Anthony Pearce joins luxury line Scenic on an eight-day Passau to Budapest Danube river cruise
As I watch the pretty, red-roofed Bavarian houses, ancient fortresses and dense, emerald green forests that line the Danube glide by from the top deck of the Scenic Pearl a thought occurs to me that has probably occurred to every river cruise passenger: there can’t be a better way to see Europe.
We’re here for an eight-day Passau to Budapest sailing on one of the cruise line’s luxurious Space-Ships, and it doesn’t take long on board – and in the company of its excellent staff – to work out why the river cruise market is in such rude health. You often hear about ocean cruise passengers moving across to river – and while this makes a lot of sense – I struggle to think of anyone, whether they have cruised or not, who wouldn’t enjoy this experience.
While luxury river cruises are by no means cheap, what is included is remarkable: not only are you being transported by a floating five-star hotel to some of Europe’s most incredible destinations, but all food, drink, excursions and even a butler are included in the price.
Having arrived in Munich after an early morning flight from Heathrow, my partner Peggy and I jump on a coach, provided by Scenic, that offers increasingly impressive views as we head toward the Danube, where we join the Pearl just outside of Passau. We are greeted with cocktails by smiling staff who welcome us “home” and, before long, we’re sat down to dinner, a simple but tasty buffet, an intentionally informal beginning to help ease jet lagged guests into the holiday.
Our room for the next week is a beautiful balcony suite, with a window that slides down at the push of a button. That evening, after a few cocktails at the ship’s excellently stocked bar, we turn in early. Having opted for a wake up call, a knock comes at our door at 8am the next morning, our ever-helpful butler, Ilona, presenting us with tea and coffee.
The first day is spent in Passau, a picturesque, classically Bavarian city found on the confluence of the three rivers, the Danube, Inn and Ilz. From leaving the breakfast table to arriving in the centre of Passau takes a matter of moments – one of river cruise’s key advantage: there are no tenders or long bus transfers to get from the port.
That evening, as we’re treated to a German-themed feast and some excellent Bavarian beer (our poor waiters are made to don lederhosen) we sail for the first time – across the Austrian border to Linz. The city makes an immediate impression with its futuristic Ars Electronica Center, sat on the northern bank of the Danube, projecting its strange but hypnotic light display across the river. It stands in stark contrast to the city’s largely medieval and neo-classical architecture, and certainly divides opinion. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool.
That night we decide to have a quick explore of the city, the third largest in Austria, boosted in size by its considerable student population. We were told that because of the university, the city is “full of dive bars”, and were not disappointed. With the ship docked so close to the centre of town, we were able to pop out and grab a beer in a typically smoky, low-lit bar before heading back to get some sleep.
It was a nice opportunity to see a port of call we’d otherwise have missed, because, on Tuesday morning, after just about catching the late-riser breakfast, we jump on a coach for a shore excursion to Cesky Krumlov, a quite perfect small city across the border in the Czech Republic. The journey to Bohemia was a joy: we passed seemingly endless forests of pine trees, broken up by gorgeous, rolling green hills, sleepy settlements and through a disused, eerie border control station, a relic of the Cold War era.
The city, founded around an arch in the Vltava River, is watched over by an imposing baroque castle, and paved with cobblestones and, to invoke a cliché, is like a fairytale. Subject to a mighty restoration project after years of disrepair behind the Iron Curtain, the city feels unusually both old and new, almost like a model village. It’s not as large or as lived in as Prague, but it certainly rivals it for beauty (and only the country’s capital attracts more tourists).
That evening, we enjoy our best meal so far, in Scenic Pearl’s excellent Portbellos, a separate area from the Pearl Lounge which is found at the front of the ship. I choose a Ligurain-style stuffed veal loin and risotto main, part of an incredible seven-course menu that includes mozzarella and prosciutto, minestrone soup, and a stunning porcini tortellagi on a truffle-flavoured tomato coulis.
