Fourteen Days on the Uniworld River Countess
After spending five days in Salisbury, England, to help some of our English friends celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, my wife and I hopped on a Flyby turboprop airliner from Southampton to Amsterdam to board the Uniworld, MV River Princess for a 14 day river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, Hungary.
We had purchased the cruise at the last minute through an interliner site for $1399 per person plus port charges and taxes. The total cost (including port charges and tax for two people) was a little over $3200. This covered transfers to and from the airports and a number of city tours.
True to their word Uniworld met us at the international airport in Amsterdam and by 1:00pm our luggage and we were in our cabin on the River Princess. Although the cabin was mostly below the waterline of the boat, it had two large windows just above the waterline that made for an unusual look at the river. All the cabins on the River Princess are the same size (about 154 sq. ft.). The difference in categories and prices is simply the height above water level and the style of windows you have. We found the furnishings, bed linen, towels and robes to be first class all the way.
We quickly made our way to the dining room where a great buffet awaited us. The food was good and plentiful. The wait staff could not do enough for you and they meant it when they said, If there is something you want, just ask.
The afternoon was spent getting familiar with the boat. It was small compared to the 2000 passenger ocean going vessels we were used to. It did have a laundry room with two washers and dryers plus a place for ironing clothes. It had a nice patio with 24 hours tea and coffee service, a well-stocked library/computer room and a good size show lounge. There was a small fitness room but with all the walking tours, additional exercise was not needed. The top of the boat had a huge sun deck, which was partially covered in case of bad weather. There was no pool or hot tub but we thought we could rough it for two weeks. A hot tub would have been nice after a day of sightseeing. The Captain, hotel staff and crew were just as friendly as the wait staff and the passengers got to know them all during the cruise.
There was only one open seating for all passengers and the spacious dining was pleasant and not the least bit noisy. The first night dinner was a time for testing the wait staff. I soon found out that the menu was limited. There was a choice of three main courses and always consisted of one meat, one fish dish, and one vegetarian choice. Since I am a beef eater, I only ordered from the menu three of the fourteen nights we were on the cruise. The rest of the time I ordered steak that they were happy to provide.
The desserts were the best I have ever had on a cruise. The little gal who did the pastries made apple straddle that one could die for. The rest of the pies, cakes, strudels and other desserts were done equally well. I must say, however, that this trip was the first time that I have ever eaten walnut ice cream topped with dried apricots and prunes.
The first night the Captain, Hotel Manager, and Cruise Manager briefed us. We knew exactly what to do in case of an emergency (if the boat sank, go to the top deck and wait). The boat was taller than the river was deep. The cruise manager, Maddy, told us what to expect the next day, a routine that happened every evening before dinner. The hotel manager covered the procedure of keeping track of the passengers and all other related procedures.
Our musician, Matthew, played the piano for a couple of hours after dinner for those of us who could stay awake after a long day.
On day two we arrived in Cologne. After a walking tour we had some free time to see the city on our own. We had been to Cologne in 1960 and to say the least, it had changed. The only thing we recognized was the cathedral. We soon learned the ABC's of river cruising. Another Bloody _______. You fill in the blank with castle, cathedral, city, church or canal lock. After walking about the shops and bars for a hour or so, it was back on the boat for Maddy's briefing for the next day, dinner, and more piano music by Matthew.
The next day we cruised through the Rhine Gorge that was one of the highlights of the cruise. Passing castle after castle we spotted the Lorelei just before we arrived in Rudesheim. Our tour in Rudesheim was of the Siegfried's Mechanical Musikkabinett. The private collection of working mechanical music makers (some of them filled an entire room) is outstanding. Anyone who travels to Rudesheim should tour the collection. We were back on boat by six but to tired to take the optional Rudesheim dinner and entertainment tour that night. Our new friends spoke highly of the tour.
The next day we toured Heidelberg, another bloody castle. We had been there in 1960 and the castle had not changed, however, there were so many tour groups around that it was hard to take a picture without getting a tour group in the picture. There were also more shops and restaurants ready and willing to separate the tourists from their money. We had lunch at a local restaurant that served typical German food and it was surprisingly good. Not what I expected, having been in Germany a number of times.
