Cruising on a large ship, whether it’s a five night journey across the Atlantic, a two week trip through the Norwegian fjords or a short jaunt through the Caribbean, has always appealed to me as I can check-in, unpack, and that’s it! It’s a moveable feast, both literally and figuratively with no constant unpacking-repacking. Aside from the oceans and seas, I’ve always wanted to do a Mississippi riverboat cruise, but the timing and the opportunity has just never come together.
Last fall, a different set of stars came into alignment and I found myself in Budapest, Hungary, preparing for a week-long cruise, northbound on the Danube. Because my parents came from Austria and my wife and I have visited Vienna many times, I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for the long-awaited river cruise and I could finally tick that journey off my bucket list.
It’s not the Mississippi, but the Danube has its own image and well earned reputation for beautiful scenery, extraordinary cities on its banks and, for pure comfort, smooth waters throughout the year.
So, here I am in Budapest, the first stop – the embarkation city for a seven-day cruise up the Danube on one of AmaWaterways’ newest ships, the AmaSonata.
Before casting off, a side-bar anecdote. I must tell you about the very unique hotel I discovered in Budapest – the Boscolo, a 120 year old palace converted into a hotel with rooms overlooking one of the main thoroughfares of the city. The room I was assigned was huge with very high ceilings, a most comfortable king-size bed, sumptuous closet space for several wardrobes and a bathroom as big as my New York apartment. I really felt like a guest in a palace, and one of the best parts was the rate of $135 per night for what I would term a very expansive suite.
Our concierge, Peter, was one of the highlights as well. He suggested, communicated and consummated two special evenings for us – one at the ballet and one at the opera, all for incredibly low prices. It was a steal compared to London or New York.
In addition to the palatial accommodations and super sightseeing in Budapest, there were several extraordinary meals – my favorite, schnitzel, of course, and then a half- day session at the Gellert Baths, world renown for its indoor and outdoor swimming pools and thermal baths and massages. For anyone visiting Budapest, this is an experience not to be missed. And since Hungary is not yet on the Euro, everything is fairly cheap. Now back to maritime matters.
It’s boarding time, and the appetite for Budapest has been whetted. The AmaSonata is docked close by a metro station in Budapest, making the hotel to ship connection incredibly easy. The ship is elegant and comfortable, easy to get around in, and there are drinks and snacks always available. The staff is professional and welcoming. The first evening is spent checking out the menu selections, the dining room layout, the friendliness and professionalism of the waiters, the quality of the food and then attempting to get to know a few of the fellow passengers.
After dinner, we met with a very outgoing gentleman, Dijan, the ship’s Cruise Director, in order to plan our sightseeing tours for the week-long journey. He was a fountain of information and incredibly accommodating.
The ship set sail seamlessly and unknowingly during the night – one doesn’t even notice the vessel’s movement and after a restful sleep in a very comfortable bed and spacious stateroom, one wakes up the next morning by announcements from the convivial captain saying that we have arrived in Bratislava. Breakfast is served in the dining room and the gangway is open from 9 a.m. and everyone is instructed to be back on board by 2 p.m. And, of course he says, “Enjoy the morning in Bratislava.”
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and the only European city, boarding two other independent countries, Austria and Hungary. It’s a quaint city, resplendent of the once mighty Czech – Hungarian Empire from a century ago. Now with Slovakia and the Czech Republic existing separately, Bratislava has a life of its own without having to answer to Prague. It is a member of the European Union and for the sake of simplicity and value for money in this small country, Slovakia trades with the Euro.
Walking around Bratislava’s old town center with its picturesque buildings and palaces (now mostly offices, embassies and hotels), spacious squares featuring small touristy shops, coffee houses and restaurants, one has the flavor of really being in a Europe of 120 years ago without the hustle and hassle of one of Europe’s larger cities.
Bratislava has its own lovely opera house, a museum which was once a home for Mozart in 1762, some very amusing manhole covers and a comedic statue of Napoleon leaning on a bench seemingly trying to overhear what might being said – all quite amusing. It’s definitely all worth the morning stop.
All the cities along the Danube are situated pretty close to one another; one can drive between them in a few short hours, but, of course, to do it by boat is much more relaxing and peaceful. The afternoon is spent cruising up-river to Vienna from Bratislava. A few hours later, we’re tied up at Vienna with the dock a five minute walk from an U-Bahn station, the U-Bahn being the city’s subway – how convenient is that!
Vienna is an integral part of my life, heritage and culture. My parents were born and raised there and the city is inbred into the fabric of my life. As a child, all I heard was Vienna this and Vienna that. From the museums to the coffee houses and restaurants, from the wines (the only European city with its own wineries and vineyards) to the Stateoper, Ratthaus, Weinerwald, Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces, the Spanish Riding School and the Prater Park, nothing was better or finer than Vienna in their opinion.
Through the years, I’ve tried to find some truth to all those family stories and legends, and have kind of seen or heard them all. The sum total is that Vienna is pretty much what they said – a fabulous city with a regal and Freudian history (excluding WWII), magnificent buildings, churches and museums, sites to visit and nowadays, a magnet for foodies and wine aficionados. And of course, for shoppers, there is a variety of stores in and around the Graben and Kärtner Straße – Vienna’s main shopping boulevards.
The central part of the city is laid out in a series of rings and since I kind of knew the Inner Ring layout, we went into town with the city tour and did our own thing. There was apple strudel, afternoon pastries and a fantastic schnitzel dinner with the beautifully cooked, thin slab of pork hanging off the sides of the giant plate at Film üeller (book first!). It was a most wonderful day of museum hopping, window shopping and eating. Don’t miss the Albertina, the Leopold and MAK museums. Vienna is a must see city on anyone’s European bucket list.
