Romantic Danube – Nuremberg to Budapest
24 August 2014 – 1 September 2014
Realizing our vacation calendar was not meshing with the calendars of our usual travel companions, and after scouting several possibilities, we stayed with the tried-and-true Viking River Cruises, and chose a “round-the-corner” piece to last December’s Rhine cruise. (see Rhine page
Day 1: arrive in Nuremberg (on own)
Day 2: Nuremberg
Day 3: Regensburg (excursion to Kelheim, Danube Gorge)
Day 4: Passau
Day 5: Melk, Vienna (evening concert in Vienna)
Day 6: Vienna (excursion to Schönbrunn)
Day 7: Budapest
Day 8: Budapest (extension on own)
Day 9: leave early for Berlin, JFK, and Labor Day
A seven day tour of history-laden, eye-popping-scenic towns and waterways awaited, with excellent guides exuding knowledge of and enthusiasm for their hometowns, chef-prepared food reflecting the local cuisine, and a 200 member cast of like-minded world-explorers sharing a benchmark journey.
Big Stuff Pieces
With the capable mentoring from the Adamses, and others,
from our other vacations, we embarked on our first international solo
journey and were pleased that all the pieces of the puzzle smoothly
We had fussed and double-checked, hoping we had covered all the bases, and travel agent Jodi’s long talks gave Deb self-confidence
An early big decision was to drive to JFK (despite our misgivings of NYC traffic) but with some help from our first use of a GPS, we exhaled a sigh of relief as we pulled into the Parking Spot’s entrance.
And, traveling without our usual coterie was both missed and liberating. Missed, because sharing a life benchmark with friends is always welcome. Liberating, that same lack of connections encouraged making new ones.
The challenge of going solo was eased by our familiarity
with VRC from the Rhine cruise this past December. The routines of a Viking
cruise carried over—the morning excursions, the availability of optional
tours, food details, the role of the Director, bus loading procedures, and
more—creating a comfort zone from the start. And my unease that I experienced
on the Rhine cruise the first day or two—of planning one’s trip versus
accepting the cruise plan—was not even an issue this time, erased by
gods smiled favorably, a circumstance that is always welcome. We had previewed
the typical weather and found we should expect upper 60s for highs, low 50s for
lows at the cruise’s start, with an additional five degrees by journey’s
end. The first few days were about average while the last couple felt like our
As for precipitation, three of the first days saw rain and showers. Except the spigot turned off once we stepped ashore, and then resumed showering when we returned aboard. And the last few days were seasonably warm but welcome. Only our departure morning found rain and by then, it did not matter.
was our Jekyll & Hyde last time.
Having learned our lessons from December, we ate smarter this time—just as often but smaller portions, avoiding most of the mid-meal snacks. This time, we looked forward to the upcoming meal. (sample dinner menu)
Viking tries to include some regional cuisine; however, VRC needs to satisfy some of the across-the-ocean appetites. From the several choices for each dinner course, there was usually one that grabbed our interest. Lunch was similar but also had a complementary buffet that would have been good fare for most of our local restaurants. Earlier in the day, breakfast was a buffet affair that should have pleased any palate.
Some of our standout choices:
==> Appetizers: beef carpaccio with Boletus mushroom tartare, zucchini baked with goat cheese & sundried tomato
==> Main courses: zwiebelrostrbraten, pan-seared river trout, pan-seared rump steak, macadamia nut crusted black cod
==> Desserts: Crème Schnitte cake, Linzer cake, Tokager Wine Mousse, Dobosz cake, Esterhazy torte
==> And, the cheese plate, with at least two cheeses, and condiments
Although the purpose of a trip is to see places and sites,
an inescapable wild card is the people
we meet along the way. The ship is full of people about our age, about our
socio-economic status, all signing up to satisfy some lifelong wish.
As noted earlier, with no bubble of friends to seek out (or to insulate
with, depending on point-of-view), we met a half-dozen interesting and
compatible couples we might not have met otherwise.
The real find of the trip happened on Night One, with an empty two seats across from us in the lounge as we awaited the Director’s Welcome. Taking the seats were Dennis and Christine from Surrey, England. After introductions, I soon learned that Dennis and I shared an enthusiasm for cycling and an interest in wine (his was Rioja and South African Syrah), and I can see some of you rolling your eyeballs in acknowledgement of this coincidence.
