Ian Cooper experiences this Avalon Waterways special interest river cruise on the Danube
My wife and I are cruising the river Danube aboard the Avalon Envision on a themed Jewish Heritage cruise, laid over one of the company’s main itineraries. Not all, but many of our fellow guests are here to re-connect with their Jewish roots. During our 8 days cruise through Hungry, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, the story was the same … large Jewish populations almost wiped out in World War 2. The places and statistics changed, but the crime was the same, with this stain on humanity being marked by several powerful remembrances.
A big challenge for river cruise operators is how to differentiate their offerings. One answer has been to create a range of ‘special interest’ cruises, and Avalon Waterways are one of the leaders, with a large choice of specialist focused trips.
Budapest was our first stop. After touring both sides of the city, our guide led us to the Dohany street synagogue, the largest in Europe. Here is the Holocaust memorial resembling a huge weeping willow tree, whose silver-coloured leaves were individually inscribed with the names of victims.
On the Danube promenade we saw ‘The Shoes’. Made of iron and set into the concrete, they are an emotional memorial to the Jews who were told to step out of their footwear before being shot, with their bodies falling into the river. Painful to imagine such inhumanity.
After a tiring first day it was back to the ship for some rest.
Our air-conditioned suite, was modern with a sumptuously comfortable bed, facing the huge opening windows, giving us a ‘front row’ river view. The TV, safe, luxury toiletries and a very powerful shower meant we were travelling in comfort.
As regards food, I had promised myself before the trip that I would make wise choices at mealtimes. Yet the moment I saw the choice of food on offer, this ‘wisdom’ was always postponed until tomorrow!
Breakfast and lunch were normally a buffet, but dinner was beautifully served. There was always a range of choices, often based around the traditions of the country we were visiting. Special dietary preferences were also catered for with plenty of alternatives.
Wine, beer and soft drinks were included with lunch and dinners and the waiters were very generous. Any additional drinks were charged to your room. One final losing battle with willpower was afternoon tea with traditional gateaux.
Everyday Avalon offered included excursions, balancing general holiday sight-seeing and the Jewish Heritage theme.
In Bratislava, some guests hiked to the hilltop castle, whilst others chose the walking tour. I particularly enjoyed Bratislava’s quirky landmark, the sculpture of the man peeping up from the manhole. Our guide also took us through the old Jewish areas.
Onto Vienna with a tour of the main sites of general interest and an opportunity to visit the synagogue. Like a ‘theatre in the round’ inside, it survived the war, because from the outside it appeared to be just another residential property. The holocaust memorial, in Vienna was a sculptured library, where all the books on the shelves were back to front. This was to indicate all the ‘life stories’ that were never told!
My favourite thing to do on a river cruise is to ‘cruise’, so sitting on the sun deck in the ‘hot tub’, sailing through the scenic Wachau Valley was idyllic. We stopped for a visit to Durnstein, famous for its apricot liquor products and the adventurer in me opted for a tough hike to the castle, where Richard the Lionheart had been imprisoned.
In the Austrian city of Linz, I discovered that not only was this where Adolf Hitler had lived and gone to school, but so had Adolf Eichmann. Believe it or not, both Adolfs had the same teacher! One wonders what poison was in the water in Linz, to breed such evil?
Our touring ended in Passau, just inside the German border on the fascinating confluence of three rivers … the Inn, the Ilz and the Danube.
Two popular excursions had to be paid for. A music concert in Vienna to hear Mozart, Strauss and others. Very uplifting. However, quite the opposite, the visit to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Not the sort of place you would normally put high on your holiday hit list, but because of the shared roots of many of the guests, they felt compelled to go. Several commented this was because they knew ‘they’ could leave after the tour!
Everything about this cruise was informal and friendly. Conversation was easy and there was no dressing up for dinner. You could sit anywhere and with whoever you wanted at any meal. It didn’t take long before pictures of grandchildren were being passed around.
Evenings were always fun too. One night a Klezmer band livened things up, and on another my Karaoke rendition of ‘Bye Bye Love’, virtually emptied the lounge!
People look for different things when travelling. Some just want to relax, whilst others like to be stimulated by experiences. This cruise combined both. A masterclass in ‘guest service’, Avalon Waterways delivered on luxury, cuisine and comfort but with the special interest of ‘Jewish Heritage’ at its core.
We all came away with a better understanding of what the communities of Europe endured and of the spirit, strength and resilience of the Jewish people.
Avalon Waterways Danube Dreams cruise is offered regularly between April and October and the special interest Jewish Heritage – 8 Day River Cruise – will depart 22 August 2023 Prices from £2,510pp (based on a Deluxe Stateroom)
Avalon also offer many other special interest cruises. To discuss your river cruise and to book, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678.