Confessions of a Viking River Cruises addict

 

I have a confession to make. I?m a Viking River Cruises junkie. I thought I had my addiction under control. It all started last year when Viking invited me to join them on their Portraits of Southern France-Avignon to Chalon river cruise. I was so not a cruiser (having had much less than wonderful experiences many years ago on two ocean cruises) but when they said I could bring a friend along I succumbed, albeit with very low expectations. I invited my oldest friend, Joan to join me since she had never been to Europe before. Fast-forward to one week later, where I?m embarrassed to admit, they had to drag us kicking and screaming off the ship. ?But you said to treat the ship like it was our home. Please can?t we stay just a little longer? Who?s going to make me those special egg white omelets every morning,? I whimpered as my fingernails scrabbled along the deck for a tighter hold. ?NOOOOOOO,? we wailed as our eyes frantically darted around looking for a good stowaway spot. But alas, we had to clear the decks for the next group of lucky guests.

However we still had our memories. They can?t take those away. But the cravings grew stronger and stronger until we couldn?t resist another minute. I admit it. We caved and signed up for our second Viking cruise down the Danube River. I mean this one was a no-brainer. How else can you visit four fabulous European countries in one week, with no muss or fuss?

Decompressing down the Danube on our four country itinerary

The journey we took was the Danube Waltz, a seven-night cruise on the new Viking Gullveig from Budapest, Hungary to Passau, Germany, with four additional stops in Austria and one in Bratislava, Slovakia. The ship sails mainly at night so you?re able to spend all day, and often a full evening, offering ample time to see the sights.

Budapest, Hungary

If someone had only told me beforehand how much fun this captivating Hungarian capital is (light years removed from the cold war Communist city it once was) I would have definitely signed up for the two night, Viking pre-tour package here. Clean, safe, hip, easy, breathtakingly beautiful, this breakout city has done an admirable ‘spring-cleaning’ job by meshing all the good stuff from yesteryear with some exciting revitalizations.

Budapest at night

Viking?s informative city tour covered all the major highlights of both the Buda and Pest sides, so you?ll have a better understanding of the unique layout of the city before striking out on your own. It?s quite easy once you realize that the ?main drag? here, the River Danube, flows north to south, with Buda on the west bank and Pest on the hilly east bank.

While strolling through Pest?s unique neighborhoods, you?ll find palatial Ottoman-era hotels, Neo-Baroque palaces and historical beauties such as the Szechenyi Spa, (this popular thermal bath recently celebrated its 100th birthday) and an abundance of elegant historical coffee houses rubbing elbows with “ruin ” bars. You can easily spend a sensory afternoon at the historic Central Market, built in 1897 and still one of the grandest European food halls, watching housewives haggle over prices as they sniff the piles of paprika, sample a smoky sausage or stock up at the strudel stand on poppy-seed and cabbage strudels. Head down to the basement level to find an amazing pickle parlor, AKA the Smiley Shop.

End the day with a tasty break at one of the many famous coffee houses, such as Auguszt cukr?szda (opened in 1870) for a slice of their famed Dobos ? a seven-layer Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate butter-cream and topped with caramel.

The second night, after a wonderful, traditional Hungarian dinner onboard, there was an announcement inviting all guests to the top deck as the ship left port. We quickly discovered why Budapest has earned the epithet as ?Paris of the East? as we gazed, awestruck, at the beautiful evening lights, which magically illuminated the stunning Art Nouveau buildings overlooking the Danube River. With typical Viking generosity, flutes of champagne were passed which added to our viewing pleasure.

Inside tip: there are two appealing optional excursions offered at the same time, so you?ll have to choose between a rejuvenating Budapest Spa experience or a fascinating walking tour of the old Jewish Quarter, which includes a visit to the Dohany Street Synagogue, arguably the largest synagogue in the world. If you are feeling jetlagged from the flight, I?d suggest doing the spa so that you?re refreshed for the active week ahead.

Bratislava, Slovakia

We had zero expectations about Bratislava since about the only thing we kept hearing about it was, ?Bratislava is the only national capital that borders two other countries, Austria and Hungary?, to which I thought, ?Big whoop!? Surprise! We adored this appealing town, with its medieval Town Hall, picturesque gothic cathedrals and towers and lovingly restored baroque city palaces. The Old Town main street, Michalska Ulica, was bustling with both tourists and locals taking advantage of the many art galleries, antique stores and eateries.

