First-time cruiser Julianne Morgan discovers warmth, hospitality and some of Europe’s most glittering sights on a boutique river cruise with Tauck from Budapest to Prague

The Danube is like a necklace, stringing together some of the superlative jewels of Europe. This is what I discovered as I cruised from Budapest in Hungary to Regensburg in Germany, taking in such highlights on the way as Bratislava, Vienna and the Wachau Valley wine region, and to finish off the whole incredible itinerary, Prague.

From the welcome reception at the Akademia Klub, home of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious academic association of Hungary, it was clear this was going to be no ordinary trip. The wow factor kicked in as soon as we entered the stunning venue when we were greeted with Champagne and canapés. The spirit and impression of the 1860s was further evoked by the exquisite classical music being played by a string quartet comprising four beautiful women wearing peach-coloured period dresses. This was a taste of things to come.

Altogether there were four gala dinners during our trip (although the dress code was always ‘smart casual’), one of them on the cruise vessel itself, all accompanied by classical music taken from the rich repertoire of the region we were travelling through. ‘Austria’s most famous waltz’, performed for us during the gala dinner in Vienna, provoked goose bumps and a standing ovation.

Brilliant Budapest

The itinerary began with two nights in the five-star Kempinski Hotel in the heart of downtown Budapest, after which the anticipation was palpable, as we took the very comfortable Tauck coaches the short distance to where the MS Savor was berthed, and we boarded this beautifully appointed ship. Again expectations were exceeded. The sincere greeting of the wonderful staff made us all feel personally welcome.

With a maximum capacity of just 130, MS Savor never feels crowded but it also has a warm, country-club atmosphere. This seems to be the boutique river cruise experience. Although cruising through the stunning scenery during the daytime is fantastic, one of the best parts of river cruising is setting sail in the evening. It may be sad to say goodbye to the place you have just got to know, but it’s going to be so exciting to wake up somewhere new.

Before you open the curtains to look out of your floor-to-ceiling fully opening window each morning you never know what to expect. Are we still cruising through the countryside, or in one of the historic cities waiting to immerse us in its culture?

Tasty treats

The service on the ship is first-class and the fine dining experience is exquisite. The sommelier introduces local wines, which change every evening depending on the part of Europe we are currently travelling through, and perfectly match the dishes on the à la carte menu. There is also a casual dining option in Arthur’s Bar, which was a popular alternative.

It would have been all too easy to spend several hours every morning enjoying the delicious selection of freshly made treats and the amazing breakfast buffet on board, but it was always time to set off on an excursion to discover yet another mind-blowing venue along this route of historic and cultural significance.

Tauck river cruising is aimed at culturally inquisitive clientele. Our guides on the city walking tours were all expertly informed and enthusiastic about their home towns, and imparted valuable insights into the history and culture of the region, including detailed background on the former Austro-Hungarian empire. As we wound our way along the pearls of this itinerary, we really got a taste of what life was like in this magnificent period in history, under Maria Theresa, Franz Josef and the beautiful Empress Elisabeth.

The enriching explorations on this trip featured exclusive ‘insider’ access to unique cultural experiences, such as the Strahov Monastery Library in Prague. Members of the general public could only peer in from behind the ropes to these magnificent halls with their splendidly decorated ceilings, and walls lined with priceless volumes, which we were allowed to examine up close.

Personal touches

The high level of service on board the ship was enhanced by impeccable attention to detail, such as making sure that we all had a bottle of water to take with us when we disembarked to go exploring, and small personal touches such as refreshing towels and chocolates to greet us again when we re-embarked.

Each guided tour included little extras of local treats, like a special bagel with coffee in Bratislava, or a gingerbread with schnapps in Cesky Krumlov. Cesky Krumlov was definitely one of the highlights among the outings offered. Tauck was the first tour operator to include this destination on its itineraries. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a charming, unspoiled medieval town with a river running through it, and three bears who live in the fairy-tale, pink-towered 13th-century castle, a place you would probably never otherwise have thought of visiting.

Arthur Tauck Sr apparently actually invented the guided tour. This was his vision in 1925: “All I want is a congenial party. Ten minutes after leaving Newark, we shall be just one happy party, properly chaperoned, out for a real good time.”

This spirit remains, and it was almost like we were one big family. From conversations with my fellow travellers, I soon found out that I was not the only first-time river cruiser. Of course, I met experienced cruisers as well, such as another couple from Florida, but even these seasoned cruisers were impressed with the level of comfort on board: “We’ve never had a walk-in closet in our stateroom before,” they told me. There is really everything you could wish for: Nespresso machine, iHome, complementary mini bar, Molton Brown toiletries.

Attentive crew

‘Fully inclusive’ was taken to the limit as well. Not only were Champagne, bellhop and drivers’ tips included but also local currency coins for the loos in town when we were
out and about. Everyone got a little souvenir from each port of call, such as Hungarian paprika, Austrian apricot jam, and a limited edition painting of the Astronomical Clock in Prague. You get what you pay for, and then some more.

As we neared the end of the trip, we had started asking each other, “What was the highlight for you?” Hardly anyone could come up with a particular favourite, saying that it was hard to pinpoint one thing, and that the experience as a whole was great. Although the time spent on the ship was the jewel in the crown, what better way to see so many cities on one trip? Until the last evening, that is; then came the highlight of the whole holiday.

Food for thought

The final gala dinner was held under the magnificent chandeliers in the elegant Imperial Hall of the Lobkowicz Palace, the only privately owned building in the Prague Castle complex. Dinner was preceded by a heart-wrenching talk by William Lobkowicz, the reigning prince of the palace, about how his family had had their home and possessions taken from them by successive regimes, and how he had fought to get it back.

This is what the history of Europe is all about. His amazing private collection includes original music scores with hand-written annotations by Mozart and Beethoven, as well as paintings by Rubens and Brueghel. But it almost brought tears to my eyes to see the Canalettos, including the one Prince William Lobkowicz lent to Queen Elizabeth II for her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Now I know the meaning of the Tauck brand slogan: “How you see the world matters”.

On that final night everyone was a bit emotional about saying goodbye to the ship that had been our home for seven days. The sentence in bold type on the daily itinerary really brought it home: “Please note that we will not be returning to the ship again.”

My first river cruise exceeded all expectations: it was a heart-warmingly enriching experience, with so many impressions in such a short time, and much excellence at every turn. Things you would never have imagined possible.

GETTING THERE: A 12-night all-inclusive Blue Danube cruise on MS Joy departing on 6 April 2017 costs from £3,380pp, based on double occupancy, and includes round-trip scheduled air fare from Heathrow or Gatwick Airport. For more information, visit tauck.co.uk or call 0800 810 8020.

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