La Serenissima

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Magical Christmas and New Year cruising the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers; Part 2

Vienna to Passau

Vienna, Austria

We sailed overnight to Vienna to arrive on Thursday 23rd December; just in time to spend a relatively hot day – min. 3 and max. 6!!! Almost beach weather …

 Because the Danube does not run through the city centre, the boat docks a 15-20 minute bus or tram ride away, but that enables you to see some of the outskirts. Our tour included a coach drive past Prater Park and the famous Ferris wheel, driving the full circle of the Ringstrasse and glimpsing the elegant grand homes, and then on foot, St Stephen’s Cathedral (including the horses beside it),  and the pedestrian streets of the Graben and Kohlmarkt. 

From here, we walked through the archway of Hofburg Palace and through to another major facade of the Palace which faces in to.Heldenplatz

Then on to the Christmas Markets at the City Hall – “Rathaus” in German – and at Maria Theresienplatz. At both, there was a mixture of decorations, food of various types – most importantly strudel, which we discovered also came as a drink! – and gluhwein of course. At the Rathaus, we shared an old fashioned paper cone of hot roasted chestnuts, in memory of Julian’s mum and dad, who used to talk about having them in the winter in the European section of Alexandria.

The architecture along the streets of the old city centre was beautiful. In the centre of the Graben there was a huge area devoted to selling live and cut Christmas trees, including lots of Blue Spruces no less, and one stall had a large bunch of mistletoe – so of course we shared a kiss under it, much to the amusement of the stall owner!

That night, I took the optional tour to a concert by the Vienna Residenz Orchestra, one of the world’s finest chamber orchestras, who played Mozart and Strauss music. The venue was Auersperg Palais, said to be one of the best venues to enable a large group (of about 120 people would be my guess) to experience a very personal and private concert. Ama and APT regularly book such places, which are otherwise quite expensive and booked out considerably in advance. We were also treated to a fine ballet performance and beautiful singing by a tenor and a soprano. A delightful evening, capped off by a night ride on the Ringstrasse so we could see the Christmas lights.

Melk, Washau and Durnstein

We spent the morning of Christmas Eve cruising from Melk, through the Wachau valley, a major wine region, to Durnstein. Quite a few people got off the boat in Melk to tour the beautiful Abbey there. We decided to stay on board, enjoying the scenery floating past us. The vineyards looked beautiful in the soft, misty light, the pruned winter vines tumbling down the terraced ground. A real photo opportunity!!

We decided that, it being Christmas Eve an’ all, we would opt for a completely lazy day and view Durnstein from the boat as well! I might say that you can experience the beauty of the countryside easily from the boat, as you are gliding through it. What’s not to like??? And besides, we could breathe the air on the deck (somewhat chilly air with a low of zero) or take in the local sights from the comfort of the lounge. So we did!

 My “Daily Cruiser” says “the Wachau Valley is one of the most beautiful regions in Austria”. Durnstein, situated on the Danube had “an ideal loation in the Middle Ages, it’s steep rock river banks gave protection from floods and gave ample space for settlement and fortification. It was in Kuenringer Castle, whose ruins overlook Durnstein, that the English King Richard the Lion heart was held prisoner from 1192 to 1193. We had a clear view of the castle as well as the beautiful blue spired Augustine Abbey Church, apparently one of the most photographed places in Austria.

That evening, we enjoyed a Christmas Eve dinner with turkey and all the trimmings. There was also Christmas tree decorating – an Austrian-German tradition where all of the family gathers for dinner and then decorates the tree together ready for Christmas Day. We had wondered why there were 2 huge but bare Christmas trees in the lounge area … ah, mystery solved! And the trees were indeed looking very good on Christmas Day. There was of course a very nicely decorated tree in the foyer, giving it a very festive and homey feel.

Linz, Passau and Salzburg

Merry Christmas!! It was December 25th and we arrived in Linz at around 8 am. Many people got off the boat to take the full day tour to Salzburg and rejoin us in the afternoon at Passau. By all accounts, those who did the Salzburg tour were delighted with it.

We decided to enjoy the gorgeous views as we continued down the Danube into Bavaria, arguably one of the most scenic states in Germany, and towards Passau. Known sometimes as “the town of the three rivers", Passau lies in the frontier between Germany and Austria at the junction of the Inn, Danube and Ilz rivers.

For those who are not sufficiently diverted by the scenery, there is the Aft Lounge, where you get uninterrupted views and also comfy chairs, tables and board games. There is also a small library with a range of books from novels to travel books mainly focussing on the areas that the boat sails through. There are also visits to the wheelhouse with Captain Henk and some fun activities in the lounge run by the Maitre D. If that wasn’t enough there was an endless supply of goodies to eat – between meals, that is!! Heaven knows we were all starving!! (not).

