During the Middle Ages, travel by water was the easiest – and most luxurious – way for a monarch to visit his or her dominions, as most cities of any importance were situated near the river.
Today, Viking offers a river cruise called “Romantic Danube” which takes passengers one way from Budapest, Hungary to Erlangen, Germany — or, alternatively, from Erlangen to Budapest. The “Romance” of the title, by the way, refers to the “Romantic Movement” of the early 1800s. In this case, European authors, artists and others reacted against the perceived coldness of England’s Industrial Revolution with creations of emotion and warmth.
Hills and mountains rise along either side until port cities come into view, and every now and then an ancient castle can be seen on a projecting crag.
From March through the end of December, Viking cruise ships dock at selected ports and guests can go ashore for a day of touring these historic European cities. Ironically, cold December is one of the most popular travel months, as passengers come specifically to visit the famous Christmas markets.
Viking’s Longships offer all the luxury and amenities that passengers expect. Each ship has 95 exterior staterooms offering views of the passing countryside. Each room has twin beds, plenty of space to store clothing, and even 40-inch flat-panel Sony TVs with access to on-demand movies.
Passengers can gather in the spacious lounge to enjoy a drink as they enjoy the spectacular scenery surrounding them or get to know each other. At evening’s end, the ship’s program director delivers a briefing for the next day’s excursions.
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style in the dining room, although daily specials can be chosen from the menu. Dinner is casual, with open seating. The executive chefs are Swiss-trained and prepare and serve delectable meals. Anyone who wishes lighter fare can enjoy these in the Acquavit Terrace, adjacent to the lounge.
The attentive room stewards, dining staff and ship’s officers combine to deliver first-class service.
The Danube River separates the two once independent cities of Buda and Pest which together make up the capital of Hungary. The cruise ship is berthed near the Chain Bridge, constructed in 1849 and the first permanent structure to enable pedestrians and vehicles to cross the Danube from one city to the other. Like so many of the ancient structures in Budapest, it was damaged during World War II and subsequently rebuilt.
Guests “check in” to the Alta, and spend the night aboard ship. The next day, they can go on various optional guided tours of the city.
Buda Castle, located at the top of “Castle Hill” with scenic views of the Danube, is a particularly popular tourist spot. Below it is Fisherman’s Bastion, a long terrace designed in Gothic style. Close by is the ancient Matthias Church.
Passengers who choose to sleep rather than watch the changing scenery of the Danube at night wake up to find themselves in Vienna, the capital of Austria.
Here they are encouraged to visit Vienna’s Old Town, site of half a dozen ancient churches including St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This was consecrated in 1147 and draws both worshippers and tourists to this day.
The cathedral is surrounded by large open plazas and streets filled with pedestrians, many of whom stop in at the shops, sidewalk cafes and historic buildings. A must-see, or rather must-eat, location is Demel, a pastry shop founded in 1888 which serves strudel and cream cakes made with one hundred-year-old recipes.
Schönbrunn Palace is on practically every guided tour offered. It is most famous as the residence of Maria Theresa, the last ruler of the Habsburg monarchy, who reigned over Austria, Hungary, and several other countries during her lifetime.
And of course in December, practically everyone flocks to Vienna’s Christmas Market, held at the Town Hall. There are dozens of red-roofed stalls serving food and offering handcrafted Christmas presents and decorations for sale.
The ship cruises through the scenic Wachau Valley and then docks in Austria at the city of Melk. This town is famous for its Benedictine Abbey, which owns an extensive library of medieval manuscripts.
Melk is also known for its wineries, and guided tours of some of these establishments are available.
From Austria, the ship enters Germany and docks at Passau, also best known for its cathedral named after St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith.
The cathedral is renowned for its pipe organ, which is the largest in the world with nearly 18,000 pipes. Concerts are given at specific times on most days throughout the year.
Regensburg has an Old Town that is one of the best preserved in all of Europe. Most of its medieval buildings are still standing.
St. Peter’s Cathedral (also called simply the Regensburg Cathedral), is a popular destination for tourists as well as worshipers from around the world.
Passengers from the Atla can go on either general city excursions, or themed tours that focus on a specific aspect of the city’s history. In December, exploration of the quaint Christmas Market is recommended. The locals serve half-meter long bratwursts and locally made beer.
Erlangen is the last stop on this romantic route but not the end of your visit to Germany. Tour buses will take you to the historic city of Nuremberg, a half-hour away. This city of over 500,000 inhabitants is an important industrial center with a burgeoning economy, and in December is home to one of Germany’s largest Christmas markets.
Passengers can enjoy the luxury and ambiance of these floating luxury hotels while cruising in grand style. A Viking River longboat is one of the best ways to experience the Danube just as emperors and kings did so long ago.