large platters for everyone to share.

Rounding out the options is Al Fresco, a casual venue at the front of the vessel that offers some of the best views on board. With just two dozen seats at six tables, it offers an extended light breakfast each day for early and late risers, a light lunch service, afternoon tapas, and a reservation-only dinner with a six-course tasting menu.

Ice cream on Ama Magna deck

An ice cream social on AmaMagna’s Sundeck is among the deck-top activities during an afternoon on the river. * Photo: Gene Sloan

In general, the food on AmaMagna is at its best when it ties to the Bavarian and Austrian regions where the ship is based. Our favorite meal during a week on board was one of the simplest: A feast-like “Bavarian Lunch” in the Main Restaurant on the day we crossed into Germany that offered up all the classics of the region including Bavarian bratwurst, sausage, spaetzle and sauerkraut.

A Classic Itinerary  

While it’s capable of sailing all the way down river to Romania, AmaMagna this year is sticking to the most popular stretch of the Danube between Vilshofen and Budapest, Hungary. As is typical for river ships in this segment of the waterway, it’s offering one-way, seven-night sailings between the two destinations that include stops in Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

Budapest sights on a Danube River Cruise

A visit to Budapest’s iconic Matthias Church, which dates to the 13th century, is among the highlights of an AmaMagna cruise on the Danube. All of the vessel’s voyages either begin or end in the historic city. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Come next year, AmaMagna also will operate occasional seven-night trips on the lower part of the Danube between Budapest and Giurgiu, Romania — a segment of the river that sees far fewer vessels. The trips will include stops in Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria.

In broad strokes, the itineraries are like those offered by other lines on the Danube. But every line does the river a little differently.

Here, a day-by-day look at what we experienced on our AmaMagna sailing, a westbound “Melodies of the Danube” voyage starting in Budapest:

DAYS 1 & 2: BUDAPEST, HUNGARY 

With its double-wide size, AmaMagna is easy to spot among the rows of river ships docked along the waterfront of Budapest. “Just look for the big one,” I tell the driver of the taxi taking us to the vessel from the city’s bus station, and he finds it straightaway. Since we already have been in Europe for several days, we are arriving on our own. But for the many passengers landing in Budapest on flights booked through AmaWaterways, a transfer from the airport is included in the package, making things easy.

As is typical for the many Danube cruises departing out of Budapest, check-in for the vessel is at 3:00pm. But AmaMagna staff graciously welcome early arrivals like us on board for coffee, tea or even a light lunch in the ship’s forward-facing Al Fresco eatery while we wait for our rooms to be ready. They also happily pull out some of the ship’s dozens of bikes for a group of particularly adventurous early arrivers who want to get their touring started with a cycle into town.

Fleet of bikes aboard the Ama Magna

There are a LOT of bikes aboard the AmaMagna. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Often called one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with a riverfront lined with grand palaces, churches and other historic structures, Budapest is one of the highlights of any Danube cruise, and vessels such as AmaMagna usually spend at least a full night and a day in the city, with a significant amount of included-in-the-fare touring on the agenda.

Our sightseeing begins even before the initial welcome dinner with a nearly hour-long cruise through the heart of the former co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly everyone on board flocks to AmaMagna’s open-air Sundeck to take in such magnificent sites as the 117-year-old Hungarian Parliament Building — a 691-room, neo-Gothic confection that dominates the waterfront of the city — and the massive Baroque palace of the Hungarian kings known as Buda Castle. All the while, the vessel’s enthusiastic cruise manager, Maddy Caldaruse, offers commentary.

Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building

All eyes are on the Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The touring continues the next morning with guided outings. As is typical for AmaWaterways sailings, passengers have several choices for exploring, including a standard half-day city tour by bus that includes a brief stroll on foot and an all-on-foot “hike” through the city that hits many of its main site.

Statue in Budapest on a Danube River Cruise

Gene & Nicole meet an “old” friend along the way! * Photo: Gene Sloan

Eager for a bit of exercise, we choose the latter and are not disappointed, although we find its description as a hike a bit of a stretch. Call it a long walk — one that, no doubt, would be strenuous for some travelers. Our pedometers tally a bit over four miles in total as we wander around the Parliament area of Budapest (where AmaMagna is docked) before crossing the city’s iconic Chain Bridge over the Danube to Buda Castle, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion.

Budapest's Chain Bridge on a Danube River cruise

In case you were tempted … there’s no climbing on Budapest’s Chain Bridge. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Reaching the latter sites requires an uphill climb of more than 500 feet, but it’s well worth it for the views. High-atop-a-hill Buda Castle is the definitive place to snap the perfect Budapest selfie with the winding Danube, Chain Bridge and Parliament in the background.

Buda Castle Budapest on a Danube River Cruise

Getting to the Buda Castle requires an uphill climb of more than 500 feet, and the views are well worth it. * Photo: Gene Sloan.

By the time we are back on board, we are exhausted. But in a scene that will repeat itself many times over the coming days, we soon are up in the Main Lounge enjoying the included “Sip & Sail” pre-dinner cocktails, making and mingling with new friends in advance of a multi-course dinner.

DAY 3: BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA

Reading through the schedule for this day, we had grand plans to wake early for a bit of top-side exercise. AmaWaterways has developed an extensive wellness program over the past two years, and the wellness host on AmaMagna, the ever-energetic Tiago, is offering two morning spinning classes, a Pilates class and an introduction to yoga — all before 8:00am.

Alas, our healthful ambitions are no match for the luscious comfort of our AmaMagna cabin bed, and we end up rising just minutes before we pull into Bratislava around breakfast time.

That said, we are sure to be ready in time for the morning tours of the small Slovakian capital, which lies along a pastoral stretch of the Danube just a few miles from the Austrian border. Sandwiched between the two most iconic destinations on the river (Budapest and Vienna), lesser-known Bratislava is a little gem of a town with a medieval and Gothic center that is not to be missed.