I might say the Danube is an interesting spectacle in itself. Like all of the major rivers in Europe, it is a “working” river, so there is an endless array of tugs and barges plying its waters, carrying containerised and manufactured goods, such as cars, shown below.

En route we enjoyed more splendid riverscapes, villages and snow covered country.

We got off the boat in the afternoon in Passau, and had a wonderful walk through the old town. At one point, the snow drifted down softly in light flurries. Many families, spanning three generations, all rugged up and possibly still walking off Christmas Eve dinners, were strolling about too. Wonderful. 

There are many classical buildings in the old town, with some medieval structures and even some ancient Roman ruins. The city itself is some 2000 years old.

We decided to have a coffee in one of the few places that were open – it was, Christmas Day after all. It turned out that the café was run by a very exuberant Italian man who was not only dispensing espressos, but also much joy and laughter, chatting animatedly to patrons he obviously knew. Before too long we got talking to him, Julian speaking in Italian of course. Great excitement all round; he had a cousin who lived in Sydney!

Just a little post-script: Somewhere between Linz and Passau, we were treated to a very strange yet rivetting scene …

Apparently a very weathy aristocrat from the area had a great liking for the Parthenon … so, what else could he do but build his very own?! Pictured here is the Parthenon “too” in a setting that we don’t believe you would ever see in Athens!!

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Magical Christmas and New Year cruising the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers

I had been researching river cruises in Europe for a few years and had come to the conclusion that APT was the best – certainly the best boats and all reports of the service on board and the port excursions pointed to them being the best
We had looked at their brochures many times and decided that a winter cruise visiting the Christmas markets would be the way to go. (Yes, I know some of you think we are nuts with our penchant for snow and ice – always at a reasonably safe distance and certainly never experienced from a speeding pair of skis … but I digress). Because of Julian’s work commitments, it had to be the very last cruise for the year, departing from Budapest on December 20th.

Little did we know at the time of booking that Europe, and North America, would experience a most severe and cold winter. But, bah!!! … What’s a bit of H2O in it’s various frozen states??

Getting there

The weather excitement started when we landed in Frankfurt on December 18th, where we were to take a connecting flight with Malev, the Hungarian airline, to Budapest. We enquired with one of the ground staff as to where the Malev counter was. She looked sadly at her flight schedules and told us that many flights to Budapest had been cancelled the previous day and that she had no information about departures for that day. Hmmm, our faces fell a bit. So we went to where the Malev counter was, and waited for an hour or so until someone showed up. We were told that, yes, the plane would go but that it was running late. We got boarding passes and headed to the departure gate where we waited … waited …Plenty of opportunity to gaze out the window on the snowy scene …

 At 12-ish, rather than 10 am, we finally boarded and took off.

After 40 minutes or so, after we had commenced our decent, we started to have the distinct impression that we were going around in circles … that would be because we were! The captain came on the PA to tell us that Budapest was closed due to snow, Frankfurt was closed for the same reason (in fact we had been the last plane out) and that we were going to Vienna.

Well, great! Although we didn’t compare notes aloud (we were each silently working on Plan B) Both Julian and I were thinking the same thing … if we have to stay in Vienna, at least the boat stops there and we can join the cruise there. So, off to Vienna we go. We were able to land but not get off the plane. Instead the captain was directed to what seemed to be a “parking station” for planes bound for other parts of Europe, and we stayed there for 4 hours with regular updates of “no change”. Suddenly the captain’s voice came over the PA –“Good news – Budapest has reopened, but we have to be quick”. Of course it’s not that far from Vienna to Budapest, but we made it in about 20 minutes!! Definitely Grand Prix flying.


We decided to stay a couple of nights in Budapest and check out the scene a bit before getting onto the boat. And in retrospect, we were glad. We had booked the InterContinental, which has wonderful river views. In fact from our very commodious room on the top floor, we looked straight across to the Royal Palace, now the National Gallery and the snowy streets with the Parliament in the distance to our right.

 The hotel is in fact in a great spot. The Christmas markets, one of the largest traditional Christmas markets in Europe, were one block away behind us in Vorosmarty Square. Each year the organisers take considerable trouble to ensure that all the traders who get a space at the market conform to very high standards of artisanship. The emphasis is on hand-made gifts and traditional folk inspired arts and crafts, as well as traditional foods such as various types of grilled sausages, strudel, and pastries, including kurtos kalacs, which is cylinder shaped with different coatings such as sugar and walnuts. 