After taking us to the major sites, our guide led us to an intersection to point out his favorite bit of local color, Rubberneck, a bronze statue sticking out of a manhole! Rubberneck has already lost his head twice due to careless drivers, so city officials decided to help him by putting up a warning sign.

Inside tip: we jumped ship for an enlightening wine tasting at the Grand Cru Wine Gallery. If you?re like us and know next to nothing about Slovakian wines let Martin Pagac, the knowledgeable young owner, assist you. He poured us one amazing wine after another, many sourced from local wineries that sell only to him. As we wove our way back to the ship, we passed a lively looking restaurant and decided to pop in to try their national dish, bryndzov? halu?ky, airy potato gnocchi topped with sheep cheese and bacon, that puts our Mac & cheese to shame.

Grand Cru Wine Gallery

Vienna, Austria

Vienna, once the centre of the powerful Habsburg monarchy, still exudes imperial glamour. On our city tour we drove by some outrageously opulent buildings, including the world-famous Opera House, St. Stephan?s Cathedral and Hofburg Palace, as well as the Ringstrasse, which encircles the medieval Inner City. On your own you can explore the eclectic museums clustered in The MuseumsQuartier or peek into the stables of the 440 year-old Spanish Riding School, famous for their snowy white Lipizzaner stallion ballet.

Definitely sign up for the evening Mozart and Strauss Concert, where theillustrious Vienna Residence Orchestra (Rudolf Nureyev was once a guest director here) performs selections by Mozart and Strauss, accompanied by singers and dancers in period costumes.

Inside tip: if you?re here on a Sunday, as we were, note that ALL shops (except restaurants and cafes) are closed on Sunday. So it?s a good idea to sign up for the optional tour to Sch?nbrunn Palace, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Experience the life of a Habsburg as you tour the sumptuous ?Versailles of Vienna,? erected in 1778 and graced by a number of formal gardens, Grecian statuary, the world?s oldest zoo and Roman ruins.

D?rnstein & Melk, Austria

The picturesque walled-town of D?rnstein is located in the heart of the Wachau wine-growing region. The terraced hills are filled with apricots orchards, which is why D?rnstein?s cobblestone streets are lined with charming shops selling a wide variety of apricot- based products ranging from mouth-watering apricot dumplings, flakey apricot strudel, and chocolate covered ?cots, as well a variety of succulent apricot liquors and brandy.

Inside tip: since you don?t have much time in Durnstein, my suggestion would be to dart into the B?ckerei (Bakery) Schmidl and order some hot-from-the-oven ?Wachau Laberl?, locally revered crusty rolls invented by Rudolf Schmidl in 1905. Tell them you?ll pick them up in 30 minutes (and don?t forget to add a jar of their homemade apricot preserves) after you hoof it up to the top of the hill for incredible views from the ruins of Kuenringerburg Castle. Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here in 1192 following an altercation with Leopold V.

On the afternoon?s agenda there was a visit to the beautifully restored, 900-year-old abbey at Melk, a Benedictine monastery that began life as Leopold II?s castle. Visit the incredible library (still active), which holds over 70,000 books, mostly from the 9th-15th centuries, including a 1200 year old manuscript. The abbey?s church is a shimmering rainbow of red, orange and gold, with a magnificent carved pulpit and amazing ceiling frescoes.

Melk Abbey

Unfortunately I missed this visit due to twisting my ankle as I raced down the hill at D?rnstein to pick up my pastries. I have to admit I was quite happy to spend a couple hours lounging in the sun on the top deck of the ship, as the solicitous staff sweetly tended to me with ice packs, a cheese plate and numerous glasses of wine.

Linz & Salzburg

Our next pit stop was Linz, although our real destination was the Old Town of Salzburg, another UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. Salzburg is wildly popular to music lovers since not only is it Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?s birthplace but ?The Sound of Music? was also filmed here. For much of the scenic 90 minute drive, Joan and I took turns belting out, what we felt was a lovely round of ?Doe, a Deer? and ?My Favorite Things?, but for some reason we only elicited groans from the other passengers!

You?ll have plenty of time to explore on your own after the informative walking tour. Stop into see Mozart’s birthplace (the memorabilia here includes his first violin, given to him at the age of six) which is on Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s most renowned shopping street. The cobblestoned alleyways are filled with unique boutiques from trendy jewelry stores to pricey designer lederhosen shops.

