Travel feature: All aboard a Viking boat from Budapest to Amsterdam
River cruising is becoming increasingly popular and one of the fastest growing sectors in the travel industry.
Having returned recently from Viking River Cruise’s ‘Grand European Tour’ … an epic 15-day journey from Budapest to Amsterdam aboard the Viking Aegir, one of their new luxury floating hotel ‘longships’ I can totally understand why.
The Hungarian capital Budapest, a magnificent city, was the start of our journey through Europe on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers.
We were docked centrally, by the old Chain Bridge, which linked the two very distinctive sides of Buda and Pest.
Each side had its own history and character and the excellent local guide took us first to Pest and a drive down Andrassy Way (based on the Champs Elysee) and past what is known locally as the House of Terror which was used in the past as a prison and torture centre.
We were then taken through the historically important Jewish Quarter, where the Great Synagogue can seat up to 3000 people.
This building and museum is well worth a separate visit and of special interest is the ‘weeping willow’ a unique memorial to those lost in the holocaust. Our tour then took us over the bridge to Buda and on up to the Castle with its great views over the entire city.
From where the ship was docked, it was an easy walk into the shopping area of the city centre, full of souvenir shops, traditional Hungarian fare and the usual retail brands. My wife couldn’t resist a nostalgic visit to C&A, a name that left the British high streets many years ago!
Perhaps the most memorable sight however was seeing the illuminated evening skyline of Budapest as we sailed away from the city past the famous Hungarian Parliament building inspired by our own Houses of Parliament. Truly breathtaking!
Our next stop was Bratislava in Slovakia and our tour took in the attractive old town, where we saw some curious and fascinating sculptures.
The most bizarre was one of a man climbing out of a drain and for sheer exquisite delicacy and detail, the sculpture of the Empress Marie Theresa on horseback takes some beating.
By the following morning, we were in Vienna, a truly elegant city with broad tree-lined avenues, imposing palaces and the impressive St Stephen’s Cathedral.
Vienna, of course, is famous for its many stylish coffee houses and pastries, the most famous being ‘Sachertorte’ – the rich chocolate cake. Guess what we had for dessert on board the Aegir that night?!
No visit to Vienna would be complete however, without a touch of music and we experienced a delightful optional evening Mozart and Strauss concert, complete with a glass of champagne.
Remaining in Austria we visited Melk, touring the abbey, a beautifully preserved, 900 years old functioning Benedictine monastery, with a school attached.
It contained a Baroque museum, library and church with outstanding gold statues and frescoes. This was an unexpected hidden gem of a place, which few people had heard of before, but no one would forget afterwards.
We were by now well settled into a routine. Our cabin was extremely comfortable with a full size double bed and luxury toiletries, together with fluffy white towels. In addition there was free Wi-Fi, computer access and a travel library on board.
Delicious meals had become the norm and the mingling with fellow passengers from all over the world added to the overall enjoyment. Because a river cruise ship is small – around 200 passengers – the social side of things is very important and if you like international conversation, you are always going to have some fun over a meal.
Open seating is the norm on a river cruise, so my wife and I chose to sit on different tables each meal with different people. It’s amazing how often the Royal family cropped up in dinner conversation with people from other countries … as if we knew them personally!
Each day would typically include a half day excursion and we would learn more about our next stop, by going to a short daily briefing the night before.
On excursions we would split into groups (some going at a more leisurely pace), and people had their own ‘Vox’ – an individual listening device, so everyone could hear their own local guide.
Evenings onboard, often involved being entertained by some great local singers and musicians, each reflecting something of the country or city we were passing through.
Eventually, we then cruised into Germany and each day stopped at a different town or city – Passau, Regensburg, Bamberg, Wertheim, Koblenz. Each place had its own distinct individual charm and history.
From an awe-inspiring organ recital on the largest organ in Europe to beautiful cathedrals; from regional specialities such as ‘smoked beer’ and ‘sweet mustard’ to Mediaeval castles, our journey was full of variety, interest and enjoyment.
In Nuremberg, we chose to go on a special World War II tour. We visited Zeppelin Platz, the Nazi parade grounds where the enormous rallies were held and even saw where Hitler had addressed his followers.
We then went on to the Document Centre which was an exhibition charting the rise of National Socialism, to which all German schoolchildren are now brought. Education about that dark period in Germany’s history is very important and it was good to see how sensitively it was done.
The final visit was to the Palace of Justice and in particular Room 600, where in 1945 the first War Crime trials were held. It felt like being a part of ‘living history’.
Another highlight was the visit to Wurzburg and in particular the Residence of the Prince Bishops. Its entrance staircase was magnificent with huge ceiling frescoes, and beyond that a series of rooms – each more sumptuously decorated than the next, culminating in the Gold Mirror room, which although not as large, certainly rivaled Versailles in its opulence.
The following morning we sailed from the river Main into the Rhine, known as the busiest waterway in Europe.
We encountered attractive little villages, vineyards and castles interspersed with great swathes of woodland sporting their multi-coloured autumnal hues of red, green, orange, russet and brown. It was glorious!
Our last port of call in Germany was Cologne – a city full of churches, a massive gothic style Cathedral … Germany’s most popular tourist attraction … and oh yes even another C & A!
Sailing overnight into the Netherlands, the undulating hills were replaced by flat land as far as the eye could see.
We stopped at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site of some 19 windmills. Here we learned about the Dutch mastery over ‘water management’ and how they had reclaimed the land using the windmills.
Sadly our grand tour was drawing to a close and the Viking Aegir docked finally in Amsterdam. It would be very easy to define this trip simply by its various ports and destinations, but this journey was so much more.
Sipping a glass of wine, gliding silently past mediaeval style castles, through the majestic scenic beauty of Europe’s waterways, the thought struck me that, if there is a more elegant, peaceful and luxurious way to travel, I haven’t yet found it!
Professor Ian Cooper was a guest of Viking River Cruises on their 15-day ‘Grand European Tour’ from Budapest to Amsterdam (operates in the other direction too). For more information visit: www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk
Telephone: 0800 319 6660
Ian Cooper, is the Editor of the ‘Financial Times Guide To Business Development Blog’ – www.financialtimesguidetobusinessdevelopmentblog.com