Author: George Rathwell
Avalon Waterways Cruise July 2017
Budapest to Amsterdam
Danube, Main, Rhine Rivers
Day 1 Budapest & Aboard Ship
Budapest is a beautiful city in so many ways, but it has also maintained a bit of historical grit - there are still buildings standing that are riddled with bullet holes from past wars including the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. We came into Budapest a day early to help us transition to time zones, etc.. Staying in central Budapest makes life easy as there are great streets to walk for whatever your interests are while travelling. Shammi, loved the shopping streets and somehow our hotel was a half block off the long main shopping street. The good news for me was that central Budapest has it all; there is great history, wonderful architecture and many restaurants and bars to visit. You are also near the Danube River staying in central Budapest. The Danube divides the old cities of Buda and Pest. Most travellers stay in Pest which has been developed to accommodate tourism, while the Buda side of the river is more the historical visit with massive historical buildings. Fortunately, there are numerous bridges across the Danube so that you can walk both sides of the city. If you love a good walk, this is your kind of city! Beautiful scenery, very level on the Pest side and lots of great places to stop for a bite or a beverage.
Budapest, has a population of approximately 1.8 million in the metropolitan area so it is busy, but not overwhelming. It is relatively easy to walk about in the central area and find all sorts of treasures. Our tour began late afternoon of July 4th with a meeting at a central hotel and transportation to our river ship. We joined the Avalon crew on the ship “Expression”. These boats are very comfortable and the rooms compare very well to what would be quite a large hotel room in many parts of Europe. Our room was larger on the ship than at our hotel.
We had our first meal on board that evening and it was very delicious. The selection of wines was also great. The menu for both wine and drink mirrored our location in Europe each night. This first night was a positive sign of things to come. Our dinner menus were strong throughout the trip with a basic selection of a few different appetizers, main courses and desserts. Following dinner, many of the passengers go to the lounge area on board where a piano player and a bar are located. For many nights on the cruise, this is the meeting place for the passengers to talk about the past day’s events and future options on the trip.
Day three began with some beautiful cruising down the Danube. I am not even mentioning the buffet breakfast because these were consistently excellent. Did I mention the great cheeses and breads?
The countryside between Budapest and Bratislava is colourful and in many places, there are large tracts of agricultural flatlands. If you are from the prairies, that certainly is familiar to you. What strikes you on this part of the cruise are the river lock systems on the Danube. When you make this river trip in either direction (Budapest-Amsterdam or vice versa) ,you are “climbing through the locks” to the European continental divide of central Europe. At that high point, you begin to descend the locks to your destination. There are many, many (approximately 65) river locks on this river cruise, but some are much more dramatic than others and we travel through some at night. It is fascinating to be on one of these cruise ships when it is being raised/lowered quickly. Some of the locks are part of a dam system and electrical power grid which makes them quite the engineering feats. This was the case on the Day 3 morning.
Cruising into Bratislava on a hot July afternoon was interesting. The city is a great mix of the new and the old. Many of us noted the number of bridges in this area. Some of these bridges have some artistic flare; other bridges, not so much. The main bridge into Bratislava was interesting for its design. Sometimes locally referred to as the UFO bridge due to a rather large space craft looking top to a bridge tower. The bridge leads into a highway cutting directly through the historical city centre of Bratislava. I have never seen such a planning designation for a bridge and a major roadway. It certainly does not help with one’s first impressions of Bratislava. Fortunately, the remainder of the old city is quite charming with some excellent small shops, restaurants and bars. In fact, we returned at night into the area and it really bustles with people. The evenings in such areas are very interesting for the number of local people out and about.
Personally, I loved this old/new city for its mixture of eastern and western European culture and its relative smaller size (650,000 in metropolitan area). An evening walk was a nice alternative evening event as our ship did not leave until very late. The entertainment in the lounge was a very talented group of young musicians, but I recommend at least considering getting off the ship in the evenings when you can just for variety because there are many nights when you are sailing and leaving the ship is not an option.
Waking up in Vienna, Austria is a great way to start the day. We had an interesting walk about sightseeing tour of central Vienna. We even managed to get a close look at some Lipizzan horses (not as large a horse as I would have thought). While I enjoyed this tour, it focused upon the 19th century buildings and empires of Austria. I would have preferred some discussion of the 20th century history of Vienna. A number of us had some Sacher torte to conclude the tour of central Vienna. This is the famous chocolate cake with a light layer of jam. Worth every calorie.
Our afternoon was spent on the optional tour of Schonbrunn Palace. This is the Austrian Hapburg’s response to Versailles and at 1,441 rooms the Hapsburgs were fully competing with the French monarchy. It is particularly interesting if you have visited Versailles so as to make some comparisons. While this palace and its gardens are not Versailles, it makes for a very interesting afternoon of beautiful, “over the top” gardens and opulent palace rooms with amazing art from all over the known world at the time.