Beer lovers might want to experience ?the art of beer at the highest level? made in the brewing coppers at Brewery Stiegl-Brauwelt, founded in 1492. Just think, if Columbus had only stopped to ask for directions, he could have claimed it!

Inside tip: for a wonderful al-fresco lunch, head to Triangel, which serves local specialties made with a lighter hand. Before getting back on the bus, pop into one of the gorgeous candy shops and buy a few bags of Mozartkugel, (Mozart Balls) a beloved chocolate, pistachio and marzipan confection invented by the Salzburg confectioner Paul F?rst in 1890.

Passau, Germany?

Dating back to the 8th century this lovely medieval town aka the “Gate to the Black Sea” is uniquely situated at the confluence of three rivers: the Danube, Inn, and Ilz. The walking tour showstopper here is the magnificent Cathedral of St. Steven with its three characteristic, green onion-domed towers. If you?re lucky you might hear a concert played on the 17,000-pipe organ, considered the largest cathedral organ in the world. To burn off some of yesterday?s Mozartkugel, you can make the steep climb (it takes about 30 minutes) to the hilltopfortress “Veste Oberhaus”, built in 1219 in order to control commerce across the rivers. Your reward will be an extraordinary view of Passau and the three rivers.

Colorful Passau

Afterwards visit the Glass Museum to see the world?s largest Bohemian glass collection–we?re talking over 30,000 pieces! Then head next door to the Hotel Wilder Mann, which opened in 1844. If they?re not busy, ask to take a peek at one of the historical suites to see the original nuptial bed of the Bavarian King Ludwig II or in the bedroom of Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Inside tip: stop in at the family-run, Marmeladen-haus to sample the farm-fresh jams, chutneys and mustards available in dozens of unique flavors. The small jars make great gifties to bring home even though I ended up keeping them all after tasting the scrumpy amaretto-cherry and gingerbread elder preserves!

Our home away from home: the elegant Viking Longship Gullveig

The Gullveig is comfy, cosmopolitan and ever so convenient! (Just about everything I look for in a man!) The first thing you notice is how sparkling clean it is. Then you?re struck by the brightness, with floor-to ceiling windows providing unobstructed views of the riverscape. Viking?s streamlined longships are all cut from just about the same high-quality cloth. No matter which vessel you?re on you can bank on the fact that your sophisticated stateroom will be airy and generously sized (most have verandas and French balconies) with hotel-style beds, a private bathroom filled with a generous supply of L?Occitane products, plush robe and slippers, roomy closets and plenty of storage space. Other features include a sun deck with 360-degree views, an organic herb garden, complimentary Wi-Fi, a putting green, walking track and a helpie/selfie cookie and espresso bar.

Viking spacious suite

The colors may vary a bit between the different ships but you will always receive Viking?s world-class, hospitable service. Everyone onboard kept commenting on ?how warm and friendly the entire staff is? which seems to be a Viking trademark. A personal shout-out to just a few of our favorite staffers: J-Co, our cabin attendant who thoroughly spoiled us with all sorts of extras like our daily delivery of assorted berries, once we mentioned how much we enjoyed them. Zsuasanna, the world?s sweetest concierge, who never once rolled her eyes at us even though we bugged her non-stop about making reservations and mapping out our walks, yet she never answered our heartfelt ?thank you? with anything less than a sincere ?my pleasure?.

But the person I would most love to clone and bring home with me is Vikings fab Program Director, Debra, who was unfailingly gracious, competent and willing to go the extra mile(s). She patiently took care of a huge problem I had with the airlines- even though it had nothing to do with Viking. She stops just short of perfection since even though she has a wonderful sense of humor, she tells some really pitiful jokes, so please send her some new ones, although I heard that her Movie Quote Quiz Night was a total blast!

You?ll receive this same level of professional excellence during the daily shore excursions, informative lectures, and cooking classes. I can?t wait to try the Austrian apple strudel recipe from our demo.

Evening activities usually consisted of live music such as a colorful Slovakian evening of folk singing and dancing or a compilation of melodies from the Sound of Music performed by a Salzburgian ensemble (and No, they did not invite Joan and me to sing!) However, after a full day of sightseeing, Joan and I were usually so pooped we wanted nothing more than to retire to our comfy beds and see what towel-art surprise J-Co had left for us.

