- Cathy Neubauer
The Danube Waltz: Our Second Viking River Cruise
I'm so excited to write this post! It's my second in a series about my mom and I's amazing time taking a Viking River Cruise. If you've read any of my other posts you've probably seen one of my favorites about our first Viking Cruise along the river Seine. At the end of that cruise we had the option of purchasing vouchers for another cruise for a discount. We also lost an afternoon of power and Viking graciously gave all passengers an additional ship credit for a future cruise so of course that meant we had to schedule another one for some time in the future.
For our first cruise, my mom and I knew we had to go to France so we ended up picking the 'Paris and the Heart of Normandy' itinerary and it was beyond amazing. On that cruise we got to see a lot of different cities within 1 country so for our second cruise we decided on something a little different and wanted to go to a lot of different cities AND countries. Viking cruises all over the world but we still wanted to stick to European destinations. Also, given my heritage on my dad's side (Eastern European) and German on my mom's side we decided to try the 'Danube Waltz' itinerary because it started in Germany and sailed east through Vienna, the Czech Republic and ended in Hungary!
But first, why a Viking cruise?
Aren't there other ways to see Europe without having to pay the, on average, higher price, have a set itinerary and let's face it travel with an older crowd? Well, yes that is technically true but hear me out...like many travelers I'm sure, when I go to a foreign country I like to experience as much as I possibly can. That means not staying in one place the whole time, it means getting out there and exploring as many places and cities as we reasonably can. Buuuuut as much as I love to go, go, go let's face it, it can be tiring to continuously pack your bags and head to a new city every other day while on vacation. Sometimes when I get home from a trip I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation. On top of that, we all love Europe because of the old time charm but dragging bags along cobblestone streets, on and off trains can be draining. So when you want to experience a lot, unpack only once while still seeing multiple locations, AND have someone else take care of all the planning and details, then pick a river cruise. You'll still have as much freedom as you want while also doing and learning a ton about each location you visit.
But...first things first, river cruising is different from ocean cruising, it's MUCH smaller than ocean cruising, with just under 200 people onboard. This means that you really get to know your fellow cruisers and if you're lucky like we were you'll make a few friends by the end of your trip. Second, because of the smaller guest size, the crew really gets to know you. This was wonderful because you really feel close, almost like the service is customized to fit you individually, you can tell that they really care and want to make your experience great. Finally, river cruises are a little more 'elegant' than your typical ocean cruise, there are no casinos and drunk spring breakers running around, which is great for this old soul.
The Booking Experience:
Read about my post here for more details on the booking and pre-trip experience. Although most bookings and pre-trip experiences are the same, for this trip there were a few differences for us. Viking does offer pre and post-trip extensions to give you more time in the cities you start or end in. For our first cruise we wanted an extra day in Paris and decided to come in a day early but not officially with the pre-trip extension, which is usually 3 days or so and run around $500-800 per person. Keep in mind that if you don't get the official extension you will get charged a change fee and Viking will not be able to pick you up from the airport.
This was fine with us on our first cruise, but for our second we decided we didn't need extra time so we arrived the first day of the cruise so that Viking could be at the airport to meet and transport us to our ship. Second, on our first cruise we had also decided to upgrade our seats to premium economy on Air France, and although it was nice, it was hard on our legs, so for our second cruise we made a major splurge and upgraded our flights to first class! This was of course much more expensive but one great thing about Viking is that if you book a veranda suite room your airline ticket automatically comes with a first class upgrade for a VERY discounted price. Everyone's budget and financial values differ, but for us it was well worth the money to travel and arrive more comfortably. I also discovered that I'm completely ruined now because it will be very hard to take long-haul flights without having that lie flat bed on board...
With Viking, you get to choose your flights and which airport you want to fly out of. We flew out of Ft. Lauderdale, transferred in Atlanta, then flew on to Munich where our Viking coach waited to transport us to our ship in Passau. On our first cruise we were lucky and got a direct flight from Miami to Paris but this time that wasn't possible, which is another reason to upgrade your seats if you can. Flying first class allows you access to the airline's first class lounge which usually has an open bar and buffet. It's pretty relaxing, has less people and some even have showers if you need to freshen up, it's just a really nice way to relax before getting on a long-haul flight. After my mom and I celebrated with champagne and wine in the lounge we were ready to board.
I'll write another post on my experiences in premium economy and first class but for now, suffice it to say that the food and lie-flat beds were WELL worth the money. We ate, drank, slept a little and 9 hours later were arrived fairly rested in Munich! Once we got our bags, the next step was to locate our Viking representative, which was fairly easy as they were standing right near the bags with a big red flag saying Viking. I will say that the only downside to this part was that our ship was docked in Passau, which is about 2-3 hours away from the Munich airport. On top of that we had to wait about 2 hours for more arriving passengers so that we could all get on the Viking coach. It was handled seamlessly but after about 12 hours of travel we were definitely ready to get to our ship and relax. After we finally got on the coach we had a lovely drive through the Bavarian country side (home to the BMW factory) and got to our ship where our bags were magically transported to our rooms without any effort on our part.
