From memorable private concerts to Champagne with a princess, a Danube river cruise with Uniworld proves to be an enchanting experience for Karen Pasquali Jones

Standing on the familiar stone steps, she looked like any other tourist. But as soon as Elisabeth von Trapp opened her mouth and began to sing, we all gasped. “Doe, a deer, a female deer, Ray, a drop of golden sun…” The lyrics came effortlessly, and her voice soared – pure, rich and utterly gorgeous.

The step-granddaughter of Maria von Trapp was leading us in a rendition of Do-Re-Mi in Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg – the chocolate box setting used as the location for The Sound of Music movie. Elisabeth was a young girl when Julie Andrews played Maria in the hit 1965 Hollywood musical, but for a treat she was allowed on set to watch the filming.

“My grandmother and my sister even appear in the movie,” Elisabeth smiled. “They walk across the street behind Julie Andrews as part of the crowd in a scene. I wanted to be in it too but my grandmother said I was too young.”

Hitting all the right notes

Elisabeth, 61, has inherited the family’s musical DNA and is a folk singer based in Vermont, but she flies back to Salzburg to perform a couple of times a year. Now she was taking us around the city to follow in her family and Julie Andrews’ footsteps, and singing all the way. It was a surprise VIP tour organised by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection as part of our Enchanting Danube voyage from Budapest in Hungary to Passau in Germany.

So far we’d listened to Elisabeth perform some of her own songs and have been wowed by her beautiful a cappella version of Amazing Grace and Ave Maria. As well as Do-Re-Mi, Elisabeth also let slip a few bars of Edelweiss while leading us through the Baroque streets of Salzburg, the home not only of The Sound of Music but also its most famous son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Prior to the trip, I’d watched the film and listened to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, 1st Movement ‘Allegro’ – one of the most popular pieces of classical music. But even they couldn’t prepare me for the beauty of this city state that had once been part of the Holy Roman Empire – and the base for one of the most famous singing families in the world, the Von Trapps.

They became famous after Elisabeth’s grandfather, Georg, hired Maria as governess to look after his seven children following the death of his wife, Agatha, from scarlet fever. Maria had travelled to Salzburg to become a nun but Georg proposed, even though he was 25 years older than her, and the couple married in 1927. After losing all their money in 1935 following the worldwide depression, and the collapse of the bank holding all their savings, the family began singing to make money and toured the world.

They were so popular they even sung on an Elvis Presley record, and it was Maria’s autobiography that inspired a Broadway musical and then the movie. Now fans of the film flock to see where it was shot and there are even official tour buses ferrying tourists to locations such as Schloss Leopoldskron, which doubled as the Von Trapp home, Residenzplatz where Julie Andrews sang I Have Confidence; and Stift Nonnberg, the monastery where the nuns burst into Maria.

“I almost got hit by The Sound of Music tour bus the last time I was here,” Elisabeth laughed. “That would have been tragically funny, wouldn’t it?”

Fantastic food

We’d made our way through the throng to a restaurant for an al fresco lunch of cold beer and local delicacies including Wiener Schnitzel, Frankfurter and Tafelspitz, a national beef dish. For vegetarians there was Käsespätzle, a delicious Austrian version of macaroni cheese.

Then it was time to leave. Our ship was sailing later that afternoon so we followed Elisabeth threading our way down the narrow streets to the Danube. With a kiss on both cheeks, she bid goodbye and waved as we boarded our home from home for the trip – the ultra elegant, 156-passenger River Beatrice, part of the Uniworld fleet.

From the impressive lobby, with its giant chandelier, through to the cosy lounge with chintzy sofas and armchairs, and smart restaurant with large tables covered with crisp-white linen, this was stately home-style chic. My riverview stateroom was bijou and packed with everything you could ever need – a double bed, ample storage space, a flatscreen TV, complimentary water and a bathroom with walk-in shower and L’Occitane products. Oh, and a butler to cater to guests’ every whim.

