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Through the Heart of Europe: the second time around

Viking Baldur in Passau, Germany
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Viking Baldur overlooking Veste Oberhaus, a fortress built in 1219, in Passau, Germany

Fourteen years ago we took our first Viking River Cruise to celebrate a special birthday. Our journey along the Danube, the Rhine, and the canal that connects them was one of our best trips ever, something so many of our fellow passengers said, as well.

We have taken other river cruises since then, but with Roger celebrating a special birthday this year, we decided to do our first trip again. Would the Grand European Tour from Budapest to Amsterdam be as much fun the second time around?

It was. And more.

We visited five countries in the heart of Europe — Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. We spent fourteen nights on the ship and two nights each in Amsterdam and Ghent hotels.

Parliament, Budapest, Hungary
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Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Detail of Austrian National Library, Vienna, Austria
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Austrian National Library, Vienna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wertheim, Germany
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Wertheim, Germany

Amsterdam, the Netherlands
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Amsterdam, Kingdom of the Netherlands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A box arrived in the mail a few weeks before our cruise with suggestions for packing and preparing for the trip. There were leather luggage tags, zippered organizing bags, and an 87 page colorfully illustrated booklet about our destinations and what we would do or could choose to do during our trip. Red stickers were included so we could be easily identified at the airport.

We were greeted by two local Viking representatives when we arrived in Budapest at 9 a.m. Most people were arriving later, so the two of us we were driven by taxi rather than one of Viking River Cruise’s motor coaches used for excursions.

One of the best things about a river cruise is that you do not need to go far to see the best sights. Viking River Cruises usually has the best docking spots.

The Viking Baldur docked by the Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary
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The Viking Baldur docked by the Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary

In Budapest, for example, we were right by the Chain Bridge that leads to the Royal Palace and Castle Hill. In Passau we were docked by the Old Town to one side and overlooked the Veste Oberhaus, a fortress built in 1219 on the other.

We planned to check in, use the free wifi to send a message home, enjoy some onboard refreshments and explore the city until our room was ready. We were delighted when  the Hotel Manager, Jens Wehrenberg, came out to tell us that “A group left early in the morning for their flights. We knew when you were arriving,” he said with a smile, “and we did our best to have a room ready for you.”

How good it felt to be able to shower, unpack, and relax in the privacy of our stateroom before heading out! By 11:30 lunch was ready onboard. Afterwards we took a leisurely stroll along the Danube to Budapest’s Parliament building, the magnificent domed building featured in many of Viking River Cruises’ advertisements.

Parliament, Budapest, Hungary
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Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Eighty-eight pound of gold were used in the halls and stairways, but the greatest treasure is the jeweled 12th century Holy Crown topped with a tilted cross.

Parliament, Budapest
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Parliament, Budapest

Tours of the interior sell out quickly, so we reserved our places in advance online and checked the times of the Changing of the Guard.

As we were about to leave the ship we noticed an elderly couple whose luggage had not arrived with them. Mr. Wehrenberg assured them that it would be taken care of and that the staff would be happy to wash their clothes for them at night, free of charge, until their bags arrived.

It is the level of comfort and personalized service that sets this type of trip apart from the rest. When we returned to the ship from an excursion we were often be greeted with a refreshing drink or a special treat, often by the chef or Hotel Manager himself.

Viking Magni's Chef George Pereira with a sweet treat as passengers return from an excursion
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Viking Magni’s Chef George Pereira with a sweet treat as passengers return from an excursion

Staff members mentioned the sense of family that develops among them on a smaller ship, and it was reflected in the unwavering service with a smile. The staff worked together, with the Hotel Manager often serving at the buffet or helping with luggage and everyone pitching in whenever needed. Returning to the ship after visiting a port feels like going home.

Because we had already seen so many of the top attractions in each port, this time we were able to revisit favorite spots and add experiences we hadn’t had chance to do before. There was more time to explore, to linger, and to savor the best of each port.

Café Central, Vienna
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Café Central, Vienna

Viking River Cruises now offers optional tours, at additional cost, for more specialized or in-depth experiences. By being able to book them in advance online, we were able to relax and sit back onboard, knowing that everything had been taken care of.

Hungarian Horsemen, an optional excursion during our Viking River Cruise
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Hungarian Horsemen, an optional excursion during our Viking River Cruise

We opted to add an afternoon trip to the Hungarian countryside for a performance of Puszta, traditional Hungarian horsemanship.

Hungarian Horsemen, an optional excursion during our Viking River Cruise
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Hungarian Horsemen, an optional excursion during our Viking River Cruise

We attended a Mozart and Strauss concert our first night in Vienna.

