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