Rather than review the destinations that Viking River Cruise took my wife and I (and extended family) on the Danube River cruise from Passau to Budapest venture July 12-19 2015, I am going to review Viking itself with the destinations ... Read More
Rather than review the destinations that Viking River Cruise took my wife and I (and extended family) on the Danube River cruise from Passau to Budapest venture July 12-19 2015, I am going to review Viking itself with the destinations becoming necessary ingredients of the story.
This is not a bullet-point review. It is longer than my usual, but it is the kind of review for which I was searching during the consideration process.
My motivation is simple. The hidden jewel of Durnstein where Richard the Lionhearted was detained or the surprise fascination with Melk or the young, brilliant, and personable PhD tour guide we encountered at Bratislava where Jews were ‘punished more humanely’ by the Soviets after the Holocaust (and not to mention the more notable high points of Vienna, Salzburg, or Budapest) are testaments but merely components to Viking’s excellent experience.
Viking is not a typical experience. Cruise reviews often talk about sites which are important but don’t generally venture into interactions with people along the way. While most reviews were reasoned and rational, some were petty bordering on perfunctory, superficial, or trivial. If you are trying to decide whether to spend a few thousand dollars then one is helped by context rather than clever, trite, bravado, obvious, or superficial.
In the six months or so from our reservation of this cruise to boarding the Viking Prestige, my wife’s abundant historical knowledge and that of our extended family and my political focus acquired prior to the reservation left us both unprepared for the emotional impact of walking the paths of Romans before us; standing where the Soviets rolled their tanks to suppress Eastern Europeans; engaging wait staff on the Viking Prestige from war torn and embattled areas like Serbia and Croatia among others; or encountering through an interpreter for the captain of the vessel who was a child in the first battle of the cold war at which Hungary was introduced to Soviet oppression in 1956 sending a signal that endured until an eastern European Polish Pope and a U.S. President conspired to change history so recently – revisionist history of the role of Gorbachev discounted to its proper, inconsequential, and non-discretionary-in-reality determination.
As citizens of the U.S.A., we have lived privileged, insulated lives; relatively few as a percentage of our population have paid the ultimate price for what we enjoy and take for granted as a nation guarded by two oceans and a docile northern neighbor; and, Viking, if you are prepared, becomes more than a vacation; it is an opportunity to grow as a person.
It is an opportunity to sense a vastly different history in so many ways that extends for centuries of continuum.
So, should a couple or an extended family take a Viking cruise? I cannot answer that question for you. I can answer questions with candor which hopefully will help you decide your own answer to that question. My family did not make a mistake in spending the dollars for this venture into history.
There are basics; there is competence; and then, there are intangibles. Let’s explore all three with the following points based upon the reality of the crew that guided us down the Danube from July 12 to July 19 from Passau to Budapest.
THE BASICS & COMPETENCE:
• Viking Cruises are not organized to help you earn doctorates in European history based upon a day’s visit to Vienna, Salzburg, Budapest or stops in between or whatever cruise trip one might select. You will profit from a Viking cruise directly in proportion to what you are prepared by your advanced study or your commitment to study after it is over. Viking gives you access to history and the places you have read about in textbooks, literature, and just being a citizen of the world. In a perfect world full of money and endless vacations, one would take a Viking cruise one way and return on your own when that was finished. Between the two options, a guided tour made the most sense given money and time. Because I get to hang around with my wife and her really brilliant extended family, I may have gotten more out of it than some with slightly less effort. Make the effort in advance and you will get huge dividends while you are there.
• We did the Passau to Budapest cruise. The organization and implementation from the moment we stepped on board to the moment we left a week later was basically flawless. We had a Hungarian captain who seemed like he was out of central casting; a German hotel and on-ship operations manager who gave new meaning to efficiency with a really pleasant demeanor and extraordinary attention to details; an American program director who was funny, witty, a classical trained violinist who was prompted to show off his skills, and who was omnipresent on river and land. We had wait staff of mostly young Eastern European men out of war-torn arenas some of who had visited the United States and all of whom would engage in conversation when they were not working so hard. We had a Hungarian pianist and singer whose delightful accent made his Tom Jones and country music renditions wonderful and memorable. It is our working assumption that quality control in the Viking corporation is pretty rigorous, but we believe that it would be hard to find a better on-board management group than Captain Geza, Hotel Manager Roy, and Program Director Anthony, Chef Andras, and Maitre d’ Vladimir. (They primarily used their first names so we won’t use their last ones here). No matter what cruise you might be considering, if management is equivalent to the Viking Prestige, you will be in good hands.