Our River Cruise Itinerary:
So where did we actually go?!?!?!?! Like I said above, our trip started out in Passau, Germany, and went on to several cities in Austria, the Czech Republic, one day in Slovakia and ended in beautiful Budapest, Hungary.
Day 1: Arrival to ship
On your first day, you don't really need to do much but arrive to your ship and get acclimated. After landing in Munich in the morning, we were transported via coach to Passau (a few hours away) where our ship was docked. Luckily, our room was ready and they had a beautiful buffet lunch waiting for us on the Aquavit terrace. Afterwards, we took a short nap and woke up just in time for our first of many cocktail hours, orientation talk by the ship's director and then dinner. We were a bit tired once we finally got there but we did arrive by about noon, so if you have the energy you could spend the day walking around Passau to get oriented.
Also, I have to take a moment to write about our gorgeous room because let's face it, after traveling internationally all you want to see when you get to your destination is your comfy bed. I mentioned above that we upgraded our room to a veranda suite and when you do this the room comes with a bottle of welcome champagne, 2 bottles of white and red wine, daily fruit plate and flower arrangement. On top of that we had a beautiful separate living room with full balcony in addition to the actual bedroom and bathroom, it was absolutely amazing and we felt like the fanciest of fancy ladies.
Day 2: Passau, Germany
On day 2, we woke up refreshed and ready to explore the small town of Passau. Passau is called the Dreiflüssestadt (“City on Three Rivers”) because it's situated at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn Rivers. Our excursion included a guided walking tour around the city by a very nice local. On a side note, each of your excursions comes with a 'quiet vox' which is a wireless headset that connects to your tour guide. I loved this because we could walk around on our own and didn't have to be on top of each other to hear our guides.
In Passau we toured the city square, Bishop's residence and ended with a walk through the baroque St. Stephen's Cathedral which houses a working 17,000 pipe organ (Europe's largest). After the guided tour (and pretty much every other day), we were given time to explore the city and do some shopping in the amazing bookstores and chocolate shops, definitely a place to start getting gifts to bring home. Luckily, the towns you will visit are on or near the river so don't worry about getting lost, just follow the river and you'll be sure to locate your ship. Also, something else that was a bit different and great about this cruise was that we cruised a lot during the day so we really got to see the different towns and castles go by. On our first cruise we mainly cruised at night so we didn't get to see much of the countryside going by.
Beautiful stroll through Passau and amazing chocolate shops!
Day 3: Linz, Austria (on to Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic)
On day 3 we started out in Linz, Austria, and while there was the option to explore Linz, the included excursion was actually an all-day trip to the beautiful Bohemian town of Ceský Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We started out in our Viking coach and rode through the scenic Czech countryside. Once we crossed the Austria/Czech border and arrived into town, we were speechless! We really didn't have any idea what to expect from Ceský Krumlov but it was AMAZING! I mean this place was truly the kind of town right out of a fairy tale. We took a walking tour of the historic city center, saw baroque and Renaissance buildings, the bear moat and palace and of course had free time to wander through the streets.
Walking through the city square...
Towards the end of our free time we found a tiny little bar/restaurant that served some really fantastic Czech food and also found an authentic gingerbread shop as well.
Homemade gingerbreads, chocolates and marionettes
When you're done you all meet back in the city center which is actually right next to the Museum of Torture if you're so inclined! There was also an exhibit on Alphonse Mucha (one of my favorite artists) so I was able to get some really beautiful prints. This was a long day of walking on cobblestones, so we were tired but it was amazing!
Day 4: Krems, Austria
On day 4, we had some beautiful sailing through the Wachau Valley. After having lunch, we arrived in Krems, Austria. Here, we took a coach to visit the Benedictine Abbey of Göttweig, a working monastery for more than 900 years. This was a really special/spiritual visit, to see the monks who still live and work at the Abbey, to see them farming the land and making products from their own orchard was amazing. We were even lucky enough to witness a wedding going on in one of the churches. We also toured the inside and grounds, saw the beautiful frescoed ceiling of the abbey, books that were hundreds of years old and even got to taste the wines that are made there (we also definitely spent our fair share in the gift shop on homemade apricot liqueurs and Easter gingerbreads). Once we returned to our ship we set sail for the first of three capital cities, Vienna!
