The Danube flows through four capital cities – more than any other waterway in the world. Sam Ballard joins Viking Jarl from Nuremburg to Budapest, taking in coffee and classical music
As we snake our way through cobbled streets past creaking wooden houses in a chocolate box German town, it seems obvious why the Danube is more popular now than it’s ever been.
The region is renowned for its history, culture and great wine – crucial components for the success of any river cruise. However, add to this the fact that the Danube is often sold as the ultimate city break – it goes through four capital cities, more than any other waterway in the world – and its case for a place at the top of the pile becomes even more evident.
According to Clia’s most recent statistics, the number of Brits choosing to take a cruise on Europe’s famous river has almost trebled since 2012 and is now just behind the Rhine/Moselle. For a holiday so long seen as too sedate to reach mainstream popularity – it seems that attitudes are finally changing.
Our trip along the Danube will see us travel between Nuremberg and Budapest, passing from Germany through Austria, Slovakia (although without stopping) and then on to Hungary. We are guests of Viking Cruises on board one of their famed long-ships, the Viking Jarl.
The journey begins in Nuremberg, a city made famous for both its medieval history and affiliation with the Nazi party. From 1923 to 1938, Adolf Hitler used the city to host the party’s annual rallies: huge military propaganda events, made up of hundreds of thousands of Nazi party members. It’s one of the reasons the subsequent war trials were held in a Nuremberg courthouse.
We are driven through the city and see some of what Hitler’s plans entailed – including an unfinished Congress Hall modelled on the Colosseum in Rome. It is the largest preserved Nazi monumental building and is so big that our coach drives right into the centre of it.
During our tour, we are given the opportunity to explore the Imperial Castle, which is almost 1,000 years old. The city was an important seat of power for the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and its fortifications were so well built that it was virtually impenetrable.
Nuremberg is an incredibly atmospheric city. The old town is full of wooden buildings that are seemingly leaning into one another. Like much of the area around this part of Europe, part of the appeal is just meandering through the ancient alleyways and soaking up the history.
The following day sees us sail into Regensburg and we set out to eat in the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen – one of the oldest restaurants in Germany. It sits next to the city’s famous stone bridge, which was built in the 12th century. Legend has it that the restaurant was originally opened to feed the workers building the bridge itself, 800 years ago. The tiny restaurant (which can only seat about 35 people) also knocks out bratwurst butties – that come with a healthy dollop of mustard and a heap of sauerkraut for good measure. The only thing that would make it more Germanic would be if the frau that was serving us was wearing a dirndl.
It helps that, throughout our cruise down the Danube, Viking moors in some of the best spots that the towns and cities we call at have to offer. In Regensburg, we are able to head out on the included tour around the city in the morning, sneak in some pre-lunch bratwurst, walk back to the ship to eat our lunch and then go out under our own steam and grab some chocolates in Cafe Prinzess – which has counters bursting with pralines and caramels. It’s easy to see why people put on so much weight when they’re on a cruise.
On board the Jarl we are treated to delicious local wines and cheeses and a special Bavarian-themed night with pretzels, cured meats and pilsner. The staff are extremely accommodating, ferrying desserts back and forth for passengers who insist on not walking up to the buffet counter.
Over the next few days we sail through the beautiful Wachau Valley, which is one of the most picturesque spots on the entire river. The lush green banks rise steeply on each side of the Danube, dotted with gothic castles and fortresses. There are plenty of vineyards here too, producing Riesling as well as a number of other varieties.
In Krems we tour Göttweig Abbey where monks have lived and worked since 1083. They are renowned for cultivating apricots, and have an entire orchard dedicated to producing their own schnapps. From the monastery’s high vantage point you can see for miles throughout the glorious region, much of which is
a Unesco World Heritage site.
The last two calls on our cruise down the Danube are the ones I’ve been looking forward to most of all: Vienna and Budapest.
The Austrian capital is magnificent. We choose to take one of Viking’s optional tours and watch a classical concert dedicated to two of the city’s most famous residents: Mozart and Strauss. The evening showcases Vienna’s musical heritage in a way that few other cities can contend with as we’re serenaded with the likes of Blue Danube and Requiem.
We enjoy a drink in the beautiful Palmenhaus (a grand greenhouse that has been converted into a restaurant) and grab a bratwurst at Bitzinger – a permanent stand that has become something of an institution in the city. Vienna is also known for its coffee houses and we spend a bit of time in the moody Café Hawelka – so dark inside that it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. Coffee here is served Viennese style – strong with a small glass of water on the side.
The palaces and grandeur of one of Europe’s wealthiest cities – overseen by one of the most influential royal families of all time, the House of Habsburg – are an interesting contrast to Budapest. With plenty of hangovers from the communist era, the city is far rawer than Vienna. From the ruin bars and restaurants – that have overtaken some of the city’s crumbling buildings – to the Gellért thermal baths, which look more like an ancient museum than a swimming pool.
Budapest is actually split in two – with Buda on the western bank of the Danube and Pest on the east. It is Buda that includes many of the historical sites of the city, but Pest where most of the fun is to be found.
We walk around Buda Castle, which has unbelievable views of the entire city – including the magnificent Hungarian Parliament – from Fisherman’s Bastion and drive over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. The Jarl is moored just under the bridge itself and that night we dine on the ship’s Aquavit Terrace – and enjoy our meal from the best seats in town.
Our experience on the Danube has been nothing short of brilliant. We’ve eaten some of Europe’s finest delicacies, both on and off the ship. Our floating hotel has proved the perfect base for our week-long adventure. Although a diet is now long overdue…
We opted to extend our time in Budapest by a few days with a stay in the luxurious Corinthia Budapest. The palatial property, which first opened in 1986 as the Grand Hotel Royal, is in the heart of the Pest – close to restaurants like Mazel Tov, which is a favourite with hip locals and just down the road from the New York Café – voted the most beautiful café in the world. Be sure to check out the Corinthia’s pool area, too, which feels like its own version of the Gellért Baths.