Rolling down the river (from Budapest to Salzburg)

Part 1: A 'Scenic' Cruise Along the Danube

The first day of the cruise, Monday, September 24, was embarkation day. The passengers boarded the ship during the afternoon and that evening we took a memorable mini-cruise along the Budapest waterfront. Photo credit: Mark Baker
There's something really exhilarating about standing on the sun deck and looking out across to the shore. This was our initial view on the first day in sunny Budapest. The building in the distance is the grand Hungarian Parliament. Photo by Mark Baker.
Daily excursions are a big part of a river cruise. Passengers normally have the choice of between two and four activities. On our first full day in Budapest, we had the choice of spending time at the city's Széchenyi thermal baths. It was chillier than it looks out there! Photo credit: Mark Baker

Embarkation day for the cruise was set for Monday, September 24, but I flew into Budapest from Prague on the previous day, Sunday, to give myself some extra time. It was a warm, sunny Indian-summer day in Hungary, and on any other trip, especially in that weather, I’d have felt free as a bird.

I love the big-city feel of Budapest. Unlike any other city in Central Europe (with the exception, maybe, of Warsaw), Budapest actually feels like a city in way that Prague -- or even Vienna -- does not. On any other trip, I'd have tossed my bags into the hotel room, headed out on a long walk, grabbed a delicious Hungarian meal somewhere, and checked out one of those “ruin” pubs in the neighborhood behind the big synagogue.

On this trip, though, there was no time for any of that. The butterflies in my stomach told me I still had serious work to do. The next day, I’d be heading over to the Scenic passenger-cruise port on the Danube to meet and greet the passengers whom I and the other cruise personnel would be escorting along three European rivers over the next two weeks. As a destination “expert,” I’d be leading discussions on European history, culture and politics, and generally helping passengers to better understand the places we’d be sailing through. I’d been practicing my presentations, off and on, all summer long, but in the back of my mind I knew there was no way to prepare completely for what was coming.

As a “Central Europeanist” -- if such a thing exists -- I feel very much at home in places like Hungary, Slovakia and Austria, but that would be only part of this particular voyage. Starting from somewhere west of Vienna, our boat would turn north and west into Germany and the Netherlands -- in other words, to places I knew much better as a tourist than as an expert. I’d give it my best, but on this first trip, at least, there would be gaps in my knowledge, and I’d just have to wing it at times.

I spent that first night in my Budapest hotel re-reading my notes, rehearsing my presentations, and, yeah, boning up a bit on German.

Several people have asked me to post photos of the cabin and living facilities. For this photo and others here I'm indebted to my National Geographic colleague, Susan Seubert, whose cabin pics were a lot better than mine. This is her room and shows a typical cabin layout. Photo credit: Susan Seubert (www.sseubert.com)
Susan is (justifiably) proud of her packing skills, which are well-honed after going on several of these types of cruises. My impression is that the cabin packing space is big enough (but only just) to handle two people's things for the length of a cruise. Pack lightly folks! Photo credit: Susan Seubert (www.sseubert.com)
The cabins are divided into several classes, with those cabins on the middle and upper floors offering cozy two-seater balconies. The space is a tight and the views not always breathtaking (especially if boats are double-parked at the port), but the windows do open and the space makes a nice nook for morning coffee. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Another shot of the cabin balconies, showing off the kind of view you can have when the weather and the port are cooperating. This is Regensburg, Germany, where the river-boat port just happens to be beside a 19th-century, neo-Gothic castle. Photo credit: Susan Seubert (www.sseubert.com)

On Monday morning, after breakfast and a short stroll through Pest to clear my head, I gathered my things and headed over to the port. If you’ve never been on a river cruise, that first day is a lot like the first day of school. Everything feels fresh and new, and there are lots of people to meet. I was a little early (most passengers traditionally arrive at the boat in the mid-afternoon) and had the fortune right off the bat to meet both the current cruise director for our trip, Alex Thurein, and the outgoing cruise director, Andreea, for the voyage that was just finishing.

I also met, for the first time, my National Geographic Expeditions co-worker, Susan Seubert, who would be the photography expert on this trip. Susan turned out to be not just an excellent photographer and teacher, but a very friendly and outgoing person. (She was kind enough to share some of her photos for this post).

One thing you learn pretty quickly on a cruise is that it’s the cruise director -- and not the captain -- who calls the shots. On that first day, Alex was busy checking in arriving passengers, but Andreea had some spare time to show me around and introduce me to some of the behind-the-scenes staff members who’d be able to troubleshoot if necessary and make our lives onboard a whole lot easier.