So, we four became a comfortable quartet the rest of the trip, and were also joined for dinner by Ann and Hazel, long-time work friends from UK. I suppose this might be the nature of cruises, but our trip ambiance would have been different had we not met, and enjoyed the company of, Dennis and Christine.
We crossed paths with several other couples a few times or more, enjoyed their life stories, their travels, their likes.
And there were the stories of the staff we often met. Serving our table were Carla and Cruz, young marrieds who had left a four year old with Grandma so they could work. And Milutin, our room steward, would trade his stories about home (Belgrade) and life, reminding me, in a general way, of a younger me.
Itinerary details: Cruise-Days 1-8; our extension-Days 8-9
(Once again I considered a categorical account of the itinerary but the chronological won out—more logical, better flowing.)
► Day 1 found us arriving in Nuremberg before noon, with all flights and connections going well, even a taxi ride from the airport in the rain. After checking in and unpacking (the room was ready!), a transfer bus dropped us off in the town center for a couple hours and we roamed the center square area, knowing we would be given the official tour the following day. We relaxed and enjoyed dinner with our new-found friends.
► Day 2 found us boarding the bus for Nuremberg
at 8 a.m.—it felt early. Our guide, Sabine, narrated as the bus wound its way
toward Nuremberg. Chunks of Nazi history stare you in the face, and a stop at
the Zeppelin field where tens of thousands rallied to support Hitler sent a
chill up the spine. Nuremberg is one of the few European cities with its entire
old wall still in place, the circumnavigation of which gave a strong reminder
how cities of old operated. We stopped at the Imperial castle, rid ourselves of
the bus, toured the castle grounds and views, listened to Sabine’s narrated
history, and then started our walking tour into Market Square’s half-timbered
We drove back to the ship for lunch, and waited for Idun to set sail for the afternoon and evening toward the next port. The Main Canal was officially completed in 1992, connecting the Rhine and Danube Rivers, and allowing trade between the North Sea and the Black Sea, a deed as important as our Erie Canal was in 1825.
Twenty-six locks awaited us and, and in an afternoon light, a crowd curiously watched the lock-opening process once or even twice. Excitement brewed as the ship mysteriously slowed with no lock in sight, docked in the Main Canal, and we took aboard a frantic guest who had missed the departure deadline from Nuremberg. Quite lucky he was, that the ship was in a rare spot to let him on before the next port.
lecture about the European Union started at 2, followed by a German tea, and desserts. Dennis and I talked European politics (he talked, I asked questions). This interlude was noticeably earlier than the first lull on the Rhine cruise, and I suspect many people welcomed this pause in the action.
► I awoke Day 3 with the ship still sailing but by
7:30 it had pulled into Regensburg—a smaller, older feeling town than
Nuremberg. Ute, our guide, was another excellent guide, reconnoitering with the
enthusiasm of a person fifty years younger! It was clear she knew where she was
going when one impending stop was interrupted by five emergency vehicles
responding to a fire.
She about-faced and showed us what would have been the last half-hour of the tour – the Jewish quarter. In between, we found the Gothic St. Peter’s Church, the Old Town Hall, and the 12th century Old Stone Bridge.
When lunch finished, Deb and I, and about 100 of the 190 guests, boarded the bus for our first optional tour – to Kelheim and the Danube Gorge. Our guide, Kati (mother of two teenagers) led us through the scenic, somewhat touristy, crossroads of the old town where we visited a Biergarten (and partook!), before boarding a ferry that worked upstream through the Danube Gorge, a narrow part of the river no Viking ship could handle. At some parts, the gorge was no wider than the Catskill Creek in Catskill, with steep wooded cliffs.
After the ferry reconnoitered a handful or two of curves, we espied the much visited Weltenberg Abbey where we sat for a history of the church and of the abbey. A restaurant and biergarten awaited anyone who needed more food or drink. At the designated hour, we walked about a mile to the bus, heading for home after a tiring day.
The Sounds of Europe show started at 9:15 and the performers belted out the Broadway and movie hits of the last 50 years that they thought Viking customers must like. (And most did but I felt like I was in a senior citizen home listening to old songs and not authentic European music.) The ship set sail at almost 11 for the next port.
