Viking Europe Cruise Review by jdbirch: Danube Christmas Markets
Danube Christmas Markets
Day 1: Leave Denver on Lufthansa at 5:15 bound for Frankfurt. Two nice meals, drinks with the dinner (2 glasses good white wine), and arrive a bit early at 10:30, local time. Try to avoid the Frankfurt airport! - we landed out in the outskirts, climbed down the stairs, and boarded a bus for the terminal. Even though its a secure area, we passed through a passport check, a customs check, and another xray security line. About 50% of the passengers got pulled out for individual wanding. I'm 2 for 2 on the inspection, since my carryon has batteries, digital camera, binoculars, and various electronics - all nice suspicious stuff on the xray machine. Watch the signs carefully to find your connecting flight in the airport. Off to Vienna. Customs a breeze (nothing to declare line). Viking rep meets us just outside the customs room, follow the driver to a VW van with 6 other passengers for transfer to ship (20-30 minutes). Onboard (staff handles bags), turn in passport in the European fashion. More
Ship exchanges euros at same rate as the exchange in the Denver airport, minus the $5 fee. Same rate in Vienna exchanges - figure on a 5% screwing on the exchange. ATMs are always the best bet, but only do that the first time outside a bank that is open, just in case something messes up. If it does, go inside and they will assist you in getting your ATM card back. Next time, call your ATM provider before you leave for Europe, eh? Tea/pastries in ship every day around 4, always good. Light snacks for early arrivals around noon. Meeting 6:15 and every day thereafter on "your schedule tomorrow". This one sells the 3 sidetrips on the voyage, have to buy today for arranging the buses. Dinner excellent pork/fish, shrimp and celery root mousse (good, unusual), clear oxtail soup, pastries. Captain's reception at 9, captain buys a champagne toast. Good musical entertainment with Otto, who has a very good synthesizer and knows a lot of songs. Off to bed, jet lagged. The ship: Viking Europe was built in 2001, and shows a need for some rehab (stained carpets, mostly). The cabins are 150 square feet for the main decks, and 120 square feet for the lower deck. Ample storage space on the main deck, with the suitcases stowed below the beds. Usual small bathroom - just imagine taking your half bath in your house, having the door open outward, then fitting a shower into the leftover space. Lotion and shampoo provided, nice thick towels. "Snot in a bottle" provided, but if you're not into shower gel, bring some soap. Usual confusing shower controls, this one is pretty standard for cruise ships, with the left knob giving the amount of water and the right knob adjusting the mixing temperature. Shower drained somewhat slowly. Ship is VERY UNFRIENDLY for handicapped - you must negotiate stairs for any movement around the ship. Then again - all the cities you're going to visit are also difficult for someone not able to walk a quarter mile and climb a couple of flights. All the streets of Europe feature cobblestones, uneven and inclined and often slippery. Choice of cabins - the center cabins are often blocked by the dock that the ship is moored to, noisy. No clock in cabin, bring your own - the bus will leave on time if you're not there. There are announcements a half hour and 15 minutes prior to bus tours. 115/220 dual switchable outlets in cabin, it works because I charged my camera and IPOD successfully.
Day 2: Vienna Breakfast 7-9, early starter at 6 (pastries, good). Coffee and tea available 24/7, fruit on the table usually. Tea is not too good, bring your own if you're picky. I don't do Lipton or hisbiscus... Breakfast is typical cold cuts, muesli, oatmeal, granola, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and bacon always, some other meat and side. Excellent rolls, whole grain breads, orange juice, tomato juice, something called vitamin juice that tastes like V8 Fusion in the States, and champagne if you want to add a little to your juice. You can also order omelets to order, eggs, french toast. Bus leaves at 9 for city tour, ends at 10:15 at Stephan Platz in the center of Vienna for free time. Go down street for shopping at Billa, buy candy for kids and wine for cabin (bring a corkscrew in your checked luggage), then to Kleiml on Graben Strasse for gourmet candy. Bus arrives at 12, back to ship for lunch. Pumpkin soup(very good), salad bar (good), spaghetti or lamb roast, brownie with pistachio ice cream for dessert. Afternoon shuttle to Xmas market at Rathaus, spend 2 hours. Best drink is with schnapps for 2.50 euros for the cup, 3.50 euros for the drink. Nice cup, keep it for collection. Very good for pictures, see it in late afternoon for lights. Good selection, but didn't buy much. Lot of Lebkeuchen (gingerbread). Side note on shopping: I had hoped to buy some Swarovski binoculars here, but with the exchange rate, the 2% credit card fee, the 20% VAT refund - would save a grand total of $12 on a $1900 pair of binoculars! Not worth the trouble... If you spend more than $100 in a store, remember to show your passport and demand the freedom from the VAT - you have to ask for this! Back to ship for tea time, then the briefing, then dinner. Dinner is cream of herb soup, salad, wiener schnitzel or trout, apple pancake with ice cream. Waiters in Mozart wigs for atmosphere. My wife attended the Mozart concert ($55) and liked it, but hall was overheated. Some Goulash soup for a late night snack when the concert goers return. Ship leaves at 11.
