European River Cruise
It’s been a while since my last article, but this one will be worth the wait. Who doesn’t want to go to Prague and a river cruise on the Danube in Central Europe? In August 2021, H&K Travel began planning for a guided, concierge-style, European river cruise in late 2022. We selected Viking Cruises after meeting with river cruise providers at a travel conference in Orlando. After much discussion, we selected Viking’s Danube Waltz as our cruise, embarking on October 26th from Passau, Germany. The cruise included stops and excursions in Passau, Linz Austria, Krems Austria, Vienna Austria, Bratislava Slovakia, and Budapest Hungary. As if the river cruise wasn’t exciting enough, we then added a pre-cruise stay in Prague, Czech Republic to extend the experience, along with additional days post-cruise in Budapest. We were not disappointed!
Once an itinerary was set, we started recruiting guests. Our goal was to coordinate the cruise and excursions for guests, as well as act as concierge during the trip. We wanted guests to feel like everything was taken care of and all they needed to do was relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. With a lot of research, our guests were able to enjoy personal tours that were not on the Viking list. Not that there was anything wrong with the included Viking tours, they were amazing as well. But personalized activities like a Chef 10-course dinner in the Chef’s home, or a beer pub hop to some bars that only locals know about, would offer experiences that one would not find on their own. Our pre-cruise trip to Prague turned into a week, thanks to our friends and guests Keith and Tarah (Burkharts Abroad). They own a condo in Mexico and were able to house-swap for a very nice two-bedroom condo in Prague. The trip to Prague was planned from scratch, and proved particularly challenging as this was several hours away from the cruise port in Passau, Germany. In addition, we added a few days in Hungary after the cruise. So our final itinerary was as follows:
October 19-26 Prague, Czech Republic
October 26-27 Passau, Germany (Cruise departed on the 27th)
October 28 Linz, Austria
October 29 Krems, Austria
October 30 Vienna, Austria
October 31 Bratislava, Slovakia
November 1-2 Budapest, Hungary (end of cruise)
November 2-4 Budapest, Hungary (on our own)
First, let me say that I would rate Viking Cruises as excellent! The ship holds about 125 people and there were about 100 on board. The service was amazing! I believe they said that there was 1 employee to 3 guests. This far exceeds other lines or ocean cruises. Everyone was so friendly and attentive. The food was phenomenal and reflected the respective country we were visiting. Karen is allergic to mushrooms, so each day the staff found her at breakfast and allowed her to select from the daily menu so that they could prepare her food sans mushrooms. What was really amazing and personal, by Day 2 most of the waiters and staff were calling you by your first name. One waitress met us at one meal and called us by name the rest of
the cruise. I don’t know how people do that, but it was impressive. We bought the unlimited drink package, which was only about $125 (compared to other ocean ships that charge $600-$1000). The staff made sure that our glasses never ran dry. The lounges were very comfortable, but I spent most of my time on the top deck, where there is a small smoking section to enjoy my cigars. Imagine sitting on the deck, sipping a cocktail, having a nice cigar, and watching 1,000-year old castles and villages go by as you cruise down the river. I literally hated to go inside for fear I might miss something. Unlike an ocean cruise where when moving all you see is water, a river cruise has so many more things to see along the banks of the river. While onboard, I was able to visit with Jos Seinen, Viking’s Director of National Operations. He was very interested to hear what we liked and disliked about Viking, along with sharing some very insightful information about our trip. I was impressed that he chose to seek us out to get our opinion...Talk about making your guests feel important!
Okay, it can't all be positive. In my opinion, the biggest negative for Viking is, they require you to pay in full at booking. Most of the competition allow you to book with a deposit, so this is a challenge for a travel agent. However, with most people booking with credit cards, it is a hurdle that is easily overcome. There was no bar service on the top deck, which was only a minor inconvenience (the ship isn’t that big, so walking to the bar wasn’t so bad). We chose the French Veranda room, which basically has a sliding glass door to the outside. One of the couples with us chose the balcony room, which has a few more square feet in the cabin. This made a difference because, as you can imagine, river ship cabins are extremely small. That's it. That's all negative things I could say. Outstanding cruise line! So let's move on to the trip.
We had a total of six couples (including us). One couple was from the United Kingdom and only joined us during our week in Prague. So this is where we began, in Prague, Czech Republic. Let me say, I have never heard anyone have anything bad to say about Prague and now I see why. First, Prague is very cheap for American tourists. A “Bolt” (Europe's version of Uber) was about $6 to get from the end of town to downtown. Even in the tourist areas, food and drink was inexpensive. A nice hotel would run you $100 a night or less. And the scenery? Breath taking! The architecture is incredible and can be seen in all directions. It is almost like stepping into a fairytale book. Prague was one of the only cities in the region that wasn’t bombed by the Germans in WWII (well, there was that one time the Americans bombed them by accident). Anyway, virtually all of the historic buildings are original and didn’t have to be rebuilt like most of the other countries in the region. The cobblestone streets are both beautiful and hard on the ankles. I found the people very friendly. The waiters and waitresses were "curt" but friendly enough. Dealing with tourists all day would test my patience too.
One of the hotels we used was The Hotel U Prince, which was historic, quaint and comfortable, with a very small bar in the basement. The Black Angel’s Bar was a speakeasy during the prohibition period, and was voted one of the Top 10 hotel bars in the world. Don't expect to just walk in. Reservations are recommended. They have limited seating and don't allow overcrowding, which I love! Just across the courtyard is the famous Prague Astronomical Clock, which was first installed in 1410. It is the
world's third-oldest astronomical clock and the oldest still in operation today. Crowds gather to watch it on the hour, with its small statues coming out to greet you.