► Day 4 found me up at 6:45 on a gray showery day,
not yet arrived at Passau. We would not dock until 10, allowing everyone an
extra hour or two to gather strength. I watched the empty river banks and
occasional towns glide by for a half-hour while I scribbled a couple post cards.
Conrad, a graduate assistant from the city’s college, deftly guided us around the center island before venturing across the Inn River to the old town. The Danube is joined in Passau by the Inn and Ilz Rivers, the three rivers with their own distinct colors because of their origins. Conrad pointed out the obvious damage from the June 2013 flood that proved to be one of the two or three worst in the last 600 years in Passau.
At noon, everyone convened at St. Stephen’s Church for an organ recital from one of the largest organs in Europe, all 18,000 pipes, and a virtuoso performance. After lunch, Deb and I wandered back to the pedestrian shopping streets (about ten different roads) and where Deb found her cat pocketbook.
Returning to the ship about 4:30, we finally spent some comfortable time on the sun deck before heading for the Austrian food night, where we used four different stations for food. The most interesting one was the kitchen/galley, a rare peek inside the belly of the beast. You name an Austrian food or dessert, and it was likely to be available.
We set sail during dinner, and as dusk was falling, we entered a steeply sloped, sinuous section of river. At one point, the ship slowed and deposited the two musicians (performing during the dinner) at a magnificent hotel, the Doman Schonge, in the middle of nowhere. I need to check it out some time.
► Day 5 found us in fog-bound Melk, and we
boarded the bus for a short drive to the Melk Abbey, mostly to spare us from
having to hike up the half-mountain. We could have walked, and did so on the
The fog half-lifted and by the time we entered the Abbey, it was almost clear, another in an every-day string of weather that broke for us at every opportunity.
Queen Maria Theresa, and her entourage of 400, spent one night at Melk, giving the Abbey a distinguishing mark it has never yielded. Melk Abbey is too impressive to put into words. Google it.
Christine and Deb, Dennis and I walked back through town, enjoying the shops and quiet streets. Dennis and I found a quite helpful wine store where we bought a Gruner Veltliner to taste test during dinner. Along the way, we encountered a convoy of Danish cyclists making their way from Passau to Vienna, causing some envy for the Viking-bound wanna-be-cyclist.
The ship set sail for Vienna but the main attraction on the Danube this afternoon was the Wachau Valley and its vineyard-laden hillsides surrounding the old towns, churches and castles. It was almost as powerful as the mid-Rhine’s vineyard alley! And the mid-70s temps allowed half the ship to go to the sun deck and laze in the late August sun amid such grand beauty.
Dinner was served, and our second optional tour sped to a Mozart/Strauss concert at the Hofburg Palace, the winter home of the Hapsburgs. The concert area must have been a large reception hall, it holding nearly 2000 of us for the concert, a playful and crowd-pleasing collection of instrumental and operatic music.
We re-boarded at 10:30 where the crew was waiting with goulash soup!
► I awoke at 6:30 on Day 6 (my, it is sounding
like the end), went to the sundeck where I talked with Victor of Calgary and Jim
of Tennessee, who were standing on the sun deck of another Viking ship that was
moored beside us!
Over breakfast, Deb and I chatted with Charlie and Barbara again, and their friends, all from the Centerville and Bull Run, VA areas.
We were docked three Viking ships wide, having to pass through two others to get to the dock where Marcus, our Vienna guide awaited—another top-notch guide. He narrated for an hour on the bus, then another hour on the ground. Then, our foursome strolled through the beyond-our-price-range shops before settling down at an outdoor café, sitting under a sun-drenched umbrella, watching hundreds of people enjoying themselves on yet another pedestrian street.
Dennis and I bought a blaufrankisch for another wine taste test, we boarded the bus to head back to lunch, before we re-boarded for our third, and last, optional tour, this time to the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Viennese Hapsburgs.
Deb and I faced a different guide, the first mediocre one, and we sneaked off to join the group that had Marcus, who once again was magnificent. Once outside, the four of us toured the gardens quickly, snapped some photos, and rejoined the bus to head for Idun.
