As a traveler, my style is usually closer to the backpacking, hitchhiking, finding the closest hostel to the nightlife end of the travel spectrum, a position I always thought was the furthest point possible from the “Cruise” type of traveler. Not to disparage cruises or their customers, but the idea of the cruise evokes in me (and probably other fans of David Foster Wallace) images of shore trips to third world beaches where wealthy retirees haggle with orphans over dollar trinkets. So when my parents told me over Skype that they were going on a river cruise of the Danube river, and asked me to come along (since I was already in Europe and I hadn’t seen them in awhile) my initial reaction was negative.
“Why don’t you just tell me where it starts or ends, and I can meet you there?”
“Just look at the site,” my mom said.
So I did browse Viking River Cruises reviews
. And after looking at it, and realizing that Austria, Slovakia and Hungary were places I had never been, and that eight days relaxing and being pampered on a riverboat (I couldn’t help but imagine Mississippi gambling steamboats) could be just the thing I needed to recharge and get my traveling mojo back. Plus, when was I ever going to go on a river cruise in Europe again? So after thinking it over and looking at the sad state of hungover and dirty humanity in my hostel room, I said yes. I would meet them in Passau Germany, East of Munich, and take part in “The Danube Waltz” which would be my first ever . On a river. With my parents.
The company we went with is called Viking River Cruises. Right off the bat, I could tell these people were professionals. After arriving in Passau by bus I managed to find the dock where the ship was (right in the middle of the city. This was a requiring theme. No ferry boats or industrial shipyards for us.) Of course, because my parents don’t have cell phones in Europe, I couldn’t find them. I admit I felt a little silly as a man in his mid twenties with a two week stubble on his chin wandering through a crowd of retirees looking for my parents like a child lost in a department store. Eventually I found them, and my room, and after all of the hugs, hellos, and the usual concerns about my eating habits, we decided to skip the guided tour and go for a stroll around Passau before dinner. Dinner was amazing by the way, especially for someone like me who had been surviving with the help of street vendors, Five courses, gourmet, with all sorts of local touches thrown in. There were also ninja like waiters and bussers who were ready to clear plates and pour wine the minute you put down your fork or emptied your glass. That night I fell asleep, travel weary, full and buzzed on German wine, thinking maybe this was the way to travel.
The next day we joined a tour of Passau with a remarkably friendly tour guide who may or may not have instant recall (he heard each name once, then never forgot them.) We saw a 13th century fortress and the most incredible organ concert at St. Stephen’s cathedral. (Turns out, it is possible to rock out on a pipe organ.) We went back, had another incredible meal, then we split so I could go find some younger nightlife while the rents explored on foot. Again, I returned buzzed, happy and content as the river began to drift by. We were off.
I should mention the rooms. When I think cruise I think tiny little closets, barely big enough for a bed, and a single lonely porthole to look out of. Because this is a river cruise, (no threat of sudden hurricanes) and not a huge boat (our boat was the Viking Legend, which carries 189 guests) the rooms are spacious and have floor to ceiling windows. Another great thing about the river cruise is you can sit on the deck and watch the surroundings float by, something that’s not really practical on the ocean.
The next day we saw Salzburg, which may be the music capital of the world, given that it was the location of The Sound of Music and Mozart’s birthplace. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site for a reason. Another amazing dinner on board, more happy sleep (I already decided this trip might ruin sleeping in hostels for me) and the next day we saw Melk and Durnstein, two more amazing Austrian cities. I could go into detail about the 900 year old Abbey we saw in Melk, but really, it’s a 900 year old Abbey. Of course it’s amazing. Somewhere in there I took in a free glass blowing demonstration arranged by the staff.
On the fifth day we made it to Vienna, which is a place so beautiful I felt like I somehow wandered into a calendar. In the evening we took a tour to Schönbrunn Palace, the Versailles of Vienna. They had the world’s oldest zoo there and I believe that place is the new record holder for the number of times “honey, look at that!” has been elicited from my mother, shattering the old record that has stood since we went on college tours together.
Day six saw us passing into Slovakia, and its capital Bratislava. More medieval ruins left and right, a cathedral, and museums for every possible interest. Finally, on to Hungary and Budapest, (which actually has two sides, a “Buda” and a “Pest.”). We had a traditional Hungarian farewell dinner (a meal which I will dream about for years to come) before disembarking the next day.
All in all it was an amazing time. Turns out getting pampered is pretty nice, and as someone who avoids things too “touristy” I found that Viking River Cruises knows how to toe the line between complete hands on micromanagement of your experience (which a lot of people like) and letting you explore at your own pace. And as much as you may like laying out on a cruise ship deck, or a tropical beach, there is simply nothing as relaxing as floating down a river, watching medieval Europe slowly roll by.