There is a further optional tour that eve entitled the Royal Waltz Concert. We did not partake as that is not to our musical taste, but many on board the ship did attend and reports were quite positive.
Sailing into the Wachau Valley, a Unesco World Heritage Site, provides you with great scenery. During the past few days, it is quite evident that the Danube is much more than simply a trade and transportation route. There are many recreational activities on the river as well. In this Wachau area, motor boats and dragon-type canoes were part of the river life. It is always nice to see people enjoying the water. There are large campgrounds along the Danube in certain areas. We had noted some as we approached Bratislava and many more today. Camping by tent and in small expandable trailers is clearly a popular pastime in this part of the world.
We began the day by visiting the local Gottweig Abbey. This is a striking building as it is perched on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful setting of farms, vineyards and a small town. You feel like you are entering the “hills are alive with the sound of music” country today. We’re definitely in winemaking country now and the amount of grapes being grown throughout this valley is amazing. The abbey itself has an awesome staircase with a ceiling fresco that makes the building tour worthwhile. There are also some very old Bibles on display and some discussion of the history of the Reformation in this area of Austria. I found this topic interesting because at this time in European history, very few people could read these Bibles.
Following that Abbey tour, our guide, an American woman who came to the area to study and never left, escorted us into Durnstein, a small medieval village on the side of the Danube. This village is a beautiful place. The proximity to the river, the flowers and the overall cleanliness of the village is quite striking. We attended a wine tasting at a local hotel on a deck overlooking the river. We were provided a number of local white wines that were excellent and a great way to head into lunch. Due to low water on the river, which happens at times in the summer, the boat had to find its way forward on the Danube without us so that there would be adequate water levels to press on. Avalon Waterways provided us with cash to buy a lunch in Durnstein rather than return to the boat. Great lunch! There were a few small, patio style restaurants open on a Saturday afternoon. I ordered barbecued ribs as a Saturday special - three racks of pork ribs later! Our American guide had told us that there are three types of meat in this part of the world pork, swine and pig. Try the ribs.
We caught up to the boat down river and continued to see some very pastoral river valley scenes that day. For a change of scenery on the boat, we tried “Bistro” dinner in the lounge rather than the full supper setting in the dining room. I would describe that style of eating as `tapas’ style and it is certainly a smaller crowd with limited seating. If you are seeking a quieter, more intimate setting it is a good approach to supper. Personally, I preferred the supper plates and full meals of the banquet area.
Day 6… Salzburg, Austria or Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Tough choice…Cesky, a backwater sort of medieval town or the world famous Salzburg?
We chose Cesky Krumlov- the pride of Bohemia, because we wanted a two hour tour in the Austrian/Czech countryside. I always enjoy seeing the rural way of life in any country I visit. A traveller can get the wrong impression about a culture/country if they only see the sites of the cities in my view. The town, Cesky Krumlov, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were not disappointed by any part of this tour. Our guide was very informative (and talkative). It was interesting to see some of the Czech villages and hear of the changes since the fall of the communist state. Cesky Krumlov is beautiful and well preserved. The castle is outstanding and the architecture of the town was remarkable. My wife, Shammi, was particularly pleased with the choice of tour locations as all the stores were open in the Czech Republic on a Sunday, while most of the Austrian city of Salzburg was closed. Different history leads to different store hours.
We ate in a recommended local restaurant on one of the side streets and it was excellent. Many of the restaurants are quite small family operations in older buildings that overlook the small river that winds its’ way through this small city. Find your way to the river in a few spots as some entrepreneurs have created a business in renting canoes and other small boats so people can paddle through the town site. They even have white water - sort of.
Lots of meat and potatoes for lunch! We ordered a feast of local fare for three and we could not eat it all. The local beer is great so to wash all that food down. Our tour of the town was good and brief as it is a fairly small centre that is outstanding for the preservation of the streets and buildings.
The bus ride back to the Danube had an interesting moment in that we stopped in a Czech McDonalds - yes, that McDonalds. We all smiled at the pastry sections and the coffees available. It is always an interesting snapshot of a culture and its cuisine when you stop at a McDonalds anywhere in the world. And….the washrooms are always clean.
We met the Salzburg group at a ferry landing on the river and that is where we re-embarked. This had something to do with water levels and dock timing, but it all worked. The Salzburg group enjoyed their day as well, so everyone was happy, but for the shoppers that were disappointed in that the stores were all closed in Salzburg. The Sound of Music fans, as well as, the Mozart followers had made it to the home of it all.
