Waltz­ing the Danube

Mia Bor­romeo dis­cov­ers the de­lights of river cruis­ing on-board the Ama Sonata

Philippine Tatler Traveller - - Contents - AD­DI­TIONAL WORDS: AUSSY APOR­TADERA PHO­TOS: MIA BOR­ROMEO

It was an In­dian Sum­mer day in Vi­enna and the sun shone brightly, cast­ing a sil­ver shim­mer on the river as we boarded the AmaSonata. The ship would be home for the next seven days as Philip­pine Tatler Trav­eller em­barked on the Danube Serenade, a week-long cruise along a por­tion of the sec­ond long­est river in Europe. Over the course of the jour­ney, a steady cur­rent would take us through the Up­per Danube, from the cap­i­tal city of Aus­tria, via the Main-Danube Canal, over the bor­ders of the Czech Repub­lic, and into South­ern Ger­many.

Get­ting set­tled into my state­room with its twin bal­conies (a French bal­cony in ad­di­tion to a full out­door one), I was pleas­antly sur­prised that it was ac­tu­ally more spa­cious than I had ex­pected. My pri­vate lit­tle out­door bal­cony wound up to be a favourite spot when­ever we weren’t out ex­plor­ing. It was here where I would of­ten sit—the cool breeze touch­ing my face, and a re­lax­ing drink in hand (from cof­fee to bub­bles de­pend­ing on the time of day)— to soak up un­in­ter­rupted views as the ship me­an­dered along the Danube, bring­ing us from one beau­ti­ful town to the next.

As we took de­light in the his­toric sights of Old World Europe, we waltzed to the mod­ern lux­u­ries of life on-board the AmaSonata where ev­ery­day, we en­joyed great din­ing and great ser­vice from the warm and wel­com­ing staff. The ship takes her lin­eage from AmaWater­ways, a Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany

es­tab­lished in 2002, that spe­cialises in river cruis­ing. Four decades af­ter the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal be­gan con­struc­tion, it was the pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts of AmaWater­ways found­ing co-own­ers Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst that paved the way for lux­ury river cruises. The AmaSonata ex­em­pli­fies the brand’s “ho­tel over wa­ter” sig­na­ture style of travel, tak­ing pride in its fine food and wine of­fer­ings as well as per­son­alised ser­vice from a well-trained team.

For a first timer like me, the real beauty of river cruis­ing, I dis­cov­ered, is in the im­me­di­ate prox­im­ity to land. It was some­what akin to a train ride but, in a sense, even bet­ter, be­cause of the river boat’s gen­tle, leisurely pace that al­lows guests on-board to fully ap­pre­ci­ate the pass­ing scenery. And, since the ship is your “float­ing ho­tel” that moves along with you over the course of the en­tire jour­ney, you con­ve­niently have to un­pack only once, just at the very start. On this trip, I was com­pletely taken by the rich­ness and va­ri­ety of the ever-chang­ing land­scape along the Danube; and, wher­ever the ship would dock, it was lit­er­ally just a few steps to shore and on to a new and fas­ci­nat­ing des­ti­na­tion.

PER­SON­ALISED SER­VICE

An­other great ad­van­tage is the rel­a­tively small size of river cruise ships. With a max­i­mum ca­pac­ity of around 150 pas­sen­gers, the crew is able to an­tic­i­pate and cater to each in­di­vid­ual’s pref­er­ences. “Lux­ury is be­ing con­stantly re­de­fined,” says Karst, Ex­ec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent and co-owner of AmaWater­ways. “By act­ing as float­ing lux­ury ho­tels, we are able to al­most dou­ble the amount of leisure time guests can en­joy in each des­ti­na­tion [... and] have unique op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­ally per­son­alise the on-board ser­vice.” The AmaSonata’s all-Euro­pean crew, many of whom come from the sur­round­ing re­gion, were clearly pas­sion­ate about their jobs and ea­ger to share their cul­ture with us. Ardi, the wait staff usu­ally as­signed to our ta­ble went out of his way to make break­fast a real plea­sure. It was all the lit­tle de­tails that made life on-board more com­fort­able—such as hav­ing my pot of hot wa­ter with fresh slices of le­mon ready on the ta­ble or of­fer­ing a cap­puc­cino at just the right in­ter­val be­tween the fruit, eggs and pas­tries each morn­ing. The ul­ti­mate break­fast sur­prise was Ardi’s gra­cious rou­tine of pre­par­ing my per­fect cap­puc­cino (with only half the foam) in a take-away cup for me to bring onto shore when­ever I would lose track of time (some­thing easy to do in such a re­lax­ing at­mos­phere!) and have to make a mad rush as soon the an­nounce­ment for de­part­ing tours would be made.

