Danube cruise: Water highway to history

By Justine Tyerman

The cruisy life on a river ship appeals to Justine Tyerman.

Hungary's impressive parliament buildings on the banks of the Danube. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Hungary's impressive parliament buildings on the banks of the Danube. Photo / Justine Tyerman

The sun was setting in a golden blaze over the Danube as the MS Beethoven slipped smoothly into the Gabcikovo Lock in Slovakia - the largest of the four we encountered on our eight-day river cruise.

We were having an animated conversation with our new shipboard friends from the United States about Jim's days as a speech writer for JFK just after the Cuban missile crisis, Ilse's work as a watercolour artist and former gold assayist, and America's apparently constant need to deliver other countries from strife.

Jim talked of the many "Strategicstans" and "Tragicstans" that seem to necessitate US intervention. Having met at a tennis match in Florida only 18 months earlier, they were in their 70s but still dewy-eyed and holding hands.

A published author and historian, Jim was writing a spoof on the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his relationship with Sherlock Holmes.

After an initial feeling of being adrift in a sea of strange faces and foreign languages, we met some remarkable people on our CroisiEurope Imperial Danube Cruise through Austria, Hungary and Slovakia.

Among the large contingents from Denmark, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, and a scattering of people from the US, Australia and New Zealand, we became good mates with Jim and Ilse, two Scots, three Brits and three lively "girls" from Picton, Lynne, Aileen and Marlene, who had known each other for 48 years and travelled together for more than 20.

At the magnificent French gala dinner on our last evening on the ship, we shared our highlights-of-the-cruise, a variation of the highlight-of-the-day tradition my husband Chris initiated when our children were young.

As a lover of history, I was enthralled with the excursions that covered the fascinating Habsburg dynasty and 640-year era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ended in 1918 - the magnificently ornate winter and summer palaces in Vienna and the 18th century baroque Melk Abbey with its beautiful gardens.

Chris relished the energetic hike to the castle above Dürnstein, a jewel of a village in the verdant apricot- and grape-growing Wachau Valley, the most picturesque part of the cruise.

Steeped in history, the castle acquired fame as the place where the English king, Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner in 1192, by Duke Leopold V of Austria after their dispute during the Third Crusade.

The Picton girls loved the Mozart and Strauss concert complete with opera singers and ballet dancers at Vienna's gorgeous Auersperg Palace; and Budapest by night, where many historic buildings and bridges were illuminated in a dazzling show of colour and light.

Budapest by day was also a winner with its magnificent cathedral, churches, castle, Fisherman's Bastion, theatres, baths, parliament buildings, markets and grand Heroes' Square with statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century.

Ilse was fascinated by the height of the Gabcikovo Lock and our visit to a ranch on the vast prairie lands of Puszta in Hungary, where whip-cracking Cuman horsemen put on a thrilling display of their superb horsemanship.

Many were delighted by the little Hungarian village of Kalocsa, where we saw brightly-coloured hand embroidery, a traditional house with hand-painted flowers on the walls and a museum devoted to the growing of paprika, highly-prized as a major export and the key ingredient in goulash, the national dish.

Esztergom also left a lasting impression. The first capital of Hungary under the Arpad kings, it was the birthplace of King Stephen who was crowned in 1001 as the first Christian king of Hungary.

The huge basilica on the hill above the town, completed in 1822, took 40 years to build and is the biggest and most beautiful in Hungary with a dome modelled on St Peter's Cathedral in Rome.

We drove across the Danube on the Maria Valeria Bridge to Sturovo in Slovakia which was bombed by the Germans in 1944 and only rebuilt in 2001.

In Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, Jim's sharp eye for detail picked out the gargoyles on the rooftops as we toured the baroque palaces and town hall, St Martin's Gothic Cathedral, the royal castle and the old town beyond the 13th century Michael's Gate.

As the fourth course of the French-inspired feast and more wine arrived, delivered by our charming waiters and waitresses, I poured the girls exactly equal portions of their favourite Vin d'Alsace - an important rule I discovered at lunch on day one.

We toasted the hard-working, mainly Hungarian crew, and the fabulous French food and wine which we agreed were highlights for us all.

As first-time cruisers, the trip was a perfect mix of relaxation, sightseeing and entertainment. It was stress-free and great value for money as all aspects of our lives as travellers were taken care of.

Included in the price of our cruise was accommodation in comfortable, surprisingly-spacious twin or double-bed serviced cabins with ensuite bathrooms and huge picture windows; three superb gourmet meals a day; unlimited beer and French wine with meals; music, dancing and entertainment in the evenings; the best local guides in the business ... and of course transport.

Air-conditioned coaches with multi-lingual guides were waiting at the ports to take passengers right to the heart of the sight-seeing spots - no parking hassles, no need to pore over guide books to figure out where to go and what to do in a limited time-period, no risk of getting lost.

Passengers were then delivered back to the boat in time for another splendid meal while the ship made its way to the next port of call.

The Picton girls, from left: Aileen, Lynne and Marlene - with their glasses of Vin d'Alsace. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The Picton girls, from left: Aileen, Lynne and Marlene - with their glasses of Vin d'Alsace. Photo / Justine Tyerman

The people we met on the cruise enriched our experience enormously, especially the Picton girls who were always up to mischief.

On our last night there was a diplomatic incident when the trio defected, en masse, to the French contingent during a quiz. Aileen managed to win a bottle of bubbly for the French team which brought loud accusations of fraternisation with the enemy, especially when she ended up on the dance floor with the best dancer on the ship, a debonair Frenchman, of course.

Marlene summed it up nicely: "We have so many happy memories of the Danube River cruise, not the least of which were the lovely people we met and the wonderful crew who all went out of their way to make sure we were well taken care of."

FACT FILE

Getting there: We flew Emirates to Vienna. There are four flights a day from New Zealand to Dubai, with daily connections to Vienna.

CroisiEurope's Imperial Danube Cruise itinerary includes: Vienna, Melk Abbey and Dürnstein in Austria; Bratislava and Sturovo in Slovakia; Kalocsa, Puszta, Budapest and Esztergom in Hungary.

The numbers: The French-owned MS Beethoven is 110-metre long, 11.4-metre wide and holds 180 passengers on three decks.

Travel bookings: Elliott Travel, Gisborne.

Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of the Innovative Travel Company, the New Zealand representative for CroisiEurope.

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