Towel buddies

Meals kicked off with an early riser?s breakfast or a full breakfast buffet between 6:00 and 9:00 am, When I asked the omelet chef, Ed, if he could make me a fat-free version using only egg-whites and veggies (which was my one nod to healthy eating for the day) he happily created an endless variety of eggy masterpieces for the rest of the week. The buffet lunch included a soup and sandwich bar, pasta, a variety of salads and desserts and was available in both the main dining room or al fresco on the Aquavit Terrace. The slightly more formal, multi-course dinner, where fresh flowers graced the crispy white tablecloths, was served around 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. We loved the open-seating format, so could chat up a bunch of different travelers (the overwhelming majority were repeat customers which says a lot) or keep to ourselves if we wished.

Viking Aquavit Terrace

The chefs are all Swiss-trained so you?re assured of gourmet cuisine with a welcome focus on regional specialties, such as assorted German sausages (hot off the barby) pretzels and mustard, Austrian tortes, local beers and liquors. After a late night in Vienna we were welcomed back to the ship with a steaming mug of hot goulash! Hot beverages, complimentary wines and beer, both local and imported, accompany meals. Or you can spring for the Silver Spirits beverage package, which covers unlimited premium wines, beers, espresso drinks, and some tasty cocktails.

Happy chefs

Now the only problem I?m left with is which Viking Cruise to pick next: Wine tasting along Portugal?s River of Gold, The Imperial Jewels of China, which includes a visit to Xian?s Terra Cotta Army, a Magnificent Mekong itinerary which covers Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, or who can resist the lure of the exotic Myanmar Explorer? I know I can?t!

Comments (13)

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  1. Joan says:

    Great recap of our amazing trip through Eastern Europe with Viking River cruises! Every day and every city was different, exciting and definitely memorable but perhaps the best part of everyday was returning to the comfort of the ship and the accommodating staff who assured that all we had to concern ourselves with was having fun!

  2. Annette says:

    What a wonderful review.. We are taking this trip in Oct 2015, our third with Viking, you have given us a great insight into what we may expect.. The insider tips will come in very useful I’m sure.

  3. You’re going to have a fabulous time and the weather should be perfect then!
    If you are going a few days early to Budapest and you’re a foodie,check out TasteHungary.com walking tours. A great way to delve into The city.

  4. Laurie says:

    Wonderful review, Janice! My family and I will be enjoying the Danube Waltz two weeks from tomorrow. Can’t wait! ⛵️⚓️✈️

  5. steven says:

    Janice, I’m exhausted after reading your review. Will need a box of Mozartkugel, washed down with a side of Salzburg’s beer just to revive myself! Trip sounds absolutely fantastic with nonstop activities, and you certainly give the impression that Viking gives you outstanding value for your money. Accommodations on the ship look regal, and your description of the service and food on board are just what I dream of when considering a luxury vacation. Itinerary covers all the top spots, and it’s great that most of the traveling is done at night so that you have the days to sightsee, shop, and whatever in the different towns. After reading your article, I can understand why you can barely wait for the next cruise! Sounds like whichever one you choose, it will be a winner. Thanks for sharing and cluing us in on this. Hope my Viking experience is even half as good as yours was. Steven

  6. Bob Merrick says:

    What a wonderful review. Having been on an ocean cruise, but never a river cruise, I am now excited to try it. The trip that you covered sounds great to me. I may consider that very trip or maybe another Viking cruise. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience.

  7. Patricia Monk says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your blog! My husband and I, along with 2 close friends are taking the Danube Waltz cruise in August, and are super excited about it! We are adding two days in Prague at the beginning and Budapest at the end of the trip as a bonus😀. Looking forward to this outstanding trip!

    Thank u for your positive comments,

    Patti

  8. Hi Patti,

    Let me know if you get the “Viking Bug” after you return.
    I’m sooooper excited about my upcoming Magnificent Mekong Viking River Cruise-can’t wait to see how they handle Asia.
    PS- If you have spare time in Buda I highly recommend going on the TasteHungary.com foodie walking tour. Fab introduction to the city plus you’ll try many excellent taste treats.

  9. Kavita Batra says:

    Question-
    Ho is this cruise for single, middle aged women? I’m looking for friendly, comfortable atmosphere..not a “dating” scene, but also am morbidly afraid of being judged as “that woman who is alone”….