Cruise ships – even those that run relatively modest voyages down rivers like the Danube – are, in fact, whole floating cities. In addition to the captain, his staff, navigators and technicians, there’s a full crew of hotel and hospitality workers, cleaners, butlers, barmen, chefs and servers. Our boat had both a full-time masseuse and a music director, Jelena Kovacevic, whose job it was to play the keyboard for us in the evenings. Our particular cruise was undersubscribed, meaning the number of staff and passengers was actually roughly the same – around 70-80 of each.

After all of the passengers had checked in and everyone had secured their cabins, we gathered together that first evening for introductions, dinner, and an hour-long evening float along the Budapest waterfront. The lights of the city along both banks of the river illuminated the dark waters of the Danube in shimmering shades of gold. My butterflies settled down. It was a more than decent start to a journey that would -- literally and figuratively -- take many twists and turns ahead, but we hadn’t even left Budapest yet.

This is Susan (left) and our onboard singer and musician, Jelena. After the cruise got rolling, we spent more time in the evenings together in the lounge. I took this photo either just before or after Susan's signature rendition of "Dream a Little Dream of Me." Photo credit: Mark Baker
A classic shot from the ship's main dining room. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style, while dinners were table service. The food was far better than you'd expect, considering the tiny quarters the kitchen staff has to work in. Photo credit: Susan Seubert (www.sseubert.com)
One my responsibilities as the National Geographic destination expert was to hold regular discussions on topics ranging from history and architecture to this particular afternoon when the subject was the "challenges facing the European Union." The audience looks to be asleep, but I can assure you, judging by their questions, they were paying close attention. Photo credit: Susan Seubert (www.sseubert.com)
One of things I learned on this cruise is that it's not actually the captain who "runs" the boat, but rather the cruise director. Here's our cruise director, Alex (right), sporting his best lederhosen in Salzburg. We'd just spent lunch at a Sound of Music gala, starring a highly credible Austrian version of Julie Andrews (left). Photo credit: Mark Baker

Like starting school, it doesn’t take long for a comfortable routine to set in on a river cruise. Although you move to another port along the river each day or two, the rhythm of each individual day doesn’t differ too much from any other. In fact, after a while, it becomes hard to remember whether it’s a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, a distinction that quickly becomes irrelevant anyway.

A typical day for me might start out around 7.30am with a cup of coffee from the espresso machine in the lounge, followed by a short morning stroll on the sun deck and then a buffet breakfast with the other passengers in the main dining room.

After having just finished a month on the road in Romania for Lonely Planet – and a month of non-stop hotel breakfast buffets – ahead of the cruise, I was probably less enthusiastic about choosing among the hams, cheeses and scrambled eggs on the buffet table than most of the rest of the passengers. This, though, was certainly no fault of Scenic or National Geographic. Indeed, the meals were invariably excellent, especially considering the small galley the chefs have to work in.

Like breakfast, lunch, too, was served buffet-style, with a choice of two or three main-course options as well as a spread of soups, salads and desserts. For dinners, we had table service, with the option of ordering from a couple of set menus or choosing individual entrees from a small a la carte menu (or, of course, taking in-cabin room service). After dinner, we'd usually repair to the lounge on the main deck for another glass of wine and tunes from Jelena's keyboard.

After leaving Budapest, the next large city on the cruise was the Slovak capital, Bratislava. Oddly, our boat didn't stop here, though Bratislava was one of the available excursions (by bus) from Vienna. This is the city's SNP bridge ('UFO bridge') in the middle of town. Photo credit: Mark Baker
In Bratislava, I wandered off on my own for a while and couldn't resist taking photos of some of the city's old communist-era architecture. About 20 passengers opted for the Bratislava excursion from Vienna. Photo credit: Mark Baker
One of the strongest impressions you get of a cruise ship is the length of the deck. Because of river width limitations, boats can only be about 11 meters (34 feet) wide. There's more wiggle room with the length. Our boat was a whopping 135 meters (443 feet) long. In the distance are the 9th-century ruins of Devín Castle, somewhere between Slovakia and Austria. Photo credit: Mark Baker
This is the view from the top deck, facing toward the front of the boat, as we cruise the Danube somewhere in Slovakia near the Austrian border. Photo credit: Mark Baker

The land-side excursions are the bread and butter of any cruise. On a typical day, we’d have the choice of between three or four outings, broken out into more-active excursions like hikes or bike rides, outings centered on food and wine, or the more typical city tours and museum visits. In Budapest, for example, passengers could opt for a hike through the Buda Hills, a sightseeing tour of the city, or a day out at the city’s thermal baths. To continue my school analogy, each day was like a field trip.