Mozart and Strauss concert, Vienna, Austria
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Mozart and Strauss concert, Vienna, Austria

The next afternoon we had a for a culinary tour in the Palais Ferstel . The palace was once a Viennese social center with salon areas, a ballroom, and the renowned Café Central, the popular meeting spot for artists, writers, politicians, and scientists, people like like Hitler, Stalin, Sigmund Freud, and Leo Trotsky.

We sampled wine and a Brettljause platter of fine air dried ham, prosciutto and cheeses from the Styrian region of Austria in a deli and wine bar called Vulcanothek.  This is the only place that serves these foods outside of Styria, “The Austrian Tuscany”, a lush  volcanic area by the Slovenian border.

meat and cheese platter, Vienna
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platter of fine meats, Vienna

We continued through arcade courtyard for a demonstrationby Chef Roland Huber on how to prepare Kaiserschmarrn, a favorite of Emperor Franz Josef.  It was named by the Imperial Palace baker after the slender Empress Sisi, who ate very little, refused to eat it. The Emperor said “Give me that nonsense.”, hence the name. Kaiserschmarrn, or “Emperor’s trifle”. Here’s a recipe link.

cooking demonstration, Vienna
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cooking demonstration by Chef Roland Huber, Vienna

That evening weshared in the gemütlichkeit, and  enjoyed traditional food and the latest vintage, or cheerful coziness, at a Viennese vineyard and tavern.

violinist, heuriger, Vienna, Austria
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violinist at the  heuriger, Vienna, Austria

Little wonder river cruises have surged in popularity. It is relaxing to unpack once, travel between destinations while you sleep, and enjoy the ever-changing scenery. The most picturesque stretches of the rivers, like the steeply sloped terraced vineyards of Austria’s Wachau Valley, are cruised by day with narration.

Overlooking Rüdesheim on the Rhine from Viking Magni
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Overlooking Rüdesheim on the Rhine from Viking Magni

Even the life-jacket drill on the sun deck was timed to enjoy the view of the castle in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Heavy rains and flooding the week before our cruise prevented the ship we booked from passing through an area of low bridges and getting to Budapest. Since two of Viking’s longships travel simultaneously in opposite directions, the solution to floods and droughts is switching midway to the other ship and continuing the voyage. We began our cruise on the Viking Baldur and met our originally booked ship, the Viking Magni, midway through the cruise.

The ships are named for Norse gods and heroes, reflecting the company’s Norwegian heritage. Baldur, the popular Norse god of light and joy, was the son of Odin and Frigg. Magni, the Norse god of strength, was even stronger than father, the giant main god, Thor, the thunder god known for his hammer.

The crew of the Viking Balder assembled to say goodbye.
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The crew of the Viking Baldur assembled to say goodbye.

On the morning of the exchange we packed our bags and set them outside our stateroom on the Baldur. Staff members rolled the luggage outside and lined up to wave goodbye as we departed for the morning. Since the waters had subsided by then, the ships simply changed places. Our bags were rolled back to the same stateroom number on the Magni, where we returned for lunch after our excursion.

Walking tours of the top places of interest are offered in each port. We each had a quiet box, a headset that makes the guide’s voice audible to all in the group. Maps and cards with the location and contact information for the ship are available for each port for those who decide to explore on their own. With fewer than 200 passengers onboard getting on and off the ship is a breeze.

Information and fun in the lounge.
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Information and fun in the lounge.

A brief pre-dinner presentation is held daily  in the lounge to discuss the next day’s destination and activities. Newsletters are placed in the stateroom during dinner with the next day’s schedule, background information, and places of interest. Information is also available on the stateroom televisions.

There’s a bountiful buffet as well as menu selections at breakfast and lunch. Lunch and dinner  menus feature an array of artistically presented regional and popular specialties and complimentary beer and wine. Caesar salad, poached Norwegian salmon, chicken breast, and prime rib eye steak were also nightly dinner options.

Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni
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Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni

Taste of Germany night was a fun fest, with staff in dirndls and lederhosen, kitchen tours, and local musicians.

Taste of Germany Night aboard the Viking Magli
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Taste of Germany Night aboard the Viking Magli

An array of German wines, beers and schnapps complemented traditional favorites like pork knuckles, sausages, dumplings, sauerkraut and strudel.

Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni
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Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni

Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni
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Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni
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Taste of Germany aboard the Viking Magni

There were grand and glorious imperial cities that had been ruled by the most powerful sovereign dynasties and clergy. Gilded palaces and cathedrals reflecting the wealth and splendor of their lifestyles were the utmost in awe though architecture.

