These are the delights of European river cruising: As we glide down the Danube on a Monday afternoon, Austria's Wachau Valley is bathed in a patchwork of sunlight and shadow. To the left, sloping vineyards produce some excellent dry white wines that we sample aboard; to the right, the land is forested and stands of bushy trees rise from the river during this high water period. Small towns appear around almost every bend, tightly clustered around a church or huddled below a castle on a rocky promontory.
I rode into Passau, the German embarkation port, on a sleek, shovel-nosed ICE (InterCity Express) train, the final half-hour paralleling the Danube. Greeters from several riverboat companies met the train, and within 15 minutes I was checked-in aboard Peter Deilmann's Mozart. Ten minutes later, my wife arrived on a coach from Munich, and while there was still time to venture ashore, we set out to explore the town, wedged on a narrow peninsula between two rivers. Happily, few cars roamed the stone-paved streets, so we could enjoy the pastel-colored architecture and pretty plantings without keeping an eye out for traffic.
Back aboard the Mozart, I marveled at the spaciousness of the rosewood-paneled foyers, public rooms, main restaurant and cabins. In fact, the 96 outside cabins (three are inside) measure a uniform and roomy 203 square feet. Upper deck cabins have a large picture window, while ours one deck below had two smaller divided panes. (The water laps at the side of the boat about a foot below the glass, and from time to time we get a wash from the passing river traffic.)
Two beds are pushed together to form a generous queen, and the lounge area is furnished with a two-seat couch, coffee table, and desk-cum-vanity. Triple-slatted wood doors open to hanging closets and generous shelf space. The TV broadcasts both CNN and CNBC, and the radio airs music channels. A stocked minibar's contents are available for a moderate charge.
The adjoining bath has a circular shower stall, sink surrounded by generous counter surface, a hairdryer and terrycloth robes. The light, airy room is attractive for enjoying a few hours' read after the sun goes down and it gets too chilly topside for outdoor sightseeing.
The Mozart's observation lounge offers seating for all passengers, and is used mostly for after-dinner entertainment that ranges from classical concerts and operetta to a pianist, and a joyful crew show, put on by a mostly Hungarian staff. Most live in or near Budapest, so they get to see their families once a week, a regular rhythm that results in a very happy atmosphere.
A small lounge cafe offers afternoon pastries and tea as well as evening desserts. A bar with sit-up stools and window tables runs fore and aft between the main lounge and the central foyer. A paneled library offers deep leather chairs, glass-fronted bookshelves with a small English-language collection, and a large-screen TV.
One of the most elaborate of Europe's river vessels, the Mozart boasts a fitness center facing the bow equipped with an indoor swimming pool, whirlpool, massage and sauna, plus a gift shop and beauty salon.
Less formal and lighter in decor is the main restaurant, where tables range from two to eight, with a long rectangular table reserved for a Dominican group. Ours, located by the large view window, is shared with a adult family of four who are sharing the trip that includes Basle, the mother's Swiss birthplace. Happily, we got on famously as we dined here for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Meals are a sheer delight. Both breakfast and lunch offer the option of a menu service or an elaborate buffet. The midday meal is my favorite, and while I may order hot carrot cream soup with oranges or the cold tipsy peach soup, I invariably find the buffet so appetizing that I save menu ordering for dinner.
Choices include avocado and shrimp with choice of dressings, scallops, smoked salmon, several types of salad beans and coleslaw, cabbage, cold lobster tails, artichoke hearts, a pasta station, leg of duck in orange sauce and roasted fillet of plaice.
Dinner on three occasions offers a sampler menu of eight to nine delicious courses. Diners can pick from several appetizers, two soups, two salads, two hot entrees, sherbet, two main courses, several desserts, and a selection of cheeses and biscuits. My favorite entrees are roasted piglet with braised cabbage and dumplings, and roasted knuckle of veal au jus with sour cream and wine sauerkraut.
Service by the two waiters and wine steward is most attentive, friendly and knowledgeable--especially important since we are facing some unfamiliar Middle European cuisine. We dine in true European style, enhancing the travel experience rather than being offered menus that pander to American tastes. The dining room is non-smoking, and while it is permitted in designated locations, we were not bothered by smoking anywhere on the ship.