We bought a lovely handmade decoration made of fresh dried orange and lime slices, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and nut shells. We hung it in our room on the boat and it smelt wonderful – very Christmassy!!

Another interesting cultural difference is that in Hungary, baby Jesus, not Santa, brings the Christmas presents. Instead Santa visits on December 6th, St Nicholas Day, when children put out a pair of well cleaned boots or shoes, mindful that they need to have been good throughout the year, and in the morning their footwear will be filled with small toys and sweets. We had the fun of experiencing this on December 21st on the boat – and next morning when we opened our door, hey presto, we each had a chocolate Santa!! (Shown here in our room with a long stemmed red rose given by the captain at the Welcome Cocktails to each woman on the boat.) And everyone had a different felt cut-out Christmas door ornament – ours was an angel.

On our way around the block to the markets we discovered a fabulous café, Café Dorottya, so many an hour was spent downing coffees, wine and pasta (which they did well). The Christmas markets lead to a lovely pedestrian street, Vaci Street, which is home to lots of shops, some international brands and other more interesting local ones.

We did a city tour with APT/AmaWaterways as part of an overnight stay on our boat. We had a bus tour of all of the major highlights on the Pest side, including Heroes Square, the Millennium Park, Budapest’s grand avenue, Andrassy Boulevard, and the Castle district on the Buda side, including the Royal Palace, Mathias church and Fisherman’s Bastion. It was an interesting overview of Budapest, only marred by the incredibly cold and foggy weather, which meant that we could only see the architectural wonders on the on the Buda side in a mysterious and decidedly damp atmosphere! Still, it added to the mystery.

On our second night in Budapest Julian decided to go for a walk and get some night photos. After rugging up – coat, hat, scarf, gloves, and earmuffs – he set off. Here are the results – not half bad, eh?

After spending 3 delightful days in Budapest, Hungary, we boarded our river cruise boat the Amalyra to sail at a leisurely pace for two weeks up to Amsterdam, Holland.

APT/AmaWaterways – above “very good”

I should explain at the outset that the cruises are advertised in Australia and New Zealand by APT. APT is a significant part owner of AmaWaterways. They pride themselves on being a family run business – by Geoff McGeary and his daughter Louise Tandy in Australia and by Rudi Schreiner (President) and partner Kristin Karst, and James Murphy and daughter Susan. Both cruise directors that we spoke to talked very positively about the quality of the relationship between the parties and their passion for their business. As customers we could feel that.

Although we didn’t know it at the outset, we were to experience extraordinary customer service, hard work and dedication to ensure that our trip went smoothly.

We boarded our boat the MS Amalyra in the afternoon. We could actually see it from our hotel window berthed on the Buda side. We had already marvelled at the huge chunks of ice floating down the Danube from the direction we were about to sail in!! 

Well, fine … but when we got out of our taxi to walk up the gangway, we were somewhat diverted by the ice that was packed around the boat! Yikes! Take a look yourself …

Of course we knew that the river was flowing, so didn’t imagine there’d be a problem departing, and there wasn’t. Of course the taxi driver did say, “ah well, it will be frozen soon – happens every January”. What is it about taxi drivers and weather?

Amalyra, built in 2009, was a lovely boat and the staff excellent. Very friendly and helpful. It had a comforting ‘homey” feel. Our Captain Henk was very funny and very visible always. I don’t mean his figure, rather he definitely lead by example. Rooms on this boat have French balconies and the most amazingly appointed bathrooms with 3 different types of shower, so you could choose “rain”, side-pointing massage or hand shower, depending on how you were feeling. We thought they were great once we got the hang of the different control buttons, but Henk had clearly had some passengers who didn’t quite master the aquatic choices, and had been frozen or roasted by pressing the wrong buttons.

Of course you will see in the brochures attractive upper sun decks on all the boats with guests relaxing on them… not to be seen functioning on this particular year!! Mostly the decks were vacant, and as we got further north, they were covered in thick ice and warning signs adorned them to remind the unwary.

Now, I am going to say something about each port of call along the route from Budapest to Amsterdam – and there will be photos of same – but right now I’m talking about the experience of APT/AmaWaterways, so I’ll cut to the chase.