A reception for repeat Viking-goers awaited, and Deb outdid her usual self with a cocktail and a shot of Aquavit! Add some wine, and she had some head-fullness in the morning. During the Captain’s Dinner, we cheered the staff, especially Carla and Cruz.
► The end is creeping up. On Day 7, I arose at
6:30 to write out ten post cards in the lounge as the ship sailed through river
banks that reminded me of the Hudson River from Saugerties to Poughkeepsie.
Another quality guide, George, led us on a bus tour into the heart of Budapest
via Andrassy Ut, a UNESCO area, stopping at the Heroes Monument, across the
river to Buda and stopping at Castle Hill and Matthias Church, and finally
meandering across the Danube and around the Parliament Building.
The six of us re-joined for lunch, with Ann and Hazel taking the optional horse tour, while the remaining four us decided to try the Szechenyi Baths. So we four old kids cavorted in the pools, the rapid ring, and saunas along with the hundreds of locals on a Saturday afternoon.
We six convened for dinner one last time, and were happily surprised by an announcement that the ship would make one unannounced cruise—up and down the docking spot, at 9 pm, to see the city lights, to be enjoyed with Tokaj and Hungarian delights. It proved to be one of the short list of highlights of the trip!
► Day 8 was a tease for some, especially those
who had to awake at 4 am to put bags out the door in order to catch a 6 a.m.
bus/flight. We had the good sense to stay an extra day, paid our bills, said our
farewells during breakfast, traded emails and addresses, and parted ways.
A soft rain was falling when a taxi driver picked us up at 9:15 and deposited us at the Intercontinental, three hundred yards away, where our room was ready. Thank you. Deb and I walked across the Chain Bridge and took the funicular and spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon at the heart of Buda’s old town on Castle Hill’s summit. We wandered the streets we had not the previous day, and had lunch at one of the delis there (beef stew, rice).
We took a break in our room for a couple hours and then scouted the streets north of the hotel, finding Vaci Utca, a tourist-friendly street with a food mart a block long. Back at the room, we watched from the wide window sill as the lights across the river brightened, gazed at the falling rain, and startled as a bolt of lightning traced the southern sky.
To bed at 9, up at 6:15 on Day 9 to find one of the most magnificent breakfasts we have ever seen, met up with our pre-arranged taxi to the airport, and waved good-bye to Europe from Berlin.
Budapest had an unfair advantage—it received more time than any other place. No matter, it would have wowed us anyway.
Budapest has the most dramatic entry of any other town/city, with the Parliament on the left bank, and Castle Hill on the right, on its dramatic bluff a few hundred feet above the river. Add lights fading on at dusk and brightening at dark, throw in the variety of lighting schemes of the bridges that connect Buda and Pest, allow for reflections of city and building lights off the fast moving Danube, throw in a bonus fireworks and a lightning bolt, and no other city compared. (OK, Passau is also special.) And I do not recall any city on the Rhine cruise that would compete although Koblenz was interesting.
Our extra day in Budapest allowed more “leisurely touring,” as VRC calls it, adding to another layer of understanding that cemented our enjoyment.
Wine continued to be a focus of interest. Winery Morwald is still the maker of the house wines: on this cruise, Gruner Veltliner, for the white, and Blauer Zweigelt for the red. I don’t think anyone complained, especially when beer and wine is free with meals. Still, I think the house wines are average, at best, and usually any alternative is a pleasant respite.
Occasionally, they do have a variation.
So, we took matters in our own hands. Dennis and I, on three nights, brought a bottle we had purchased from a store (supermarket, unlike NYS), and taste-tested a Gruner Veltliner, a Blaufrankisch, and a Hungarian merlot against the house white/red—a welcome comparison for our table of six.
And sweet wine lover Hazel arranged for an Eiswein one evening—another worthy experiment.
The other wine story was the afternoon sail through the Wachau Valley, where pleasing villages—stippled with a church spire, old castle, and a half-dozen pastel shades—were surrounded by steep hillsides dominated with vineyards. It certainly rivaled the mid-Rhine.
Preparation -- Jody, planes, taxis
Deb had taken main responsibility for the trip’s details. And the connection with the Carrs’ travel agent, Jodi, helped Deb have a good feel about details, deadlines, and planning. A thank you to Jodi.