If it’s your first time in Bratislava, you’ll want to sign up for the walking tour that AmaWaterways (and every other river line that visits here) offers through the city’s pedestrian-only core.

Bratislava street art

Be careful! * Photo: Gene Sloan

In just an hour or two, you’ll ramble past all the main attractions including St. Martin’s Cathedral (where the kings of Hungary were crowned for centuries), onion-dome-topped Michael’s Gate and the Old Town Hall.

Bratislava's cute old town.

Bratislava’s medieval and Gothic center is super charming. * Photo: Gene Sloan

For a bit more adventure, AmaWaterways also offers a hike up to Bratislava Castle, which towers above the city on a riverfront hill. But since we have explored the town center and the castle quite a bit on past trips, we sign up for the third of three touring options: A three-hour “Taste of Slovakia” walking tour.

Billed as a chance to experience Bratislava’s growing craft beer scene, this latter outing is, alas, a bit of a disappointment. In just the last few years, Bratislava has emerged as a significant destination for craft beer fans with more than a dozen start-up breweries and brewpubs, and numerous craft beer-serving bars. But we get little of this history during what essentially is a standard walking tour with just a rushed few minutes of tasting at a single brewpub thrown in at the end.

If you’re serious about your craft beer tasting, I’d say skip the guided tour and just go off on your own. Within a few streets of the main square, you’ll find plenty of craft beer-selling outlets, including my favorite Bratislava brewpub — Bratislava Mestiansky Pivovar. It’s a good place to try some traditional Slovakian bar snacks, too, including bryndza (a type of sheep’s cheese).

READ Gene’s “Exploring Bratislava’s Booming Brewpub Scene” article about the 3 days he spent there before the cruise soaking up the suds!

Bratislava beer put on a Danube River Cruise

Bratislava is a great city for beer lovers. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Bratislava also is a great place to take out one of the bikes that AmaMagna carries on its top deck. You’ll find a biking trail lining the Danube that’s perfect for a scenic ride. If you’re super ambitious, you might even attempt the 7.5-mile ride to Devin Castle, a substantial ruin that commands a high cliff overlooking the point where the Morava river spills into the Danube.

Just be sure to be back at AmaMagna in time for sailaway to Vienna (usually around noon). AmaMagna sails early from Bratislava so it can reach the grand Austrian capital during dinnertime. This allows for an after-dinner outing into the city, which is exactly what we do with some friends on board. We order up an Uber on a whim to take us to a nearby bar (yes, you’ll find Uber in Vienna and Bratislava, too — but not in Budapest).

DAY 4: VIENNA, AUSTRIA

After our late-night foray into one of Vienna’s drinking districts, we decide to sleep in today, skipping the morning tours of the city the line has scheduled. For those who do go, there are two options, both lasting about three hours: A traditional bus tour (with some walking) to such iconic sites as St. Stephen’s Cathedral and The Hofburg, and a more active biking tour through the city center.

We’re not the only ones playing hooky from the morning tours. Like many other lines operating on the Danube, AmaWaterways includes daily guided tours of the places its ships visit in its fares. But passengers are under no obligation to stick with the group. On any given day, you’re free to stay on board (where you’ll sometimes find additional activities) or go off on your own.

We skip the morning touring in part because we have signed up for a big afternoon outing: An optional, guided trip to Schönbrunn Palace, the spectacular summer residence of the Habsburg Monarchy that is just outside Vienna’s city center. At 56 euro, this is one of just two extra-charge tours on this cruise (the other an evening Mozart and Strauss concert). In our opinion, it’s well worth the extra cost.

Schönbrunn Palace, on a Danube River Cruise

Schönbrunn Palace, the spectacular summer residence of the Habsburg Monarchy. * Photo: Gene Sloan

With 1,441 rooms, Schönbrunn Palace is a stunning testament to the one-time wealth and power of the Habsburgs, who once ruled large chunks of Europe including Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania and the Austrian Netherlands. We marvel at its opulent, gold leaf-covered Great Gallery — a masterpiece of European Rococo décor — and its soaring, painting-lined Hall of Ceremonies. Smaller spaces such as the blue-and-white Porcelain Room and rosewood-covered Millions Room are equally jaw-dropping (you’ll have to trust us, as photos within the palace’s interior are forbidden).

The formal gardens surrounding Schönbrunn Palace are just as over-the-top. We skip an optional visit with our guide to the palace’s carriage museum to wander alone through the maze-like grounds, discovering hidden fountains, statue-lined corridors and even a pigeon-filled aviary. Strolling down the broad avenue of its perfectly symmetrical, flower-filled Great Parterre, we imagine ourselves courtiers to that legendary Habsburg queen, Maria Theresa, accompanying her on a long walk to the colonnaded Gloriette that serves as a focal point. On a sunny summer day, it is a dreamy experience.

cone of gelato

Nicole caps a walk through Schönbrunn Palace’s glorious gardens with a cool gelato. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Back on board just in time for dinner, I sneak away to the Sundeck for a moment to watch as AmaMagna departs Vienna for Pochlarn, Austria, in the picturesque Wachau Valley. Arriving up top, I find that all the Sundeck’s taller structures including a bike-storage pavilion, dividers around the pool and lounge-area shades have been folded down for what turns out to be a very tight squeeze under several of Vienna’s bridges.

This sort of top-deck disassembly for bridges is a common site on European river ships, but it never ceases to amaze me. I am allowed to stay up top only after promising to remain safely seated while we quietly glide under the bridges with just feet to spare.

DAY 5: WACHAU VALLEY, AUSTRIA

I have been on quite a few Danube cruises over the years, and I always look forward to the day the ship reaches the Wachau Valley. Located about 50 miles west of Vienna, it’s a postcard-perfect, UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated region filled with vineyard-covered hills, apricot orchards, storybook villages, castles and monasteries.