  10. Hi Kavita,
    To answer your question, I can’t think of a more perfect “single-friendly” environment than a Viking River Cruise. As a matter of fact, I’m going solo on their two-week Mekong River Cruise (Vietnam and Cambodia) in July and can’t wait. I’m not promising you’ll meet the “love of your life”, but you will be surrounded by enough friendly, well-traveled, educated and interesting people (as well as the most hospitable staff)so you’ll never have to be alone if you so choose. Have Fun!

  11. Kavita Batra says:

    Hi Janice,
    WOW!! Thank you so much for your very timely and apropos reply. This is all the encouragement I need to take the trip. I have always travelled with my 2 daughters, single parenting, and always loved that. They have now flown the coop. and so it’s time to fly solo…
    I shall make it a point to visit your reviews often.
    Thank you again!
    Kavita

  12. David says:

    Great post, we just finished up two viking river cruises the Elegant Elbe and Russia. We loved them and would 100% do the Elegant Elbe again….. Russia was nice, however a little disappointed with how fake some of the stops were. Some towns are just on the map because of the river cruises and we really did not see the real Russia.
    We are in our 30’s and we were 100% the youngest ones on the ships. Each cruise almost everyone asked us why are you here!
    Travel On!

  13. Don says:

    Great review- I am a “junkie” too, I did the “I’ll clean decks and bathrooms, I just need a bed!” We did that same cruise, Amsterdam-Basel, Paris-Normandy. Our favorite was our first on the Rhine Amsterdam to Basel- we go at christmastime- it is less expensive, we are about to do Frankfurt to Nuremberg- and we have stayed, on our own, after by pricelining hotels and just extending our flight out. We love this cruiseline although I have heard it talked down. We tend to make friends in the airport waiting for transport, if you are on your own, which I would do in a heartbeat! get to dinner early sit at the biggest table there is- couples will come and ask the first night “Mind if we join you” and you will make friends. I go with my partner every year he is more of the history buff I want to soak up the culture, I sometimes don’t do the tours if they are going to take the whole day. I tend to find a friend like me who just wants to “hang out” and see the local sites. We have also docked up against other cruise ships in small ports. We toured the avalon ships and other lines, just ask as you walk through “hey I’m interested in your line but am on Viking can you tell and show me a little about your line” they are happy to accommodate. But some more experienced people have said Avalon is nice, more expensive and a bit more “stuffy” I’m mid 40s and my partner mid 50s. There are people around our age and up. who cares? there is a love of travel and adventure to share. The ONLY time we had a bit of an issue was Paris to Normandy- and we very much wanted to visit the beaches of the invasion- on the bus were a bunch of young kids- their parents thought this would be a good Christmas present I suppose- they sat near the back of the bus, where we were, their parents of course sat near the front- why bother to supervise their kids. They were so loud and rowdy that the teacher and asst principal in me and my partner took over after our being bothered and others around us I went back to them and said “Are you having fun? Great. Hey this is a great historical tour and you all are not paying attention at all and I am sure your parents paid a lot for your trip so I am going to ask you just one time nicely to ‘shut up’ and keep quiet, if you don’t I will have a talk with our cruise director. We paid alot of money for this trip, and you need to respect that.” They did stay quiet, people around us thanked me. Of course I got a mom coming up to me “they are just kids” I said “and you are just a parent- so do your job as your children are ruining my tour- they quieted down but you need to be the mom and check on them, if you don’t I know the policy of this cruiseline about this behavior and there are plenty around us to back us up” She called me rude, someone else said “no you are rude, you didn’t do YOUR job this gentleman did, your children are rude too and we WILL talk to the cruise director” In the end they did, and the cruise director came to me and I told her what happened- typical parents. So bottom line…………..I think christmas and Paris is not a good combo I had never seen so many “families” with children on a river cruise.

    We have never had a problem other than that. The food is always good. Nice selection- don’t like it there is the standard Steak at dinner which is very very nice. OH the normandy trip- do try the oyter tasting- its like an on board excursion- I had never had raw oysters before- it was hilarious, informative, incredibly fun and now I like raw oysters, the endless champagne and triple the amount of oysters to taste gave me time to “Acquire” a taste for them as the couple next to me promised and then we had dinner with that night.

    I’m so excited about Frankfurt to nuremburg on the Main canal- it is short so we extended 4 days in Nuremburg. Taking two friends with us one has never done a viking cruise- he is very excited. We get to fly KLM on the way there- awesome airline! AirFrance on the way back- not so awesome but thats the way home so no worries.

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