Aida Austin explores the Baroque heritage and scenic landscape of central Europe with a luxurious river cruise on the Danube.
So here I am, on board the cruise ship S.S. Maria Theresa at 11 in the morning, ensconced in a velvet sofa with a glass of champagne and a posh chocolate truffle.It’s all a bit overwhelming and it’s not just the champagne — I’ve only had a thimbleful.
This ship is totally and completely off-its-box baroque; like the result of a think-tank on luxury supervised by Elton John, Liberace and a shepherd who’s always lived in a field, only just this second found out he’s won the Lotto and working through a fantasy of his future comforts.
I can’t count the mirrors or candelabra and as for cornicing — I think Liberace must have brought along The Illustrated Glossary of Classical Architecture and Elton said, “yes! Let’s just use everything!” So that’s the inside of this floating boutique hotel: fabulously, opulently lush — and I haven’t even seen my sleeping quarters yet.
As for outside: on one side of the ship beyond the wrap-around windows, the wide waters of the Danube glitter. Not blue, like Strauss said but a lovely, soft dove-grey... or the palest peppermint. I can’t decide. It depends on the light.
We’re moored on the Pest side of Budapest, near the pretty Liberty Bridge, which connects both sides of the city. Looking across the water towards Buda is properly thrilling; the UNESCO World Heritage-listed embankment is lined with graceful, etiolated buildings above which rise the majestic domes of the Royal Castle.
On the Pest side, trams zip up and down Fovam Square, where Budapest’s oldest indoor food market is situated: Nagyvásárcsarnok, with its vast neo-gothic gates and roof covered in jolly Zsolnay porcelain tiles.
Lunch is served on board in the aptly named Baroque Restaurant at midday, but guests are free to venture out for a couple of hours to sample local cuisine if they prefer, after which we will be shown to our staterooms (that’s bedrooms to you and me).
We’re only here for one night; tomorrow, when darkness falls, Maria Theresa will begin her voyage down the Danube through Slovakia, Austria and onto Pasau in Germany.
Budapest beckons. I venture out into its pretty cobbled heart.
One bowl of tasty paprika goulash and a brief potter later, I’m back on board the Maria Theresa; I think I’m going to have trouble dragging myself away from these velvet chairs.
Marko, my stateroom steward, shows me to my sleeping quarters.
Now. Here’s the thing: I fervently wish I could allot more than a paragraph to describing the bed. I understand of course, that if The Examiner sends you on a luxury river cruise which traverses Hungary, Slovakia and Austria, you can’t come back and simply write up the bed.
But part of me wishes I could. Sadly, I have to make do with a measly paragraph. I’d better make it count.
So here goes: the beds on the Maria Theresa are English Savoir beds. The company is best known for creating the Savoy bed, first made in 1902 for the Savoy Hotel in London. Each bed is handcrafted and box-sprung.The luxury mattresses are made from natural materials — curled horsetail, cashmere, lambswool and cotton.
If you are a millionaire, get one. If you’re not, save up. It’s like sleeping on a cloud.
My stateroom (with 24 hour complimentary room-service) has a ceiling-to-floor view of the Danube plus a gleaming en-suite bathroom, complete with L’Occitane and Hermes bath products. I discover a bathrobe which, when I put it on, feels astonishingly — and I mean astonishingly — like the gentle embrace of a loved one. Much like the bedlinen (Egyptian cotton; twenty million threadcount). If I thought I was going to have trouble dragging myself away from the velvet chairs, I’m in serious trouble with the bed.
But even forgetting the bed for a second (which I can’t) I can see why guests say that it’s staying aboard rather than venturing out that gives the greatest pleasure, what with the chic spa, indoor swimming pool, masseuse, wellness coach and all-inclusive food and drinks (including cocktails).
However, early the next morning, I’m onshore- riding the subway to a bustling market in downtown Ujbuda Kozpont, where I sample delicious pickled garlic (which feels just as weird at ten-thirty in the morning as drinking champagne did at eleven).
I’ve opted for the “Do as The Locals Do” guided walking tour which, after reflecting that Hungary is a right-hand driving country, I reckoned was a safer bet than the “Go Active Budapest Bike Tour.”
Honestly, I don’t take to being guided straight away (it makes me feel like I did as a 12-year-old when my mum told me to hold her hand crossing the road) but I soon get over that and once I manage to work out how to get the audio headset to link me with the guide’s commentaries, I’m hooked.
After eating pickled garlic, we take a tram into Erzsébetváros, Budapest’s seventh district. Ambling along leafy Dohany Street, we pass Europe’s largest synagogue.
The guide points out its minarets. The synagogue was built in 1854 by Ludwig Forster, whose aim was to build a synagogue without using any overtly Jewish architectural forms.
Standing outside Zara Homeware in dappled sunshine, surrounded by shoppers and young boys zipping past us on segways, it’s hard to conceive that Dohany Street once constituted the border of the Jewish Budapest Ghetto.