If you’re like me, the problem you’ll have on this day is choosing which one of the included tours to do. AmaWaterways offers four options and, having tried all of them in some form over the years on various Danube trips, I can say there isn’t a bad one in the bunch.

If this is your first time to the area, you’ll probably want to sign on for the visit to Melk Abbey — a magnificent, hill-top Baroque structure that is the crown jewel of the Wachau area. You won’t be alone, as about two-thirds of AmaMagna passengers choose this tour.

For the adventurous, AmaWaterways also offers a 15-mile biking trip through the valley along a path that winds along the Danube and through adjacent towns and vineyards. If you’re going to bike at all on your Danube cruise, this is the place to do it. The scenery is spectacular, and the riding easy. I’ve biked this stretch twice before and loved it both times.

If, like Nicole, you’ve had enough of Baroque architecture by this point in your trip, and you’re not a biking fan, you can chose one of the two more-low-key tours that AmaWaterways offers to the delightful little town of Durnstein.

Durnstein on a Danube River cruise.

The delightful little town of Durnstein. * Photo: Gene Sloan

One takes you on a hike up to its fortress-like castle; the other on a walking tour of the town and a wine tasting. Along with just nine other passengers, we chose the latter and have a blast trying out three local wines in the private tasting room of small local vintner Leopold Böhmer (whose grandson, also named Leopold Böhmer, led our tasting).

vineyards of Durnstein on a Danube River Cruise

Checking out the local vines. * Photo: Gene Sloan

During a few minutes of free time in Durnstein, we also stop in the bakery next door to the tasting room for pastries made with fresh-picked apricots (a local specialty).

Fresh pastries in Durnstein.

Fresh pastries in Durnstein. * Photo: Gene Sloan.

Returning to the ship just before lunch, we get a treat of another sort: The chance to watch AmaMagna make a daylight passage through one of the 12 giant locks that it must navigate during this trip. Pretty much everyone on board heads to the Sundeck to watch the vessel’s captain and his assistants ever-so-carefully maneuver the extra-wide vessel into the narrow chamber. It barely fits.

lock on the Danube River

One of the 12 locks the AmaMagna passed through. * Photo: Gene Sloan

DAY 6: LINZ, AUSTRIA

Today is the day that our river cruise turns into a bus tour.

The main reason that river ships stop in Linz, which isn’t particularly charming, is that it’s near Salzburg, Austria — a bucket-list destination for many visitors to this region. Alas, “near” is a relative term. AmaWaterways offers two tours from the ship to Salzburg on this day, one slightly shorter than the other, that each involve four or more hours of busing. There’s also a third tour from Linz to the Austrian Lake District near Salzburg that involves more than five hours of sitting on a bus.

Wary of so much time in a bus, Nicole and I opt for a fourth option that only involves three hours on the road: A trip to Cesky Krumlov in the nearby Czech Republic. We’re quickly thrilled with our choice.

Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic on a Danube River Cruise

Charming Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. * Photo: Gene Sloan

With commentary from a wonderful Austrian guide who recounts the “Iron Curtain” days when it was difficult to travel the winding, mountainous route to the town, the 85-minute time in transit passes quickly. We particularly enjoy the views of the still-relatively-undeveloped, forested borderland between the two countries.

The town itself is a charmer. Led by our guide, we amble through its medieval, cobblestone-lined core, which is nearly encircled by the bubbling waters of the Moldau River, on the way to its towering castle complex.

The Moldau River in the Czech Republic

The bubbling waters of the Moldau River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The visit also includes a stop to see Maria Theresa, the bear that lives in the dry moat protecting the castle. It’s a tradition that dates to the 1500s.

Afterwards, Nicole and I head off on our own in search of a trdelink, the warm and sugary pastry often filled with chocolate (yum!) that is a local specialty. We’re also on the lookout for a local Czech beer. Finding one, we get it to go and sit by the banks of the Moldau across from the castle, toasting a day that has turned into one of the best of the entire cruise.

Beers by the Moldau River

Toasting a great day by the banks of the Moldau River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

DAY 7: PASSAU, GERMANY

It’s pouring rain as the final day of the trip begins, which is a problem. We have signed up for a 14-mile-long guided biking tour along the banks of the Danube, and we haven’t packed any rain gear.

The good news is the bike trip is just one of three tour options this morning, and at least one of the others — a guided walk through the cozy Bavarian town where we are docked, Passau — seems somewhat doable in the rain even without gear, thanks to the large blue umbrellas that come as standard amenities in our cabin.

rainy day in Passau

Puddle jumping in Passau. * Photo: Gene Sloan

We make a last-minute switch and soon are hopping puddles with a guide on the way to Passau’s 14th-century Gothic Town Hall and Italian-designed St. Stephen’s Cathedral (which, as our guide Chris is eager to point out, has the biggest cathedral organ in the world).

Passau fountain

The Wittelsbacher Fountain at the center of Passau features three little angels representing the three rivers that merge at the town: the Danube, Inn and Ilz. Just behind the fountain is the town’s crown jewel, the Italian-designed St. Stephen’s Cathedral. * Photo Gene Sloan

Just over the border with Austria, Passau sits on a strategic but very flood-prone spit of land at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. Chris the guide pauses several times — maybe one too many — to show off flood markers that are well up the sides of the town’s buildings.

I’ve always found Passau adorable. But it’s not nearly as adorable on a wet and chilly day. The Danube-facing cafe in front of town hall with views of the centuries-old castle across the river doesn’t even bother to open. Its outdoor tables and chairs are soaked. Nor is there much of a buzz at the Saturday market on the main square. After barely an hour out-and-about, we retreat to the ship.