Residenz, Wurzburg, Germany
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Residenz, Wurzburg, Germany

Storied castles loomed high above us as we cruised the Rhine.

village and castle, Viking River Cruise along the Rhine
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village and castle, Viking River Cruise along the Rhine

The cobblestone lanes of half-timbered houses in preserved medieval villages reminded us of fairy tales.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
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Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Our trip was an immersion in the history, good times and bad, that made Europe what it is today. We gained insights into ways trade, plagues, wars, and religious and political changes led to the rise and fall of wealth, power, and people over the ages.

plaques marking homes of Holocaust victims
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plaques marking homes of Holocaust victims

Although some still bear the marks of war, most of the destroyed or damaged structures have been restored or replaced. The personal stories shared by several of our guides, however, revealed the memories that endure.

A trip of this length was made possible by the completion of the 106 mile Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in 1992.  This canal runs from Bamberg on the Main River, a Rhine tributary, to Kelheim on the Danube. Sixteen stair-step locks accommodate a 574’ difference in elevation.

approaching a lock of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal by night aboard the Viking Njord
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approaching a lock of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal by night aboard the Viking Njord

Part of the fun of a river cruise is seeing the variety of ships and boats along the rivers.

Wachau Valley cruising aboard the Viking Baldur
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Wachau Valley cruising aboard the Viking Baldur

There are barges, canal ships, tankers,and container ships that transport goods along this working waterway. Some travel the full length through Europe from the Netherlands’ coast on the North Sea to Romania and the Black Sea, a distance of 2,200 miles, passing  through ten countries along the way.

view overlooking Hotel Trechtingshausen and a container ship from Viking Magni
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view overlooking Hotel Trechtingshausen and a container ship from Viking Magni

One of the first things to consider when planning a trip is the means of travel that is the best fit. Is a river cruise for you? Probably not if f you crave the excitement of a casino and Las Vegas-style shows, and swimming pools. Onboard entertainment is typically local musicians, a local craftsperson such as a glassblower, or a speaker on topics related to the destinations.

musicians, Viking Magni, Taste of Germany
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musicians, Viking Magni, Taste of Germany

The decor lacks the glitz of typical ocean cruise ships. It is typically Scandinavian with understated elegance and soft relaxing colors.

If you enjoy experiencing the sights, sounds and flavors of a variety of destinations in the most relaxing way, with all your needs taken care of,  then take a look at what a Viking River Cruise has to offer.

Complimentary wine and beer is served at lunch and dinner. Viking Baldur in Budapest. Hungary
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Complimentary wine and beer is served at lunch and dinner. Viking Baldur in Budapest. Hungary

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Looks like an amazing vacation! I happen to love cruising, so I made a lot of notes.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article and hope you have the opportunity to try a river cruise. We love all kinds of cruising, too, aboard different kinds of ships depending on the destination. The size of the river ships makes it so easy to travel right through the heart of Europe, enjoying the best scenery by day and traveling from place to place at night.

  2. I just finished my travels through Europe and only just learnt about these river cruises. Loved the detailed insight into it!
    -Mel

    • Thank you! If you have been to Europe you can understand just how convenient it is to travel by river ship. Unpack once and travel while you sleep.

  3. To be honest I never considered going on a cruise before. I always thought that they wouldnt be that fun. This has changed my whole perspective. Thanks!

    • Glad to hear this! It’s a matter of finding the cruise that is the right fit for you. People we spoke to on this cruise said they like the size of the river ships and easy access to so many destinations. There’s also the comfort and convenience of being able unpack once and then just sit back and enjoy the scenery. Mega ships are a good choice for people who want late night entertainment, a casino, and Las Vegas-style shows.

  4. Awesome Trip! Looks like you’ve had tons of awesome experiences.
    Especially love the looks of the chef offering his sweets, so adorable!

    • It WAS awesome! It’s a friendly atmosphere onboard and going “home” to be cared for is always a pleasure.

  5. Oh how sweet that the hotel offered to wash the couples clothing whose luggage didn’t show! It’s little touches like that which can make a wonderfully memorable experience.

    • Yes, it was a heartwarming experience to see the personal attention the Hotel Manager, Jens Wehrenberg, paid to two elderly passengers who were weary from travel and worried about their luggage. He took care of everything for them and made sure they were comfortably seated for lunch without any worries. It’s true that all you need to do is sit back and relax. Everything is taken care of.

  6. I’ve never been on a cruise before, but reading through this I can definitely understand the appeal! I guess going with the right company is important – the fact they get excellent docking stations is a big plus – and the service they give looks too notch. Sounds like a great way to see Europe…one day, it might be the thing for me!

    • I’m sure you would enjoy it, especially the ever-changing scenery. It’s surprising how much you can see and do when all your needs are taken care of. Wake up in a new destination every day, take the included orientation tour if you like (most do) and spend the rest of the time in port as you please. It’s especially popular with the 50+ crowd because of the level of service.

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