Frescos and illustrated books that were hundreds of years old
Mom and I trying to fit in at the abbey
Day 5: Vienna, Austria
Today we toured the first of our capital cities, Vienna, Austria and it was definitely a packed day! Our tour started out in the Ringstrasse where we saw the world-famous Opera House, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hofburg Palace and statue of the famous Empress Maria Teresa, who had 16 children (including Marie Antoinette). Our coach ride turned into a walking tour where we passed by the Sisi museum and famous Lipizzaner horse stables. We also had free time to explore Vienna, which was great because I really wanted to experience the famous 'coffee house' culture so we stopped for an espresso and a slice of Austria's famous Sachertorte near St. Stephen's Cathedral. Also, when in Vienna, one of the souvenirs you absolutely have to get are the chocolates with Mozart or Empress Sisi on them.
We returned to our ship for lunch and a break followed by another tour in the afternoon of the famous Schönbrunn Palace. Known as the “Versailles of Vienna,” and home to the famous Hapsburg dynasty, it was absolutely beautiful to walk around, to see the gilded and over the top rooms (similar to Versailles), the gardens and the world’s oldest zoo. This was definitely a BUSY day because after returning for dinner we then opted for another excursion back into town to a 'Heuriger' for a traditional party at a beer garden to celebrate the new wines of the seasons. This was sort of like a family beer garden, they had their own homemade local wines, an amazing Austrian buffet and a live trio of musicians to serenade us. We were all definitely exhausted and feeling good when we got back to the ship afterward ;)
Day 6: Bratislava, Slovakia
The next day we woke up in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. It's actually the only national capital that borders two other countries, Austria and Hungary. We had a really nice tour of the city via coach where we got out to tour the famous Brastislava Castle, set right along the Danube river. Afterward, we had a walking tour of the town center and saw the medieval Town Hall complex and fortifications at Michael’s Tower, the baroque Jesuit Church and Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral. As always we had free time to explore the city, looking at the old baroque buildings, with just enough time to visit shops that sold beautiful Slovakian ceramics. We didn't have too much time here though and had to be back on the ship by lunch because we were off to our last stop, Budapest!
Day 7: Budapest, Hungary
On every trip I've ever gone on there's always that one place you really look forward to visiting, and on this trip it was Budapest. I've grown up eating my Hungarian grandmother's chicken parprikash (aka paprika chicken) and couldn't wait to one day see where my family had come from...but this was beyond special. We actually sailed into Budapest at night, just in time to see the famous Parliament building lit up. I can't even describe what this looked and felt like for me, it was absolutely stunning! We got to sail under the various bridges before finally finding our dock.
The next morning we woke up ready to explore! Our coach ride had us visiting the towns of Buda and Pest (which are separated by the Danube River), starting with Pest’s National Opera House, historic Heroes’ Square and Dohány Synagogue (the largest in Europe). In Buda, we walked along Castle Hill to the famous Fishermen’s Bastion (which had the BEST views overlooking the city and Parliament building during the day), statue of King St. Stephen (first king of Hungary) and Matthias Church.
We then went back to the ship for lunch and had the rest of the afternoon to explore. Viking had optional excursions to the Great Market hall and thermal baths but instead of spending the extra money for their tour, which took a few hours each and overlapped time-wise, we decided to go out on our own. The Great Market hall was only a few blocks down from the ship so we took ourselves and spent an hour or so exploring the food stalls, pickle stands, had some traditional goulash soup and bought lots and lots of paprika!
Afterwards, we decided to try out the famous Hungarian thermal spas. Hungary sits on hundreds of natural thermal vents so 'taking the waters' is a favorite Hungarian past time I knew I had to experience. There are many famous ones to choose from but we were nearest to the famous Art Nouveau Gellért Spa so we went there, and I can't tell you enough how glad I am that we got to do this.
At the end of the trip we were a little tired so taking some time to get a massage and experience the various spas and thermal baths of Gellért was truly amazing, an experience I will never forget. The design, tile-work and artistry of the spa was gorgeous. I should also say that while we did pay for a taxi to take us to the spa, Viking arranged it all for us, which was a really special touch.
Day 8: Budapest, Hungary
Sob! Our last day was really only a last morning, because after waking up and having breakfast on the ship, you get back in your coach and head to the airport, which Viking takes care of. I know we said we didn't need more time, but I really would recommend spending another day or two in Budapest if you can. It's just such a special city and reminds me of Paris (with an Eastern European flair). Again, I recommend upgrading your flights if you can because the best route we could get was from Budapest --> Amsterdam --> Detroit --> Ft. Lauderdale....Luckily it was the end of our trip but we were definitely ready to get off that plane and were grateful for our lie-flat first class seats.
Other things to expect from a Viking River Cruise!