Our fellow passengers were largely German, and we formed a nodding relationship with our table neighbors, but to go beyond that superficial level requires some active participation that occurs more often on deck. Generally, Deilmann's German passengers do speak English if spoken to first. Remaining passengers included the Dominican group, a dozen Chinese and Chinese-Americans, and a handful of British. Because of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, some 45 Americans who were booked did not make this mid-September sailing, so we numbered about a dozen.
This Danube River cruise is a favorite, like the middle Rhine, for first-time river cruisers as the itinerary includes well-known cities such as Vienna and Budapest, romantic small towns, and some delightful rural river scenery. Unlike stretches of the Rhine, the Danube is not paralleled by major highways; often there is not a road or railway in sight. The peaceful, strong flowing river is punctuated by numerous locks and low bridges requiring the pilot house and windscreens to be lowered.
After an overnight sail, our first landing at Durnstein in the Wachau Valley included a 45-minute climb to a ruined 12th century castle for a rewarding valley view. A bus tour was also available, but we elected the independent route.
Vienna's dock is some distance from the city center, so many passengers take a coach tour. But as dedicated urbanites, we walked 10 minutes to the Metro for a 15-minute ride into Stefanplatz, then toured the area of the Sacher Hotel and opera house, Gothic city hall, some handsome residential neighborhoods, and very pretty parks. Thanks to the 24-hour call at Vienna, we were able to make two forays into the city.
Esztergom, once the capital of Hungary and still titular capital of Catholic Church, now exudes a small-town atmosphere with leafy residential squares and a lively street market, overlooked by a huge Renaissance basilica fortress.
The scenery turns rural and wooded again, and we passed a medieval wall that connects the river to a fortress high on the hill. As the vessel approaches Budapest, the outlying districts are pretty bland--but soon we were sailing right through heart of the city past the Gothic Parliament Buildings and under a half-dozen bridges that link Buda rising to the right and Pest laid out on the left. The overnight landing is located just above a bridge leading over to the Gellert Hotel and Spa.
On the first afternoon in Budapest, we walked the streets that parallel the river, and enjoyed looking into the stylish stores and up at the handsome art nouveau and art deco architecture. Apart from some shabby facades near the pier, the city sparkles and offers a more lively atmosphere than Vienna.
The next morning, we took the city tour ($25) to visit both the Pest and Buda sides, with the latter providing a visit to the 13-15th century Gothic-style Matthias or Coronation Church and the adjoining conical bastion towers of the fishermen's market. After the tour, we spent an additional hour at the grand tiled market hall (1897) ogling the fresh produce on the ground floor, and the souvenirs, handicrafts, embroidery, and food stalls on the upper level.
At departure, afternoon tea is served up on deck and the Mozart sails upstream through the city center for an overnight cruise to Bratislava, capital of the Slovak Republic. The heart of the city is a lovely, tranquil pedestrian precinct with squares, churches, theater, opera, cafes, stores, and a large castle looming over it all. From the ramparts, we could look across the Danube to the largest Soviet-inspired housing complex in the world, row after row of monotonously identical white concrete and brick apartment blocks.
Melk, a smallish city, offers a tour ($21) to an outstanding 11th century mustard-colored Benedictine monastery located high above town, later rebuilt in a high baroque style and now part monastery, part grammar school, part museum. Down in the town center, it was Saturday afternoon, and several wedding parties had gathered outside the town hall.
The small river town of Grein, the last stop, is essentially closed on Saturday afternoon but one could climb to a castle overlooking the small town square and the river highway leading back to Passau.
We enjoyed our river trip from Germany through Austria to the Slovak Republic and Hungary, and we liked the atmosphere of sailing with an international group--one that was largely German-speaking and cruising not far from home. Upon disembarkation, a German ICE whisked us in six comfortable hours from the extreme southeast to Hamburg in the North.
MOZART : Built 1987, refurbished 2000, length 396 feet. 99 cabins, 3 inside, 96 outside measure 203 sq. ft. Season runs late March to the end of October. Per person double occupancy fares, depending on the season, range from a minimum of $1,190-$1,225 to a maximum of $3,990-$4,550. Port charges are an additional $60 p.p.
For additional information, go to www.deilmann-cruises.com