On Wednesday afternoon we arrived in Durnstein, which is as pretty a village as I have seen. Save for a church, a spattering of houses and a couple of pubs, the area is largely made up of neatly arranged, lush green vineyards, aided by the Wachau region’s temperate microclimate. As we sat on a sandy bank of the river (beaches on the Danube – who knew?) and watched the sun go down, a warm, summer glow gave the place a distinctly Mediterranean feel. It’s the sort of town you fall in love with immediately and draw up plans to retire there.
That evening, after sampling the (excellent) fillet steak for the first time, we sat with Antonio, the Scenic Pearl’s excellent barman, who seems to enjoy nothing more than dreaming up cocktails based on ingredients he thinks we’ll like, something he’s remarkably adept at. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away as Vienna awaited in the morning.
We opted to explore the city alone and took the U-Bahn to Stephansplatz, next to St Stephen’s Cathedral, a towering gothic wonder. It was my second time in the city, which, for my money, is one of the world’s most beautiful. It still feels like the political and cultural centre of a mighty empire, a position it held for centuries. It is dominated by grand imperial palaces, strictly maintained royal gardens and apparently endless statues of serious-looking men on horses.
But Vienna isn’t all about the past. Mixed between its monumental baroque masterpieces are striking examples of new architecture, including the ultra-modern central train station and the stone-clad Mumok in the Museum Quarter. Its many student bars, famous coffee houses and excellent restaurant scene make it an exciting and livable city.
We lunched in a gorgeous little restaurant in the Spittelberg district, a cobblestone alley full of ivy-covered Biedermeier buildings, opting for the Wiener Schnitzel, which turned out to be sumptuous but quite enormous.
That evening, after a light dinner, we donned our evening wear and headed to out to enjoy the highlight of the trip so far: a private concert of Viennese classical music at the opulent Palais Lichenstein. In front of just a few hundred guests, a small ensemble expertly made their way through compositions by Mozart, Strauss and Beethoven, at one point aided by majestic ballet dancers. It was a very special evening.
After we returned we set sail for Bratislava. The city sits on the Danube between Vienna and Budapest, two of Europe’s most magnificent capitals, and is often compared to Prague, which it played second fiddle to during the Czechoslovakia years. It’s perhaps why it doesn’t get the billing it deserves. But it’s a great little city, full of winding cobblestone streets and overlooked by a mighty, rebuilt Baroque castle. The Old Town is only small, but is quaint and characterful and well worth a wander, while its new areas, although blighted by some ugly communist buildings, provide a striking contrast with the well-maintained Vienna, which was the other side of the Iron Curtain. One example is the city’s stunning Blue Church, built in Hungarian Secessionist style, quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, which is nestled between derelict high-rises, but a stone’s throw from pretty, tree-lined streets.
That evening we were joined by the captain for farewell cocktails, but the stop we were most exciting for was still to come: Budapest.
To read the last instalment of Anthony’s Scenic Adventure click here