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.

Cruise Passenger - - RIVER CRUISING: MARIA THERESA -

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

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