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On the Danube River: Two Longtime Pals Make Discoveries About Europe and Friendship

Danube River Cruise (photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown)
Danube River Cruise (photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown)

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Sponsored by Viking River Cruises

When I floated the idea of sharing a week-long Viking cruise down the Danube River with my longtime pal Jayne, we conjured similar takeaways: tantalizing glimpses of fairytale castles from a sun deck lounger, the chance to visit three capital cities and five separate countries in the heart of Europe, and plenty of pastries and pretzels - both on and off the ship.

What we hadn’t imagined: the balmy evening we strolled a few minutes from our ship’s dock to clamber across rooftops and snap “Alice in Wonderland on acid” selfies at an interactive art installation.

Updated December 15, 2019

That bonding experience in Austria's Linz was one of many during our girlfriend getaway aboard Viking River Cruises' recently launched Viking Ullur. Linz was the second of six stops on a mid-August “Danube Waltz” itinerary that started in Germany's Passau and ended in Budapest.

And although we’d expected to be surrounded mostly by married baby boomers - a similar Viking itinerary is dubbed “Romantic Danube,” - a good share of our fellow 180 passengers were women traveling with female friends or family. Within a few minutes of my early morning arrival in Passau to board our temporary home, I’d chatted over a cup of much-needed coffee with a departing mother and daughter who said they were one of five such duos on the ship’s reverse, upstream run from Budapest.

Indeed, while river cruising has become the fastest-growing segment of the cruise business - industry leader Viking now operates 63 vessels in Europe, seven of which debuted this past spring alone - the number of gal pals sailing together is burgeoning as well. A travel agent we met onboard told us nearly half her Viking river cruise bookings were either pairs or groups of women.

With good reason: the Viking Ullur and Viking’s other virtually identical, Scandinavian-inspired “longships” encourage conviviality (a maximum of 190 passengers, with open-seating dining at tables for four to eight) and minimize the nickel-and-diming common on traditional ocean liners. Viking includes wine and beer with lunch and dinner, along with a complimentary shore excursion in every port.

Regardless of our shipboard relationships, we all shared an eagerness to explore the most scenic and popular stretch of what Napoleon dubbed the “Queen of Europe’s Rivers.”

The Danube, the Continent’s second longest waterway (after the Volga in Russia) extends nearly 1,800 miles through 10 countries, from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea. It served as a long-standing frontier between the Roman Empire and barbaric tribes to the north, and now (along with the Rhine and Maine) draws more cruisers than any other European river.

By the time the Viking Ullur sailed into Budapest, our late night arrival timed to capture the city’s brilliantly lit bridges and architecture, Jayne and I had learned about everything from the daily rituals of a 900-year-old Benedictine abbey to tips on making a proper apple strudel. And despite sharing multiple travel experiences over the course of a three-decade friendship, our week on the Viking Ullur also taught us valuable lessons about how to ensure smooth sailing on a river cruise with a BFF in tow.

Some day-by-day impressions:

Day 1: Meeting the Danube in Passau

Perched near Germany’s southeastern border with Austria, the prosperous university town of Passau is the meeting point for three rivers - the Inn, the Ilz and the Danube (Donau in German) - and proved to be an inspiring launch pad for our own adventure.

Though the Viking Ullur’s initial docking space was about a 15-minute drive downriver from Passau’s Altstadt, or Old Town, free shuttle buses ferried embarking passengers for an afternoon “welcome walk” among a warren of pedestrian-only cobblestone lanes and candy-colored, flower-festooned buildings. Settled more than 2,000 years ago, Passau suffered a devastating fire in the 17th century. But with wealth gained from trading in salt (known as “white gold” for its ability to preserve food), Passau’s burghers hired Italian architects to rebuild the city in a Baroque style that earned it the nickname “Venice of Bavaria.”

On the culinary front, we were told that the town’s famous lebkuchen, or gingerbread, is traditionally made with honey, and that the Bavarian white sausage known as weisswurst is customarily consumed before noon. And Dimitri, the Viking Ullur’s hotel manager, wasn’t kidding with his earlier admonition that Germans are famous for both sausages and punctuality. When we showed up at 4:32 p.m. for a scheduled 4:30 return shuttle back to the ship, the bus driver waved us aboard with a smiling rebuke: “You’re late!”