Our taxi driver was right, the river (more correctly the Main-Danube Canal) does freeze each January, but this year, because of the extreme cold, it froze in late December. Whilst another company with a boat preceding us by one day tried – and failed – to get through the Canal, damaging the boat, Captain Hank was not going to try that approach. Obviously there had been much talk in the background during the previous 24 hours or so, including with Rudi, about “plan B”, so on December 26th we and 11 others going on to Amsterdam were briefed by Henk and the Cruise Director Sue, about what was to happen on the following day. In short, the company had taken the decision to transport us by coach around the Main Danube Canal, stopping at Nuremberg as per the itinerary, to join their newest and most luxurious boat, MS Amabella, at Bamberg and continue to Amsterdam. You’re probably thinking, “Well yes, a bit of a hassle for them, but makes sense”. But when I tell you that Amabella was in dry dock, several hours away from the Rhine river, and by “dry dock” meaning totally stripped down – no curtains, furniture, glass ware, crockery, linen … the list goes on, you perhaps begin to see the extraordinary work they went to in around 24 hours to “get the show back on the road” as they say.

By contrast some of the other tour operators sent people to Munich for 10 days (fab when you thought you were going up the Rhine!) others had to make the return journey back to Budapest in one of the returning boats. Rudi Schreiner, who had been in Egypt when the possibility of not getting through the Main-Danube Canal arose, returned to Germany and helped plan the detailed logistics of who was going where and stayed with us on the Amabella until Amsterdam. The logistics must have been a nightmare, as it wasn’t a simple case of everyone getting on in Budapest and going to Amsterdam. No, they had different tour groups joining and leaving the boat at several points along the way so it was, no doubt, a great moment for lots of spreadsheets!

When we finally boarded Amabella, we were really pooped from a long and cold day, and had half an hour to get unpacked again before our new Captain’s, Jan, welcome cocktails. Suffice to say we didn’t make it but we did get to dinner by 7.30. We were a bit thrown by the seeming chaotic atmosphere that night, not knowing at that point what had transpired to get the boat “ship shape” as it were. Also, we did not realise until the next day, that the entire crew of MS Amadolce (which had left Budapest one day ahead of us and of course could not get through the Canal either) had grabbed a few clothes and were bussed to meet the Amabella only a few hours before we got on board.  From the following day, all returned to the normal air of tranquillity.

Of course Amabella is a larger boat (in length not width) and represents another leap in the standard of accommodation (not that there was anything wrong with Amalyra); so we had a larger room with double balconies, a French balcony and an outside one, both furnished with two chairs and a small table. The bed is very comfortable. In the picture below it might look at bit odd to you - that's because we had the bed made up with a light blanket each (which were put into single duvet covers by our wonderful room attendant, Tunde). The regular bedding is cosy duvet.

Most of the sailing occurs overnight so you arrive in each port for the day, except where there is scenic cruising for the day, such as in the Rhine Gorge. So your chance to get out and about is maximised – but it’s up to you what you want to do. Of course there are daily excursions which you can take at no extra cost, in the form of walking tours, around the various towns. We did a couple of these, but largely explored by ourselves. With information available on the internet, you can find out what you are curious about in advance and structure your own time anyway. There are optional tours too, which involve an extra cost, but I found the one I did to a concert in Vienna totally worthwhile and good value. All excursions include a local and knowledgable guide.

So, you can see why we just loved the experience, apart from the gorgeous scenery and ports of call. Would we recommend a river cruise with APT/AmaWaterways? Absolutely!! The only thing would be, if you’re not a cold weather person, we’d suggest autumn or spring as the best times. Travelling in the snow and ice is hard work, but exhilarating and beautiful. And the views are worth it.

Bratislava, Slovakia

In 1918 the Slovaks joined the Czechs to form Czechoslovakia; after the Second World War it became a Communist country in Soviet-rules Eastern Europe and in 1993 the Czechs and Slovaks agreed to separte peacefully to form separate republics.

The old town of Bratislava, the capital, was located very close to where the boat docked, so we dceided to just do our own thing and mosey around the largely pedestrian streets on our own. We wanted to see their Christmas markets located in two squares – Hlavne Namestie, the main Square, and Frantiskanske Namestie, in the courtyard of the old Town Hall. 
These markets are not as commercial as, say, those in Vienna, and I bought some lovely handmade lace decorations to hang on the Christmas tree (that’s when I’m ever at home at that time again!). But several made nice gifts for people at home. Most of the stalls at the Town Hall courtyard specialised in various foods – sausages, potato crepes, pancakes and buns and apple tarts. There were more decorative items and handcrafts in the Main square. We explored a lot of the back streets too, to look at architecture and old buildings. A very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

I note from my “Daily Cruiser” that the weather forecast for that day (22nd December) was a minimum of –1 and a maximum of 3.