Eastern Europe on Viking River

| Wednesday, 01 Jul. 2015
The river cruise experience with Viking River Cruises has never been more popular
That darn Viking River Cruises commercial. You’ve seen it; hypnotic voiceover, stunning European scenery, beaming passengers. Each time I watched it, I kept imagining pointing to castles while sipping cappuccino on my private balcony. That’s why my husband and I joined an 11-day “Passage to Eastern Europe,” sailing Bucharest to Budapest on the lower Danube aboard Viking Longship Aegir.
I chose that route as many ports were new to me, and I hoped to avoid crowds in more popular places like Vienna or Amsterdam. Sure enough, the lower Danube was all ours – a rare treat in today’s bustling river cruise world. Here’s how our trip – a typical Viking cruise - unfolded.    
Pre-Cruise Bucharest
Although our flight into Bucharest was delayed until about 2 a.m., we were met by a Viking representative who whisked us to our pre-cruise hotel, Radisson Blu. The contemporary hotel was on a fancy street filled with luxury stores, and we tumbled, exhausted, into a comfy bed.  
Come morning, the buffet breakfast was perfect, offering every delicacy, including France-worthy croissants.
Then we transferred to motor coaches to tour Bucharest. Viking coaches were clean, air-conditioned, and comfortable, with excellent English-speaking tour guides. I quickly learned that was the Viking standard, no matter where we went. 
Ship Shape
We were warmly welcomed onboard Aegir later that day in Giurgiu, Romania, after a so-so lunch at an open-air restaurant with energetic local entertainment. The modern Scandinavian décor was simple and bright. Cabins were well designed, but small. Book a verandah, if possible. It added extra space and privacy. 
Upscale stateroom appointments included thick soft towels, nice bathrobes, and L’Occitane bath amenities. The bed was dressed with fine linens and soft duvet. Smiling attendants serviced cabins twice daily, keeping them spotless. I never heard any guests through cabin walls. 
Space Race
Riverboats are not ocean liners; common space is limited. Passengers flocked to the Observation Lounge for drinks, briefings, and entertainment. Peanuts and other tiny nibbles were standard bar treats, although on the last night, servers offered impressive canapés. Other public areas included a tiny lobby and library, and shade-covered sundeck. The sundeck had a walking track and thriving herb garden for chefs. The covered portion of the sundeck with chaise lounges filled quickly each morning. 
Al Fresco Chow
Guests could dine indoors – all 190 passengers can be seated at once – or upstairs in the casual Aquavit Terrace, for an al fresco limited-menu lunch or dinner. A chef often manned a grill, expertly flipping marinated chicken breasts and such. Count salads, sandwiches, and sweets among light offerings. Dining in Aquavit Terrace presented a quieter, more private meal. The Restaurant was noisy with a full house. Plus it only offers tables for six, encouraging guest mingling. (If you only like tables for two, Viking is not for you.)
Stellar Service
Dining room and lounge servers were uniformly excellent. They were always busy (everyone crowds the Restaurant or Lounge at once) but rarely acted rushed. A sommelier actually called female guests “my lady” without a trace of irony. One passenger had onion and garlic allergies; I observed servers double and triple-checking every dish before she consumed a morsel.
Fancy Food
Meals ranged from good to great. Like many, I began my day with a coffee drink from hallway machines to enjoy with croissants in my cabin. (In the afternoon, big chunky homemade cookies, like oatmeal-raisin and chocolate, were swapped for the pastries alongside beverage machines.) At breakfast, I frequented the buffet for European yogurt and fresh-sliced fruit, while my husband enjoyed omelets made to order. Lunch featured both a buffet and menu.
Pastas were consistently good. Soups, like parsley root velouté with black truffle, nearly always sparkled with intensity. Salads were chockfull of ripe colorful ingredients. Daily fresh-baked breads were always different – and darn it, always good. For dinner, salmon, chicken, or prime rib-eye were available nightly. That thick juicy rib-eye came with three sauces, including a beautiful béarnaise redolent with tarragon, probably plucked from the herb garden. Potatoes – from mashed to cakes – were guaranteed hits. Fish was generally good and sometimes, like steamed turbot, excellent.
I think the Restaurant’s biggest struggle is that everyone dines at once and the kitchen is small. One day, we were treated to a tour. What the chefs turn out in such a compact space is magic. All Viking ships stick to the same menus, other than a few dishes typical to the region. Perhaps there’s no spontaneity, but consistency is ensured.  
Authenticity Rules
Viking River Cruises excels at delivering a sense of place – and not just with cuisine. Many evenings, local artists, including singers and bands, entertained with varying results. One night, folk dancers whose feet flew like 747s, drew a standing ovation.  
Shore Standouts
Excursions were impressive. In the home of a friendly, English-speaking woman in Vidin, Bulgaria, we learned to make banitsa, a delicious filo and feta casserole. Another time, we enjoyed small-group visits to Croatian homes, hosted by women. We sipped local beverages (best apple juice ever), nibbled homemade cake, and talked about daily life and the lingering impact of the Serbo-Croatian war.
Passengers (including me) thoroughly embraced a horse show outing not far from the port of Kalocsa, Hungary. The riders amazed, adding humor and drama to their performances. Then we climbed into a horse-drawn cart, toured bucolic fields, and tried a local delicacy; homemade bread smeared with lard (from their farm-raised pigs), and sprinkled with paprika. 
In Belgrade, Serbia, Viking offered a Jewish heritage tour with a local guide at a nominal fee. World War II devastated that community; only a small group live here today. Viking passengers who signed up received a sobering compelling history lesson while visiting the remaining synagogue and meetinghouse, and walking the once-thriving neighborhood. 
What’s Included?
Most excursions, Wi-Fi, regional wines, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, and coffee drinks, tea, and snacks between meals are included. We spent seven nights onboard, with three nights in hotels.    
Viking Does Budapest
We debarked in Budapest for a two-night stay at Le Meridien Budapest. Good location, nice hotel. An extensive city tour was included. Viking hosted a desk in the hotel lobby, run by informative professionals.
Prague Post-Cruise Extension
This three-night add-on had great value. (About $800 per person for three nights with breakfast, touring, and all transfers.) Although the comfortably coach ride from Budapest to Prague took seven hours, our onboard guide chatted, making time pass. Viking booked us at Hilton Prague Old Town; pleasant enough and a superb location. The hotel concierge was excellent and the included hotel breakfast buffet was satisfying (loved the giant comb of local honey).
Once again, Viking hosted a lobby desk with patient knowledgeable advisors. Our return airport transfer was silky smooth – it even included a Viking employee stationed at the airport, sticking close until security. Viking River Cruises may not show such unsexy business in commercials, but to me, this VIP treatment equally dazzled. (vikingcruises.com)

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