Thankfully, the rain lets up by the afternoon, when we are off on one last adventure: An “Oktoberfest” celebration. Manufactured just for it us, it takes place in a tent at a Benedictine abbey up the river in Vilshofen and features local beer, an “oompah band” (as our cruise director calls it), and a demonstration of Bavarian dancing.

beer on a Danube River cruise

A little “Oktoberfest” celebration! * Photo: Gene Sloan

It is during the latter event that I make the biggest mistake of the cruise. I stand to take a picture of the band for this story just as a cheery German woman in traditional dress is calling for volunteers.

Apparently, it appears to all that I am volunteering, and suddenly I find myself shunted into a line with two other passengers, tasked with mimicking a lederhosen-wearing instructor’s knee slaps and foot kicks in tune with the music.

Gene Sloan at Oktoberfest

Ya ya ya! Gene and his two left (in blue). * Photo: Nicole Edmund

Let’s just say it doesn’t go well.

The trip itself, on the other hand, is a resounding success.

What It Costs

Seven-night “Melodies of the Danube” sailings on AmaMagna from Budapest to Vilshofen start at $2,549 per person, based on double occupancy. Similar seven-night “Romantic Danube” sailings in the opposite direction, from Vilshofen to Budapest, start at $2,449 per person, based on double occupancy. In addition to a room, fares include all meals, tours during every port stop, beer and wine with dinner, and cocktails during “Sip & Sail” happy hours.

The “Melodies of the Danube” itinerary can be extended with a two-night pre-cruise stay in Budapest and three-night post-cruise stay in Prague, Czech Republic, that is sold as a package for $1,360 per person. Passengers on a “Romantic Danube” sailing can extend the trip with either a two-night pre-cruise stay in Munich or three-night pre-cruise stay in Prague. The two extensions cost $740 and $840 per person, respectively.

Gene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Gene Sloan on a Danube River Cruise

Gene Sloan takes a rest. It’s a tough job …!

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CroisiEurope Danube River Cruise Giveaway

CroisiEurope Danube River Cruise Giveaway Winner

By Heidi & Ted.

We sure do love ❤️ our job when we get to contact the lucky winner of our free cruise giveaway and share the good news!

Last week we had the pleasure of picking the winner, at random, of our CroisiEurope Danube River cruise giveaway — Vera Kostova from North Macedonia!

When we spoke, Vera exclaimed: “What a big surprise! This has been my wish for a very long time!”

Vera is a kindergarten teacher and she has never been on a cruise before. She plans to take the Danube River cruise with her husband.

“I would like to thank QuirkyCruise and CroisiEurope for this wonderful giveaway cruise,” she told us. “This really is a dream come true for me.”

We’re very excited for Vera and we thank everyone for entering!

And do enter our next QuirkyCruise “Who Wants to Live the Life of a Travel Writer” free cruise giveaway during the month of June. Our partner for June’s small-ship cruise giveaway is UnCruise Adventures and they’re giving the lucky winner a 7-night Columbia & Snake River cruise in America’s Pacific Northwest !!

CroisiEurope Danube River Cruise Giveaway

The lucky winner of our CroisiEurope Danube River cruise giveaway!

 

Danube River

Vera and her husband will going on a 7-night CroisiEurope Danube river cruise round-trip from Vienna, Austria, calling on historic and gorgeous ports in Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, including Budapest and Bratislava.

Highlights include the wonderful Baroque Melk Abbey that overlooks the Danube and the Wachau Valley, Vienna’s 13th-century Hofburg Palace, and local experiences like a folk music performance in Budapest. And so much more! Here are more details on the CroisiEurope website.

CroisiEurope Danube River Cruise Giveaway

The 7-night Danube River cruise itinerary.

Watch this space for highlights of her trip once she’s back!

In the meantime, here’s a video about where CroisiEurope cruises, including the scenic Danube River. Enjoy!

CroisiEurope Danube River Cruise Giveaway

The gorgeous scenery on a Danube River cruise. * Photo: Stephane Pfleger for CroisiEurope

More About CroisiEurope Cruises … 

A family-owned French firm based in Strasbourg that started up in 1976 now operates one of the largest inland waters’ fleets in Europe with both river and canal boats. The river cruises travel on waterways throughout Europe, providing one of the main attractions for those looking for less traveled destinations.

In addition, coastal cruises fan out from Naples to the Amalfi Coast, Aeolian Islands, and Sicily, from Naples to Greece, and along Croatian coast and Montenegro. Additional river and island coastal cruises, beyond Europe, appear below. The total fleet worldwide now numbers almost 50 vessels. The firm caters to English speakers as well as European nationalities, and bien sur, the French. Read more here.

 

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Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

By John Roberts.

It’s just after sunrise in the town of Durnstein, Austria, a place known for the castle ruins looming high above the village that served as the prison for Richard the Lionhearted in the late 12th century.

For myself and three dozen other cruisers on Scenic Jasper, it also is known as the port where we will begin our biking tour through the Wachau Valley.

I’m traveling on this 7-night Scenic cruise with my wife, and we join a small group that wants to hike up to the ruins before breakfast and our bike ride. So, we hustle up the path to get to the top and enjoy the most amazing panoramic view of the rooftops, valley and winding river below. Now, I’m sufficiently energized for the 22-mile bike ride to Melk.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Durnstein ruins hike; victorious author on the left.

Many onboard have been looking forward to this excursion all week, and we head out from Durnstein, snaking along the narrow trails that traces the banks of the Danube.

The matriarch of a family of seven from Toronto cruising to celebrate her 80th birthday is leading the way, up front with the guide. I had met her in the pool on Scenic Jasper earlier in the cruise, and she asked whether I thought she could do it. I explained that the bikes have an e-assist setting (which allows you to engage a motor to push you along) and the cycling wouldn’t have to be too arduous as long as she felt comfortable in a bike seat.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Wachau Valley biking. * Photo: John Roberts

It appears she is plenty comfortable and has taken full advantage of that e-assist.