Day 3: Budapest Awake to cruising on the Danube. Breakfast features Nurnberger sausages today. I opt for the usual smoked salmon, muesli, and fruit. Wheelhouse tour at 9:30 - fun, and remember to ask about the wheelhouse collapsing to get under bridges in times of high water - that's interesting. Passing large cathedrals, and a ruined castle on the Danube, but I forgot the names. A guidebook on the sights would be handy, but I didn't buy one - I did get Baedecker guides to Austria and Budapest used on Amazon, and a pretty much worthless copy of Fodor's for Czech Republic and Slovakia. Use the Virtual Tourist website instead for city guides. Lunch has cream of vegetable soup, salad bar, Goulasch and spatzle, tiramisu for dessert. Arrive at 1:00, be on top deck portside for best views of Budapest. Usual city tour from 2-6. The Hero Monument is really good, read the history beforehand. 45 minutes of free time in the Christmas Market, not enough time - all handmade crafts, good prices. Budapest freely takes euros, US$ maybe - but the ATMs give forints only. Vendors I dealt with gave an honest exchange. Any forints left over can be given out as tips, or the coins make nice souvenirs for grandchildren. Hungary is switching to the euro on January 1, so this comment is soon outdated. St. Mathias cathedral is good, the view from the Fisherman Bastion is very good at night, but the spotlights are distracting and you really have to work to take a picture. Dinner is shrimp cocktail, celery soup with mussels and barley, turkey roll or butterfish, pumpkin cake or rum ice cream (Chef made some changes to celebrate American Thanksgiving) Developing an appreciation for Chef Ronny's work with soups and fish dishes, and the bread is nice and crunchy. Sailaway at 8:30, nice to watch with the city lit up.
Day 4: Bratislava Up early to birdwatch from the lounge. Lock into the Danube Canal east of Bratislava. Breakfast of the usual, except the fruit today is mandarin oranges and the bonus meat is sausages. At 10:30, cold cuts and free wine spritzer (not that good) in the lounge. Lunch of cheese soup, pork roast or fried fish, good chocolate mousse. City tour 1:30 - 3. Free time - prices in Bratislava very good, selection of wood items and porcelains a specialty. A lot of grilled foods. Jewelry store near the inner market has impressive amber - necklaces with pieces the size of eggs, all kind of tacky looking costume jewelry type (I think they're fake ones). Warning: 15 steps up and 15 down getting through the customs house to the ship. Liquor store in the customs house, try the apricot brandy. Christmas mart is about a 1 km walk from the ship, and a map would be handy. Viking has city maps on the reception desk for all the cities, generally good. Dinner is artichoke soup or borscht, pike-perch or good beef, hummus or salad nicoise, mousse for dessert. At 9:00, talk on 2009 cruises, $1100/cabin savings with down payment now, date to be selected later. Free drink and egg roll as a reward for listening, but we don't bite on the deal.
Day 5: Durnstein/Melk Breakfast today adds turkey sausage (weird tasting) and hash browns to the buffet, and pears to the fruit. Arrive Durnstein at 9:00, walking tour at 9:30. 1 Km walk, mild incline over cobblestones. Great overdecorated church, gilded like crazy. Nice town - half open in the off season. Lots of old walls, surrounded by vineyards. 2 hours total, with a 20 minute organ concert tossed in. Organist good, organ ordinary. Not quite enough time for serious shopper, but we buy some artisan chocolate and excellent Marille Apricot brandy. The one in the round squat clear bottle. Back on ship, leave at 11 for the cruise through the Wachau gorge. Narrative is good on the ship, but Baedecker has more details to follow along. Lunch of cream of broccoli soup, rice and pork, baked apple (very good, I had a religious experience and ordered a second). Arrived at Melk at 2:30, bus to abbey. Abbey tour - museum pretty ordinary, but the abbey is on my top church list, right up there with San Maria Maggiore in Rome and St Marks/St Lawrence in Venice. Choice is bus back or walk into town down hill and back to the ship (a bit less than 2 Km). Christmas market is small, nothing of great impact, run mostly by town non-profits (hospice, soccer, volleyball, etc). Most stores open, interesting and inviting. There's a good artist coop store with a woodcarver who is very good. Hungarian dinner of marinated veggies, cabbage soup, sauteed pike perch, some kind of crepe for dessert. Talk at 9 - questions to captain, hotel manager, chef, etc.
