A Uniworld cruise on the Danube River offers the chance to stay a while in some of Europe’s most iconic cities – and make new friends, says Gary Bembridge

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A spontaneous gasp of admiration rippled across the deck as River Beatrice glided silently along the Danube, past the spiky turrets of Budapest’s vast Parliament building.Drifting down the Danube from Passau in Germany to the Hungarian capital had been a series of moments like this. Every day we’d enjoyed changing vistas and shared stories and experiences of the places we had stopped at and explored along the river.

With only 150 passengers and all meals open seating on large tables, a cruise on River Beatrice is quite an intimate experience, with plenty of opportunity for bonding over a shared passion for European art, culture, history and of course food. The tours and itinerary were perfectly crafted to satisfy the differing needs and experiences of the group.

As part of the Uniworld ‘Choice is Yours’ programme there was a range of included excursions in each destination, from tours of the major highlights to more immersive ‘Do as the Locals Do’ outings, as well as hiking, cycling and gentle walking.

We spent the first day exploring the medieval town of Passau, spending time in the baroque St Stephen’s Cathedral, home to one of the world’s largest pipe organs, where we listened to a lunchtime concert, before a group of us decided to hike up a hill to the formidable Veste Oberhaus fortress that defended the town during the Napoleonic wars.

That afternoon we set sail towards Austria, an hour later reaching the first of eleven locks we would pass through on our way to Budapest. I was intrigued by their simplicity and ingenuity as River Beatrice was lowered around 50 feet to the river below. During the process the wheelhouse sinks into the floor below to enable us to sail under the low bridges at the entrance.

We continued on to Linz, the third largest city in Austria. Coach tours took some passengers to Salzburg, two hours away, but I elected to go on the tour exploring Linz itself. We visited a 90-year-old Austrian café to have tea and try traditional Linzer torte, which is reputed to be the oldest known cake in the world, before a walking tour of the old town to visit the property where Mozart stayed. We then travelled to a farm in Upper Austria where the young owners showed how they made traditional Austrian apple and pear cider. After a tasting session we sat down to a magnificent meal of ham, salad, eggs and bread, all of which had been produced right on the estate.

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The next day we had a half-day stop in Melk, best known for its grand Benedictine Monastery and Abbey, founded in the 11th century, and a fortress of yellow Baroque buildings that include a school and homes for around 30 monks. Our guide took us on a tour of the museum of historical religious artefacts which included jewel-studded crosses and an ancient reusable coffin with a trapdoor that dropped the body out of the base into the grave. The tour ended with a viewing of the vast library and the dramatic gilded Abbey itself.

After lunch a group of energetic guests chose to cycle the 17 miles from Melk to our next stop in Dürnstein, travelling through the lush vineyards along the banks of the Wachau Valley. I wasn’t one of them; instead I joined my friends on the deck to soak up the sunshine and enjoy the scenery.

Dürnstein is a small town with a ruined fortress that once held Richard the Lionheart prisoner after he antagonised Leopold V, Duke of Austria, during his crusades. While some guests headed off on tours to a local vineyard or a saffron farm, many of us walked up the hill to see the ruins and view the hills packed full of vines and the curves of the Danube.

In Vienna, our overnight stay enabled us to go on some of the multitude of tours that explored the culture, history and music across the city. On the walking tour we strolled through streets of grand buildings, fountains and museums and stopped at the 440-year-old Spanish Riding School to watch the Lipizzaner horses exercise and rehearse their incredible show. An excusive concert of Viennese classics was laid on at the Palace of the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects for Uniworld passengers that evening, followed by a Viennese Waltz dance lesson the next afternoon.

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While the destinations were exquisite, our ship was luxurious. River Beatrice has the feel of a boutique hotel and mixes traditional and contemporary decor. A modern wood and stainless steel staircase and dramatic white-glass chandelier dominates the lobby area while the lounge transports you into a traditional English country estate with clusters of green and red pinstriped sofas and chairs. The dining room is a large expanse of crisp white tablecloths and tall white chairs.

The staterooms have soft double beds, floor-to-ceiling windows and a Juliet-style balcony to enable you to enjoy the full benefit of the glorious scenery drifting by. The wall opposite the bed was mirrored to create a bright and airy feel and the bathroom had a comfortably sized shower with plenty of hot water and great water pressure. I liked the added touches like the pillow menu, a choice of bathroom toiletries including L’Occitane and Rituals and the different treats delivered to my room each day like local pralines and peanut brittle.

Meal times offered lots of choice, and all produce and meats were sourced from local farmers’ markets and suppliers. Early morning Continental breakfast could be taken in the intimate Captains’ Lounge with views of the river from the rear of the ship, while a full buffet breakfast was served in the main dining room. For late risers, a smaller breakfast station was set up in the lounge so guests could help themselves at whatever time suited them.

Lunch was based on the region we were passing through that day and included a Bavarian feast of German sausages and Sauerkraut and an organic Austrian meal. Dinners were multiple course events with a choice of three appetisers, two soups, four main courses (pasta, meat, fish and vegetarian) and three desserts. A Travel Light menu of low-calorie dishes was always available as was prime US steak, Norwegian salmon and locally sourced chicken breast. The highlight of the menu every night was an appropriate local delicacy such as Wiener Schnitzel and apple strudel in Austria and Hungarian beef goulash and Gesztenyepüré (chestnut purée) in Budapest.

The Hungarian capital was our final stop on our cruise and after docking in the heart of the city, our tour explored the best of the city, including Heroes’ Square, full of statues of famous men from Hungarian history and the Royal Palace situated on Castle Hill with panoramic views across the entire city. Close to where River Beatrice docked was a sprawling local market in a grand old building. On the ground floor were stalls selling vegetables, meat and cheese while upstairs were food concessions selling traditional Hungarian food and rows of souvenir shops.

Budapest was a remarkable city in which to end seven days of working our way silently and calmly along the Danube. Around the twists and turns of the river as we travelled through Germany, Austria and Hungary I made new friends and discovered towns ready to reveal more hidden treasures and regions with exciting new flavours. But it’s the dramatic landscape of Hungary’s capital seen from the river that will remain the enduring symbol of this cruise for me.   

GETTING THERE: A seven-night Enchanting Danube cruise on River Beatrice departing 8 November 2014 from Passau to Budapest calling at Bratislava, Slovakia; Dürnstein, Austria; Salzburg or Linz; and Passau, Germany costs from £1,699pp (titantravel.co.uk/uniworld/0800 988 5823).

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.