On the run in Vienna (plus conducting, cooking, cycling and cruising)
So much to see, but not enough time – it’s always a challenge when you’re in a beautiful place for a short period. Having previously crept through a small part of Vienna at a snail’s pace on a frustratingly slow group tour, this time around I was on the run – not, I hasten to add from the long arm of the law, but alongside the legs of Florian Tischler.
Florian helps visitors go the extra mile in the Austrian capital by combining his love of sport with running, in every sense of the word, novel sightseeing tours. In the time it takes to board a tour bus, sort out the pecking order for seats, take off your coat, be introduced to the driver and listen to the guide’s preamble Florian will already be pointing out sights on the city’s famous circular Ringstrasse boulevard.
River cruise line Avalon Waterways has teamed up with Florian and Vienna Sight Running as part of its new Active Discovery programme. Shore excursions offered by river cruise companies are usually involve gentle walking and bus tours. Nothing wrong with that of course, but Avalon has tapped into the fact that there are plenty of energetic cruisers who also want to try new experiences (and try and offset the delicious and tempting fare that’s also a trademark of river cruising).
I was lucky enough to road test the exciting and exhilarating innovations in the offing on a preview cruise on the Danube. During the run on and around the Ringstrasse, which follows the circle of Vienna’s ancient city walls, we saw one of Beethoven’s unassuming houses, the grand stables and a glimpse of the beautiful equine inhabitants of the Spanish Riding School, the Greek Revival style Austrian Parliament Building, the imposing twin buildings of the art and natural history museums and the cafe where psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud sipped coffee – and got back in plenty of time for a morning brew on our riverboat. Guests set the pace, and there’s a run for everyone, from occasional joggers to full-on marathon types.
Having ticked off so many of the sights during the 6km run, the rest of the day was left to enjoy a totally new take on Vienna’s renowned musical heritage. The afternoon brought a waltz lesson in the elegant surroundings of the Palais Eschenbach. Instead of a CD player we were amazed to find a string quartet waiting to accompany our faltering steps. We were even more astonished to discover our teacher, Thomas Kraml, is a pro from Austria’s version of Strictly.
“Left forward for the men, right back for the ladies”, instructed Thomas as he and his wife Bianca made it look effortless as they spun round to the familiar strains of the Blue Danube. But his patience paid off, and within 20 minutes we’d more or less mastered the box step that forms the basic foundation of Vienna’s renowned dance.
The limits of my musical abilities are confined to distant memories of playing the recorder at school; yet I couldn’t resist signing up for the ‘Conduct Your Own Orchestra’ session, another of Avalon’s forthcoming optional activities. Also held in Palais Eschenbach, it proved to be another unforgettable highlight as conductor Michael Zehetner let us loose on the equally forgiving members of the ten-strong Vienna Supreme Concert Orchestra.
Teaching us the basic rhythm of the waltz and polka we took to the stage one by one and raised the baton. It was an extraordinary feeling as the players struck up the opening bars of the Jockey Polka, by Josef Strauss, but then things started to go off course as I lost the beat and they slowed down accordingly. Although this opportunity would be a music expert’s dream, anyone can have a go and the whole emphasis is on fun, for all concerned. Later we returned for the orchestra’s note perfect evening concert and saw how it should really be done.
As well as the new activities, Avalon is overhauling the vegetarian options on its menus with the help of Viennese culinary brothers Karl and Leo Wrenkh. Avalon Fresh will be rolled out across the fleet, and we had a taste of what’s to come in the cookery classroom next to the siblings’ restaurant. With the emphasis on less is more, uncomplicated seasonal ingredients combined with herbs and spices, and not getting hot and bothered with intricate preparation techniques, Leo showed us how we could replicate delicious dishes at home.
Our voyage of discovery took us further down the Danube, with stops including the charming town of Grein with its tiny playhouse that’s Austria’s oldest working theatre and was once linked to the jail enabling prisoners to watch performances.
In the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley, arguably the prettiest stretch of the Danube, we paddled and peddled; firstly embarking on a downstream canoe expedition followed by a three-hour cycle ride along trails through vineyards and delightful riverside villages. Our amiable foghorn-voiced leader even managed to attract the attention of our Avalon vessel as it sailed past to meet us in Melk, and fellow passengers waved from the sun deck.
Another day we joined a Sound of Music-style hike through woodland and meadows bordering the Danube.
Having been given the run around by Florian – in the nicest possible way – put fancy footwork to the test with Thomas, exercised our arms and minds with Michael and thrown ourselves into all the other activities, we felt fully justified to relax back on the vessel and enjoy a restorative glass or two of Gruner Veltliner, and other regional wines that are complimentary with lunch and dinner, and a couple of slices of cake at the daily afternoon tea.
This is the only river cruise where I’ve returned home with a souvenir conductor’s baton and host of unique new memories, as opposed to the usual couple of belt-loosening notches around my waist.
Avalon Waterways features a range of European river cruises from 7-24 nights. In 2018 there will be nine Active Discovery cruises on the Danube, from Budapest to Linz or in reverse, with prices from £2,299 based on two people sharing a cabin, including a private home pick up service (within 100 miles of UK airport) all on board meals, wine with lunch and dinner, daily excursions, tips, flights and transfers. To book or for more information call 0800 440 2798.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Avalon Waterways