Sampling the delights of the Danube on a leisurely river cruise

River cruising is a delightful way to visit majestic cities like Vienna and Budapest

Cruising along the majestic Danube in the Ama Magna. Our three-day itinerary takes us to Vienna, Esztergom and Budapest.

Cruising along the majestic Danube in the Ama Magna. Our three-day itinerary takes us to Vienna, Esztergom and Budapest.

 

It took Lorna Allen from Toronto five years to talk her husband Greg into a cruise holiday. When he finally succumbed in 1988 with some reluctance, it was a seven-day Caribbean trip, “and it was the oldest ship on the sea and didn’t have stabilisers so it bounced all over the place”, recalls Greg, wryly.

It was the start of a burgeoning love affair with cruising that has continued unabated ever since, and now they have both taken early retirement – Lorna was a teacher and Greg worked for IBM – they go wherever they want, when they want.

We meet on a seven-day Danube river cruise, their 53rd cruise with Ama Waterways, a family-owned company (one of whose founders was Jimmy Murphy of Brendan Tours, a legendary figure in the Irish travel trade) on the newest and biggest ship called the Ama Magna. At 22 metres wide, it is twice the width of traditional river cruise ships. Built in Linz in Austria, the 23rd ship in the Ama Waterways fleet, it made its debut in May last year. It can accommodate a maximum of 196 guests (and 70 crew) and because of its size, it solely sails on the Danube.

The Allens tell me they have done about 180 ocean cruises over the years, Greg points out that ocean and river cruising “are two different animals. It was a shock when we first did the river because we didn’t know about rivers, but the crew became friends because the ships are small, they get to know you”.

So now the Allens arrange their itineraries around where their favourite crew members are sailing. Because river cruisers are smaller than ocean liners, they have the advantage of being able to dock in smaller ports and closer to bigger cities without the need for tenders.

Gliding along the mighty river

Having boarded the ship in Spitz in the heart of the Wachau Valley, which is famous for its wine, our three-day itinerary takes us to Vienna, Esztergom and Budapest, gliding along the mighty river in the mornings and going through imposing locks at night.

Spitz is a quiet sleepy, peaceful place – on a brief afternoon stroll into the town, there is no one in the schloss art centre (the castle), nor in the late Gothic church of St Maurice, and many shops and restaurants are closed, but everywhere you go there are views of the hilly vineyards that surround the town, where the region’s grapes for their famous wines are grown. At night, a tour of the winery is arranged as part of the day’s numerous activities.

The ship itself is incredibly impressive, well designed and the cabins – called staterooms – are spacious and well equipped, like luxury hotel rooms with marble bathrooms and balconies holding a table and chairs. There are three dining areas; Chef’s Table is the main one, with another called Al Fresco which has panoramic views of the river, and a wine bar restaurant called Jimmy’s, in honour of Jimmy Murphy. There is also a well-equipped gym, a zen wellness studio, a relaxing library and a cinema, while downstairs houses a shop, hairdressing salon and laundry.

Lemon pepper salmon

The menu at the Chef’s Table one night includes eggplant caviar, lemon pepper salmon, ginger soup (flavoured with orange peel), pike perch, peach sorbet, beef with pea and broccoli and rum raisin crumble – all served with local Austrian wines – a herby white Gruner Veltliner and a full-bodied dry red Blauer Zweigelt. Breakfast offerings includes fresh fruit and juices, cheese, eggs, oatmeal and breads. The service throughout was impossible to fault.

Arriving in Vienna, a city walking tour takes us through some of the main sights, including the celebrated Spanish Riding School, home to those white Lipizzaner stallions raised on hillsides in Slovenia before their years of training start. We pass the famous Jubilee Church where Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife Sisi is commemorated, view the controversial Holocaust monument of a kneeling Jewish man in Albertinaplaz, listen to the horse-drawn carriages that clip clop through the historic centre, and pass the memorial to Mozart beside a department store.

On the way into the city, it is impossible to ignore the historic Giant Ferris Wheel constructed in 1897 which survived demolition through lack of funding. It is now a tourist attraction and gateway to the Prater park, but also a popular wedding venue. “You have several minutes to exchange rings at the peak of your journey – and it is all downhill from then on,” our guide quips.

The next day, having docked at Esztergom under the shade of its vast neo-classical cathedral, we are bussed into Budapest, a lovely, hour-long journey through the countryside of the Carpathian mountains, learning en route about Roman and Ottoman occupation, how Attila the Hun is considered a hero in Hungary, and how fundamental peppers are to the country’s agriculture and cuisine.

Houdini Museum

The most panoramic views of the city are on top of Buda Castle Hill and the Fisherman’s Bastion, location of the remarkable Matthias Church with its colourful majolica tiled roof, its pristine stone construction looking as fresh and bright as if built yesterday kept clean by volunteers. Nearby is a Houdini Museum with a Live Magic Show every 30 minutes.

River cruise activities on board and excursions like this can make the day a very active one. The Allens, however, prefer to take it easy, stay put and relax. Before leaving, I meet another first-time river cruiser, Rick Betterley, a risk management consultant from Maine, already a veteran of Alaskan and Baltic cruises. “I travel a lot,” he says with a broad, satisfied grin, “but this is my first river cruise and nothing could be better than this.”

For those thinking of a river cruise a great companion is Claudio Magris’s Danube, with its histories, anecdotes and stories, as rambling and free-flowing as the majestic river itself.

Deirdre McQuillan was a guest of Sunway. A seven-night cruise on the Ama Magna on the Danube from Budapest to Vilshofen, departing August 16th, 2020, costs from €3,049 per person full board if you book by the end of March, including direct flights from Dublin to Budapest and return from Munich. Sunway is sole agentsfor Ama Waterways. See sunway.ie

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