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.
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.
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.
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).