Breakfast and lunch were delicious buffets with national and international dishes, while dinners were delicious à la carte affairs. Sumptuous menus such as wild truffle risotto, méli-mélo dishes of beef and lobster, followed by a chocolate extravaganza – Valrhona chocolate mousse and coconut biscuit with passion fruit sorbet – and a cheeseboard of international delights soon had everyone murmuring compliments and asking for the recipes. All drinks were included – except premium wines and spirits – and pre and after cocktails in the lounge were part of the package, too.

There was also an amazing selection of included excursions on offer. While River Beatrice is a regal home from home – with a library, gym, sun deck and the Serenity River Spa, where you can enjoy luxurious pampering treatments – we all forced ourselves to leave it each morning to explore new cities and countries.

Delightful Danube

The Danube is the longest river in central and eastern Europe, making its way through 10 countries. It’s so magical and winding that Johann Strauss II paid homage to it with
The Blue Danube.

It’s actually more murky brown than blue, thanks to the blocks of ice containing debris that melt in winter and flow downstream, picking up sediment, which then melts when it reaches the cities. In Budapest I decided to take the Do as the Locals Do tour, riding on the subway and tram, discovering the hidden corners of the city, marvelling at the splendid Baroque architecture and strolling around with a local guide.

In Vienna I galloped to the Spanish Riding School and stables to get a glimpse of the world-famous Lipizzaner white stallions. While most of them had been taken to the country for their summer break, we were led to the stables to see the mares with their foals. The horses aren’t white when they are born – they are bay or black – and it takes around six to 10 years for the ‘graying’ process to produce their glistening coats.

The foals are gorgeous, with their tufty coats, dark eyes and a hesitant gait because of their spindly legs.“I want to take one home,” I whispered to my friend, but they were too big to fit under my coat.

The visit over, we were whisked back to River Beatrice to shower and change for a private concert by a Viennese chamber orchestra celebrating ‘the geniuses of Mozart and Strauss’ at the beautiful 1872 world-heritage Palais Oiav.

The acoustics were incredible – the chords of Mozart’s overture from Le Nozze di Figaro and Strauss’ Viennese Spirit waltz reverberated off the walls, crisp and amplified. Bel canto arias and dancers performing the Viennese waltz – what else? – kept everyone mesmerised.

“That has to be the highlight of the cruise,” my friend said. But she was wrong as the next day we arrived in Melk – and disembarked for a Champagne reception with a princess at her very own castle.

Princess charming

Princess Anita von Hohenberg has a charm that disarmed us all – and a naughty little dog that kept licking me. But if her name wasn’t instantly recognisable enough, we soon understood she is the great-granddaughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered the First World War.

After welcoming us into her privately owned castle, Princess Anita told us how her great-grandfather renounced his descendants’ claim to the throne in order to marry Sophie for love. Then she led us down to the family crypt to see their final resting places.

It was a sobering experience, but the dog soon cheered us all up with his funny antics as we were given chocolate with the family crest on it. “You can eat it on the ship,” she told us. But it was too late, most of us had already devoured it by then.

Back on board River Beatrice, we headed to the lounge where onboard musicians Greg and Margaret were performing pop songs. Eager to include everyone in the fun, they handed out maracas and a tambourine so we could play along.

“Luckily I did percussion at school,” I laughed, shaking the tambourine in time to Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree. It was hardly Mozart, Strauss or even up to Elisabeth or Julie Andrews’ standards, but there was a vague sound of music – even if it was badly played and out of time. I’ll practise for next time when some musical talent as well as a river will run through it all.

GETTING THERE: The Enchanting Danube cruise starts from £2,549pp in 2017. The special Monarch Collection sailings for 2017 are 11 June, 9 & 16 July and 6 & 13 August. Book through Titan Travel and its award-winning pick up and drop off service, the VIP Home Departure Service, will be included as part of your itinerary. For more information, call Titan on 0808 231 4225 or visit titantravel.co.uk, or see uniworld.com.