THE BOLD & THE BEAUTIFUL
Cruising the Danube aboard a lavishly over-the-top river ship named after an Austrian archduchess is a fitting way to indulge in cultural overload, writes Brian Johnston.
The legendary Danube is famous for good reason, and not just because of a Strauss waltz. This is one of Europe’s greatest rivers, its banks crammed with history, splendid architecture, rolling scenery and sunlit vineyards.
People have settled its banks since the Stone Age and every race from Celts and Romans to Habsburgs has left an impressive legacy. I’m looking forward to a cruise that follows in illustrious footsteps, not least those of Austrian archduchess Empress Maria Theresa, after whom my Uniworld ship is named.
My Enchanting Danube cruise starts in Passau on the edge of Germany. For a thousand years, Passau was the seat of an important prince-bishop. After the town burned down in 1662, it was rebuilt by Italian architects in baroque style, bequeathing it an unusual architectural uniformity. Passau sits on an outcrop of rock between the dark Danube and milky-blue Inn rivers, its baroque towers and turrets reflected in the waters. The ornate, wedding-cake town in pale green and peach is full of ceilings decorated with giggling angels, while swashbuckling saints cavort on rooftops. The cathedral, where we’re invited for an organ concert, is flamboyant with cupids and saints.
Locals sit at riverside cafes tucking into Frisbee-size schnitzels and cherry cakes topped with an extravagance of whipped cream. Back on Maria Theresa, I treat myself to a generous slice of Sachertorte from the Vienna-style cafe on board, where orchids erupt from marble-topped tables. It’s a favourite shipboard nook of mine, along with the little cinema with its plush recliners and old movie posters. It’s a delight to settle in for a movie screening – often on an Austrian theme – while tucking into popcorn thoughtfully supplied by staff.
Next day we set sail into Austria through an undramatic but lovely landscape of pretty villages with exclamation-point church steeples. Docked at Linz next day, I join most other passengers on a shore excursion to nearby Salzburg, discovering an old town jammed with baroque-era squares and townhouses with potbellied balconies.
I amble its alleyways before hoofing up to Hohensalzburg fortress on its Alp-ogling crag. The city’s prince-bishops later knocked up the Residenz zu Salzburg below, the city palace where Mozart tinkled on the spinet in gilt-glittering rooms.
The witty energy of the baroque era is best shown in the reflecting pools, statues and riotous flowerbeds of Mirabell Gardens, where Julie Andrews and her cohort of kids famously sang Do-Re-Mi as they leaped up the steps in The Sound of Music.
Salzburg makes me smile, and further downstream the cheerful region known as Wachau, draped in apricot orchards and vineyards, makes me smile, too.
At Melk, I join a Uniworld tour to one of Europe’s most staggering baroque monasteries, a great yellow pile sitting atop a granite rock above the river, hiding a riotous interior of frescoes, red marble and gilt.
It’s just one of a choice of included and varied Uniworld shore excursions in each destination. Some feature general sightseeing, others active pursuits such as cycling, while yet others focus on special interests.
Further downstream in Dürnstein, 16th century houses line a main street bedecked with ßowerboxes. The baroque parish church with its distinctive blue bell tower is one of the Þnest in Austria. Outside, a terrace overlooks a Þne stretch of river. Some passengers head to a saffron workshop that highlights a crop grown here for 700 years, while I opt for a wine tasting at Nikolaihof estate.
Local wines are served at dinner that night. Maria Theresa’s chefs provide plenty of other regional treats as we ßoat downstream, from German sausages with sauerkraut and Austrian cheeses and poppy-seed cakes to Hungarian paprika soup and walnut-andcaramel desserts. The food is Þt for an empress, with breakfast and lunch buffets extravagant with cold and hot choices. Dinners provide a four-course meander from grilled tiger shrimp to herb-crusted halibut, duck breast to a hazelnut-chocolate pudding decadent with orange sauce and dollops of cream.
An overnight in Vienna gives us plenty of time to enjoy AustriaÕs capital. The MuseumsQuartier is one of the world’s foremost cultural precincts, where 19th century palaces and contemporary glass-andconcrete extrusions clash. A morning excursion with an art historian to the Museum of Art History provides a lively insight into some key paintings and Þnishes in the chamber of curiosities. ItÕs a treasuretrove of Habsburg collectibles from peculiar drinking goblets to mechanical dancing bears.
Vienna is grand and intimate, ornately urban and leafy green, laden with culture but surprisingly relaxed. ItÕs a merry-go-round of palaces and museums, apartment blocks and parks. It provides imperial glamour yet suits the modest capital of a small nation. In the evening, Hofburg palace and other facades are wonderful under illuminations. Imperial bling glimmers as horse-drawn carriages clip-clop by.
Empress Maria Theresa is a ghostly presence in Vienna. A giant, imperious portrait of the great lady graces the ship’s lobby, embraced in the sweep of two curving staircases, above which chandeliers glitter. Parts of the ship resemble one of Vienna’s 18th century palaces: gold leaf, wall sconces, plump sofas, spindly legged chairs, expanses of marble and mottled mirrors. The ßoor of my shower is embossed with a crown, and nymphs in petticoats cavort in framed sketches.
The main Hapsburg Salon is swathed in rufßed curtains and studded with blue-velvet sofas. The Leopard Bar is a more soothing dove grey but equally extravagant. It’s gaudy, over-the-top decor done with verve and commitment and, in this location, works perfectly. It isn’t so slavish to the era that it overlooks modern comforts. Maria Theresa herself surely never had heated bathroom ßoors, touch-button lighting or a television concealed behind her cabin mirror.
We sail onwards down a Danube now wide and sluggish. Bookended between Vienna and Budapest, Bratislava seems less a capital than a country town. Yet the Slovakian city has considerable charm and really allows me to relax, since it has no big-name sights and museums, allowing time off dutiful sightseeing for idle wandering. I join Uniworld’s two-hour tour to get an overview, then wander off in the afternoon sun.
The old town is mostly closed to trafÞc and cluttered with beautifully renovated Renaissance and baroque buildings now housing lively bars and cafes.
Our Þnal destination, Budapest deserves to be approached from mid-river. It appears like the fabulous set of a light opera, all cupolas and spires and battlemented hillsides, the river spanned by elegant bridges. Next day, we do an evening sail up the river and back, providing an illuminated view of the city.
Much of what we see today is a legacy of Budapest’s heyday at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, interestingly overlaid with a dark communist-era history and a stylish, modern present that makes this one of Europe’s loveliest and liveliest capitals.
The city’s hilly Buda riverbank has museums, a vast palace and lovely outlooks from the terraces around its cathedral, while the ßat Pest side has a fantastical parliament building, wonderful art nouveau squares and shopping streets. A Þtting Þnale, surely, to this river cruise so dense in history and beauty, enjoyed on such a glamorous ship.
“Parts of the ship resemble one of Vienna’s 18th century palaces.”
Maria Theresa’s lobby is dominated by a portrait of Maria Theresa
From above: MariaTheresa suite; cruising through the Wachau Valley
Above: Budapest parliament building on the banks of the Danube