Vienna and Budapest, castles, churches, forests, vineyards and picturesque villages – Sue Dobson thinks a Danube River cruise is the ideal way to travel through the heart Europe.
Almost on Germany’s border with Austria, at the confluence of three rivers, Passau is a busy town of cobbled streets and decorative buildings, dominated by St Stephen’s Cathedral with its onion-domed towers, ornate baroque interior and spectacular pipe organ.
The big river vessels that cruise the Danube snuggle together at the little port at its feet. Overnight they will pass through a succession of locks and their passengers will wake up to the stunning scenery of Austria’s Wachau region, one of the loveliest parts of the Danube valley.
Terraced hillsides rise from the river (it’s milky-green not blue, despite what the song says) against a backdrop of cloud-raked mountains and dark forests. Wine has been made from vines cultivated on these steep and sunny slopes since way back in the Middle Ages.
A blue and white Baroque church on a river bend announces the little walled town of Durnstein, crowned by the ruins of the 12th-century Kuenringer Castle, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192. Inside it is laden with gold, symbolism and fine inlaid wood. In town, wine taverns, gift shops and 16th-century townhouses line cobblestone streets.
Sailing peacefully onwards, the passing scenery is of wooded towpaths and well-kept Austrian villages. Several large locks are negotiated before arriving in Budapest.
The River Danube slices Budapest in two, hilly Buda and flat Pest, crossed by graceful bridges and with a panorama of spectacular buildings lining its banks. The neo-Gothic domed Parliament on the Pest side is a highlight. Reminiscent of Westminster, it has 365 spires.
High on its hill, Buda’s Castle district has streets of colour-washed houses, leafy squares, fine art galleries and museums and St Matthias Cathedral, which has a darkly beautiful painted interior. The view over the Danube from the fairytale turrets of Fisherman’s Bastion is quite wonderful.
Along the grand boulevards of Pest, the architecture spans Classical, Austro-Hungarian Empire, flowing Art Nouveau and towering modern glass and steel. A great place for shopping – as is the colourful and cavernous Market Hall. On the ground floor, stalls are piled high with foody treats. The upstairs balcony is the place to buy gifts and souvenirs, including embroidered linens and hand painted ceramics.
Sailing from Budapest, the wooded, mountainous Danube Bend is one of the scenic highlights of the region. It is watched over by the fortress-like Visegrad Castle and Estergom, a former residence of Hungarian kings, where the cathedral is the largest church in Hungary.
This most splendid of imperial cities packs in more than can be seen in a day, or a month. There are city tours from the ship that take in Vienna’s highlights, giving views of the magnificent architecture, the fine museums and the great boulevards. Most allow some time to stroll the fascinating inner city streets. Excursions are also available to the gloriously Baroque Schönbrunn Palace, to visit the Imperial Apartments of the Hapsburgs and see the extensive landscaped gardens there.
Vienna is one of the few places on a river cruise where the ship cannot moor up in, or very close to, the city centre. For those who do not want to take an organised tour, it is easy to take the U-bahn (underground) and a few stops later be in the very heart of the city, from where you can explore to your heart’s content. A visit to a traditional coffee house is a must.
Bratislava and Beyond
Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, sits on the banks of the Danube in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Its castle stands boldly on a hill, guarding the town and river. The Old Town Hall was founded in the 15th century by joining several bourgeois houses into one; the Primate’s Square served as a market place in the Middle Ages and the Classical Primate’s Palace houses unique English tapestries, woven at Mortlake in the mid-17th century.
The medieval Old Town has been carefully restored and the main square, lined with Baroque and neo-Renaissance houses, buzzes with activity. Café tables spill out into the sunshine, crafts are sold from stalls, and the fun bronze street sculpture is a delight.
Back in Austria, Melk’s magnificent Benedictine Abbey – Baroque, rustic gold, red-roofed, copper-domed and brim-full of art treasures – reigns over the Danube and the town. “Two towers reaching towards heaven and a mighty dome proclaim far and wide: on this cliff is a fortress of God”, writes the Abbot, Ellegast.
A monastery was founded there in 1089, a school in the following century and the collections in the vast library are world renowned. The Abbey has an excellent museum, a lovely church and acres of peaceful park gardens.
A short visit to Grein completes the cruise. One of Austria’s smallest towns, it has some lovely houses dating back to the 16th century and the Rococo theatre in the City Hall is still used for summer plays and concerts. The ship will be back in Passau for disembarkation the next morning.
The River Danube
Connecting eight countries as it flows from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, for centuries the River Danube has been the main transport link between eastern and western Europe. Before the railways came in the 19th century, boats drifted downstream and horses pulled them upsteam, walking on bridle paths along the riverbank. Navigation was difficult and hazardous – strong currents, rocks and sandbanks caused boats to capsize and sailors to drown. Thankfully such conditions are long past. Today a seven-night river cruise on the Danube is an enjoyably easy way to travel through central Europe.