Award-winning garden designer Paul Hervey-Brookes embarks on a Viking cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest and discovers the Danube’s intriguing history

Sunrise over Parliament in Budapest, Hungary

I’ve always been a keen sailor, and I love water, so when I had the opportunity to experience a Viking river cruise I wondered if being on the river would be anything like sailing a small boat bobbing around on the ocean. Of course, it could not have been more different.

The route I had chosen was Nuremberg to Budapest, a stretch of a river I had longed to experience since childhood: the Danube, cutting across Europe to the magical Black Sea, while along its banks a history that stretches from before the Romans cultivated wine on its banks to the Hapsburgs.

In Nuremberg we found our Longship, which was indeed both extremely long and well designed, with beautiful Scandinavian detailing, which gave the ship a welcoming feel.

Nuremberg has perhaps the most troubled history of the many towns we visited: because of its great transport links and open spaces it was transformed from a never invaded fortified town to a parade ground for National Socialism. The fortified town still exists (although most of it had to be rebuilt after allied bombings) but it is a charming town with a welcoming feel and a rich history.

From Nuremberg we travelled down river through beautiful Bavarian countryside. I loved seeing the changing architectural styles. It was like travelling back in time.

Overnight our ship slowly glided along the Danube, with dinner on the Aquavit Terrace allowing the landscape to roll past. By morning we had reached the Bavarian town of Regensburg and I was determined to explore. The town is a rich source of architecture, from the high-pitched roofs of traditional Bavaria to the exuberant Baroque. A large Gothic Cathedral, St Peter’s, which was first worked on in 700AD, dominates the town. Its stained-glass windows are from the 14th century: these were removed well before 1939 by those already worried about what was coming next. Wandering the town’s cobbled and narrow streets I found antique shops (thankfully closed) and the ruins of an ancient 15th-century synagogue to explore.

Interior of Old Chapel (Alte Kapelle) in Regensburg, Germany

Back on the river we saw many grand houses, castles and fortifications, before perhaps the most picturesque part of our sailing: through the Wachau Valley, where the Danube is wide. We spent two days blissfully watching this epic scenery play out combined with glorious sunsets. It really was very special.

Our last stop before the two great capitals on our itinerary was Passau, another town that had successfully seen off invaders throughout its trading port history, and perfect for a wonderful day’s walking.

By night we gently slipped into Austria. Vienna has always been a cultural point of interest for me, not only for its music but the architectural work of Hundertwasser and famous paintings by Klimt. There is too much to see in a day’s visit, but after a guided walking tour I spent some time finding bits of her story on my own, which suited me, walking along the canal in the centre of the city.

20,000 steps later I returned to our Viking Longship and enjoyed a sumptuous buffet celebrating wonderful Austrian cuisine. I went to bed full of cheese and wine and woke up in time for our arrival into beautiful and very grand Budapest.

Of all the beauty we had seen on this cruise, Budapest was something very special, like a mysterious jewel full of Eastern promise.

For many the Communist era holds bitter memories, and there is a desire to remove its architectural impact from many Eastern Bloc countries, but for those of us who never lived through it, the architecture is the last vital living embodiment we have and therefore the only way to begin to apply the stories and history to actual everyday life. The vast blocks of housing on the outskirts of Budapest loomed over us as something both intimidating and fascinating. The sheer scale telling its original residents that they are a small part of a big machine. Today you can see the symbolism and the obvious fact the machine wasn’t built to very high standards, but they are enormously interesting, and a contrast to a large city filled with palatial 18th- and 19th-Century buildings, which can lead to slight stucco overload.

Opulent architecture was a running theme from Nuremburg to Budapest but it seemed to intensify along the journey, and perhaps it’s that cultural exchange, a river knowing boundaries, which allowed ideas to sail up and down the river without a passport.

Our Danube river cruise has been a truly thought–provoking and enriching experience to savour and treasure for many years to come.

Nuremburg, Germany at Hangman’s Bridge on the Pegnitz River

GETTING THERE

An eight-day Romantic Danube river cruise starts from £2,795pp, based on two people sharing, including return flights from London and up to 14 regional airports, all onboard meals, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, free wifi and an included shore excursion in almost every port. For more information or to book call 020 8780 8701 or visit vikingcruises.co.uk.