In the 1950s, film-makers decided that the Austria’s Wachau Valley, a soft-focus land of plenty, of vineyards and soft fruits, was the perfect dreamy location for romantic films. The world fell in love with the wooded steep gorges of the Danube valley.
When we meet the 118 metres of elegance that is the A-ROSA Donna, at Engelhartszell in Austria, it is apt that she sports a single crimson red-rose on her hull. Even more appropriately, ever lady is given a red rose as she steps aboard for a cruise on Europe’s most romantic of rivers.
Our international cruise, serving both British and German passengers, is a 5-nights introduction to the Danube sailing overnight to Vienna, thence to Budapest, before turning back to take in Bratislava and a morning in the Wachau Valley.
Already on our first full day in Vienna, having fallen in love with the grandeur of the capital of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, some passengers have their regrets: “I wish we’d booked a longer cruise.” A-ROSA also offer 7-night cruises, mooring up overnight in Vienna, giving passengers the opportunity to take in a musical performance. After all, Vienna has four opera houses and three orchestras. It was the capital of the waltz, a dance so addictive in Vienna’s golden days of empire, that one dance hall was surrounded by 19 birthing rooms, enabling pregnant ladies to keep dancing until that first contraction.
Vienna is a grandiose city with wide leafy boulevards and a plethora of palatial buildings. Above the Hofburg Palace there are two globes symbolising the aspirations of the Habsburg dynasty who, during their six centuries of rule, believed that their purpose was to bring order to both earth and heaven. The Spanish Riding School, with its immaculate white horses prancing their dressage steps, epitomises the splendour of the Habsburg reign. But why Spanish? When the Habsburgs lost Spain as part of their empire, they moved the Riding School to Austria.
While some passengers seek more time in Vienna others are acquiring a love of river-cruising, waking to misty early morning views of mid-stream islands slipping by. Even the spa has large picture windows so that you will never miss a hill-top castle, church or medieval monastery. For over a millennium, towns along the Danube grew rich from tolls on ships trading corn, salt, wine and many other commodities. Nearly 1,800 miles long, the Danube, rising in Germany’s Black Forest and emptying into the Black Sea, provides plenty of opportunity for longer cruises.
Without doubt, the best way to arrive in Budapest is by river. As we sail into Hungary’s capital, stood on the sun-deck for the very best view, the catering crew provide a glass of Hungarian wine and a traditional Hungarian pastry. A commentary identifies the sights as we arrive: the 258 metres long Parliament building based on the neo-gothic grandeur of London’s Houses of Parliament, Fisherman’s Bastion that was once a fishermen’s market but now provides superb views down over the Danube. Then there is the Liberty Statue constructed high in the Buda hills in 1947 by the Russian occupiers to pay tribute to those who died freeing Hungary from the Nazis.
As ever, passengers have a choice. The ship provides bikes, helmets, information and a map for those who wish to explore on two wheels. Suzanne, our host, gives advice on the metro, prices and sights for those who want to walk and explore independently. But Budapest, with hilly Buda on the western bank and flatter Pest on the eastern bank is a big city. Most passengers opt for a coach tour that whisks them from Heroes Square to a stop high in in the Buda Hills for the views before calling in on Mathias Church and the neighbouring Fisherman’s Bastion. As we leave a spectacularly illuminated Budapest early in the evening, it is a sad moment, we are already on our way back, heading for a lunchtime docking at Bratislava the next day.
Although Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a country created in 1993, after the departure of Russian forces, Bratislava, with a medieval and gothic heart, is a much smaller city than either Vienna or Budapest. A mini-train takes passengers up to the views from its castle. Then it is easy walking around the winding cobbled streets of a city that is enjoying its freedom, the galleries and shops show the explosion of artistic creation that has followed independence.
Sailing through the night allows us to moor up in the Wachau Valley for a morning’s excursion that gives a sense of just how busy the Danube once was. When granite blocked the northern towpath, a ferry took 40 horses at a time across the river to a village appropriately named Horse Jump. Durnstein, a quaint medieval village, was built safely above the flood levels, peaking at 12 metres, marked on the lower town walls. Traditionally, apricots have been a major crop of a valley which even features an annual apricot festival. Durnstein sells all things apricot: chocolate, jam, schnapps, wine and even charred apricot stones which are edible.
Further along the valley sits the imposing Baroque monastery at Melk. This was the Church of the Counter Reformation promoting a heavenly vision of Catholicism through architecture, art and learning. If you were to read one book a day from its library, it would take you a mere 280 years to get through its collection – though of course new books would be added to the collection.
Finally, over a last dinner, cruisers reflect on their introduction to the Danube. First-time river-cruisers have been delighted by the size of their cabins with large picture windows and impressed by width of the bed and ample storage space. Buffet meals are declared a success. Theme nights of Bavarian, Austrian, Hungarian and lastly an international buffet have provided something for everyone. An A-ROSA Danube Highlights river cruise is an effortless and luxurious way of getting to know three of Europe’s great capitals.
For more information on this A-ROSA river cruise and more visit www.arosa-cruises.co.uk