More than 20 years ago, I spent several weeks in Budapest. It was part of a seven-month ad-hoc journey that I made around parts of Eastern Europe, which was then not long out of communism. Every day I spent in Budapest was defined by journeys either alongside or over the river Danube: to go anywhere in that sternly grand city was to encounter the river constantly.
In those weeks more than two decades ago in Budapest, I do not recall seeing one cruise boat on the river. Earlier this year, I returned to the city to join a week-long river cruise that started there, and was to end in Passau, in Germany.
The taxi driver got lost en route from the airport, and so we travelled pretty much the entire length of the Danube from the Pest side, searching for the right dock.
I spent the time staring out the window at a riverside I hardly recognised. It was studded with river cruise boats, docked all the way along. I don’t know why I was surprised. The Rhine was being cruised long before commercial river cruising came to Hungary.
Our boat was the Uniworld’s Beatrice, billed as boutique luxury. There are several more boats in the Uniworld family, and in season, each of them cruise up and down a specific route. The Beatrice travels between Budapest and Passau, taking in Vienna, Bratislava, Melk, Linz and the Wachau Valley en route.
Boutique and luxury are words that get thrown around like showy confetti in the travel industry. It seems everyone tosses them up ad-hoc into the marketing air. My most recent experience of river cruising was three days on the Yangtze river in China some years ago, where I arrived into my cabin one evening at the same time as a rat exited it through my legs. That wasn’t luxury, or boutique, or an experience I ever wish to repeat.
The Beatrice has corridors and cabins lined with ecru-coloured silk panels, and original Chagall litographs behind the reception desk, so I felt confident immediately upon embarking that this river cruise would not involve an unwanted encounter with a rodent.
The passenger capacity on the Beatrice is 158, and on our cruise, it was more like 110, as several cabins had single occupancy that week. This made for a genuinely intimate experience. Unlike big cruise ships, there are no set tables in the dining room, so you can sit where you wish for every meal, and that way, you end up meeting many of your fellow passengers.
In this way, I discovered a few interesting things from my fellow passengers. One of the Malaysians on board told me he was paying £8,000/€11,270 rent a month for an apartment in London for his two college-going children.
A Californian travel agent told me the number one trip that her customers wanted to make was a river cruise in Europe, which was why she was trying it out herself. A travel agent from Seattle told me the same thing. European river cruises, readers, are clearly hot.
It sounds obvious, but the big difference between sea and river cruising is that you’re never far away from land. It doesn’t have the same potential for claustrophobia as the huge cruise liners that can, and do, spend days at sea.
Everything is on a different scale. Even the simple business of embarking and disembarking is so quick that I missed the muster one day for a 32km bike ride along the shores of the Wachua Valley, and had to hop into the support vehicle to catch up.
It’s fair to say that when it comes to land excursions, to use that nicely old-fashioned word, excursions from cruise ships are associated with mainly sedentary activities. On this cruise, you can be as active or passive as you like. The Beatrice carries bikes, which you can borrow at any mooring for independent exploration, and there are also opportunities to spend afternoons biking along river trails with a guide.
An Australian man who celebrated his 80th birthday that week, went on all the bike rides, which is more than I can say for some of my fellow press comrades.
I rediscovered the pleasure of slow travel that week. There is something utterly relaxing about sitting on deck, or in your cabin, just watching the shore slip past, so close by. I particularly loved the little riverside cabins on stilts that appeared along the shores of Slovakia and Austria. Fishing cabins? Weekend get aways? I didn’t know, but each one told a different story.
We did a bit of everything. At every city or town stop, there was an option of two tours: seeing the highlights with a guide, or going in a smaller group with a local guide to see less touristy things.
At Durnstein in Austria, while most people went wine-tasting, I went to a saffron workshop, given by Bernhard Kaar. Kaar, an ecologist and botanist, has his own saffron farm there. “Where you grow wine, you can grow saffron,” he explained, as he gave a short and compelling masterclass on its history, accompanied by tastings of various saffron-based products.
I learned, for instance, there is no wild saffron in the world: it’s all cultivated. The harvest from one crocus is just three strands.
At Vienna, I put my head into the Adolf Loos designed American Bar, an architectural jewel-box, a version of which is in Trinity College. At Mondsee, a beautiful lakeside town, framed by mountains, we saw the church where the wedding scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed.
At Bratislava, a city mysteriously rich in odd statues and sculptures – half a bronze man emerging from manhole? – I found a vintage shop selling clothes and china from communist Czechoslovakia. I came away with six gold-banded wine glasses that the owner produced from a suitcase, telling me every china cabinet in the 1960s had a set of these.
You could do as much or as little as you wished. Sometimes, people stayed on board in the afternoons, playing Scrabble and drinking gins and tonics in the pleasant library. Almost all drinks, apart from high end spirits and champagne, are included in the cruise package. Local wines were matched with dinner each night.
Dinner itself was formal without being overwhelmingly so, with several courses, but thankfully very modest portion sizes. Breakfast and lunch were help yourself at buffets, with mainly fresh fruit, salads, soups, cheeses, a hot dish of the day, and an omelette station. I saw very little waste: food was put out as it ran out, which is as it should be, but so often isn’t.
I didn’t bother with the daily scheduled entertainment, preferring to chat or read on deck instead, but it included a waltz lesson, piano music every evening, talks and recitals.
All in all, it was the most relaxing week I’d had in a long time. I loved being on the water, and waking up to see the river’s reflection on my cabin ceiling. And not a long-tailed rodent in sight.
Rosita Boland was a guest of Uniworld. Uniworld.ie. The ‘Enchanting Danube’ eight-day cruise starts either at Budapest or Passau, and prices per person are €2,249 upwards, depending on the size of the cabin. It includes all meals and most drinks, airport transfers, tips, and most land activities. Flights are extra.