A cruise along the majestic Danube River with Emerald Waterways is an opportunity to immerse yourself in some of Europe’s most captivating history and iconic architecture, says Linda Aitchison.
Standing on Budapest’s Castle Hill, I catch my breath, and not just as a result of climbing up the steep cobblestone streets to the spectacular vantage point; but because of the fantastic views I can see across the majestic Hungarian capital and the Danube River below.
Along with my fellow travellers from Emerald Destiny, one of Emerald Waterways’ Star-Ships, I’m in awe as we take in iconic architecture and sprawling streets around the riverbanks of sun-dappled waters.
Our week-long Danube Delights river cruise is filled with extraordinary moments like this, as we discover treasures in cities and villages along our way from Passau in Bavaria, through Austria to the Hungarian capital – our final port of call.
The kilometre-long limestone plateau where we stand unites some of Budapest’s most important medieval monuments. We’d chosen a guided walk which gave us the freedom to take our time, appreciating both incredible wide-angle overviews and intricate close-up details as we meandered in the fresh spring air.
Our good-natured and informal guide, Peter, showed us a variety of intriguing sites – from statues in honour of the famed Habsburg dynasty, who held the throne between 1687 and 1918, to poignant reminders of past cruelty inflicted first by the Germans and then by the Soviets.
Peter regales us with tales of Empress Elisabeth, otherwise known as Sisi, who led a truly colourful life before being assassinated in Geneva in 1898. He explains how a war-torn past laid the foundations for the impressive mix of baroque, renaissance and modern buildings Budapest is home to today.
Hungary’s national assembly is a resplendent jewel in this remarkable city’s crown. Completed in 1904 and no longer with a Communist red star at its summit, it’s best seen from the water while, up close, you can really notice how the building was inspired by the design of the Palace of Westminster. Waking up to this architecture right in front of our suite, makes my companion and I gasp. Later that night, we marvel at these sights once again, this time with expert commentary and dazzling lights as our ship completes an evening cruise.
A much simpler feature in front of the Parliament Building leaves a lasting impression. Bronze sculptures of dozens of scuffed, well-worn footwear lie strewn on the ground. This is the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, created to honour the 3,500 people, 800 of them Jewish, who were murdered by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during the Second World War. They were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot into the water. It is unbearably poignant.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge with its fearsome carved stone lion guards, which brings together historic Buda on the east bank and vibrant Pest to the west, is another highlight. One of the longest bridges in the world when it opened in 1849, it is the most famous work of Scottish architect Adam Clark who happily remained in Budapest on its completion until he died in 1866.
We have enjoyed every moment of our city tour, which is part of our EmeraldACTIVE morning. An optional four-hour walk, it’s described as a hike on our daily programme, but care is taken at every step to make sure it’s not too exerting for any of us. Other active choices this week have included a 22-mile bike ride through the Wachau Valley and a climb to a hilltop castle in Durnstein, a small riverside down in Austria. The flexible range of activities is refreshing and allows guests to choose from challenging or more leisurely pursuits.
The excellent EmeraldPLUS experiences are also available each day at no extra cost. These are special excursions or experiences with a difference – guests can take part in local customs, entertainment performances and visit landmarks to gain a better understanding of each destination on the itinerary.
For our cruise, this included a Hungarian folklore show with traditional music and dancing as well as a tour of charming Melk Abbey in Austria’s Wachau Valley. Alongside its fascinating heritage, I loved its meticulously maintained and tranquil gardens, and broke away from our tour group to wander around its quirky sculptures and spring blooms.
Our modern, stylish stateroom on board Emerald Destiny is known as a Panorama Balcony Suite – the ‘balcony’ is actually an interior area with two chairs and a table in front of a wide, full-length window and gives ample space to sit and relax. Everything is pristine, looked after by the lovely Jelena who cheerily greets us every morning with an update on how beautiful the weather is going to be (and it is, every day).
We enjoy delicious treats in the ship’s Reflections restaurant, with a beautifully prepared buffet breakfast and lunches and a more à la carte fine dining experience each evening, all perfectly presented by head chef Stefan Berger and his team. Regional specialities are on offer, too, for those craving local flavours.
With snacks and afternoon tea also available in the bar between meals, as well as four courses at dinner, there is more than enough food to satisfy our appetites, from succulent roast duck to authentic Hungarian goulash. The service is excellent and attentive.
There is also a brilliant onboard entertainment programme thanks to activity manager Harry Jordan. As well as keeping us on our toes with line dancing, aqua aerobics and fun quizzes, his joyous one-man Rat Pack tribute cabaret has everybody up and dancing in the aisles.
Likewise, the unflappable cruise director, Balazs Varga, is a phenomenal presence on board, and helps us get the most out of each port of call by organising tours and making sure no questions go unanswered.
Apart from Harry’s singing and dancing, there is of course a much grander musical heritage flowing through the Danube. In Vienna, as part of an optional extras package known as DiscoverMORE, we savour an exquisite private concert at the Lobowitz Palace – a venue the great German composer Beethoven is known to have conducted an orchestra at on more than one occasion.
Examples of other opportunities available through DiscoverMORE include chances to visit Salzburg and Slovakian capital Bratislava by coach.
Everyone we meet on our river cruise is cheerful and friendly, enjoying the busy days and relaxed evenings.
In Vienna, we watch horses from the renowned Spanish Riding School cross our path, before walking to Prater, with its amusement park and beloved ferris wheel where marriage proposals have taken place ever since it was launched in 1897. Today it continues to dominate the skyline, nestling incongruously next to contemporary white knuckle rides.
We also visit the pretty grounds of Hofburg Palace and learn about Empress Maria Theresa – an Austrian archduchess and head of the famed Habsburg dynasty from 1740 to 1780. She had 11 children, including the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.
My favourite moments in Vienna though are when we stop at a café for some fresh fruit and ice cream (resisting the Sachertorte) and simply stop and watch the world go by. With lots of free time to explore, and regular shuttle buses back to the ship, we can really soak up the buzzing atmosphere of this spectacular city.
Emerald Destiny is only two years old, and after a day of exploring one of my favourite things to do is swim in the heated onboard pool, which is spacious enough for a half hour of laps. On our first night, this space is cleverly transformed into a cinema, complete with comfortable seats and a plentiful supply of popcorn.
The stylish contemporary spaces of Emerald Destiny are quite a contrast to the cobbled streets and baroque architecture in Passau where we began our cruise – or Durnstein, home to the ruins of a castle where Richard the Lionheart was once imprisoned and which look down on the valley below.
This itinerary offers the chance to immerse oneself in the classical rhythms and culture of the Danube. We disembark in Budapest feeling invigorated and privileged to have explored some of the most exquisite destinations in Europe.
Emerald Waterways’ eight-day Danube Delights itinerary starts from £1,395 per person. Ports of call include Budapest (Hungary), Bratislava (Slovakia), Vienna (Austria), Durnstein, Melk (both Austria), Passau; Regensburg; Nuremburg; and Munich (all Germany). Price includes return flights, transfers, all tipping and gratuities, food and selected drinks on board, shore excursions and exclusive events and experiences. For more info call 0808 159 7823 or visit emeraldwaterways.co.uk.