Sailing from Passau to Budapest on Uniworld’s S.S. Maria Theresa is a glamorous, cultural affair, discovers Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis

The Chain Bridge and Buda Castle at night in Budapest, Hungary © Getty Images
The Chain Bridge and Buda Castle at night in Budapest, Hungary © Getty Images

We’re sipping chilled Champagne in the drawing room of the magnificent Artstetten Castle near Austria’s Wachau Valley, being entertained with royal anecdotes, politics and history by an actual princess.

Princess Anita von Hohenberg, of the Habsburg dynasty, is the godmother to S.S. Maria Theresa. She is also the great-granddaughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914 led to the outbreak of the First World War. As she comments wryly, what happened more than 100 years ago seems particularly relevant right now.

“All it takes is one person to commit one terrible act,” she says. It’s an extraordinary moment, in a week full of them.

The previous day we enjoyed a panoramic tour of Linz in Austria before being treated to an organic lunch and cider tasting at a farm high up in the hills with views of the Alps.

A dairy cow in the Austrian hills © iStock
A dairy cow in the Austrian hills © iStock

This is my first full Uniworld river cruise, and I’m impressed to discover that all the excursions are included, even the ‘Monarch Collection’ tours, which give behind the scenes, privileged access.

The staff are all friendly, love talking to the guests and are always ready to offer refreshments or advice. By the end of day two it seems the entire ship knows that the Captain is awaiting the birth of his second grandchild; this is intimate cruising, but there’s plenty of space on board should you wish to spend time by yourself, or of course with your family.

Like all Uniworld’s ships, S.S. Maria Theresa has an eclectic style, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but I love its elegant prettiness, and the attention to detail is faultless. There’s a twin staircase in the reception area, with a spectacular multi-coloured Venetian Murano glass chandelier and enormous painting of Empress Maria Theresa (Princess Anita’s ancestor). The swimming pool, situated in the Bar du Leopard, has a jungle-themed mosaic on its walls. And anyone who has ever slept on a Uniworld ship will rave about the Savoir beds, which are made for a princess like me, who feels every pea.

Uniworld's S.S. Maria Theresa
Uniworld’s S.S. Maria Theresa

There’s an adorable private cinema with popcorn to enjoy with your movie, a complimentary launderette, a little gym, and a café which is always stocked with pastries and coffee should you have an early alarm call for your excursion.

Food on board is excellent, with menu selections curated by Beatrice Tollman, who oversees the design of Uniworld’s ships and whose family own and run the river cruise line, which is a lovely personal touch. There’s also a very good afternoon tea and, if you request it, caviar – served with German sparkling wine.

One of the best things about river cruising is that the scenery is constantly evolving, particularly in this part of Europe, where the Danube meanders through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

Durnstein Baroque Church along the Danube, Wachau Valley © iStock
Durnstein Baroque Church along the Danube, Wachau Valley © iStock

Sitting on the sunny deck, cocktail in hand, and sailing through this extraordinarily picturesque region at a sedate, leisurely pace is one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had on a cruise. The water changes from emerald green to jade and sage (not blue); we see turrets and spires, pristine villages and farms, bridges and limestone rock formations.

I’m not a fan of locks, and there are an awful lot of them on the Danube, but even these don’t seem too bad when you know that as soon as you emerge from the darkness you’ll be rewarded with scenery like this.

This cruise itinerary is definitely one for culture lovers, with onboard entertainment including a superb violinist and pianist in Austria, and a celebrated pianist in Hungary who captivates the audience with his recital of Liszt and Chopin.

Dine well on board S.S. Maria Theresa
Dine well on board S.S. Maria Theresa

On our evening in Vienna, all the guests on the cruise are taken for dinner at the spectacular Palais Daun-Kinsky, with its red carpet and chandeliers. We’re treated to a performance by a fabulous quintet and a display of Viennese waltzing, then opera singing, before being served a splendid banquet.

All of the excursions have been carefully thought out, with every opportunity to appreciate the art, culture, architecture and scenery of the places we’re visiting.

Our cruise manager, Mirela, is utterly delightful, a Romanian former dancer with incredible local knowledge whose evening briefings and guided tours bring every destination to life.

There is a wide range of guests on this cruise, from children to teenagers to senior citizens; and everyone has a good time. Friendships are formed quickly, everyone mixes up at dinner and the ambience is jovial.

A Lipizzaner stallion at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna
A Lipizzaner stallion at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna

I discover that many of the guests chose this itinerary because they have family ties to Eastern Europe, as well as a shared appreciation of music, art and history.

While no one is expected to dress up for dinner, nearly everyone does, and it creates a glamorous, fun atmosphere on board.

The tour guides are all excellent, with fascinating anecdotes. In Passau we wander along the river bank before exploring the city’s cobbled streets and attending an organ concert. In Vienna, we’re given a private tour of the masters at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (with a welcoming Bellini), before heading to the Spanish Riding School, where we learn about its history and visit the stables so we can see the magnificent Lipizzaner stallions close up.

I don’t like the idea of them performing tricks, but the staff assure me the horses are all well looked after, they are never forced to do anything, and they are certainly in splendid condition.

Delicious Sacher torte
Delicious Sacher torte

Importantly, we also have free time in every destination; so in Vienna we hot-foot it to Café Sacher for a slice of Sacher torte served with lots of whipped cream.

And I’m enchanted by Bratislava in Slovakia, which is so idyllic it’s almost Disney-esque, with charming boulevards and perfectly preserved buildings, dating from all eras, and also incredibly cool; but like much of this region it does, of course, have a dark history.

Our cruise finishes in Budapest, Hungary. We sail in to the city just as the sun is starting to bathe the glorious, breathtaking architecture in golden light, and it’s utterly beautiful. It’s also fiercely hot and, after climbing Buda Castle Hill, we’re all defeated and seek sanctuary in the shade of the Dürer sun deck on board S.S. Maria Theresa.

That evening, we glide past the illuminated Parliament Building, its glittering facade reflected in the now inky blue Danube; a stupendous finale to a superb river cruise.

GETTING THERE: The all-inclusive 10-day Enchanting Danube & Munich and Enchanting Danube & Prague river cruises cost from £2,699pp, departing March to November 2018 (0808 281 1125; uniworld.com).