For two weeks in October we cruised with Viking from Amsterdam to Budapest, going through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, on the great rivers of Europe, the Rhine, the Main and the Danube. The ship was the Viking Lif, one ... Read More
For two weeks in October we cruised with Viking from Amsterdam to Budapest, going through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, on the great rivers of Europe, the Rhine, the Main and the Danube. The ship was the Viking Lif, one of their new “long boats” almost 500 feet long, 38 feet wide and carrying 192 passengers (we had 187), plus crew.
The food on the Lif was exceptionally good, with many choices, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Although we sometimes ate ashore for our own enjoyment, we were never disappointed when we ate on the boat. And at mealtimes the wine flowed freely from Erhard MÅrwald’s vineyard in the Wachau Valley of Austria.
Every evening we received the Viking Daily with the schedule for the next day, times for meals, times for tours, docking hours, notes on the next port of call, suggestions for sightseeing and other interesting tidbits. There was some form of entertainment every evening and sometimes a lecture or demonstration in the morning or afternoon depending on docking schedules. One of the most interesting was a glass blowing demonstration by a glass blower from Wertheim, Germany who spends a few months each year with Chihuly in the United States.
A tour of each stop was included in the cruise itinerary and there were several optional tours offered. The tour guides were excellent English speakers and we invariably learned something we hadn’t known before, even in ports like Vienna where we had been previously. In towns like Miltenberg, Germany, a delightful village of old half-timbered houses and Germany’s oldest Inn, with a castle perched above and cobbled streets below, the amount of time allowed for the tour and for free wandering was just right. In the big cities like Amsterdam, Cologne, Wurzburg, Vienna, and Budapest there was enough time to absorb the atmosphere and the differences between each. The smaller towns, like Miltenberg, Bamberg, Regensburg, Passau, Melk and Krems, each had its own character and history. The effects of the destruction of World War II were visible only in that new buildings filled spaces between old, well-preserved architectures. It was unusual to find a town like Miltenberg that completely escaped destruction.
The construction of the Main-Danube Canal, which allows through river traffic to begin at the Atlantic Ocean, down the Rhine, across the Main and through the Canal to the Danube, up and over the “continental divide” of Europe where the rivers on one side flow to the North Sea and the Atlantic, and those on the other flow to the Black Sea, was completed in 1992. The canal runs from Bamberg via Nuremberg to Kelheim, a total of 106 miles with 16 locks, three of which are 80 feet deep and lift a boat to an altitude of 1332 feet above sea level, the highest in the world a water craft can go at this time.
Traveling this route confronts one with a lot of Baroque architecture, of which the Monastery of Melk is a grand example as is St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Passau where we enjoyed an organ concert played on Europe’s largest pipe organ. Actually here are five organs that can be played from one consul. The Bach rocked the church, but the more modern piece composed by a former organist of the Cathedral really made the Baroque rafters ring. Another great example of the Baroque was the Residenz of the Prince-Bishop of WÅ±rtzburg with its grand ceiling fresco painted by Tiepolo in 1750.
Besides Baroque there was also a lot of Gothic (the Cathedral at Cologne, the Marksburg Castle), a lot of Roman ruins (excavation partly encouraged by WWII destruction – the Romish-Germanisches Museum in Cologne is magnificent), and Medieval and Romanesque architecture (the city and cathedral of Bamberg and the town of Regensburg which claims to have been founded in 179 A.D., as well as the village of Miltenberg). The history and culture of Europe from the Romans to the Nazis were a vivid presence.
The boat docked in Bratislava, Slovakia and we were able to see the effects of the long reign of Communism on that small country. Graffiti is a problem. Even our guide, who clearly loved her city, complained that there was no way to control the growing plague of graffiti covered monuments. The symbol of Slovakia, the massive square castle on the hill above the town, is realty only a façade, since the country cannot afford to restore and reconstruct the interior.
Coming onto Budapest at night was one of the most astonishing events of the cruise. The whole city was lit up, the bridges, the churches, the Parliament, the castle, all were draped in shimmering lights. It was a fairy land and the boat sailed down the Danube through the city, then turned around and sailed back to the Chain Bridge where we docked. All who were on deck were offered a glass of Tokay to celebrate our triumphant and spectacular entry into our final port of call.
The service from all the crew members was outstanding, whether they came from Ukraine, Serbia, Philippines, Bulgaria or elsewhere. They were invariably cheerful, helpful and happy to serve. I asked one of the receptionists if Viking gave them any kind of training and she claimed not, that it was strictly on the job training, which certainly speaks well of our Hotel Manager, Alexander Kuba. The program director, Colin Watson, was always on hand, friendly, helpful, and incredibly well-organized. The few glitches that occurred, such as the boat not arriving exactly on schedule to meet the busses, were handled with the pleasure of the passengers always uppermost in their consideration. For example, at the place where the Captain was negotiating the low water in the Danube, most of the passengers were ashore, visiting Regensburg and then were bussed to Deggensdorf to meet the boat. But the boat was an hour late, so the passengers were given carte blanche to go into town and do whatever they chose. It being dinner time, we headed to the first biergarten we found, ordered wine and dinner, sharing a veal Carpaccio with arugula appetizer and a wild mushroom and cream sauced dumpling that was so delicious it became the most memorable meal of the trip. Our tab was forty-two Euros and, with the receipt turned in, we later received the exact amount in cash back from the ship.
When we reached Budapest we had traveled a total of approximately 1120 miles through 68 locks with twelve ports of call -- actually thirteen because of the unscheduled pick-up at Deggensdorf.
Viking is clearly doing many things right. The effect may be a bit formulaic, but if the formula works, one knows what to count on. They are investing in new ocean going boats, they have their own busses at many of the stops, they handle the change-overs of passengers with minimal difficulties or confusions. The ports of call are interesting and varied and the cruising is as pleasant as possible. The fact that they encourage one to bring wine or beer aboard for one’s own dinner, even though it is provided on the ship helps the local economies and probably earns them great rewards from local officials. There is plenty of time for shopping, solo sightseeing and relaxed cruising. Our only complaint after two weeks aboard was that the Wi-Fi was sketchy and hard to achieve – perhaps they need larger antennas. But that was a small caveat, considering the elegant management of almost 200 people for two weeks.