So now to one of the best parts, the food! I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that having good food while on vacation is probably one of the most important things when planning a trip. For each cruise, the menu is usually planned around regional specialties so on this one we had things like beef cabbage rolls, schnitzel and my favorite chicken paprikash (but it wasn't as good as my Hungarian grandmas)! I do have to be completely honest and say that while the food onboard our first Viking cruise along the Seine was amazing, this second one wasn't AS good. Maybe it's because the food is regional and I love French food, but this time around I think it could have been a bit better. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, the breakfast buffet had everything and anything you could ever want. I also got addicted to their salad bar and pasta station every day for lunch. At dinner, most nights had a regional cuisine tasting menu and one night they had a blowout party featuring foods from Germany and Austria with a live band which was really special! Each day they also have a menu you can order from with daily specials and standard American fare like eggs Benedict, steak and caesar salad if you're not feeling adventurous. The chefs also use local ingredients and have an herb garden on their roof that they used in their recipes, which I loved. The meals are also served with unlimited local wine which are carefully chosen by their maître d' and were delicious. Here are some photos of some of our favorite meals and the 'Taste of Austria' night :)
'Taste of Austria' Night where we had too much food and too much wine ;)
Unexpected but Absolutely Appreciated Freebies:
On top of the food I also think I should take a moment to mention some of the unexpected, above and beyond things Viking did for us while on our cruise.
1) Snacks: Before every excursion Viking handed out bottled water and umbrellas if need be, but beyond that there were snacks, small bites and drinks waiting for us as we re-boarded after some of our excursions which was very appreciated.
2) Robes and slippers for our thermal bath: Like I mentioned above, during our time in Budapest we really wanted to experience a thermal bath. While Viking did offer their own excursion we didn't sign up because it was over $100, was several hours and because we also wanted to fit time in to see the Great Market Hall. Despite our not booking the excursion with them, when we spoke with the concierge to help us get a taxi to the thermal bath we found that they had also prepared a wonderful bag for both my mom and I with terry cloth robes and slippers! We truly weren't expecting that and were beyond appreciative.
3) Local musicians and opera singers: Viking prides themselves on educating their guests on local traditions (which I LOVE) and we certainly saw that on several evenings when they had opera singers from Vienna, German oompah bands during our taste of Austria dinner and a stringed quartet during our traditional Heurigen evening to taste the new wines in Vienna.
4) A Hungarian tea party: On one of our sailing afternoons, Viking had a tea party for us on the Aquavit terrace. It was truly amazing, little sandwiches and sweet treats while we sailed along the Danube in beautiful weather, watching the castles along the shore go by.
5) Happy hour for returning Viking guests: This one was one of our favorites experiences because on our first river cruise there was one evening where returning Viking guests got to experience a special happy hour with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. I remember my mom and I looking into the room like 'damn I want to join' so on our second cruise we were super excited that we got to be 'part of the Viking club' lol. They also had a few other welcome and captain's cocktail hours for all the guests on a few of the nights as well.
There were honestly so many other touches like finding a special Viking bookmark in one of the books in my room, having my pajamas folded on my bed and even getting free laundry services which came with our Veranda suite, all in all so many amazing touches and extras.
The ship and onboard amenities:
I won't go into as much detail as my last article on the topic but suffice it to say Viking longships are beautiful (you can also check out their interactive virtual tours to get a better idea of what's onboard). The ships are only 3 levels with a top deck that is comprised of the sundeck, a walking path, herb garden for their meals and seating and lounge chairs to enjoy cocktails while watching the river pass by.
Other amenities inside the ship consist of a library and sitting area full of books that revolve around the area you're traveling to (which I LOVE), a computer area with free wifi (take note: because you're traveling from place to place wifi can get spotty at times), countless lounge chairs and sofas to relax on, a 24-hour snack area that had fresh baked goodies like meringues, cookies and macarons plus a cappuccino and espresso maker.
Also, my favorite place to relax and hear about the day planned ahead was the bar and cocktail lounge area. Whenever we got a chance we would head to the lounge for a cocktail. This is also where your cruise guide will give you updates and let you know what is going on for the day or what to expect on the cruise. They also have live music each night, lectures and food demonstrations, which I absolutely loved.
So all in all what else can I say? To be able to travel is such a luxury but to be able to take a trip like this with my mom was a memory I'll treasure for the rest of my life. A river cruise is a wonderful way to experience so many different places and cultures and Viking is a master at making us feel special while giving us the best possible experience. We also did a lot of upgrading on this trip and it was well worth it to us, but if that's not in your budget there are always specials going on and of course their cheaper rooms were just great too. As with the end of any trip, we treasure our memories and can't wait to make more on a Viking river cruise!!!!