Our Air Berlin flights, over and back, were both connectors, to Nuremberg via Dusseldorf, and from Budapest via Berlin before homing in at JFK. Yep, seat space is small, eight hours is a long time, but all went smoothly enough, even the 15-minutes-to-spare experience in Berlin.
Customs seems to vary enough that one wonders what security really means.
Deb and Jodi had arranged for vouchers for transfers and hotel in Budapest, and they worked well. Our taxi in Nuremberg was an experience only because we had 25 Euros left over from our last trip for a taxi ride that would cost 25 Euros. (about $1.3 for 1€)
We used Parking Spot once again and, for about $15 a day, we felt safe leaving our car in someone else’s hands. A call to PS produced a transfer bus in three minutes, and our car was ready to roll.
Every day featured one inclusive tour. When one pauses to reflect that plans for 190 people must be made, smoothly, one appreciates VRC efforts. Four buses would load up, each with a guide, and off we would depart. Of course, they have practice but VRC does it well. The only clumsy time was the arrival back from Nuremberg for lunch, with all four buses unloading at the same time, the line queueing up a steep boarding ramp, and a 10-15 minute waited for the end of the line (from where I watched).
The optional, or extra cost, tours are often enticing. Deb and I chose the Kelheim/Danube Gorge/Weltenberg Abbey tour, the Strauss/Mozart evening concert, and the Schonbrunn Palace tour—all excellent. Two other tours we chose to avoid.
We enjoyed the Quiet Box wireless audio setup, and saw other groups without such a device, thankful our touring was made easier with their inclusion.
Guides were top-notch. They knew more information than I could remember after reading for hours, readily responded to questions, and were personable.
During those non-touring afternoons, lectures of local culture were given, perhaps about ten or so. I found the European Union lecture a concise historical piece; other enjoyable lectures/demonstrations included: German tea time, Viennese coffee houses, making an apple strudel, and a half dozen more.
Scrambling for Euros
We should have known better. We had switched banks, with a new debit card from a local bank. Our first attempt, and every time after that, a message of “transaction cannot be completed” flashed, and our stomachs churned for a couple days. Finally, one of Nuremberg’s smaller banks issued Euros with our passport and a credit card, allowing us to make the small purchases for which cash was expected.
The Idun was immediately familiar, with a floor plan practically identical to the Baldur, our Rhine ship, so we were in comfortable territory from the outset. There were a few differences, most notably the entry wall into the dining room—glass instead of teak. Otherwise, we had nearly the same room with the same window view, and so on. For more on Viking ships, go to their website.
Urban vs rural: The nature of the beast means two hundred people have to be close to a population center, unlike our France trip two years ago, when four of us rented a car. We did see some rural areas this time but only when the bus trip took a half hour to get some place. But this was after all, as promised, a river cruise.
Jet lag: Once again, we took our usual precautions, waded into the first day full steam ahead and felt nary a twinge of jet lag. However, upon arriving home, once again, we dealt with eyes that ached with tiredness by mid-evening, followed by the urge to rise early. (I would gladly have bicycled with Jonas at 4 a.m. the day after our return.) Three days got us back to normal.
Docking sites: Everyone likes docking within walking distance of the town/city; VRC seems able to make that happen half the time. It worked for Melk (although we took a bus to spare us the climb), Passau, and Budapest. The others required a bus to expedite the tours.
Pacing: The timing of morning departures and daytime sails affects VRCers more than one would expect. An afternoon of sailing on Day 2 on the Main Canal was more welcome than I realized, as was the afternoon through the Wachau Valley. Even the two mornings of a 10 a.m. start allowed an easing of the potentially frenetic pace. Of course, the price to be paid is to see less, but a tired brain and body might see less also.
Twenty-six locks awaited us on the Main Canal, and more on the Danube. Customarily, passengers sleep through most of them because the ship usually sails at night. However, because of two daytime sails, and two late arrivals, the locks drew much more attention and interest than our Rhine trip. The Main Canal connects the Rhine and the Danube, meaning since 1992, ship travel can go from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
Diversity: This cruise was a bit more diverse than the Rhine Christmas Market cruise, possibly due to the end-of-summer timing. Nearly a third of the ship came from UK this time, with a few younger couples, and a few non-Caucasian couples.