Day 7 Regensburg
We passed on the optional tour to the Danube Gorge and the Weltenberg Abbey. However, similar to all the tours on this cruise, all reports were that this was a very good tour. We chose to take a locally guided tour of the old town and it was well done. We saw an assortment of medieval buildings that are in very good shape. This smaller centre seemed to be a bit of a local centre for the arts. There were signs of music festivals, plays and concerts everywhere and the place just had that artsy feel. Our guide had been a teacher in the city, she actually lived in one of the older buildings in the old town so she brought a certain expertise to her walk about that one does not always get. She ended her tour at the well- aged Sausage kitchen. This was a highlight for me as the sausages (6 slender and well done ones) were very good and once again, a good cold beer helped wash them down. You are also provided sauerkraut with this meal. I tried, but I will never be a sauerkraut fan. This meal was all part of the tour. Brilliant conclusion to a walk thought I. Some sausage lovers thought these were the best of the trip. Not certain of that, but some of my fellow cruisers tried a sausage in every port so they did have some authority on the matter.
Later that afternoon, Avalon Waterways arranged a beer tasting event on board in the lounge. Most of us attended as well, free beer does have a certain attraction. The young women presenting were well spoken and explained a bit of the history of beer making in the area, as well as, some of the different brewing methods and reasons for the variety of flavours and alcohol content in local beer varieties.
That evening we had a one man Humpapa band in the lounge. Hans O’ Marush was quite the character and be warned, he selected people out of the audience to assist him with his music. The act was amusing. He was particularly funny with his choice of English phrases. Most of the audience really enjoyed this entertainment. Personally, I was satisfied after about fifteen minutes of the act. All of the performers on board, whether they be musical entertainers in the evening or guest speakers in the afternoon, presented in the Lounge for forty-five minute time slots.
Day 8 Nuremburg
What an interesting day. Cruising through the night, we crossed the continental divide and began our descent through the lock system to eventually reach Amsterdam. To mark the occasion, Avalon Waterways brought a guest lecturer on board to discuss the history of the lock systems on the rivers of western Europe. This young man was a university lecturer and historian. I learned more about the history and engineering of locks in his forty-five minute talk than I had garnered in the rest of my life. We were on the locks at the time of the lecture so this made the history lesson all so very relevant. While I am critical of some of the entertainment on board, I must compliment Avalon for the guest speakers. They were very good and very timely choices.
This afternoon we had choices of tours of Nuremberg. One choice was similar to the walkabouts we had done of smaller centres. The other choice was entitled `Nuremberg World War 2’ and this was the tour we chose. Without a doubt, this was one of the best tours I have ever completed. Our guide began by quietly discussing the Nuremberg trials and we were able to see the buildings and walk about the grounds, but it was really only memorable to people such as myself who have a keen interest in history. I was worried as I thought we might be missing an opportunity. I was wrong!
We drove through the historical centre of the city and it was impressive in terms of its’ restoration after the Second World War given the bombing raids over the city. The bus then took us to the Nuremberg rally grounds and the Documentation centre (a great museum re the rise and fall of the Nazis). I did not know what to expect, but surprising to me, the rally grounds have been left much as they were during the Nazi era. The grounds are massive and some new work has been done to the surfaces. For instance, there is a modern North American football field on one corner of the grounds- it looks small which gives you an idea of how large these grounds were for the pre – war Nazi rallies.
Our guide told us that there was a civic/cultural dilemma surrounding these fields. They are an important part of the local and national history and provide a very tangible study of the Nazi era of German history, but the costs of maintaining and restoring the historical grounds and the stadium was becoming very controversial in the city.
I was fascinated by the sheer size of the area and the varied conditions of the stadiums and grandstands. I asked to have permission and time to climb the main grandstand and podium. We were given both and a number of us made the short climb. A few of us stood where Adolph Hitler had addressed the Nazi rallies with upwards of 150,000 followers on the grounds. It certainly gave one pause. We were careful not to do anything untoward out of respect for the local people in the area. I was told later that if one was caught today giving the Nazi salute from that podium, they could be fined up to five hundred euro.
We were then escorted to the Document Centre (museum). This museum is excellent and explains a great deal about various aspects of the Nazi regime, the rallies, the treatment of the local Jewish population and how Nazi beliefs played out in the Nuremberg city and region. The museum is exceptionally well done covering a large piece of German history in a very effective and efficient manner. The museum is attached to a massive Nazi Coliseum-type structure that was never completed. The intention was to house some 50,000 attendees of the rallies apparently in a Roman Coliseum sort of manner. Wow. Again, it is in surprisingly good condition. Delusions of grandeur- the new Romans indeed.
I appreciated the opportunity to experience, to see and to discuss some of the World War 2 history of the area. I know that this was not the focus of this river cruise, but I did find it a bit odd that all along the Danube, there were significant 20th century events involving battles, resistance, anti-semitism, etc. but there seemed a reluctance to discuss these matters. Nuremberg changed all of that. For individuals interested in WW2 and twentieth century history, Nuremberg is a must- see place.
We returned to the ship for supper and a unique international music performance by a young woman named Valery May. She had an excellent voice singing some old classics.
Ixtapa Travel Staff