After a wine and cheese reception in the ship’s airy, window-lined lounge, we cast off for a new, overnight berth near the middle of town. On that initial twilight foray, we encountered clear evidence that “The Blue Danube” (the common English title of Austrian composer Johann Strauss’ beloved 1866 waltz) isn’t quite accurate when it comes to the river’s color. As we approached the tip of the narrow peninsula that divides the Inn River and the Danube, the milky green, glacier-fed Inn formed a sharp contrast to its much darker, gently swirling sibling.

Lesson of the Day: Consider the suite life.

Jayne and I have bunked together on previous cruises and would have been content to share any of the Viking Ullur’s compact but well-designed cabins, all of which come with ample clothes storage and plenty of hangers (an unexpected plus). Bathrooms, meanwhile, are equipped with heated floors, plush towels, fog-free mirrors and enough shelf space for two sets of toiletries, with bonus points for generous tubes of high-end Freyja shampoo and conditioner.

But our 275-square-foot veranda suite proved to be a godsend our first night aboard, when a jet-lagged Jayne decamped to the sitting room couch for a middle-of-the-night “Downton Abbey” binge. (Viking, a longtime sponsor of the British series, includes all six seasons as part of its in-room video offerings.)

Day 2: Exploring Passau, Heading to Linz, Austria

The highlight of our complimentary excursion in Passau, once the biggest diocese in a Holy Roman Empire that stretched beyond Vienna into western Hungary, was a half-hour concert in the exquisitely restored, mind-bogglingly ornate St. Stephen’s Cathedral. At our guide’s suggestion, I nabbed a seat in a center pew to hear (and feel) the full effect of Europe’s largest pipe organ.

My heart still pounding from the impressive punch of those 17,774 pipes, I calmed down with a stroll along the Danube - where swans and kayakers shared space with cruise river boats, and where I spotted a delightful statue of Emerenz Meier, a local innkeeper’s daughter and poet who emigrated to Chicago in 1906. One of her verses is inscribed on a nearby plaque: “If Goethe had had to prepare supper and salt the dumplings; if Schiller had had to wash the dishes; if Heine had had to mend what he had torn and clean the rooms, kill the bugs - Oh, the menfolk, none of them would have become great poets.”

After casting off for Linz early that afternoon, we glided past two-wheelers on both banks of the river (the stretch between Passau and Vienna is one of Europe’s most popular bike routes), and passed through the first of 18 locks on our journey to Budapest.

While the engineering involved may have been way over our heads, Jayne and I never ceased to marvel at the Viking Ullur’s smooth descents through those concrete chasms - with the ship often nestled so close we could touch the slippery walls from our balcony.

Lesson of the Day: Be a Shopping Enabler.

Among the benefits of a Viking cruise through Europe with a girlfriend by your side (versus, in my case, a husband who’d rather have root canal surgery than window shop) is the freedom to browse for gifts that reflect a sense of place and promise to rekindle memories long after the ship has sailed to the next port.

Our first score was at Passau’s year-old Dackelmuseum, the world’s first and only museum devoted to Bavaria’s iconic pooch, the dachshund. While I chatted with the owners of Bruno, a wire-haired dachshund visiting from Vienna, Jayne was in the gift shop eyeing a handsome, three-piece leather tote embossed with a black doxie. No matter that her own pet is a burly feline: at only 79 euros (about $90), who could resist?

Day 3: A look at Linz, Austria and Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

With the Viking Ullur spending a full day docked in the center of Linz, Jayne opted to stay in town while I joined an included excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cesky Krumlov, in the southern Czech Republic.

Located about an hour’s bucolic drive from Linz past hay bale-filled fields that were once buffer zones along the Iron Curtain, Cesky Krumlov has become a victim of its own storybook beauty. Although its population is only about 15,000, our local guide Katarina told us that more than a million visitors a year shuffle through its medieval castle complex (one of the largest in Central Europe), paddle rubber rafts down the winding Vltava River, and jam the narrow streets lined with Renaissance and Baroque buildings brought back to life after the demise of communism.

At Katarina’s recommendation I found some welcome peace in the lovely, flower and vegetable gardens of the Minorite Monastery, and even managed to snag an empty table (and a refreshing stein of cheaper-than-bottled-water Pilsner) at her favorite Czech restaurant, Svejk.

Back in Linz and since the Viking Ullur didn’t leave until late that night, Jayne and I had time to stroll through what turned out to be one of my most memorable Danube stopovers.

Austria’s third largest city, once a dreary industrial outpost, is now an innovative arts center marked by a robust lineup of museums and festivals. Yes, it’s home to the Linzer torte, a cake with a 400-year-old recipe that claims to be the world’s oldest. But it also hosts a mind-bending, interactive summer celebration called Sinnesrauch, a series of connected rooms, rooftops and bridges that invites participants to stretch their physical and cerebral muscles.

Lesson of the Day: The Calories Can Add Up, But So Do the Steps.

One of our worries about spending a week afloat in the land of schnapps and schnitzel was that we’d waddle home with extra pounds as souvenirs. Our shipboard options didn’t help: The Viking Ullur’s menus featured such temptations as smoked salmon eggs Benedict and knodel tris (a trio of cheese, spinach and bread dumplings in brown butter), along with a changing, addictive selection of pastries and cookies at the 24-hour coffee/tea stations and generous pours of local wines and beers at lunch and dinner.

But fortunately, our complimentary walking tours, coupled with on-our-own wandering and more vigorous Viking excursion options such as “Hike the Passau Hills,” wound up translating to several miles a day.

Day 4: Cruising the Wachau Valley to Krems, Austria

Throughout our passage down what has been a commercial artery for centuries, I’d been impressed by the Danube’s serenity, both on the water and along its banks: virtually no trash, relatively few industrial barges (the Danube is a major route for east European grain exports to west Europe), plenty of shoreside campers, and even the occasional waterskier. did you see kayaks? I've seen a bunch of them but no sail boats or yachts or anything like that that I recall.

This morning’s encounter with the Wachau Valley, a roughly 20-mile stretch of the river between the Austrian towns of Melk and Krems, was particularly spectacular. The Wachau, its steep hillsides studded with vineyards and apricot groves, has been called Central Europe’s version of the Napa Valley. The vineyards are famous for Austria’s signature white wine, Grüner Veltliner, while apricot groves produce both the delicious fruit that wound up on the Viking Ullur’s buffets and marillenschnaps, an elixir that made its way to many passengers’ in-room refrigerators (and a tray full of sample shots, offered to rubberneckers on the sun deck).

But California can’t hold a carafe to Wachau’s idyllic parade of Instagramable villages, churches and ancient fortresses, which Viking Ullur’s Bulgarian program manager, Maksym, pointed out as our cameras swiveled from one side of the river to the other. One iconic case in point: the tidy little town of Dürnstein, famous both for its ornately carved, baby-blue church tower at the river’s edge and, looming on rocky cliffs high above, the ruins of the castle where English king Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1193.

In Krems, we decamped for a short drive to Göttweig Abbey, a hilltop Benedictine monastery that has been a working religious refuge for more than nine centuries. Viking passengers enjoy "privileged access" tours to the abbey, where the tour includes a film, tasting of wines produced from the surrounding vineyards, and description of the 44 resident monks’ monastic and community-focused lives. (The monks’ average age is 60, and outreach efforts include applications via Facebook.) Above an imposing staircase, a fresco features the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI as Apollo that was completed in a mere 45 days in 1739 - but, our guide noted, since the ruler died of mushroom poisoning less than a year later he never got to see his decidedly unflattering depiction.

Lesson of the Day: Join the fun with fellow passengers.

Viking is known for attracting a well-traveled, post-retirement, primarily American clientele, and our sailing was no exception. Although the Danube itinerary tends to draw more first-time river cruisers, this afternoon’s past passenger reception on the sun-dappled, indoor-outdoor Aquavit Terrace was packed with Viking veterans. Among them: an 89-year-old Baptist minister and self-trained lyric tenor from Maryland who regaled us with impromptu arias throughout the trip.

Opera wasn’t included in tonight’s musical trivia quiz, which awarded extra points to every team willing to boogie along to the selected song. But inspired by the indefatigable Maksym, resplendent in a pair of secondhand lederhosen, Jayne and I embraced our inner Meryl Streeps and gave our all to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” We wound up tying for first place - and, in the process, happily expanding our roster of shipboard buddies.

Day 5: Waltzing through Vienna, Austria

While both Jayne and I had visited Austria’s capital before, we appreciated getting a refresher course on Vienna’s illustrious architecture and musical heritage via Viking’s gratis “Panoramic Vienna” excursion. We learned that more Viennese attend concerts than soccer games (we followed their lead by ducking in for a session of free organ music later that afternoon at St. Peter’s church), and that favorite son Johann Strauss was was‪ the Michael Jackson‬ of the 19th century, prompting female fans to faint and/or hyperventilate in his presence.

UNESCO has recognized Vienna’s traditional coffeehouses for their “intangible cultural heritage,” and despite the insidious incursion of Starbucks and WiFi they remain a vital part of a city consistently ranked as the world’s most livable. So after scarfing down miniature, takeout versions of sachertorte, a chocolate and apricot confection made famous (and fought over) by the Hotel Sacher and arch rival Demel, we headed for the venerable Café Hawelka to meet up with British expat Eugene Quinn.

“Viennese are not very good at small talk, but they’re very good at big talk,” explained Quinn, who leads monthly coffeehouse conversations and offbeat city tours (“20 smells you only find in Vienna”) through his non-profit organization Space and Place. The onetime hangouts of such former residents as Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt endure, he says, as antidotes to “atomized online lives.”

That evening, we skipped a Mozart and Strauss concert by the Vienna Residence Orchestra to practice our own conversations at a ship tour to a local heurigen, or wine tavern. The chitchat over glasses of gemischter satz - a blend of white wines, all produced from grapes grown within the city - may have been with fellow Viking passengers, not locals. But the gemütlichkeit, or good cheer, was genuine.

Lesson of the Day: Follow Viking’s expert advice.

After peeling off from our tour to explore Vienna’s Old Quarter and historic Prater amusement park (home to a giant Ferris wheel that played a notable supporting role in Orson Welles' Vienna-based classic film “

Knowing my international cell phone plan included unlimited data, I smugly plugged “Vienna river cruise ship dock” into Google Maps and plotted our return accordingly. Bad move: Though our tour guide had given us exact directions back to the ship, Google deposited us about a half hour farther down the Danube than we needed to be. If only we’d paid attention the first time...and tucked a copy of the ship’s address, always available at the front desk, into our purses before we left the gangway.

Day 6: Bratislava, Slovakia

“The number one thing you need to know: Your First Lady was born in Slovenia, not Slovakia,” announced Ivan, the retired technology consultant ferrying us on a Viking-sponsored home visit to get a glimpse of daily life in this formerly communist, often-confused country that split from what is now the Czech Republic in 1993.

That important bit of information out of the way, we continued on a 40-minute drive from our ship’s dock in the once desolate, now dolled-up capital, Bratislava, admiring views of the forested Carpathian Hills en route to the small town of Modra. In Modra, known for its vineyards and pottery makers, we spent about an hour with our host Slavka in her cozy house, a former ceramics studio tucked between the larger homes of her two adult sons.

And yes, we were reminded, it really is a small world. As they compared photos of Slavka’s grandchildren with their own, my fellow passengers Nancy and Pat, sisters traveling together from Canton, Michigan, learned that one of Ivan’s relatives had emigrated to a town just a few miles from theirs.

We made a dramatic exit from Bratislava by passing under the Soviet-era, aptly nicknamed UFO bridge. Before the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, we were told, locals were prohibited from ascending to the observation deck at the top of the bridge for fear they’d get glimpses of the forbidden West (Vienna is only about 40 miles away).

Today was our final voyage down the Danube before reaching Budapest, and we made the most of it. We waved to swimmers lolling on sandbanks and marveled at the thick groves of poplar trees whose white leaves shimmered in the breeze like freshly fallen snow. Along the Danube Bend, where the river makes a U-shaped curve between two mountain ranges, we passed by the domed cathedral at Esztergom, Hungary’s capital from the 10th through the 13th centuries.

But the best was saved for last. Late that night, under a nearly-full moon, we gathered on the sun deck as the Viking Ullur slid into the “Paris of the East” under brightly Illuminated bridges linking Pest, the commercial side of the city, with Buda, the hilly castle district. And as we made our way past the majestic Parliament Building, I found myself blinking back tears of pure astonishment as a flock of seagulls, drawn by the lights, soared above its spires like falling stars.

Bratislava (via Shutterstock)

Lesson of the Day: Divide to conquer a new destination.