The next morning, we embark on a short visit to the Benedictine Melk Abbey, an incredible baroque structure high above the Danube. Still a working monastery and school, the building is home to just 30 monks today and houses a gorgeous library of some 100,000 volumes. After a leisurely stroll back to the ship, we set off towards Dürnstein. Sat on the (admittedly windy) sun deck we watched as the ship weaved through the Wachau Valley, its entrance marked by a precariously poised castle on a jutting piece of rock. With its sprawling woodlands, pretty villages and carefully arranged vineyards, it was not just the highlight of the trip so far, but one of the most incredible parts of Europe I’ve ever been to.
Dürnstein itself is as pretty a village as I have seen. Save for a church, a handful 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.
It’s particularly enjoyable because of what you know is coming next: three bustling capital cities, beginning with Vienna. We opt to explore the city alone, rather than take a shore excursion, so take 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 schnitznel, 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.
On return to the ship we sit 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.
The following day is the turn of Bratislava, the Slovakian capital that sits on the Danube between Vienna and Budapest, two of Europe’s most magnificent capitals. Often compared to these and Prague – which it played second fiddle to during the Czechoslovakia years – it doesn’t get the billing it deserves. It’s a great little city, full of winding cobblestone streets and overlooked by a mighty, rebuilt 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.
Of all the destinations we visited on Scenic’s Iconic Danube itinerary, Budapest is the most perfect for a river cruise. It’s a city defined and divided by its waterway, having started life as three cities: Buda and Obuda to the west of the Danube and Pest to the east, becoming Budapest in 1873. Unlike Vienna and Bratislava, many its most famous landmarks line both sides of the river. We arrive on Sunday morning, the final day of the cruise, greeted by grey skies and lashing rain – but the most spectacular of views. Scenic has acquired itself best parking space in the city: directly opposite the gothic revival Hungarian Parliament, easily one of Europe’s most impressive buildings. So good is the view, in fact, we were told that tourists regularly request (and are denied) temporary access to the ship so they can get a sneaky picture of the parliament from it.
We had been looking forward to Budapest more than any other stop, and the city didn’t disappoint – and, of course, neither did Scenic. In fact, our day in the Hungarian capital reinforced everything we’d come to love about life on board Scenic Pearl. From the quite magnificent docking point, to our shore excursion to one of the city’s thermal baths, the evening meal and night cruise up and down the river, the day was perfectly planned and executed.
The Szechenyi Medicinal Bath is remarkable. Sourced from two thermal springs, its 18 pools are housed in a gorgeous 103-year-old neo-baroque complex, along with saunas, a gym, massage rooms, a café and more. Its two largest pools are outside and set at temperatures of 34c and 38c, so, on a cold day, you can see the steam rising high. Within moments of stepping in, I feel relaxed, refreshed and re-energised – you can understand why the city’s doctors prescribe the facility as a treatment for any number of ailments.
When we finished, a mini-bus ordered by Scenic was waiting for us and took us back to the ship, where other guests were arriving from different shore excursions, with lunch due to start in five minutes. It’s something that we’d got very used to over the last week: everything on Scenic is timed to perfection. It’s a faster-paced holiday than an ocean cruise – with a busy schedule on each of its six full days – but was still relaxing because of the way it was managed.
The staff are incredibly diligent and helpful: if you want something that’s not on the menu, a query answering about a port of call or a problem resolving, there’s always someone to ask and a resolution within moments. Of course, knowing that, because Scenic is all-inclusive, you don’t ever have to worry about extra costs (entry to the Szechenyi Baths, for example, or that second or third cocktail), means you can sit back, enjoy your holiday and overindulge as much as you like.
We had planned to sample some of the city’s famous nightlife, but didn’t want to miss what Scenic had in store for us that evening: a night cruise through Budapest, departing just as we sat down to dinner. If the city is beautiful by day, it’s breathtaking by night. With its bridges, art noveau buildings and Buda castle all lit up so majestically, we braved the cold and headed up to the pitch-black sun deck at about 10pm. After we docked again, we took residence at our usual spot at the bar, the glow of the Hungarian capital shimmering on the water outside the ship. A fitting end to a truly special week.