Anna Harrison discovers a bit of hands-on history as well as the joy of breakfast in bed.
The best bit of river cruising has to be watching the world go by from the comfort of your own bed. Propped up with pillows, with coffee in one hand and a pastry in the other, there's a slight breeze through the window and the sound of water lapping the ship's hull.
I'd wake up this way every morning if I could. I'm on the new Avalon Envision, a river cruise boat sailing the Danube.
Despite my slow start to the day, I've signed up for an Active and Discovery cruise. You can opt for the classic sightseeing tours but I figure there's time for historic buildings later, especially in this storied part of Europe, and I want a more hands-on experience.
When we arrive in Budapest, a bunch of fellow passengers head off to see the Parliament buildings, while a few of us more intrepid types set off for the famous Szamos sweets shop in Vaci Utca. There we meet the chef who will train us in the art of chocolate-making.
Andor, in a striped apron and tilted hat, pours liquid chocolate on to the bench for tempering, explaining animatedly in Hungarian what we're going to do.
Our guide translates but it's far more interesting trying to catch the odd word I might understand.
Hungarian is notoriously difficult to learn. It has 46 letters — the 26 that English has plus four more variations on each vowel — and it's impossible to get my mouth around the sounds without butchering the words.
The chocolates we're making will be filled with marzipan infused with cherry palinka liqueur, and he gives us a glass to try. It's like being whacked over the head. This Hungarian fruit brandy is at least 50 per cent alcohol — but he tells us some people have a shot before breakfast so I harden up and take another sip.
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By the time the chocolates have set, my Hungarian has improved markedly.
The next day, we make our way across the iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge to the Buda side of the city. Hidden in the caves underneath the Castle District is a secret hospital and nuclear bunker. It's just the kind of museum I want to explore. The Hospital in the Rock was built as Europe prepared for war and it opened towards the end of 1944.
The people of the city were trapped during the 50- day Siege of Budapest as the Red Army advanced. The hospital treated the wounded in the bowels of the city while bombs hit above ground.
We enter the caves behind one of the museum guides. The air becomes stale as we enter a corridor with whitewashed walls and bright-green doors.
In each room wax figures are caught in the act of lifesaving surgeries on patients whose faces are twisted in pain. Soldiers decode radio messages in the office while nurses dress wounds in the wards. It's pretty confronting, but being down here gives you a sense of how awful conditions must have been.
Hygiene was a serious issue in the hospital. The water supply was cut off for two weeks during the siege, as was the link to the hospital above ground so the nurses had to reuse bandages from dead bodies.
There were about 60 beds but at the height of the battle, up to 700 patients lined the halls.
It would have been hellish, with the temperature rising to the mid 30s from overcrowding and the stench of infection and tobacco smoke in the air.
The hospital was used again in 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution. Once again doctors went underground to treat the wounded and this time seven babies — six boys and a girl — were delivered during those fraught few weeks before the uprising was brutally crushed by the Soviets.
Later, the hospital was refitted in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War and the gas masks and oxygen tanks can still be seen.
It's a sobering and fascinating place.
The next day is a sailing day and I take my breakfast on the top deck, watching the views slowly change from grand bridges and buildings, past Margaret Island, to a line of trees along the banks.
We arrive in Visegrad, at the bend in the Danube, surrounded by the forested hills of a national park.
You can ask the chef to pack you lunch and take a bike to have a look around, or go out kayaking with a local instructor. I want to walk up through the woods to get a good view overlooking the river.
Visegrad is a sleepy little town of about 1900 people, but its history stretches back before the Soviets and the Ottomans and the Habsburgs of Austria. It was the powerhouse of Hungary when King Karoly Robert made it his capital in the 1300s and brokered alliances with the kings of Poland and Bohemia.
The remains of a medieval citadel and a royal summer palace can still be seen, although they're now just a few crumbling walls.
But it's here that we're in for a display of showmanship from members of the Knightly Order of St George. We follow the sound of drums up the hill to an arena in the shadow of the Solomon Tower.
Our guide Judith, in a velvet dress in spite of the heat, picks a king and queen from our group as well as a jester and someone to be punished, who is made to sit on a chair of nails.
Then, with a blast of trumpets, our knights enter the arena. They take turns competing with spears, crossbows and throwing stars.
A hawk flies scarily close over our heads to her handler, then the hand-to-hand combat begins with the men taking to each other with swords, axes, shields and flails. It's obvious they're skilled but by the end it's more slapstick than sparring match as the knights trip each other up and pretend to poke each other's eyes out.
Our newly minted royals are more interested in taking selfies. Then it's our turn to have a go with the throwing stars. I'm told to relax my arm but still manage to miss the target completely and am sent off to the iron throne. It's all slightly cheesy but in good fun. And once the fighting is done, we head back down the hill, stopping to take in the views.
The real star is the beauty of this area. There's the quaint little town, with our ship moored alongside, and the gleaming river that stretches out in front of us, ready to take us to our next adventure.
Anna Harrison travelled courtesy of Avalon Waterways.
How to get there
Qatar Airways flies to Budapest via Doha, for around $1900 return.
What to do
Avalon runs river cruises ranging from four-day taster trips to 27-day cruises across the European continent.