On a culinary-focused Danube river cruise, Caroline Eden gorges on excellent food and the rich history of Europe's grandest cities
Margaret Thatcher's smile beamed out between a knotty plait of garlic and a string of shiny red chillies. It stopped me in my tracks. After all, the Iron Lady is not who you expect to find in a Hungarian market hall in 2019.
Taken in the 1980s, the photograph had been stuck up by a market trader. His message for shoppers like me was: if my Hungarian chillies were good enough for her, then they're good enough for you. I slipped him a handful of forint, bagged the peppers and eased my way past pyramids of dried paprika, spicy sausages and cans of goose liver and out through the neo-gothic gateway of Budapest's Great Market Hall.
The 125m long River Beatrice was in sight, docked handsomely at her pontoon in the shadow of the Liberty Bridge that straddles the Danube. I was to spend the next eight days on Uniworld's Enchanted Danube cruise, travelling from Budapest to Munich via Bratislava and Austria's glorious Wachau Valley. Along the way, I'd explore the markets, music and — quite often — downright eccentric experiences that the towns and cities that hug Europe's second-longest river have to offer.
With the ship's stern in sight, I began to cross the road, only to be stopped by my guide, Bridget. "Go slowly — we don't have pedestrians here in Budapest, we have survivors," she said, only half-joking.
Safely aboard, I concluded that I was off to a good start. The morning had presented a plethora of local goodies: height-of-the-season sour cherries, the chance to sample langos — a flatbread smothered in sour cream, garlic and cheese — and some pungent pickled sweet garlic (probably an acquired taste).
Dinner reflected our location wherever we found ourselves on the river, and that night chef Daniel Tricu focused on paprika, a Hungarian obsession. On the menu, there was hard-to-pronounce palacsinta (a crepe with paprika sauce), a Budapest-style paprika soup and roasted chicken breast with paprika.
Tricu, who has worked for Uniworld for seven years, explained how food is at the forefront of modern-day river cruising: "These days it's less about high-tech electronics and more about food — seasonality and quality ingredients in the kitchen. We feed people good food. If you feel good, you do more."
And what a lot there is to do. While I, with my culinary leanings, had opted for the half-day "do as the locals do" walking tour in Budapest, other passengers had explored the castle district in Buda, listened to a "concert for Budapest" piano recital in the lounge or cycled 15km along the Danube. Over dinner, passengers swapped tales of the day and sipped local wines. Tamas Kocsis, the cruise manager, told us a bit about the "amazing" local wines and explained that wine from this region is not exported much simply because "we Hungarians drink it all".
The ships carries 156 passengers — we were largely a mix of Britons, Americans and Australians, mixed in age and cruising experience. Though a few signed up for the daily "gentle walkers" group designed for the less mobile, greater numbers arrived promptly in the lounge at 7am to join fitness instructor Denisa to bust some serious pre-breakfast yoga moves.
Next stop: Bratislava, a city straddling both banks of the Danube. We zipped around its tiny historical centre, admiring narrow streets lined with pastel-coloured buildings while trying to work off some of the food. Mostly, though, I was delighted that our local guide was blessed with the kind of resigned humour only found in Slavic lands: "You'll notice that the old Soviet leader statues have come down now. But they used to be very good for people with low blood pressure. On seeing Mr Lenin the sufferer's pressure would surely go right back up."
Then, almost too fast, we found ourselves in an altogether grander city, Vienna.
En route to the clubby, wood-panelled Palais OIAV, where we were treated to a private concert of Strauss and Mozart, our local guide Regina pointed out the glitzy Ritz-Carlton, Budapest hotel. "President Bush once stayed here, but only once. The next time he wanted to overnight he was too late — Mick Jagger was already in the presidential suite," she told us, completely deadpan.
The orchestra performed a perfect rendition of Mozart classics before ending with Strauss' Blue Danube (what else?). We finished our night off with curried lobster and veal mignon back on board before I collapsed on my comfy bed and opened the doors of the balcony to let the silent night air in.
The following day, Regina led us to the legendary Cafe Central, a classic Viennese coffee house. Opened in 1876, it is undeniably touristy today but was once frequented by the likes of Trotsky, Lenin and Freud. We sipped foamy coffee under ornate arched ceilings and inhaled the scent of freshly baked croissants. There was no chance of eating them, though, as despite chef Tricu's proclamations of healthy eating, the pastries on board were simply too good to turn down each morning.
For the Viennese, the coffee house is an extension of their living room. "You get time and space but only coffee on the bill," Regina said.
Cruising past terraced wine estates, jutting rocks and the crumbling castles of the Wachau Valley, the landscape calls to mind the fairy-tale realms of the Brothers Grimm. We then slowly glided into Melk, famous for its Benedictine abbey hanging over the Danube.
Inside the abbey, rooms spill over with manuscripts and the fiercely baroque interiors (one writer once described it as like stepping into a rapper's mouth) overwhelm and delight in equal measure.
But it was Princess Anita von Hohenberg, descendant of an Austrian noble family, who was to provide us with the cherry on top of our perfect confection of cruising, history and culture. As part of our itinerary we were invited to a champagne reception at her nearby Artstetten Castle. Dressed in a smart navy dress and pearls — which once again brought the Iron Lady to mind — she cut a formidable figure as she stood before us, framed by oil paintings of the Habsburg-Lothringen dynasty to which she belongs.
The princess's pet, a wire-haired dachshund who answers to the name of Maurice, darted under a gilded chair as his owner spoke of her lineage. We all let out a collective gasp as she told us how her great-grandfather, no other than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is buried in the crypt, just a few floors down from where we were sat.
"We all carry our ancestors' rucksacks and history with us. Mine was written down, and perhaps yours wasn't, but we must remember it all with curiosity," the princess said as her ancestors looked on seriously and Maurice took off with a scrap of canape.
Then, with a grin and a cheer, the princess instructed us to "raise a glass to our different rucksacks!" And, more than a little rapt with wonder, we all did.
The Daily Telegraph