If your idea of a cruise is floating around the sea with thousands of people and 24/7 entertainment, food and drink, a Viking River Cruise is not for you. Which is exactly why we took one, with two congenial friends and 180 fellow passengers, from May 31 to June 7 aboard Viking Legend, starting in Budapest, with three days’ optional side trip to Prague, staying at the Hilton. We came away highly satisfied and impressed with the crew and organizers, even though organized leisure is not our thing. We like to get out into a country and nibble the grass, as Churchill said, going where whim and the road take us.
Viking’s “Danube Waltz” from Budapest to Passau (or the other way depending on dates; options extend the voyage all the way to Amsterdam) is a delightful, comprehensive meander along the famous river. Since the ship is your hotel, there’s no repacking. Since she’s largely empty mornings and afternoons, there’s a side benefit you maybe didn’t think about: the crew gets time to rest or reorganize, ready to take on us passengers for lunch (virtually every day), dinner, or closing the bar at 2am. We praised the affable guides, organizers and especially the wait staff; they cannot do more for you, and enjoy doing it. More about this later.
Viking’s ads are a bit misleading, at least for this particular trip. You’re rarely an on-board observer of scenic towns; the ship moves mainly at night. Wake up in the wee hours and you’ll likely see a wooded shoreline across the rushing water (there’s a strong current and up-river the ship makes 5-6 knots) or the side of a lock (most of the 28 locks are conveniently traversed at night). The Danube is not always scenic; it’s a commercial river with its share of traffic. It’s also not blue—until you get down to Romania, where there are no locks. Don’t expect to see many grand vistas aboard ship, she’s not primarily a viewing device.
Two exceptions to the shortage of shipboard observing were a day cruise with stops at the Austrian towns of Durnstein and Melk, of which more later (see ship photo) and an evening cruise off Budapest on our first night, which was magical.
Hungary’s capital has experienced a rebirth. Its fine Hapsburg architecture, hardly anywhere more beautiful, is sandblasted clean and illuminated. The old Palace and the Parliament building are stunning. This made for a satisfying first night aboard. There was a repeat on June 1st, when we enjoyed cigars on deck (well aft of everybody else!) while the brilliant city receded astern.
The ship usually docks in early morning and you take coach and walking tours, the morning ones usually included, the afternoon ones optional. There’s a lot of walking, and stops tend not to be bucolic. It’s mainly city after intriguing city: Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Linz (side trip to Salzburg) and the delightful German town of Passau. If you’ve not been there, it’s a great way to see places you ought to visit, and to witness how far Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have come in a quarter century since the fall of communism. By and large, you’d think you were in any western European country.
June 1st in Budapest began with a combination coach and walking tour of the city, with firstrate guides, whose commentary is piped to individual earpieces, so there’s no straining to hear. The city sights can easily be Googled so I’ll skip that in favor of what’s unique to Viking. Among these are the optional afternoon tours, including a trip to the countryside to see Hungarian horsemen, and one adept horsewoman, at Lazar Equestrian Park—something very different from the city sights. You’re greeted with food and drink (“how bad can that be?” says one visitor) and finish up with a horsedrawn carriage ride. (There are several optional tours; I limit comments to the ones we experienced.)
Next: Bratislava, Slovakia