The excursions would normally be timed to start shortly after breakfast, at 9am or 9.30am, meaning I’d usually have about 15 minutes after breakfast to return to my cabin, glance over the day’s itinerary, throw my camera and coat into my backpack, and head out with the rest of the group. Depending on the destination and distance, we'd usually return to the ship for lunch and head out once again in the afternoon.

After living in Prague so many years and watching countless tour groups march through town -- with each person on the tour clutching their headsets and following a local guide holding an umbrella -- it felt strange suddenly to be on the other side of the divide. Several of these excursions, though, including a guided bike ride through Austria's Wachau Valley and an evening of chamber music at Vienna's Palais Liechtenstein, were truly excellent and outings I'll remember for a long time to come.

I tried, as best I could, to take advantage of these field trips to get better acquainted with the other passengers and, especially, to absorb all I could about the individual destinations. After all, I hope to continue working on these cruises at least once or twice a year going forward and next time around I intend to know a whole lot more about everything.

(Scroll past the map below for more photos.)

(In Part 2, I write about the talks Susan and I gave onboard, a bit about those twists and turns, some general impressions of Germany and Holland, and the amazing people I met onboard).

 

An early-morning look at the riverboat port in Vienna -- a view of the Austrian capital you don't often see. Many people probably don't realize the historic core of Vienna is not actually "on" the Danube, but rather along a small canal that loops through the center. The port lies about 5km (3 miles) east of the center, near the Prater amusement park. Photo credit: Mark Baker
A group shot of our walking tour of Vienna. By coincidence, the bus from our ship in Vienna dropped us off just in front of my old apartment in Vienna. I took the opportunity to lead an impromptu tour of my old neighborhood. We stomped around the center, checking in at St Stephan's Cathedral, walking up the Graben, through the Hofburg, and around the Staatsoper. It felt great to be "home" and show the guests how pretty central Vienna is. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The colorful interior of Vienna's St Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom). Photo credit: Mark Baker
The line-up of horse carriages outside of Vienna's St Stephen's Cathedral is always great for a photo. This was actually just the start of our hike through the center of town. Photo credit: Mark Baker
A highlight of our visit to Vienna was an evening concert in the Liechtenstein Palace. I was expecting something kind of kitschy and not necessarily very artistically demanding. I was pleasantly surprised by a musical selection that wasn't just Mozart and the Blue Danube waltz. And the location, a beautifully preserved baroque palace, set just the right tone. Photo credit: Mark Baker
A view of pretty Dürnstein village in the Wachau Valley of Austria. We spent the morning walking through town and then set off from here for an afternoon bike ride along the banks for the Danube. Photo credit: Mark Baker
One of my personal highlights of the trip was this 30km (20 mile) bike ride through the Wachau in Austria. It was a glorious sunny day -- not too hot, not too cold. We were expressly forbidden from photographing while on the bikes, so I had to be careful while sneaking this surreptitious photo (but just one). Photo credit: Mark Baker
A view of the Danube while on our bike ride. You can see in the photo just how low the water levels are these days in Central Europe. The water was so low that our boat wasn't actually able to complete the journey by water. We bused from somewhere around here all the way up to Regensburg to complete the trip. Photo credit: Mark Baker
It had been ages since I'd been to Salzburg and I was really looking forward to this part of the trip. The low water levels in Central Europe meant that we had to swap ships ahead of the Salzburg excursion and ride a bus in both directions from the boat in Regensburg, Germany. The sunny weather made up for a bit of the passengers' discomfort. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The interior of Salzburg's 17th-century baroque cathedral. For part of the Salzburg excursions, the passengers were on their own to explore the city as they wanted. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Before the long bus ride back from Salzburg to our ship in Regensburg, we stopped for lunch and a show somewhere near those hills alive with the "Sound of Music." Insider tip for anyone planning one of these types of cruises: watch the movie again before taking the cruise and memorize the lyrics for "Edelweis" -- you're welcome! Photo credit: Mark Baker
Another view of central Salzburg on sunny and cool late-September afternoon. Photo credit: Mark Baker

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker