Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Additional photos courtesy Austria National Tourist Office
Danube Delights On A River Cruise
It was love at first bite on my Danube River cruise in every respect... the sights, the food, the brief but intoxicating experiences in each port of call. Combining the “Sound of Music” with a real-life experience in Budapest, Vienna, and small towns beyond, was a lovely way to celebrate autumn.
The river wasn’t blue, and neither was I. Surprisingly restful, AMA Waterways’ Danube River Cruise was like a great cocktail party. The trip comprised appetizing small portions, introducing this part of the world. It was a good way to sample four different countries in Europe in one week. We got tastes of Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Czech Republic -- all abut the Danube.
We had started off with what could have been a calamity, but were saved by the clever design of AMA’s ships. They can float in less water than many other carriers. A drought kept the Danube River too low for ships to embark from charming Budapest. AMA arranged for us all to spend the first night at the 5-star Corinthia, a historic hotel. Later, cruise passengers said they saw us pass stranded ships that needed deeper water than AMA did.
Ours trip was full of highlights. My favorite: With as much drama and excitement as in a feature film, we experienced Melk Abbey, in Linz, Austria, functioning for over 1,000 years. (The Benedictine monks sold one of their Gutenberg Bibles to cover restoration expenses!)
Church bells pealed full blast, as a luminous sliver of moon glowed in a navy blue sky. We felt a supernatural shiver. We had just roamed through a millennium of treasures portraits, miters, reliquaries, ornate crosses of gold and emeralds, and myriad priceless objects. But the item that touched me most was an 800-year-old wooden Jesus that inhabits its own small room. Primitively carved, the sad slack body was enough to make one weep.
We came to the famous Melk Abbey Library and its ancient globes, ornate gold, and spiral staircases to yet more books, some hand-written. If you read a book a day there, it would take 300 years to finish them all! The Dalai Lama, Isabel Allende, and other luminaries came to this room to discuss the future; a cylinder there preserves their speeches.
The library was surpassed only by the most impressive chapel we saw on the trip. Its altar’s full- size gilded figures, rich wood pillars, and marble floors were baroque at its best... all harmony and symmetry. More drama came from the 180- foot high dome and frescoed ceiling. It was, in fact, created by a theater designer.
And there was a bit of theater on the trip. At Vienna’s Auersperg Palace, we heard a concert of popular classical pieces by Mozart and Johann Strauss. Amidst glittering chandeliers and marble, 10 musicians and their concert master on a 1726 violin offered crowd-pleasing favorites. Dancers and opera performers joined in for polkas and waltzes like the Blue Danube.
The next day’s “Hidden Vienna” tour walked us around key spots in the center of town... the Hofburg Palace, the Spanish Riding School with its Lipizzaner horses, imperial buildings of the Habsburgs. It ended at the High Market, the oldest part of the city.
We seemed to go from one jaw-dropping experience to another, the last few days of the trip. We chose among Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, Czech Republic’s fairytale city, Cesky Krumlov, and the Austrian Lake District. Tough choices. We went with Austrian Lakes, partly because this was the 50th anniversary of “The Sound of Music” that musical theater phenomenon, so loved by Americans.
Over half of Austria is rural. From our bus, we saw the Alps rising in the distance. Its base had a ghostly light, the rest was in darkness. Amidst golden slim sticks of trees, dappled cows grazed, down from the hills where they had spent the summer, just as recounted in the book of my childhood, “Heidi.” We passed Lake Attersee and reached Mondsee, our first stop.
St. Michael’s Church looms over this little village, population 3,024. Elaborately gilded, yet feeling intimate, this is where the wedding scene where the Sound of Music was filmed, not in Salzburg, as depicted. At the altar are huge full-color figures, like life-size colorful dolls. Church bells rang. The weather was a balmy 65 in mid-November in this valley that felt close and protected. It created a lovely farewell to fall.
As our “Sound of Music” journey took us to Lake Wolfgangsee, we passed lone Alpine-style houses in fields, still green. Wolfgangsee is a charming little place with stores clustered around one another. Shopkeepers were preparing for the Christmas markets. Many sell trinkets, sweets, and rocks of salt. Nearby Salzburg, literally “salt fortress,” didn’t get its name out of the blue.
A medieval place of pilgrimage, Wolfgangsee’s church has a winged altar that dates from 1481; the building itself started in the 10th century, and was added to over the years. After trouping around town, quaffing hot chocolates and cappuccinos, we took off for Trauenkirch. We clamber out of the bus under a night sky punctuated by a slim crescent moon. We came to learn about the Jesuits, who thrived here, and to admire the town’s imposing stark, white church high on the hill --- like a sentinel -- illuminated, glowing in the night. What a romantic sight our guide has led us to! That guide had found something special as a coda to our tour. Actually, all our guides were clear, articulate, witty, engaging, and informative.
That night was our Chaine des Rotisserie dinner. AMA is the only river cruise ship to have the Chaine’s imprimatur. The rack of lamb was perfect; the crème brulee, creamy and rich, combined well with a sweet red dessert wine. It was a super meal, but all the meals were excellent with abundant choices graciously served.
The crew went out of its way to meet people’s special dietary needs. Speaking of service, AMA employs 49-50 people per trip for 164 passengers. In fact, at our departure point, an AMA person personally escorted us to where we would take our train.
But back to that special “Sound of Music” Austrian Lakes tour. That evening it was topped off by entertainers singing selections from that very production plus a sing along. Another night saw three musicians performing music by Rossini, Shostakovich, Chopin, Romanian dances and opera on stringed instruments. Not all was classical. Our last night was a late Octoberfest, dancing to a German oompah band. Another night offered a wine evening and wine quiz. And there was always a pianist and dancing. Something for everyone.
Active types went on bike trips, pedaling to our next port or just touring. Even walking tours were at different levels of difficulty, so that no one was left out. According to travel agents on board, AMA’s river ships have fewer cabins, so they are more spacious than others. And that thoughtful energetic crew! They seemed to know each of us almost instantly, and went all out to make it an enjoyable trip.
AMA gives passengers a guide book, “Landmarks At A Glance.” Its maps enabled us to follow our journey down the Danube. It even had street maps of most of the towns we visited, except for tiny charming medieval World Heritage site, Durnstein, so small it has just one street. No need for a map! And maps don’t show the beauty of the Wachau Valley with its thousands of apricot trees. Apricot brandy anyone? Schnapps?
Lying on my comfortable bed, looking out the window, gazing at the riverbank with apricot trees, dots of houses and fields, was a quietly mesmerizing relaxation. That, along with walks and touring, en plein air, amidst golden trees and russet roofs, the air pure and clear, churches gleaming in late autumn sun, was being in fall and then saying goodbye to fall.
I can envision being along this stretch of the Danube in summer, hanging out in the pool on the top deck, watching the scenery go by on our way to ports of call. And why not spring, with buds on the trees, wildflowers on the banks of the river, and passengers moving the giant chess pieces on the upper deck? And winter? Well, the ships don’t sail then. Perhaps that’s a good time to dream about the next cruise.
© January 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.