The route takes us up into the hills occasionally, through vineyards and villages. We also follow the path close to the river for many miles. We stop frequently, and people are having a great time under perfectly sunny skies. We take a break in the town of Spitz, just in time to watch our ship sail by on the way to Melk. Cruisers who stayed onboard to delight in the scenic cruising are eating a barbecue lunch on the sun deck and waving and shouting to us.

We all line up on the banks to shout back and take plenty of photos.

It’s the middle of summer, and we’re cruising on Europe’s second longest river, the majestic Danube. The water levels are low, but spirits are high.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The Spitz stop to see the ship. * Photo: John Roberts

I’m among more than 150 passengers who joined Scenic Jasper in Budapest. (The ship carries a maximum of 169.) Our cruisers hail from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada, with a few Germans, as well. The vessel was supposed to be sister ship Scenic Amber, but dry, hot conditions mean necessary tweaks to river cruise itineraries throughout Europe when parts of the waterway become un-navigable.

Our weeklong cruise sailed from Budapest, Hungary, to Vienna, Austria, where we stayed for two days, then a day docked in Durnstein, Austria, another in Linz, Austria (for Salzburg), and two days in Passau, Germany.

Beautiful Budapest

Leaving from Budapest, we know that more adjustments might be necessary as we go. But six days fly by with ideal sailing conditions before we learn that we won’t be able to make it to our original destination, Nuremberg. Instead, we’ll go to Passau, which is fine by me.

The historic city of three rivers is a lovely place to explore, too.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The ship in Budapest. * Photo: John Roberts

The best parts of the Scenic river cruise experience are the availability of fantastic shore excursions.

For embarkations in Budapest, the cruise kicks off with a “Grand Illumination” sailing. This is a quintessential Budapest experience — to see the city lit up at night, with the Parliament Building, Fisherman’s Bastian and all the bridges in stunning golden hues.

The next day, we venture to Szentendre, an artists’ commune outside the city, while many others choose historic tours of Budapest.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Charming Szentendre. * Photo: John Roberts

First Stop: Vienna

We arrive in late afternoon and will spend a night and the next day here. It’s an early dinner before we all go to Liechtenstein Palace to enjoy an evening of opera, which is included in the fares. Afterward, we arrive back to the ship, and crew has set up a delicious late-night snack of sausages, breads and goulash.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The Vienna Opera. * Photo: John Roberts

Passengers head off to bed satisfied after a full day of cultural experiences. I should say that some head off to bed sooner than others. There is a big contingent of Canadians and Aussies who routinely stay up late, taking full advantage of the free-flowing drinks that come with the all-inclusive Scenic journey.

The following morning arrives in Vienna, and we pick a morning trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we immediately set out to get to the observation deck of the aptly named “UFO Restaurant” on top of the new bridge.

After enjoying the best views (from 311 feet high) of this capital city and a couple cold beers 🍺, we go back across the bridge to wander Old Town before heading back in our coach for lunch onboard Scenic Jasper. Others go to Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs, or to Belvedere Palace to see the collection of Klimpt paintings.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Other-worldly UFO bar beers. * Photo: John Roberts

That’s Right, Danube Island

For the afternoon, we sign out a couple of the ship bikes and ride to the Danube Island. Yes, it’s an island in the middle of the Danube River that is a hot spot for residents who come here for beach time in the river and to attend festivals and other activities.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

When in Rome. The author takes a swim in the Danube at Vienna.

 

We take a spin around before needing to cool off. It’s about 92 degrees, and I am ready for my first swim in the Danube. It’s not blue at all, but the water is refreshing.

Wachau Valley Ride

The main event of our next day is the bike ride in the Wachau Valley; part of a busy and rewarding schedule that also includes options to tour Melk Abbey or a visit to a winery. Later, we all meet at the Aggstein Castle ruins site for 🍺 beers, Gruner Veltliner wines and — you guessed it — amazing views of a sunset from high in the hills above the ever-present Danube.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Aggstein views. * Photo: John Roberts

Salzburg, Doe a Deer

At our next port, we had to make the grueling choice of whether to go see the fairytale UNESCO Heritage village of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic or Salzburg, the home of Mozart and a favorite for aficionados of the film classic “Sound of Music.” We pick Salzburg.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Mozart statue. * Photo: John Roberts

Passau Endings

The final stop is Passau, and we go for a jog into town (about four miles total out and back from our berth at the edge of town) to do exploring on our own, wandering the cobbled streets and town squares during the morning as the city begins to waken. This was my sixth voyage on the Danube, and I’ve been on several other river cruises in Europe and elsewhere.

I love to stay active and have discovered that river cruises offer much greater opportunities than ocean sailings to hop right off your ship when in port and go for a run, hike or bike ride.  

St. Stephen’s Cathedral looms above the city, and we take a quick peek into the church. We also go past the town hall to spot the historic high-water marks enshrined on the front of the building as a badge of honor for a city that sits at the confluence of the three rivers and endures flooding as an annual rite.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Passau Veste Oberhaus. * Photo: John Roberts

Food, Entertainment and More

Because a Scenic cruise is all-inclusive, passengers won’t pay extra for drinks, meals, excursions, transfers and gratuities.

The ship has plenty of other features that I like, too. I mentioned the onboard bikes and small swimming pool. The pool is a popular spot during my sailing, as it is the height of the summer season, and each day is a scorcher. You also can find plenty of shaded areas on the sun deck, which has a small walking track around an attractive turf lawn.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The Jasper even has a small pool that the author is sampling! 💦

Cruisers gather in the lounge for nightly entertainment that includes everything from casual dancing to music from the ship’s pianist Enzo, to trivia contests and Disco Night dance parties. We also are wowed by the Hungarian folk dancers who come aboard for a show in Budapest.

Rooms are spacious enough, with butler service and one bag of laundry included per cruise. Scenic Jasper also features cabins with a flexible balcony space that converts from indoor to outdoor by lowering the large window down to a railing.

