EUROPE – PART 5 – RIVER CRUISE AND BUDAPEST
We’d wanted to do a river cruise for some time, if for no other reason than to compare it to the ocean cruises we’ve done over the past four years. We lucked out with an eight-day Uniworld cruise on the Danube, from Prague to Budapest. I happened to find the deal at half-price on the Travelzoo website and booked it through my trusty travel agent.
Still mad at the greedy Prague taxi drivers, we walked from our first hotel to join the Uniworld tour group at the luxurious Art Deco Imperial, one of those hotels with a bidet in the bathroom and a tub you need a stepladder to climb into. The room was beautiful and the food delicious; a good first impression. Having seen much of Prague on our own, we opted for a back-stage tour of Prague’s historic Estates Theatre and the premier art nouveau building in Prague, the Municipal House.We learned that Prague adored Mozart, and Mozart adored Prague. His opera, Don Giovani, premiered at the Estates Theatre in 1787. We were treated to a concert featuring music by Wolfgang Amadeus and his contemporaries in the salon that bears his name and later got a bird’s-eye view of the jewel-box theatre. As I looked down from a loge in the opera house, I could imagine our son, Jacques, on stage. Next, we moved on to the Municipal House and listened as our excellent guide, Veronica, explained the significance of various rooms in the building, still today the pride of Prague.
At our next stop, Nürnberg, we were exposed to the history of the infamous Third Reich and the megalomaniac, Adolf Hitler. For historical reasons, he had a thing for Nürnberg and spent quite a bit of time there during his brutal regime. We toured the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, and the massive but unfinished Congress Hall, intended to outdo and outlast Rome’s Colosseum. It was a cold, damp day when we visited, perfect for capturing the mood.
The River Beatrice docked next in Regensburg, a city we’d visited the week before. Having seen enough historic buildings for awhile, we opted for a tour of the nearby BMW factory. It was absolutely mind-blowing. The plant employs over 8,000 people and produces 1,400 cars a day — that’s one every 57 seconds. As you watch the production line go by, you realize that no two are the same; every car different from the last. At least 90% of assembly functions are carried out by robots. The BMW factory turned out to be one of the highlights of my European visit.
After an overnight stay in Passau, we woke to bright sunshine, perfect weather for a bike ride along the Danube. Our excellent ride leaders kept us safe and we moved along at a brisk pace on a paved path. It was a cool 3 degrees C but the scenery and fresh air were invigorating; the perfect tonic. We caught up to the River Beatrice in one of the many locks she had to navigate during our voyage.
At our next stop, the tiny town of Spitz, we spent the morning visiting Melk Abbey, founded by the Benedictine order in 1089. It sits in the beautiful Wachau Valley, a top Austrian tourist destination famed for high-quality wines of the Vinae Wachau appellation. In the afternoon, we walked to the top of the village and were treated to beautiful views of the vineyards and the Danube far below.
Then it was on to Vienna, the grande dame of the Danube. Uncharacteristically for us, we opted for the arts tour, starting with the Upper Belvedere, home of the largest collection of works by Gustav Klimt, as well as paintings by Egon Schiele, Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir. Next, our guide led us through the collection housed in the massive Kuntshistorisches Museum, much of it assembled by the Habsburg family which ruled Austria for 500 years or so until 1918. The Saliera one of the museum’s better known pieces, sometimes known as the “Mona Lisa of Sculpture”, was completed in 1540 for Francis I, King of France. Made from solid gold, it is insured for a cool $70 million US! Before we headed back to the ship, I couldn't resist sipping a $9 coffee at Café Mozart, a Viennese fixture since 1794.
The River Beatrice sailed into Budapest late morning on our last full day aboard. We took a guided walking tour, using public transit to get from place to place and got a quick view of the city: Buda on the west side and Pest on the opposite bank of the Danube. That evening, we sailed past the Hungarian Parliament and under the Chain Bridge, with Buda Castle on the starboard side. It was chilly on the so-called “sun deck”, but the views were worth it.
We shlepped our luggage up the gangplank under the curious gazes of fellow passengers, most of them waiting for porters and taxis to take them to various destinations. We’d explained to others that Acadians didn’t like to be waited on and were too poor for taxis anyway. Besides, the ten-minute walk to our hotel was good for the digestion. After dumping our bags, we walked across the Danube and up the hill to Buda Castle. The expansive Castle area includes a magnificent church and the Fishermen’s Bastion, a section of the original castle fortification defended by Danube River fishermen during one of the city’s innumerable battles.
The Hungarian Parliament rivals the US Capitol, the UK Parliament, and the German Bundestag in size. In sheer grandeur, it outclasses them all. We took a guided tour of the interior and were most impressed.
Next morning, we walked up to the Liberty Statue, perched high on a hill on the Buda side of the river. The statue was completed in 1947 as a symbol of gratitude to the Soviets for “liberating” Hungary from the Nazis near the end of World War II. Liberty holds a palm leaf and faces due east toward Mother Russia. When the Communist regime came to an end in 1989, there was talk of tearing her down. Instead, the locals decided to keep her, reasoning, according to the urban legend, that she was sending a very different message to Russia: “Don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out!”
Hungary paid dearly for its decision to join the Axis powers near the end of World War II, believing Hitler’s promise that he’d regain for Hungarians the territory they’d lost after World War I. Heavy fighting took place between Nazi and Hungarian defenders as they attempted to hold off the approaching Soviet Army. Much of the city was destroyed in the ensuing four-month battle.
But, as we learned during our visit to the Great Synagogue, said to be the second-largest in the world, Jews suffered most of all. Our excellent guide told us the terrible story of the extermination of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews, rounded up and murdered by Hungarian Fascists and their Nazi masters in the brief span of ten months. To this day, Hungary struggles to come to terms with its participation in World War II.We’ve now visited two former Communist countries in Europe: the Czech Republic and Hungary. It amazes me how quickly a country can respond after the straightjacket of Communism is removed, and democracy and a free-market economy are established. In just 28 years, Hungary’s economy has moved into the top third of all countries. As for Budapest, it’s a blossoming metropolis of some 3 million, roughly 30% of the country’s population. We loved strolling its friendly downtown pedestrian malls and parks, visiting the Christmas market, and walking along the peaceful Danube. It’s a city we’ll want to visit again.
A final word about the river cruise. On balance, it was a very positive experience: excellent food, good service, and the best guided tours we’ve had to date on any organized trip. Compared to ocean cruise liners, the River Beatrice feels a bit cramped: no library, no cinema, no theatre, no pool, a pitiful fitness room, and limited onboard recreational opportunities. As budget travellers who like to make our money go as far as possible, we found it very expensive. The cost per day was twice the $300 average we use as a guide. And we’d gotten the cruise for half price. It doesn’t mean we won’t take another river cruise, but it will have to be on sale!