VRC daily info: As usual, just before dinner, with almost everyone assembled in the upper lounge, the Program Director provided a briefing of the activities for the following day, housekeeping notes, etc. For some reason, Barry Sommers was a much more comfortable fit in that role than the Rhine experience. And then, during dinner, the staff, as they made up the rooms for the second time that day, placed on our beds the Viking Daily—a four page letter of the schedule for the following day with a compilation of history and culture of the areas we would be viewing. These letters also served as a concise reminder of our trip. (sample)
Cost: Our Romantic Danube cruise, in the end, cost considerably more than our Rhine cruise in December. But, one must take into account high season versus low season, and airline tickets were a much bigger expense. Tips add the usual amount, and gifts and other purchases are up to each individual. Ultimately, it was worth it for us.
Security: Warily optimistic is how we travel—optimistic that the world is a good place where no evil lurks; wary in case those lurkers exist. It was easy to overlook how much VRC did to ensure our safety: reminders, daily ID passes to return from trips off-ship, guides with markers, safe destinations, address cards in case we needed to return on our own, and so on. Somehow, whether it be from experience or a sense of false security, we were not as concerned about safety as our first trip. Nothing lost, nothing stolen, no unfortunate encounters. The one time I started to look around was upon leaving the JFK terminal.
Sleep/noise: VRC beds were comfortable and roomy. Again, one unusual distraction, or attraction, were night noises, especially at sleeping time, as the ship wended its way to the next destination. Rough water, the engines of passing boats, docking, and navigating the locks made for a sound-fill that might be bothersome to some but acted as white noise most of the time for us. An occasional bump in a lock might be noticeable, and one particular one woke both of us.
=> We were amused by the obvious differences in the
use of eating utensils between UKers and Americans. We tried imitating their
style of overturned fork in left hand, knife in right hand pushing food into the
tines or onto the top of the overturned fork. They smiled at our right-handed
forks being set down for knives when cutting was needed.
=> The women enjoyed the long stem rose as we entered the dining area for the Captain’s Dinner
=> Americans need to become accustomed to bicycling lanes. Cyclists own the lanes, with pedestrians needing to be the careful ones.
=> Instead of sewing, as she did on the Rhine cruise, Deb used her newly honed artistic skills to sketch scenes along the river.
=> Our connector from Dusseldorf to Nuremberg was a twin prop. Quite a change from the usual.
=> Day 2 means a safety drill on ship.
=> Nuremberg’s laws forbid decorations on the exterior walls—except for sundials, sketches of saints, and bay rooms.
=> Budapest’s Parliament is the centerpiece of Viking’s advertisement. Even our view could not match the TV ad, it was still quite stirring to come abreast as the ship went to dock just downstream.
=> The town market in Nuremberg reminded us of Beaune’s market.
=> The Wachau Valley goes from Melk to Krems.
=> After the Mozart/Strauss concert, we found our bus but worried about the confusion of twenty busloads of passengers trying to find their bus. New part-time Viking employee Deb jumped out of her seat, grabbed the bus sign, and helped direct traffic for the next twenty minutes, garnering several notes of appreciation and agreement.
> The fate of Jewish cemeteries in Regensburg a few hundred years ago was on view—destroyed but the remnant stones were used for steps, siding, and even a toilet seat.
=> And connecting with the previous note, stumblestones, with the name of a deported Jew and their fate, were implanted in the sidewalk in front of the house where they lived.
=> Brats and wursts, of course, abounded even if we ate few.
=> I filled out twenty postcards. Too bad I could not find one worthy for our naughty card connoisseurs.
=> Of course, Deb had her photo album compiled three days upon returning home - a meaningful way of preserving our memories.
A second VRC has passed, not only leaving behind an abundance of enjoyable memories but also inspiring the urge to revisit more fully so many sights we passed by too quickly.
And, we passed the test of going solo for the first time, we think.
And the writing of these details, and the memories this writing has implanted, reminds us not only of life’s shared ride with so many others, but also how a journey gathers its own perspective, depending on many factors, especially experience and motivation. I think a 2016 cruise is already booked.