You never want for a meal, either. In fact, you have six ways to eat. Crystal Dining is the main venue, with open seating for buffet breakfasts and lunches, as well as plated dinners. My favorite meals are the Chef’s Special cheeseburger and the wiener schnitzel on the menu once we reach Vienna.

Portobellos is an Italian eatery that sits at the front of the lounge, and cruisers get to experience this upscale meal with views once per cruise. Our table asks for seconds on the charcuterie plate that has flavorful meats, cheeses, olives, peppers and chutney.

Table La Rive is a wine-pairing gourmet meal available once per sailing for passengers staying in suites on Deck 3. I hear passengers raving about the wines throughout the cruise, and this meal stands out for the varieties of reds and whites offered, as well as a not-too-sweet dessert wine. The scallops, soups and beef tenderloin are fine, but the best part of this meal is the desserts. I choose the molten chocolate cake.

River Café adjacent to the bar serves light bites all day, such as small sandwiches, fruit cups and ice cream; and Riverview Terrace is open for breakfast and lunch (it’s the same space used for Portobellos at night). Riverview Terrace offerings are a small sample of the buffet items you find in the main dining room. You also can order in-suite meals from your butler.

When it comes to the onboard brew, beer options included bottles of Pilsner Urquell, a Czech beer, as well as Erdinger Weissbier (a German wheat beer), plus beer on draft — Duckstein, a typical flavorful German beer that I liked because it was cold and smooth, perfect for the hot conditions and refreshing after our biking, jogging and trekking.

All in all, this was a deliciously wonderful river cruise from start to finish. And did I mention the beer 🍺 was good?

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Taking it easy on deck with a 🍺. * Photo: John Roberts

John Roberts is owner of InTheLoopTravel.com, where he writes about cruise travel, fitness and adventure, with a focus on how to help people enjoy their journeys in a fun and affordable way.

Click here to read more about Scenic.

 

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Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

By Randy Mink.

An Eastern Europe Danube River cruise with Scenic peeks into Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.

On a shore excursion in northern Bulgaria, I constantly had my nose pressed to the bus window, not wanting to miss a thing as we rolled through the fertile fields of the Danubian Plain and rural towns bursting with scenes reminiscent of an earlier time. Here I spotted a shepherd tending his flock, there a farmer in his horse wagon, and women dressed in traditional headscarves and aprons — vignettes right out of the 19th century.

It was springtime, and yellow canola flowers carpeted broad swaths of countryside. Our buses were headed to the Black Sea port of Varna, a big city that turned out to be less interesting than the ride getting there.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

The canola fields of Bulgaria. * Photo: Randy Mink

A Slice of Eastern Europe, from Budapest to Bucharest

The day trip was just one of many eye-opening excursions for passengers booked on Scenic Crystal’s 10-night “Black Sea Explorer” from Budapest to Bucharest — comprising a 7-night cruise and two hotel nights before in Budapest and one after in Bucharest. This river cruise was a perfect introduction to the less-visited countries of Eastern Europe, a slice of the world once closed off to mass tourism from the West. Now, nearly three decades after the lifting of the Iron Curtain, these formerly Communist-controlled societies are forging ahead, in varying degrees of success, with free-market economies. All are ripe for discovery for curiosity-seekers like me, a baby boomer who never thought he’d see the day when the Berlin Wall would fall and the enslaved satellites of Soviet Russia would be free.

Because of my fascination with 20th-century European history, I appreciated that our local guides shared their families’ experiences during those dark Communist days. In Serbia and Croatia they also commented on the 1990s wars ignited by the unhappy breakup of Yugoslavia.

Europe’s Far East: Communist-era Apartment Blocks & National Currencies

Most people don’t think of vacationing in countries like Serbia and Bulgaria — places that seem so alien and out of the mainstream. Scenery-wise, they hardly qualify as dream destinations, and there are few grand attractions. The cities, with their Communist-era apartment blocks, appear drab. The languages, much different from Romance and Germanic tongues, will throw you for a loop. If you’re accustomed to using euros or pounds in Europe, you have to adapt to currencies like the Hungarian forint, Serbian dinar and Bulgarian lev. All of this, however, just lends a sense of exoticism, and then there’s satisfaction in exploring a region not overrun with English-speaking tourists. You might call it Europe’s “Far East.”

The best way to sample these countries is an Eastern Europe Danube River cruise where everything is wrapped into one neat package. My home for this Danube adventure was one of the sleek Space-Ships in the growing fleet of luxury operator Scenic, a company based in Australia.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Scenic Crystal on the Danube in Budapest. * Photo: Randy Mink

All Aboard in Budapest, Hungary

From Budapest, where a two-night hotel stay is included in the fare (with most passengers at the Marriott), the 169-passenger Scenic Crystal took us to Kalocsa, Hungary; Osijek, Croatia; Belgrade, the capital of Serbia (and former Yugoslavia); and Ruse and Silistra, Bulgaria. (Though an excursion from Silistra goes to Varna, the Scenic Crystal does not sail as far east as the Black Sea, despite the name of the itinerary.) The Scenic package ends with a hotel night in Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

The Danube flows for about 1,800 miles from Germany’s Black Forest to the vast delta where Romania and Ukraine border the Black Sea, touching more countries (10) than any other river. Scenic’s most popular Danube itineraries operate between Nuremburg and Budapest, with stops in Germany and Austria.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Scenic’s 10-night “Black Sea Explorer” doesn’t actually cruise all the way to the Black Sea. * Photo: Scenic

Budapest, Hungary

Of all the cities visited on our Eastern Europe Danube River cruise, Budapest was the most impressive. The two days I had to explore Hungary’s capital prior to boarding the Scenic Crystal, gave me a good overview. I took a Scenic-arranged bus tour and poked around on my own.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