With a short morning stopover in Bratislava, I was sorely tempted to join Jayne on her included walking tour of the compact capital.

But since I’d enjoyed a previous home-hosted visit in St. Petersburg, Russia during Viking’s “Waterways of the Tsars” cruise, we decided to split up and compare notes back on the ship. It was a game plan we’d employed successfully in Linz and Passau, where I savored the organ concert while Jayne climbed 321 steps to the Mariahilf Monastery, across the Inn and Danube rivers, and back up to the 13th century fortress Veste Oberhaus for a bird’s eye view of town.

In retrospect, since my out-of-town home visit precluded a tour of the Old Town, Jayne probably got the better Bratislava but we left with unique perspectives of a city and country that clearly merited a return visit.

Day 7 and 8: Bidding farewell in Budapest

In Budapest, as in several other popular destinations along the Danube, river ships often dock directly alongside each other, temporarily blocking passengers’ views.

But when I woke just before dawn on our last day before departing the Viking Ullur, I had an unimpeded vista of the nearby Art Nouveau Liberty Bridge, the first in the city to be rebuilt after being blown up by retreating German troops at the end of World War II, and of the century-old Gellért baths across the Danube where Jayne and I planned to “take the waters” and toast the end of a successful trip.

Our four-hour overview tour began near our dock on the more modern Pest side. With temperatures climbing steadily and headed for the steamy mid-90s, I was grateful for a drive-by of the Jewish Quarter and its Dohany Street Synagogue (the largest in Europe) and along Andrassy Avenue (Budapest’s version of the Champs-Elysees) to Heroes’ Square. The massive plaza was laid out in 1896 to commemorate Hungary’s thousandth anniversary, and would be a prime venue the following day during Saint Stephens/National Day, a country-wide celebration that we discovered had already started to draw crowds.

Across the river in Buda’s castle district, we visited the 700-year-old Matthias Church where Austria's Franz Josef was crowned king of Hungary in 1867 to the strains of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt's coronation mass, and joined the throngs angling for spectacular views from the turreted Fishermen’s Bastion.

My last stop was a sentimental one. At the cavernous Grand Market Hall, located conveniently close to the ship, I purchased several pungent samples of Hungary’s signature spice, paprika. I hadn’t tested the chicken paprikash recipe passed down by my Hungarian Nagymama (grandmother) in decades - but with the real deal stashed in my backpack, I was inspired to return home and honor her memory.

Lesson of the Day: Be willing to go with the flow.

Skipping a scheduled but too-hot-to-contemplate bike tour wasn’t our only unexpected change as we wrapped up our Danube adventure and yet, we were rewarded for being flexible.

Like many Viking Ullur passengers, we had opted to stay on in Budapest for an extra day. But the prospect of battling holiday crowds nixed our spa session at Gellért. Meanwhile, what I’d hoped would be a moving visit to Shoes on the Danube, a memorial to the thousands of Jews who were shot by Nazis before their bodies were dumped into the river, was overshadowed by a flyover of Hungarian military planes that prompted uncomfortable musings about the country’s right-wing populist leader, Viktor Orban.

Our last supper, however, was free of politics and full of gratitude. We’d arranged to meet in the castle district for an authentic Hungarian meal with new shipboard friends, a Bostonian traveling with her sister- in-law and two daughters, before watching a holiday fireworks display.

We hadn’t even started on our desserts when we heard the opening chorus of booms - but were too happy gabbing to see the show above the river we were already missing.

Award-winning veteran travel reporter and photographer Laura Bly has visited more than 100 countries on seven continents. Following stints at USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, she and her husband are now based in the UNESCO World Heritage city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Her favorite place: a window seat or cruise ship balcony, headed somewhere she’s never been.

Want to learn more about a European River cruise?

We traveled on Europe's most popular rivers -- the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Seine -- and share our stories about our discoveries, both in-port and on-shore, with plenty of tips and insights to help you plan your own voyage. Please join us.

On the Danube River: Two Longtime Pals Make Discoveries About Europe and Friendship

On the Rhine River: Our Culinary, Castle and Cathedral Discoveries Are Just the Beginning

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And don't miss our exclusive new series: Cruise Critic's Ultimate River Cruise Guides. The guides give expert advice on what to do in ports of call when cruising Europe's rivers, from insight on the marquee attractions that are typically featured on included tours to off-the-track discoveries to make on your own.

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