Gently Down the Stream
Cruise ships are now larger--and have more attractions--than some small nations. But there's also a subtler way to sail: river cruising. Marilyn Holstein explores Germany, Austria, and Hungary while drifting slowly along the Danube.
After our morning tour, we could either go back to the ship for lunch (a soup/salad/sandwich buffet in the lounge or a more formal meal in the dining room) or eat on land. Richard and I always stayed in port, where the food far surpassed anything served on the ship. Plus, we didn't want to waste time traveling back and forth.
There was one dinner seating: Lateness was frowned upon, and the servers literally ran to feed everyone in time. Dinners usually had a theme, such as German, Hungarian, or Mozart. Most passengers agreed that the conversations at dinner were more appealing than the food.
Onboard entertainment was scheduled for a few afternoons and evenings: a demonstration by a glassblower, a Bavarian night with local dancers, a crew show. On other nights a piano player performed. Those who wanted to relax in their cabins would watch the movies piped in three times daily on the televisions.
Our Fellow Passengers
Most everyone aboard was American, and a majority were enjoying their retirement. At dinner early in the cruise, we met two couples from New Orleans, Suzanne and Fred Myers and Jeanne and Brant Houston, with whom we ended up hanging out for the rest of the cruise. The Myers had planned on taking the trip a year ago, but then Hurricane Katrina hit. (Viking River Cruises called to check on their safety, and rebooked them at no charge.)
Another foursome came all the way from Brisbane, Australia. One of the women, Ruth Copelin, said they like to go cruising because "men love boats, and this way they'll give us some peace." They were pleased that it wasn't a fancy cruise: "We couldn't come to dinner on a Celebrity cruise dressed in slacks and jeans."
The entire ship knew the Gremers. Charles and Grace Gremer were celebrating their 60th anniversary. During their last river cruise, through Russia, the Gremers noticed most everyone had brought their own social group, and they felt a little left out. This time, they invited their children, David, Dennis, and Debbie, and their children's spouses.
"You just need to realize that this isn't a Princess cruise," said Dennis. "On a larger ship you expect to be entertained by the crew. Here you're entertained by the towns and scenery."
The trip was planned around the Danube and the canals' locks--literally. Reservations for lock passage are booked years in advance. Going through the locks the first few times--seeing the opening of the gate and the swoosh of water--was exciting. Everyone was taking tons of photos. By the end of the trip, it felt like watching water boil.
Unlike most cruises, where passengers buy excursions à la carte, with many options to choose from, our package included all seven city tours. Only a few of the special excursions in Vienna and Budapest cost extra.
Each bus held about 40 passengers. We learned quickly to arrive at the bus early so we wouldn't get stuck in the back, which could smell of gas fumes and deliver a bumpier ride. Also, it would take forever to get off the bus.
The quality of the tours depended on the guide. Some were terrific; others were less experienced at giving tours or were simply difficult to understand (language issues). In Nürnberg, at Zeppelin Field where Adolf Hitler once spoke, our guide scored points by passing around photographs of Hitler orating there. After a while, though, her nonstop commentary became overwhelming. I'm not sure we really needed to know that during her former job, ordering medical equipment at a Nürnberg hospital, a third of her salary went to taxes. Returning to the ship, I tuned her out and watched the cornfields.
On the other hand, the guides shared fascinating tidbits that we'd never have learned otherwise: Outside the oldest pub in Regensburg, Germany, we heard how beer is often served to kids because it's cheaper than soda. In Vienna, we were informed that "The Blue Danube" is Austria's secret national anthem--and that blue is rumored to mean drunken.
And there were experiences that we simply never would've planned on our own. Our first night in Vienna was one of the few evenings with no scheduled activity. Neither Richard nor I had been to the city, so we took the easy way out and bought Viking's excursion to the Palais Auersperg, where the Vienna Residence Orchestra performed a beautiful concert of Strauss and Mozart.
To be honest, we really began to have fun when we went off on our own. The same night that we went to the opera, two other couples had dinner at a place called Figlmüller, and raved about it. Inspired, we skipped the next day's tour of Schönbrunn Palace and explored Vienna without a guide--and tracked down Figlmüller for lunch. We sat next to a couple from Hamburg, who laughed knowingly as the restaurant's signature Wiener schnitzel arrived. It was the size of a medium pizza. Then we stumbled across an outdoor market where I haggled lightheartedly with an elderly gentleman over antique Christmas ornaments.