• FOOD: I am a Texan who likes burgers, chicken wings, and Tex-Mex, and even frozen dinners of pre-packaged Salisbury steak on occasion. In the 8 days I was aboard the Viking Prestige, I never encountered a meal from breakfast to dinner that was less than perfect and many were outside my culinary experience. After a week on Viking, I may be qualified to be a judge on one of those Food Network competitions. Some of the food would find comfort in Texas and some would need the Hubble telescope to even see ‘my interpretation’ of Texas. It was wonderful and different, and yes, my wife is a darned good cook. No complaints.
THE INTANGIBLES and PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS:
• I am a journalist and public policy guy by training. When we were first told that our Hungarian captain was not allowed to learn English, it crystalized that he almost certainly was a child when the Soviets rolled the tanks into Hungary in 1956. One of my earlier high school history papers was about that invasion. Through interpretation by Operations Manager Roy, I was able to ask a couple of questions. That is what I call a wonderful experience that gave meaning to my “A” paper of decades ago by personalizing it in reality.
• At Bratislava, our tour guide was a 31-year old young man who was had earned his doctorate in economics at his local university. He had traveled extensively in the United States and he could bring the history of his current academic life and the Soviet experience of his homeland to life. When I observed his brilliant commentary and natural eloquence, I thought of my own children and brilliant nephews and could not help but wonder where this kid is going to be in 10 years: at the top of the world is where I hope. That is an intangible opportunity. If he wants it, Viking should find a place for this young man in their organization.
• Durnstein was one of those brief stops along the way but it became sort of a hidden jewel of three hours or so. Having lost a lot of weight over the past year, it was a pure joy to kind of ‘power’ walk up the very steep path to the castle ruins where Richard the Lionhearted awaited his ransom. Along the way up and back down, I got the full history lesson of that intriguing period from my wife.
• We would have never thought in advance that of the glamorous destinations of the cruise, that village of Melk would prove so intriguing. A small village at the top of which sat a 900-year old Abbey that added so much to the overall experience. Most importantly, Melk was a souvenir stop for grandchildren along the way.
• I have learned over the years that the ‘bar’ and the bartender are great for conversation. One still very young man from an Eastern European, war-torn country of the not too distant past had spent time working a cruise line out of Galveston, Texas adjacent to Houston and said one of his favorite places was Baybrook Mall off the Gulf Freeway near NASA. I can understand that, and if he ever gets back to Texas as invited, the ‘cabin’ and drinks will be on us.
• “The Shoes” of Budapest along the Danube River is one of those so very simple in concept but profound in meaning memorials much like our country’s Vietnam Wall. Empty pairs of shoes stretched along the river representing the fate of Hungarian Jews symbolizing where their men, women, and children were lined up; shot dead; and dumped into the Danube.
There were many of these personalized situations that make the Viking Cruise an opportunity to be worth much more than the one spends in dollars and add so much to the opportunity to visit the more glitzy, glamorous, and publicized destinations like Salzburg, Vienna, Passau, and Budapest – all extraordinary. The staff and people along the way will engage you, and when you do that you have made your trip even more valuable.
The cruise offered so much:
• The extraordinarily beautiful city of Vienna: how could there be so many grand buildings in such a relatively small area? From the river port, Vienna actually looked like a small version of just another city with its high-rise structures. Venture into the city, and it was a truly remarkable transformation from that docking view. Who could pass up an opera and concert in Vienna? We couldn’t.
• Salzburg, in addition to its majesty, vibrant tourist economy, and extraordinary history (Mozart was born there) will now and forever be known to me as the city that needs more public restrooms and to stop hiding the ones it does have. Once again, it was a bartender to whom I turned as a man in distress. Detecting a Texas accent, he asked about the San Antonio River Walk which he had visited. We discussed; shook hands; and I got to use a restroom without paying 50-cents (euros actually). Always make friends with bartenders wherever you travel, and always have those 50-cent equivalent coins – especially if you are a woman whom the world seems united in discriminating against when it comes to ‘water closets.’
• Viking’s on-board educational forums and special entertainment provided by musicians from the stops along the way added so much to the overall experience. TV channels were limited in the rooms but who in the world cares beyond having access to breaking news such as impending asteroid strikes?
• The Viking Prestige view coming into Budapest was extraordinary – a beautiful skyline of grandiose buildings, lights, and bridges. In some sense Hungary was one of the first battles of the Cold War; it was brutally possessed. With all that history, here we are just metaphorical ‘seconds’ away from that history in a city where the signs of freedom and competition and commerce are omnipresent. Hop-On-and-Hop-Off buses carrying tourists through a remarkable city drive within yards by the ‘shoes memorial’ which so dramatically symbolizes a different universe, a different world not so long ago
Is the Viking Cruise worth it? It is in every way. Viking’s professionals will do their part almost with perfection from the time they say hello to when you say good-bye. But it is up to you to do your part as well. Read Less