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Hit the Deck - Cruising The Danube in Style

Caroline Hurry

Contributor

Stress-free to the nth degree, a river cruise is everything a holiday should be. No big waves, no nausea, just a string of European city tours as the Danube swoons through medieval towns in nine countries, enthralling idle and intrepid explorers alike.

Europe’s Great Artery

Oceans take you to countries, rivers take you through them. Every morning a gauzy pink sunrise unveils flanks of riverbanks, the dark limbs of apricot trees wearing spring blossoms, wild grass tufting amid sand and rock as landscapes materialise like the earth goddess Gaia getting dressed. Steeples and domes drift by one minute; vineyards tumble down mountain slopes the next.

With its glass elevator, lounge, two restaurants, gym, spa, marble bathrooms, suites, and balconied staterooms, the 164-passenger AmaCerto, part of the Amawaterways fleet, is a far cry from the confines of the narrow steamboats of the 1830s when tourists first traversed the Danube. A pool with a swim-up bar shares the top level with outdoor sofas, and a giant chessboard. Onboard bicycles encourage village explorations.

AmaCerto, river Danube

Budapest

Gothic spires, cupolas, and castles shimmy into view. Lined with Art Nouveau merchant houses, the Danube divides Hungary’s capital into Buda and Pest. Balletic bridges ‒ Széchenyi Lánchíd being the most iconic ‒ link them.

Home to kings since way back, Castle Hill faces down the imposing neo-gothic Parliament on the opposite bank. The Buda Palace houses the National Library, History Museum, and National Gallery with its vast art collection from the 10th century on. With seven towers representing the Magyar tribes that settled Hungary in 895, the turreted Fisherman’s Bastion offers the (Buda) best views.

Like a courtesan, Pest reveals coquettish glimpses of her Austro-Hungarian grandeur in sumptuous facades and Hapsburg eagles on rooftops; enticing all with scented flower stalls and roast coffee aromas. Topping it is St Stephen’s Basilica housing the mummified hand of Hungary’s first king. A gleaming obelisk rising like a defiant middle finger, defines Heroes Square, Budapest’s iconic entrance to the City Park where the lakeside Vajdahunyad Castle is a 19th-century fantasy pastiche. Budapest will leave you Hungary for more!

Budapest Parliament Buildings, and the river Danube

Bratislava

Slovakia’s capital on the Danube’s northern banks offers an 11th-century castle razed by drunken Austrian soldiers in 1811 and reconstructed in the 1950s. Its ramparts afford sweeping panoramas over red-tiled rooftops, St Martin’s Cathedral, and Soviet-style suburbs across the river.

The gardens contain Roman ruins and a statue of Princess Elizabeth, born in Bratislava Castle in 1207. Famous for feeding the poor ‒ legend has her turning loaves into roses, which must have made her popular at parties ‒she was canonised in 1235. Bratislava’s Blue Church was built in her honour.

The 50-metre Saint Michael’s spire dominating the old town offers another superb vista from its viewing platform.

Linger in one of the cafes around Hlavne Namestie (main square). Marvel at the medieval torture instruments displayed in the town hall’s inner courtyard.

A stone soldier leaning over a bench commemorates the 1809 destruction of the city by Napoleonic troops. Other quirky statues include Cumil’s head sticking out of a manhole, Ignatius doffing his top hat and a photographer aiming his camera outside the Paparazzi restaurant. East of Hviezdoslavovo Namestie, the bronze Ganymede fountain in front of the Slovak National Theatre depicts Zeus disguised as an eagle abducting the eponymous Trojan youth.

Admire 17th-century tapestries in the pastel pink Primate's Palace where Napoleon signed the Treaty of Pressburg, (Bratislava’s former name) with the Austrian emperor Franz II in 1805.

Bratislava castle and the river Danube

Vienna

The skyline of this City of Symphonies looks much the same as in Haydn’s day. Famous for its giddy rococo architecture, opera, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Klimt, Lipizzaners from the Spanische Reitschule prance along sun-dabbled cobbles.

The copper-domed Schönbrunn-Palace houses the Imperial Apartments of Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph. While Elisabeth (Sisi) won people’s hearts with her charm, Franz Joseph frequented brothels. Their only son Rudolph killed himself and an Italian anarchist assassinated Sisi in 1897. The Sisi Museum displays her death mask and small plaster statues of the royal couple; not unlike a stately set of garden gnomes.

Fans of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, famous for lecturing naked, will enjoy the KunstHaus museum; otherwise, hire a horse-drawn Praterfahrt from the Prater Park or race other commuters down the wide avenue in a canopied two-seater pedal carriage!

Knock back an espresso at a pavement café, then shop in Graben and Kohlmarkt streets for designer jackets sharp enough to cut a dash in the highest societies.

Danube river winding in the austrian plains

Dürnstein, Melk, Lintz, Passau, and Vilshofen

Famous for the blue tower of its Stiftskirche, Dürnstein is a picture book medieval town with around 400 inhabitants. High on a hill are the 10th-century castle ruins where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned on his return from the Crusades in 1197. Views from there are fantastic.

Cycle the 28 km from Dürnstein to Melk, traversing vineyards and the cobbled roads of tiny villages called Weissenkirchen, Wosendorf, Spitz, Schwallenbach, Willendorf, Groisbach, Aggsbach, Grimsing, and Shallemmersdorf. Weissenkirchen’s chapel has a room stacked with human bones exhumed from the small cemetery to make way for newer interments.

Melk’s spires, castle turrets, abbey towers, and cultivated terraces spill into the cleavage of the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Catholic Church’s jaw-dropping wealth is evident in the frescoes, jewels, relics, gold statues, embroidered vestments, three-dimensional ceiling paintings and priceless medieval manuscripts within Melk’s 18th Century Benedictine abbey. The baroque library has 12 000 leather-bound books from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

The Lentos Art Museum in Lintz is worth a look while Passau and Vilshofen edging the southern Bavarian forest offer glorious scenery and spirited local lads in their lederhosen going hell for leather in thigh-slapping Schuhplattlers.

Hop goes the beer cap … Prost!

Wachau Valley and the historic town of Durnstein

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