Miltenberg in the morning and Wertheim in the afternoon of day five saw us taking ABC tours. Tour guides gave us a little history and a lot of legends about the towns but who knows what to believe. I did not know that the Crusaders had brought so many religious relics back through Germany and dropped them off at every little town on the Rhine.
The next stop was Karlstadt. In the morning before we stopped at Karlstadt, Karl Heinz, a guest lecturer from Wurzburg, lectured on Architectural Styles that we would see in cities on the cruise. After lunch aboard the boat, we debarked in Karstadt for the bus ride to Wurzburg where we had a walking tour of the Prince Bishop's Palace. The palace was awesome. Although the palace had been largely destroyed during WWII, it had been restored in all of its grandeur. If anyone ever visits Wurzburg, you must take a tour of the Prince Bishop's Palace and do not miss the chapel.
Monday, October 2nd started out overcast with a 60% chance of rain forecasted. It was one optional tour that we really wanted to take. It was to Rothenburg, the walled city. Here again, a large part of the city had been destroyed during WWII but had been restored beautifully. A walk around the wall revealed a number of plaques with names with 1m, 2m, or 3m on them. These people were responsible for restoring the wall, meter by meter. The rain held off and the sun showed Rothenburg in all of its beauty. The optional tour was well worth the extra $82 pp it cost.
At Bamberg, the next stop, the rain finally caught up with us. However, a stroll downtown in the rain was worth the discomfort. The big attraction was the town hall in the middle of the river. The market might have been a great place to shop but most of the booths closed early because of the rain.
The canal between Bamberg and Nuremberg was extremely interesting. We went under bridges where we had to flatten all the lounges on the sun deck in order to make it under the bridges. Even the wheelhouse was lowered. We would lie on our backs to take pictures of the bottom of the bridges. At mile markers 53.7, 61.9, 79, and 87.1 the canal went over roads and rivers. It was unusual to see cars and trucks as well as boats going under your own riverboat.
We declined to take the optional tour of Nuremberg when we found out that we would not be able to tour the Palace of Justice where the Nuremberg trials were held after WWII. Instead we enjoyed just cruising down the river taking pictures of the beautiful countryside. The next stop was Regensburg, where we had two hours of free time before returning to the boat. One hour was plenty of time. It was a quaint little town but by this time we had had enough of quaint little towns.
It was Friday so we must be in Passau. Another quaint little town, however, this one had a big cathedral with the world's largest pipe organ. Uniworld provided us with free tickets to an organ concert and it was well worth the price of the tickets. I think that the concert was designed to display the ability of the organ and organist rather than to please the concertgoers.
The next morning we arrived in Melk and took a bus to the Abbey. Although we had been there before, it had changed. Modern art was everywhere to be seen. Gift shops and restaurants were everywhere. What had been a beautiful Abbey was had been restored and renovated but some of the charm was missing. Maybe it was the busloads of tourists that made it feel like a tourist trap rather than a piece of history.
Vienna was Vienna. What a beautiful city. Just to walk about and look at a piece of living history was well worth the cost of the entire cruise. We visited some old haunts and relished the new look of old landmarks. The black soot, for the most part, was gone and the buildings gleamed white in the sunlight. Part of the restaurant that we had enjoyed in our last visit in 1997 was now a sports bar but enough of the old remained that is was recognizable. We could have spent much more time in Vienna and the 7 ½ hours allotted by Uniworld passed quickly.
We arrived in Budapest the next day and docked on the Pest side. We took a shuttle boat to the Buda side. Here again 7 hours was not enough time to see all the wonders of Budapest. I suggest that if you have not been to Budapest and want to take a river cruise that you take the three-day extension that Uniworld offers, buy a transportation pass, and see the city on your own. It is a beautiful city and deserves more than a few hours.
A Hungarian Operetta and Folklore Performance highlighted our last night on board in the lounge. The performers were professional and the program was outstanding.
Uniworld did an outstanding job of organizing the cruise and tours. This has to be near the top of all the cruises I have ever been on and another river cruise is definitely something I would want to do again. Bucharest to the Black Sea comes to mind.
Debarkation was quick and uneventful. The Uniworld bus took us to the Budapest International airport where we Delta 99 direct to New York JFK International where we took a flight straight to Tampa.