A Budapest panorama. * Photo: Randy Mink

The morning bus circuit took us to Castle Hill, site of skyline landmarks like the Royal Palace and Matthias Church, and to Heroes’ Square, a sweeping plaza with statues and monuments glorifying Hungary through the ages. As we rode through heavy traffic, our guide gave us a quick lesson in Hungarian culture and history, mentioning the centuries of Turkish rule, the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, how Jewish citizens suffered in the ghetto, and how thousands of people were killed and injured during the 1956 uprising quashed by Soviet tanks.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Budapest’s St. Matthias Church. * Photo: Randy Mink

I didn’t have time to visit Budapest’s ornately decorated Great Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and second-largest synagogue in the world (after Temple Emanu-El in New York), but did peek through the gates of the memorial garden behind it. I devoted two hours to the House of Terror, a chilling and deeply moving museum in the very building where the Communist regime’s secret police interrogated and tortured ordinary citizens. Most fascinating were the propaganda films showing “happy” factory workers and eyewitness interviews (English subtitles) of those whose relatives were imprisoned or brutalized. The tiny gift shop sells Lenin and Stalin busts in the form of candles, a sly gesture to the fleeting nature of evil.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Budapest’s Great Market. * Photo: Randy Mink

During my brief visit to Budapest, I also checked out the food and craft stalls in the historic town center, where I had a chance to sample a few pastries amid the Old World trappings of Gerbaud Cafe, a traditional Hungarian restaurant and coffee house dating back to 1858. More local color surfaced at the cavernous Market Hall, a bustling farmers’ market, souvenir spot and transit station where I savored goulash soup dished up by one of the second floor’s many food vendors.

After our first-night dinner aboard the Scenic Crystal, which was moored in Budapest until morning, we enjoyed an hour-long cruise past the illuminated domes and spires of churches, the Royal Palace and grandiose Hungarian Parliament, the neo-Gothic masterpiece often shown on river cruise brochures and TV commercials.

Kalocsa, Hungary

A day after departing Budapest, our ship arrived in Kalocsa, Hungary, about 100 miles south of Budapest. This is the country’s “paprika capital,” so we had plenty of chances to buy souvenir bags of sweet and hot paprika at stops like the House of Paprika, a small museum maintained by the local growers’ cooperative. The main event in Kalocsa was the horse show at Bakod Puszta farm, where riders in traditional costumes performed stunts.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Horse Show in Kalocsa, Hungary. * Photo: Randy Mink

Osijek, Croatia

The Danube cuts through the northeastern corner of Croatia, an agricultural area far from the country’s better-known Adriatic resorts. There we toured Osijek, the main urban center in the region of Slavonia (not to be confused with the countries of Slovenia or Slovakia). Located on the Drava River, a tributary of the Danube, Osijek is just 18 miles from the Hungarian border and 12 miles west of Serbia.

Since the Drava was low, we had to take a bus from the Danube port of Vukovar, but Maja, our 36-year-old Croatian guide, kept us enthralled with insights into her country’s past and present. Right off the bat she started talking about the 1991 war with Serbia after the collapse of the Yugoslav federation, an arrangement that had suppressed ethnic differences between the component republics during the reign of Communist leader Marshal Tito and his successors. Bullet holes still mar buildings in Osijek and Vukovar.

In Osijek, which bears traces of Hapsburg-era elegance, we enjoyed a guided walk on the cobbled streets of Tvrda, the old walled city, and an organ concert in a 1732 Franciscan church. But the day’s highlight was lunch in the village of Bilje — a home-cooked spread in the intimate setting of a bed and breakfast. It’s one of Scenic’s signature Enrich programs designed to immerse passengers in the local culture.

Lunch in a Local Home

My group of eight feasted at the home of Nada Cavic, a young mom who rents two bedrooms to tourists. Dressed in blue jeans and making easy conversation with her guests, Nada, in fluent English, talked freely about life since the war, mentioning that both her sisters were married to Serbians. She started us out with a soup made with vegetables from her garden and homemade noodles. Also on the menu: meatloaf fritters, sliced potatoes with paprika and meat drippings, cabbage salad and a creamy dish called milk rice. We washed it all down with white wine, elderberry juice, homemade cherry brandy and slivovitz, a plum brandy Nada’s father-in-law made for her wedding last year.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

A meal in a local Croatian home. * Photo: Randy Mink

Stayed tuned for Part 2 of Randy Mink’s Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise — to be posted later this week! Here’s PART 2!

Scenic’s 2018 “Black Sea Explorer” cruises are scheduled for April 14 and 22, May 26 and June 3. The first and third sailings are Budapest-Bucharest; the second and fourth operate in reverse. Fares start at $4,895 USD per person, based on double occupancy, plus airfare. Included are all meals, drinks, shore excursions and tips. For more info, go to www.scenicusa.com.

 

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Photo: Crystal Cruises

Photo: Crystal Cruises

The 154-passenger, all-suite CRYSTAL MOZART was just christened in Vienna and sets off on her maiden voyage along the Danube river July 13, 2016. MOZART marks the official launch of Crystal River Cruises, an arm of Crystal Cruises, with four brand new river yachts joining the fleet by the end of next summer 2017, and two more after that by 2019, for a total of seven river boats.

Gliding along the Danube River and calling in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia, the 395-foot-long CRYSTAL MOZART is the largest European river vessel afloat these days. Big enough to boast four dining venues plus a large spa with an indoor pool, gym and salon facilities. Tech-wise, each suite has Apple® iPad devices that serve as digital directories for virtually all of passengers’ on-board needs, from dry cleaning and butler service to room service and dining reservations, as well as concierge and shore excursion inquiries. Among their amenities, all suites have 40-inch HD flat screen TVS and heated toilet seats.

Rates include wine, spirits, soft drinks, tips, one or two excursions in every port, WiFi (an hour a day), self-serve laundry, butler service, and 24-hour in-room dining from the restaurant menu.