Day 6: Linz/Salzburg Breakfast features McDonald style hash browns this morning. For me, it's day #5 of the smoked salmon. Chili sauce is good on the scrambled eggs, assertively hot, peaches for fruit today. Off to Salzburg - 1 ½ hours bus ride, one potty stop on the way near the MondSee for good views. The WCs are downstairs, exit through the giftshop with a long line. It's possible to squeeze thru the turnstile at the entrance backwards if you're skinny. Continue on the Salzburg, 1 ½ hour walking tour. Group 1 goes in back of the cathedral and see St Peter's cemetery, we get a guide that loves Mozart and shows us everyplace where Mozart had his diaper changed, etc. Go to the cemetery if you get a chance, it is really something. Lunch at St Peter's restaurant - oldest in town - near the cathedral. Warning: this takes over an hour! If you're a serious shopper, skip the dessert like we did or the entire thing and get some street wurst for a snack. Big Christmas mart around the cathedral, and others scattered around town to find on your own. Loden clothes in the mart, 20% less than the stores. Steiff animals in the mart also. Selection is really nice, prices decent. Hats, scarves, lot of candy/cookies, wooden ornaments, toys, nutcrackers and smokers. It's open on Sunday, because we were there on Sunday, but most stores in town are closed. Bought a bottle of apricot brandy in a violin shaped bottle. Remember the rule about "buy no wine in a bottle shaped like a fish"? Add the violin bottles to that rule. Town and tour very unfriendly to handicapped. ! ½ hour bus ride back to ship. If you opted out of the Salzburg tour, you got a walking tour of Linz during the morning and free time in the afternoon. You could with some research, take the train from Linz to Salzburg cheaper and faster if you're comfortable in Europe. If you took the side tour to Salzburg, you have no time to see Linz - the ship leaves a half hour after the buses return.
Day 7: Cesky Krumlov Don't remember what the special breakfast addition was and didn't write it down. Smoked salmon, again and the mandarin oranges are back. Bus to Cesky Krumlov leaves at 9:30, 1 ½ hour trip on winding narrow two lane roads. Most beautiful town, with views down every alley. Avoid gypsy stores - easy to tell, ask your tour guide. Avoid exchange booths with the best prices, they cheat you too. Most of the amber in town is fake - if you want some, study up beforehand (helpful hint: look for bubbles). Just enjoy the plentiful sights, and skip most of the shopping. The toy stores in town were good. Lunch at Tornado restaurant beside the river - good, slow. No Christmas mart in town. The ATMs give korunas again. The castle tour only accepts korunas, so you're stuck. Another hour and a half to meet the ship in Passau. The Passau Christmas mart is ordinary and small, but has some different things to look over. Try the Apfeltrum (cider) with a shot of Calvados in it, I had two and was buzzed quite nicely. St Stephan's Dom was nice, excellent painted ceilings, molded/carved column tops. Photographing and filming is forbidden, I think, and I don't want to go into "How to cheat the system and still take pictures". Since it was sprinkling light rain, my wife stayed in the cabin and read. "Bavarian Entertainment" in the lounge at 9 - only poor thing on the trip, proves to be a bunch of young girls (12-16?) playing traditional tunes, mostly not that well.
Day 8: Passau Early breakfast available at 3 AM in the lounge, since some passengers are getting transfers at that time. Breakfast is somewhat extended in the restaurant, since transfers are continuously leaving. This morning features weird tasting vienna sausages and that old American breakfast favorite, baked beans (in the English style, a lot of tomato sauce). My last day of smoked salmon, celebrate with a double helping. Leave the bags outside the door and go off to see the sights of Passau. Walk around, visit St Peters church (nice dark wood altars, carved), walk the river borders to see some birds (swans and gulls a feature), and go to the Christmas mart again. Buy nothing, but its the idea.... Back in the ship, settle up the bill in the usual fashion. Tips on Viking are split among the crew, which is nice for the dishwashers. We were introduced to the dishwashers during one of the dinners, which is a nice feature. All the crew pitches in for luggage transfer - I saw the head chef out there hustling luggage to the bus, the hotel manager, etc. Bus to Munich airport takes a couple of hours, we get checked through with a minimum of hassle, except for one thing! Once again, we pass through the regular security/xray, the passport check, then enter the airport. Suffering from the lack of some peasant food, we have some roasted wurst at AirBrau (very good). Passing the duty free shop, my wife pops in a buys a bottle of water for the plane. When we get to the overseas gates, there is another security line/xray, and that 1.20 euro bottle of water gets confiscated. She's still fuming over that - thankfully, I had passed up the purchase of a liter of Grand Marnier. Once again, down two flights of stairs to board a bus, then up a lengthy flight of stairs to board the plane - what are these airports like in the summer rush? Two meals on Lufthansa again, wine and beer to go with them, and the meals are wurst again - I sacrifice and eat it gratefully. I guess the bottom line for flying into Germany is to take Lufthansa and avoid the German airports. Good luck on that one. Less
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