A WORLD OF EX­PLO­RATION

Ev­ery evening, our ever-en­er­getic Cruise Man­ager Ed­ward Sen­gel, of­fered us a wide choice for the next day’s com­pli­men­tary shore ex­cur­sions. They ranged from im­mer­sive cul­tural tours and food­tast­ing ad­ven­tures, to hik­ing and bi­cy­cle tours for the more ac­tive trav­ellers. Led by lo­cal guides, these ex­cur­sions gave ev­ery­one an over­view of what the his­tor­i­cal Up­per Danube re­gion has to of­fer: from churches and cas­tles to forests; from art and mu­sic to ar­chi­tec­ture; from sausages and pret­zels to apri­cots and wine.

Across Aus­tria and into Ger­many, it was a per­fect bal­ance of grand Old World cities like Vi­enna and Salzburg and lesser known but no less fas­ci­nat­ing small towns and vil­lages. I was as­tounded by the num­ber of hid­den gems like Dürn­stein, Melk, Pas­sau and Re­gens­burg, many of which are now recog­nised as UN­ESCO World Her­itage sites for their ex­tra­or­di­nary beauty, his­tory and cul­ture.

Our sec­ond morn­ing took us to the im­pe­rial city of Vi­enna. I opted for a city tour that be­gan with a panoramic drive around the fa­mous Ringstrasse. We then walked through sev­eral cul­tural land­marks in the his­tor­i­cal old town, in­clud­ing St. Stephen’s Cathe­dral (where we caught a glimpse of an an­gelic chil­dren’s choir re­hears­ing), the Al­bertina, the Opera House, and the Span­ish Rid­ing School. The day’s sweet high­light was a visit to the leg­endary con­fec­tionery shop Demel where the Sacher­torte is ab­so­lutely di­vine.

That evening we set sail for Dürn­stein and awoke the fol­low­ing day in the pic­turesque Wachau Val­ley, a 30-kilo­me­tre UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site that is dot­ted with steep ter­raced vine­yards, apri­cot or­chards and me­dieval vil­lages. Known as the “Pearl of the Wachau,” Dürn­stein is nes­tled along a ma­jes­tic stretch of the Danube River which mea­sures an im­pres­sive 200 me­tres wide. It was one of the most spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes we en­coun­tered. We made our way to the town that is named af­ter the “dry stone” cas­tle whose ru­ins tower over the moist in­lets of the Danube. Dur­ing the Cru­sades, in the year 1193, it was here in Dürn­stein Cas­tle that Richard the Lion­heart of Eng­land was held pris­oner by Leopold V.

We walked along the cob­ble­stone streets of this fairy­tale vil­lage and into Stift Dürn­stein (Dürn­stein Abbey, formerly an Au­gus­tinian Monastery dat­ing back to 1721). One of the Wachau Val­ley’s land­marks, it is distin­guished by its del­i­cate ce­les­tial blue fa­cade and steeple. The church’s Baroque in­te­ri­ors fea­ture an elab­o­rate stucco re­lief ceil­ing, al­tar­pieces and a richly carved pul­pit by Jo­hann Sch­midt We could not leave Dürn­stein, in the heart of Aus­tria’s wine­mak­ing coun­try, with­out a taste of the re­gion’s fine Ries­lings and renowned Grüner Vet­liner white wine.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to the ship for a hearty lunch of Bavar­ian spe­cial­i­ties (Wiener schnitzel cooked to golden brown per­fec­tion, pota­toes, and other de­light­ful savouries) it was off to the mag­nif­i­cent Melk Abbey. Perched on a rock

face over­look­ing the Danube River, this Bene­dic­tine Abbey was first built in the Mid­dle Ages, burnt to the ground, and re­built, at­tain­ing its full splen­dour in the 1700s. So daz­zling is this Baroque mas­ter­piece—with its 200-foot dome and tow­ers swathed in gold and stun­ning fres­coes reach­ing up to­ward the heav­ens—that ac­cord­ing to leg­end, the 18th-cen­tury Hab­s­burg Em­press Maria Theresa was moved to de­clare, “If I had never come here, I would have re­gret­ted it.” In­ter­est­ingly enough, the en­tire abbey was fully restored in 1996, thanks in part to the sale of one of its pre­cious trea­sures, the Guten­berg Bible, to Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. Melk Abbey con­tin­ues to func­tion as a work­ing monastery and school to­day.

UN­FOR­GET­TABLE DES­TI­NA­TIONS

On day four, we sailed into Linz, the cap­i­tal of Up­per Aus­tria just 30 me­tres away from the Czech bor­der. A 20-me­tre high Baroque col­umn carved from white mar­ble stands in the mid­dle of the city’s Main Square. It was ded­i­cated by the peo­ple of Linz to the Holy Trin­ity in grat­i­tude for the city’s de­liv­er­ance from war (1704), fire (1712) and the plague (1713). A city of con­trasts, it is also home to the for­ward think­ing Ars

The ship me­an­dered along the Danube, bring­ing us from one beau­ti­ful town to the next

Elec­tron­ica Cen­tre, a mu­seum of the fu­ture show­cas­ing dig­i­tal art and new tech­nolo­gies, and the Len­tos Kun­st­mu­seum of mod­ern art, lo­cated a across each other on op­po­site banks of the Danube, along the famed Cul­tural Mile of Linz.