From Vienna, we cruised overnight up through the Wachau Valley, famous for its wines and apricot industries, and stopped for the morning at the minute village of Dürnstein. It’s a place that can be seen in ten minutes; the real attractions being the ruins of a castle with an interesting legend starring Britain’s Richard The Lionhearted, and the showroom and shops of the Wieser Apricot company, which manufactures a myriad of apricot products from marmalade to schnapps to candies. How fantastic was this! After all the free samples and buying the most delicious apricot marmalades and liquor, who needs lunch after this yummy excursion through apricot heaven!
After the Dürstein short visit, yet long enough to taste and buy, we set sail for the small town of Melk, famous for its monastery,and its ecclesiastical library of more than 80,000 books. It’s a five star attraction and well worth the tour.
After an overnight slow cruise northbound, the next stop was Linz, our gateway to land-locked Salzburg. I had visited Salzburg some 35+ years ago on a self-driving tour through Austria, but honestly couldn’t remember much of that trip.
After a one hour bus ride from Linz, we arrived in Salzburg for a daylong walkabout in this very traditional Austrian city. Luckily the weather cooperated, and despite the fall chill air, we toured historical sites and parks. Then the fun part – off to the main shopping streets which were actually starting to get into the end-of-the-year holiday roll. Lots of gift shops already displayed beautiful holiday decorations and ornaments for the oncoming season. And it was another occasion to lunch over, well you guessed, weiner schnitzel and for dessert, the delicious sweet soufflé, Salzburg Nockerl. And true to form, they did not disappoint.
Back to Linz for the evening and as luck would have it, a stone’s throw from the ship’s dock, was the Linz Brucknerhaus concert and festival hall. And for just 25 euros, we attended a “Women In Jazz” concert. It was a bit “avant garde” in terms of music quality and selection – very eclectic indeed. But it was exactly what the evening needed as we were nearing our final Danube destination, Vilshofen, a small town on the Danube that serves as the Danube river port for Munich.
Scrambling the last evening in the late hours to pack our bags, we did manage a few hours of sleep, as we had to wake-up in time for the 7:30 a.m. bus departure from the ship to Munich International Airport and our flights back to London and the connection to New York. Vilshofen is about 90 minutes from Munich Airport and during the comfortable bus ride we could see the fall season flatland landscapes of plowed fields and forests from the highway. Some of the foliage was turning bright orange and red from its green summer colors so we didn’t feel too bad about missing the turning of the colors in New York and the Northeast environs.
In looking back over this Danube adventure, I now want very much to do it again, but possibly some of the other waterways featured in the AmaWaterways programs. There is a variety of programs featuring most of Europe, Russia and the Far East. Touring via these ships is absolutely relaxing without the hassle of having to be here or there at someone’s scream or whistle. No tour leaders with raised flags or umbrellas yelling at you either. It’s the best way to go!
AmaSonata Notes: The ship’s accommodation is more comfortable than most. The AmaSonata features a very advanced design, seemingly well ahead of most river cruise vessels currently in operation. Twin Balconies are available in most staterooms, which measure a spacious 210-235 sq. feet, with four suites measuring 300 sq. feet. Passengers enjoy gourmet dining with free-flowing fine wines at multiple onboard dining venues; a heated sun deck swimming pool with a ‘swim-up’ bar; fitness center and spa; complimentary ship-wide Wi-Fi and in-room Internet and entertainment on demand; and a number of bicycles carried onboard for guests to enjoy on their own or on guided bike tours. Throughout the voyage one never hears the engines or mechanical workings of the vessel, and despite quite a lot of river traffic on the Danube, there’s never incessant horn blowing during the river voyage.
Further Information on AmaWaterways’ itineraries, departure dates and pricing may be obtained at their website, www.amawaterways.com
NEW YORK, Feb. 21 – – This afternoon two dear friends from Tel Aviv, my Cuban wife and I had the distinct pleasure of attending a dance performance at New York’s City Center, “Havana Rakatan.” My wife, often times, can be very dubious about “artists” from present day Cuba as so many have been outright duds. But this troupe, part of City Center’s Latin dance festival, proved that the small island in the Caribbean often produces over-the-top brilliant performers and artists, and these musicians and dancers were utterly supreme. So much so that often during the Saturday matinee, the audience gainfully applauded with standing ovations. At the end of the show, the audience screamed and yelled in appreciation almost as though the Beatles or the Rolling Stones has just performed one of their top hits.
This “Havana Rakatan” performance left me constantly tapping my feet and air drumming my hands and fingers on my wife’s hands and arms – I was at the ready to jump up in my seat and start a mambo or a cha cha as the music progressed through a series of fast-paced numbers with brilliant choreography coupled with the brilliant musicians. The dancers, most of which must have had ballet backgrounds (so it seemed by their smooth and seamless movements, leg stretches and ability to fly effortlessly) were gorgeous, both in movement and in dress; again kudos to the costume designers and dressers.
The female vocalist, very reminiscent, of Celia Cruz, was also at the top of her game, and from the program notes, has a very promising career as a singer, composer, arranger and choral director.
By all means if you enjoy Cuban music and heritage and are searching for something to do on a Sunday afternoon or evening, snap up a ticket for Sunday’s last performances at City Center. It’s well worth the time and effort and you’ll come away with a huge smile and tapping hands and feet.