For more info on Crystal, click here.

Crystal Mozart in Budpest, Hungary. * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart in Budpest, Hungary. * Photo: Crystal Cruises

 

Crystal Mozart's spa and indoor pool, WOW! * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart’s spa and indoor pool, WOW! * Photo: Crystal Cruises

 

Crystal Mozart's Waterside Restaurant. * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart’s Waterside Restaurant. * Photo: Crystal Cruises

 

Crystal Mozart's Penthouse with French Balcony * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart’s Penthouse with French Balcony * Photo: Crystal Cruises

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By Ted Scull.

The Moselle River town of Zeller. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Moselle River town of Zeller. * Photo: Ted Scull

I loved my first river cruise in 1996 along the vineyard-fringed Moselle and the romantic Rhine south to Basel just across the border in Switzerland.

The towns, cities and scenery were mostly new to me back then, and I found them wonderfully intriguing with their medieval layouts and highly varied architecture. Beautiful autumnal colors lined the steep hillsides of the Moselle, and Berkastel-Kues perfectly fit the portrait of a tiny fortified medieval river town. Koblenz, at the junction of the Moselle and Rhine, afforded wonderful hilltop views of the two rivers snaking away. Mainz, Speyer and Worms were architecturally-rich cathedral cities, while Rudesheim was cute but a bit too touristy compared to the other towns.

View up the Rhine in autumn. * Photo: ted Scull

View up the Rhine in autumn. * Photo: Ted Scull

When I look back through 20 years of river cruises, I am thrilled how immensely improved they are in providing less rigidity, more options and additional amenities. There are more choices of itineraries and riverboat styles, but with river cruising’s popularity, there are also boatloads more people and many more riverboats vying for the same landing docks. Fortunately, in my experience, almost every town or city has offbeat neighborhoods to explore to get away from the milling wanderers.

My first cabin was on a lower deck so when I stood up and looked out the window my eyes were level with the river, and if a barge or boat slid by in the opposite direction, the wash and wake obliterated the view for a bit. It was a little like living in a fish bowl, comfortable and fine for sleeping, but not for lingering. I spent the day, when not ashore, going up for air to see what was happening along both shores, ahead and astern.

A typical cabin, simply furnished with beds at right angles. * Photo: Ted Scull

A typical cabin, back then, simply furnished with beds at right angles. * Photo: Ted Scull

Table seating was assigned for meals and that meant during the week aboard dining with the same people 21 times. The discussions with my group settled on how foreign everything was compared to home, or about the strange washing machines or the unfamiliar menu terms. Two tablemates loved bombarding the stewardess, “What’s this and what that?” uttered with a certain relish. One actually said, “I wonder when we will see the first McDonalds.” It was increasingly frustrating when I meet other more interesting passengers, some Americans and many Europeans, yet could not join them at the table.

The meals were quite wonderful, but they were served course by course, so it was tedious to have to sit through a three-course lunch and then a four-course dinner. Sure, I could ask for just one course at lunch such as the main entrée, but it came only after the first course had been served and cleared away.

There was no buffet to pick at, eat lightly and head up to the deck to watch the world of Germany go by.

So as one might have surmised, two decades back there was no alternate dining place for a light meal and we weren’t able to eat up on deck in nice weather to escape dreary tablemates. An elaborate afternoon tea was served on deck, however. That was a culinary treat with a view and more interesting company.

When we went ashore, and other riverboats were in port, the guides often had to shout over each other while talking to their flocks. Today, of course, you can plug the guide’s narration into your ear and even wander a bit away from the group and still hear the commentary.

There were no presentations on board, just instructions when to disembark to meet the guide, as the ship carried only a cruise director who had a slew of duties.

Internet was available in cafés ashore, but nothing like this existed on board, so sometimes one had to choose between connecting with personal affairs back home instead of taking the tour. There were no TVs aboard, so given how much always seems to be happening in the world, I had to rely on finding a newspaper during the river port calls.

I was on a ship in mid-Atlantic when 9/11 happened and on the upper Columbia-Snake when Northern California, where my brother’s family lived, experienced a major earthquake. On the former, the line generously offered Internet access, and on the later, the boat actually called at a remote island park where a telephone booth was located. My family was fine, though others not so, and my hometown of New York, well we all know what happened there.

Wine and beer were not included with lunch and dinner, as it often is now, and it was a pain to remember whose turn it was.

One happy aspect to river cruising back when there were fewer boats on the water was the lack of having to raft alongside or between other boats at landings, and then having to walk through other boats or have others walk through yours to get ashore and back on board. Some people now take advantage of the seemingly open house opportunity, and plop down; so there goes our privacy.

The two-deck riverboat of the past often had lower deck cabins at the waterline and French balcony units above. Photo: Ted Scull

The three-deck riverboat of the past often had lower deck cabins at the waterline and French balcony units above. Photo: Ted Scull

Riverboats then were comfortable conveyances while today many offer alternatives and amenities that the deep-sea cruise ships do. I don’t need pampering and fussy luxury frills, but I do like an alternative to the main dining venue, open sitting, wine with dinner, lectures on board and Internet access, though I do not expect it to be constantly available. I like a cabin with sliding doors or windows to allow in fresh air, but I need not have a true balcony, as when you are sitting on it, you have no idea what is happening on the other side. I would rather be on the top deck with a 360-degree view, perched like an eagle not wanting to miss anything. A splash pool is a plus, though hardly necessary, and spas leave me cold but not for others, and a gym is a welcome amenity but I now prefer to borrow one of the ship’s bicycles and lark out, especially if I already know the place from a previous visit.

So, 29 river cruises on five continents later, with 8 in Europe, I am thinking ahead to Number 30 and an ever widening contrast to the first even if I don’t partake of everything offered or book the largest cabin.

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