Our Grand European Tour from Amsterdam to Budapest was just that - grand. We left Amsterdam in chilly wet spring weather and ended in Budapest in summer conditions. The port excursions were fantastic. In Cologne, we climbed the 533 steps to the top of the cathedral tower. It was a grueling climb, but well worth it with the view of the city from the top.
Then in Durnstein, Austria, we made the climb to the fortress that sits high on the mountain behind the village where Richard the Lion Hearted was held prisoner in 1193. This, too, was a hard climb, but the view from the fortress was phenomenal of the village below, the beautiful Danube River and the surrounding fields.
Entering Budapest at night was an awesome sight with the parliament building, palace and bridges all lit making the lights dance on the Danube. And we were greeted by young people walking on the Chain Bridge where our ship docked yelling to us 'Welcome to Budapest'. A lovely way to enter a city and make us excited for the next day's tour. Our tour of Buda and Pest was phenomenal with walking around Heroes Square; and Fisherman's Bastion offered the best views of the Danube far below and Pest across the river and Matthias Church in the rear of the Bastion. The market in Pest was great. Almost made me wish I lived there to allow me the opportunity to shop there each day for my fruit, vegetables, breads and meat for that night's dinner!
Ports we visited are not listed on the port reviews so will add them here.
1. Kinderdijk in Holland is an easy excursion/walk to see the largest concentration of operational windmills. Very interesting to learn how the windmills work and very photogenic. Take a walk through the village which is also very picturesque and quiet.
2. Cologne, Germany is a beautiful city. I already described our climb up the cathedral tower, but we also did a lot of walking and some shopping. Buying a 'Berliner' is a must from a local bakery - so delicious! Found a really great Lego store in the shopping district where we bought some gifts for the grandchildren. Walked across the railroad bridge which spans the Rhine River. The thousands of padlocks chained to the bridge was fascinating. Lovers or friends would inscribe a padlock with their names and date, chain it to the bridge's chain-link fence, say a few words to each other and throw the key in the river thus sealing their love/friendship for eternity. A must see.
3. A stop in Koblenz, Germany and a walk around the Emperor William I monument and the point where the Rhine and Moselle Rivers meet. A beautiful spot and a climb to the top of the monument is a must for a fantastic view of the two rivers and the surrounding hillsides. A trip to the Marksburg Castle from here was also excellent. The views from the castle of the Rhine far below are awesome. This castle is fully restored and furnished to give you a taste of life in the Middle Ages.
4. Stopped in Miltenberg, Germany, a beautiful old German village with the typical architecture you see pictured in many tour books. Loved this village. In this village and in many others we passed sailing on the rivers, was erected a Maypole as May 1 is a big holiday in Europe. Would love to have seen their May Day celebrations, but only saw the Maypoles still standing after their celebrations.
5. Had a short visit to the Wurzburg Residenz in Wurzburg, Germany which was very huge and elaborate inside. So hard to imagine people living in such oppulence back so many hundreds of years ago. The gardens behind the Residenz were beautiful and well worth taking the time to walk through. A good photo of the rear of the Residenz can be taken from the garden. We did the optional tour to Rothenburg from here and this was a fantastic bus trip through the countryside to visit this old village where we were given a walking tour and free time to shop and explore on our own.
6. Visited Bamberg, Germany which was nice but not one of my favorite tours.
7. In Nuremberg, Germany we did the World War II optional tour. We were taken to Hitler's parade grounds that he had built to use once a year for the people to honor him. We then visited the Nazi museum filled with photos, videos and exhibits of this black period in European history. If you are into World War II history, a must see. We then toured Courtroom 600 where the Nazi war crimes of the war were held. Another interesting site to visit. Best to visit on a weekend to be able to see the actual courtroom as they still hold court trials here and it may be closed to the public when a trial is in session.
8. A stop in Regensburg, Germany was fascinating. We opted out of the planned tour to visit a little pewter shop that fellow cruisers had been to before. Unfortunately we were too late in getting to the shop to be able to buy anything, but we all did do a walking tour of the city on our own and loved this old city. A walk across the bridge was well worth the view of the town. We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary today and the ship's crew was fantastic - bringing us a cake to enjoy and singing 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart'. Can't think of a better way to have celebrated such a milestone in our lives.
9. Had a beautiful tour of Passau, Germany which is the last major city on the Danube at the border of Austria. After our tour, we were thrilled and honored to listen to an organ recital in the St. Stephens Cathedral which is home to the largest pipe organ in Europe having over 17,000 pipes. What a beautiful sound and we were all mesmerized by the talent of the organist and the music. A definite must do for visitors to this beautiful city.
10. Stopped in Melk, Austria where we toured the absolutely beautiful Melk Abbey. The day was a picture-perfect kind of day and the views from the Abbey of the town of Melk and the Danube River below was phenomenal. Also highly recommend visiting the gardens behind the Abbey. A lovely, easy walk and the flowers are beautiful. Again, many photo opts available. We opted to walk back to the ship from the Abbey which was an easy walk of a couple of miles. The downtown area of Melk is again a typical old European village and we loved it. Did some shopping in the many shops along the way. You then cross a foot bridge and walk a short distance through the forest (we stopped in the forest to listen to a cuckoo bird making beautiful noise for us) to our ship. After leaving Melk we sailed the afternoon through the Wachau Valley which was so beautiful and, again, many photo opts available. We docked at Durnstein, Austria which was a small village. We opted to do the walk up to the fortress which I described above. Very well worth the hike. And the village is also a must see to walk through the village. Very quaint.
11. We had a tour of Vienna which was nice. We were glad to have had the opportunity to tour this city, but we much prefer the smaller villages and not-so-modern cities. But if you like Swarovski jewelry, they have a wonderful three story shop in the shopping district of old Vienna. This evening we enjoyed a Mozart and Strauss concert in downtown Vienna.
12. Had a bus and walking tour of Bratislava, Slovakia which was very interesting to see the different culture than what we were used to. Parts of this city were beautiful and they love their statues! Loved the one of the paparazzi sneaking around the corner of a building with his camera aimed at an unwilling model; and the sewer worker looking out of his manhole with a big grin on his face. Our tour guide asked us why we thought he was smiling and she said it's because he gets to look up the dresses of all the ladies passing by! This made us all chuckle. Saw the U.S. Embassy building downtown.
13. Then the next day we ended our tour by docking in Budapest, Hungary. The description of our entry into this city is written above and most of what we did here. This is a city that we were not too thrilled about visiting, but it ended up being one of the highlights of our tour. Thank you to Viking for including it on the itinerary and for giving us more than ample time to explore the city on our own.
Bottom line of the itinerary is to take lots of film or photo disks as you will need them if you love photography. There are so many places that just beg you to use your camera. We came home with almost 3,000 photos and at least 90% of them are phenomenal. Do take a good camera and plan to have it glued to your hands and take it everywhere! Also a must is a pair of very comfortable walking shoes! The cobblestones in some of the villages can be hard on your feet.