Breath­tak­ing des­ti­na­tions, such as the fa­mous town of Ceský Krumlov in the Czech Repub­lic, the Aus­trian Lake District, and Salzburg were among the ex­cur­sions set be­fore us that day. It was a dif­fi­cult choice but I fi­nally opted for Salzburg, over a two-hour drive away. I had been there many years ago with my par­ents to at­tended the famed Salzburg Mu­sic Fes­ti­val and I was quite thrilled to have this op­por­tu­nity to visit the birth­place of Mozart once again. To­day, Salzburg con­tin­ues to be dom­i­nated by the el­e­gance of its Baroque past as an ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal prin­ci­pal­ity. It was a nos­tal­gic walk for me around the the glo­ri­ous Mirabell Gar­dens in full bloom and the old city cen­tre with its count­less churches, palaces and mon­u­ments; that brought back many fond mem­o­ries.

In be­tween the walk­ing tours (and more chal­leng­ing bike trails for some) that filled our days, we in­dulged in the din­ing op­tions on the AmaSonata. When we weren’t en­joy­ing Ries­ling wine din­ners, Weiner schnitzels and freshly baked pret­zels, there was also the ex­clu­sive Chef ’s Ta­ble that fea­tured the re­gion’s lo­cal pro­duce and sea­sonal of­fer­ings. We were, af­ter all aboard the first cruise line that was ex­tended a mem­ber­ship of the Con­frérie de la Chaîne des Rôtis­seurs, the world’s old­est gas­tro­nomic so­ci­ety. Re­turn­ing from Salzburg that evening, we were feted with a spe­cial Chaîne des Rôtis­seurs Din­ner that served up an

epi­curean feast. Lav­ish buf­fet break­fasts, too, fu­elled our days just as when we docked at Pas­sau in Lower Bavaria on the fifth morn­ing. Sit­u­ated at the con­flu­ence of the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz, the “City of Three Rivers” ap­pears to be float­ing on wa­ter. The im­pres­sive Baroque ar­chi­tec­ture of this 2,000year old city that dates as far back as the Holy Ro­man Em­pire, begged to be ex­plored. Pas­sau is home to 52 churches in­clud­ing St. Stephen’s Cathe­dral where you will find the largest pipe or­gan in the world. The most ad­ven­tur­ous of the group hiked to the ma­jes­tic Veste Ober­haus Fortress that sits high up above the three rivers with a spec­tac­u­lar view of Pas­sau as their wor­thy re­ward.

The un­usu­ally low wa­ter lev­els on the Danube pre­vented us from sail­ing fur­ther so we spent our last two nights docked in Pas­sau. Our cruise man­ager, nev­er­the­less, or­gan­ised ex­cel­lent land ar­range­ments so we would not miss out on the orig­i­nal des­ti­na­tions in the itin­er­ary. It was def­i­nitely worth the drive to Re­gens­burg, one of Europe’s best pre­served me­dieval cities. Along its charm­ing cob­ble­stone streets and quaint squares, there is no short­age of ar­chi­tec­tural high­lights to be­hold, in­clud­ing the 12th-cen­tury Old Stone Bridge and the city’s High Gothic Cathe­dral. Lunch at Ger­many’s old­est restau­rant gave us the chance to en­joy the most de­li­cious sausages paired with beer, right by the banks of the Danube.

On the sev­enth day, we made our way to Nurem­burg which of­fered us yet an­other glimpse into the Mid­dle Ages with its cas­tles, but also a look into the Sec­ond World War’s court tri­als. As we took those steps back in time, we were slowly re­minded that our cruise was com­ing to an end.

Be­fore this trip, I had never re­ally thought of cruis­ing on a river; the Danube Serenade in­tro­duced me to a whole new way of see­ing the world. As I look back with de­light on such an un­for­get­table week, I have al­ready be­gun to dream of where the next river will take me.

Melk Abbey is a daz­zling Baroque mas­ter­pieceece with its dome and tow­ers swathed in gold and stun­ning fres­coes reach­ing up to­wards the heav­ens

CLOCK­WISE The Al­bertina mu­seum at the south­ern tip of Vi­enna’s Im­pe­rial Palace; Sacher­torte at the leg­endary Café Demel; Neo-Baroque in­te­rior de­tail of Demel; St. Stephen’s Cathe­dral; a horse­drawn car­riage through Vi­enna’s his­tor­i­cal cen­tre

PRE­VI­OUS PAGE The AmaSonata cruis­ing on the ma­jes­tic Danube River

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