(In 1944, as a part of the Eichmann-plan, 70,000 Jews were relocated to the Ghetto of Pest and over two thousand of those who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during that winter are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue.)
But there’s no time to ponder. Our guide whizzes us on to the Pest end of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which is linked at river level to Buda Castle above by the Budavári Sikló or Funicular Railway. The train appears to shoot straight down a vertical drop. One thing’s for sure: I won’t be going on that.
Then we cram into a pastry shop to sample Dobos Torta, a traditional Hungarian cake (sponge, buttercream and crispy caramel, you can’t go wrong), and taste salamis in Nagyvásárcsarnok food market, where the guide’s impeccable English finally gives way to some quirky, original phrasing: “and here we have the creepy parts of the meat, like knuckle and snout — but you won’t see me walking down the street eating up a pig’s face.”
I think she’s tired. It’s been three hours.
I am too. I need rest — and I know exactly where to find it.
Back on board Maria Theresa, I skip lunch. You can blame me. Or the Dobos. I blame Savoir Beds.
So I’m hungry at seven, when a five-course dinner is served in the aptly-named Baroque restaurant. The food onboard deserves a mention. ‘Farm to Table’ isn’t just a meaningless buzzword on Maria Theresa.
Tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes. Grapes taste like grapes and bread tastes like bread. There’s an insane amount of everything. Every mouthful is delicious. I’m not a foodie so enough said.
Then it’s back to my Savoir.
I fall asleep in Pest, looking out at the twinkling Danube towards the rolling hills of Buda...
...and wake up in Slovakia.
Strolling along the top-deck promenade in the morning sunshine, there’s a nip in the air. I sit on a sun-lounger, watching the banks of the gently-twisting Danube drift slowly by. Pulling a soft blanket around me I find a hot water bottle hidden inside its folds: unbelieveable!
I close my eyes but when I suddenly fall into shadow, I open them to find a crew-member holding out a steaming cup of hot chocolate. It’s like this all the time on board; if every single crew member wasn’t so attentive, smiley and relaxed, it’d unnerve you, the way they know exactly what you fancy even before you do.
Arriving at Bratislava by ship is like floating onto the set of Chitty Bang Bang and following the guide through the Michalská brána medieval gate to wander around the old centre of Slovakia’s dinky capital city only intensifies this Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feeling; the streets are cobbled and narrow, the buildings are all gingerbready pastel-hues and there’s a slight sort of... hush everywhere.
You might not swoon in admiration here but you’d one hundred per cent be charmed. Tickled even — it’s very quaint.
As for me, I’m ever so slightly spooked. Maybe it’s Bratislava Castle — a monumental 9th century building with a towering silhouette that broods over the old town from its isolated rocky perch in the Little Carpathians — but every time I turn a corner, I half-expect to bump into the Child Catcher.
Two hours later, having resisted the lure of a pitstop snooze in my Savoir, I’m attending an onboard lecture on European Jewish history back in the Habsburg salon.
It is genuinely interesting for which I’m grateful and brief, for which I’m more because outside the sun is shining and I want to hang over the rails on deck to watch the river slide by its banks until we reach Vienna, where private coaches are waiting on the quayside to whisk us straight off to an enchanting concert in the Palais Oiav (one of the highlights of the trip: Beautiful hall with with amazing acoustics) celebrating Mozart, Schubert and Strauss.
The thing about tour guides is this: they help you make sense of a city but in Vienna, our last destination, I decide to go off-piste.
So at half nine the following morning, while others are enjoying a panoramic Vienna City tour by coach or on foot, I yomp into Vienna determined to explore the famous Ringstrasse area all by myself. I’ve done my homework: a 7km walk around the Ringstrasse takes in Parliament, the Rathaus, the City Hall and Lipitzzaner — the world-famous Spanish Riding School where — never mind “cultivating classical equitation,” I mean let’s call a spade a spade — horses dance.
Or that was the plan. Instead, I yomp and yomp along the riverbank, humming Strauss from last night’s concert, then round in several different increasingly confusing circles, arriving back at the Maria Theresa (not humming) at the same time as the other guests, who are all raving about the Ringstrasse.
So here are my on tour tips:
1. Stick with the guides.
2. Bring comfortable shoes.
3. There is a T.V in your stateroom, it’s playing hide and seek but you’ll find it by pointing the remote at the big mirror at the end of the bed (I know — who’d have thought it?). And finally:
1. Start saving for your Savoir bed.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise’s (www.uniworld.com / 1800 98 98 98) seven-night Enchanting Danube itinerary visits Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Germany. Priced from €2,989 per person sharing (flights not included).
This price is based on a category 5 stateroom and two people sharing. Also included is: seven-night cruise in a riverview stateroom, unlimited beverages and all meals onboard, Welcome and Farewell Gala dinner, six days of excursions, including “Choice is Yours”, “Go Active”, “Do as the Locals Do”, “Village Day” and “Gentle Walking” program, All transfers on arrival and departure days.
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