Let me just say here, I used to subscribe to the notion, Why pay someone to guide you when you can do it yourself?" After this trip, I am a big fan of guided tours, and having a local who knows all the details about what you are seeing. I can't count the number of times I said, "Wow, I would have never noticed that if he/she hadn't pointed it out." Nothing could be more true than when visiting castles and cathedrals. There is so much to take in and so much history that you will miss without someone who knows the area. We had people who weren’t in our group, walking beside us so they could hear the guide. The guides can explain why the priest statues were almost all defaced, when the stain glass windows were installed, what the painting on the ceiling means, or why this statue was so important. We also learned a lot about local customs and traditions from our guides. For me, this is one of the main reasons I travel, to learn about other cultures and customs. Throughout this trip our tour guides were invaluable...and yes, they all spoke English.
The 15th Century Charles Bridge connects old Prague with the Castle District is a must-see. The historic statues along the bridge are very interesting. At the end, you can catch the Changing of the Guards, a must-see. There is just too much to describe! You can literally spend months in Prague and not even touch the surface. The St. Vitus Cathedral is breath-taking. It is amazing how much architecture and money went into building such structures, in a day when there were no cranes or heavy equipment. We learned that in many cases, grandfather started the work and grandson finished it. Most times, a lot of slave labor was used.
We had some amazing personal experiences with a 10-course gourmet meal in the Chef’s home. The presentation was awesome and the local cuisine amazing. We took a private beer pub tour that took us to the small pubs where the locals hang out. My first question to anyone in a foreign country, “Where do YOU go on a Friday night?” Our guide was a recent college grad and found a way to make a living drinking beer in his favorite local pubs (oh yeah, he had beer with us). Genius! Interesting, in the US we don't want too much foam on our beer. There it is demanded. It is a sign that the beer was poured fresh. The foam there is tasty, way better than in the US. There was also the Jewish Cemetery, a wine tour, and the Sex Toy Museum (amazing what people used for pleasure before electricity and batteries).
From Prague, we booked two cars for transportation to Passau, Germany, where our cruise would depart. On the way, we stopped for a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, the oldest, continuously producing beer brewery – founded in 1845. In the basement they still brew beer the same way they did over a century ago. Upstairs was a very modern facility to keep up with the tremendous demand. One employee’s only job is to ensure that the upstairs brewers make the beer exactly like the brew from the basement.
Along the drive, there was one experience no one expected. When crossing the German border, one of our cars was stopped by border patrol. The German officers did not recognize the temporary Czech identification the driver carried, and detained him and two of our guests who were with him. They took them to a small German police station in the middle of nowhere and held their passports. The guests were left outside in the car while the driver was questioned inside. After two hours and refusing to return the guests’ passports, we contacted the US Embassy. Shortly afterward the supervisor received a call from the embassy, the guests were released. And by released I mean, given their documents and luggage and left in the dark on the side of the road. I guess that was payback for calling the Embassy on them. Our driver of the other car, who had already dropped us at the cruise ship, had to drive an hour back and pick them up. All arrived safely and in time for the departure. As for the driver? His Czech wife called the Czech embassy and he was eventually released later that night. His papers were fine. Viking, after hearing about the ordeal, held warm dinners for them once they arrived.
The ship remained in Passau, Germany until the evening of the next day, so we had the evening to settle in and the entire next day to explore. We took Viking's Walking Tour of the city. Key word: WALKING. The cobblestone streets are tough on the ankles and the streets run up and down hill. You will need some good walking shoes. On this entire trip, we averaged walking 8-10 miles a day, a lot of which was stairs. But it was so worth it! There was gorgeous architecture in all four directions everywhere you stood. Way too much to see in a day, but an awesome experience. I literally could write a book on each of these stops, but that would make this article way too long. The Viking ship traveled from port to port in the evening and at night, so we always had at least an entire day in a city.
From Passau, we motored down the river to Linz, Austria. There we went on the Viking Cesky Krumlov Walking Tour. We toured the 13th-century castle, with it’s Gothic, Renaissance and baroque elements, an 11-acre garden and an original 17th-century baroque theater. There are panoramic views of the old town and the river from the top of its round belltower (more stairs - but worth it). Again, while Viking offered “easy” tours elderly or handicapped guests, you would miss a lot. There are no elevators in the castles or cathedrals, so there is a lot of walking and stairs.
Next we moved down to Krems, Austria. Krems was first mentioned in 995 in a certificate of Otto III, but settlement was apparent even before then. A child's grave, over 27,000 years old, was found here. This is the oldest grave found in Austria. We visited the Gottweig Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Krems founded in 1083, and still in operation today. Famous for their apricot orchards and apricot juice and wine, after a tasting, you can take some home with you. One thing to remember. They make excellent gifts that are unique, but wine bottles weigh a lot, so keep that in mind in terms of your luggage weight for the flight home.
Next stop, Vienna, once the largest German-speaking city in the world. This is another place that you could spend months in and not see all of the splendor. In Vienna, we had time for three tours. The first was Viking's Walking Tour, where we saw much of the downtown city. As it turned out, it was All Saints Day, which is a major holiday in Austria. Unfortunately for us, most of the businesses were closed. We visited the Schönbrunn Palace just outside Vienna. This 1,441-room palace was the summer hunting palace to the Habsburg family since 1569 (imagine what their regular palace in town looks like). Maria Theresa, Emperor Franz Joseph, Empress Elisabeth and others once resided at Schönbrunn Palace. It is a beautiful example of regal life with it’s architecture, paintings, murials, and furnishings. Then, in the evening, we scheduled our own Heurigen Evening tour, which included dinner and cocktails, with live local entertainment in downtown Vienna. This is definitely somewhere we will want to revisit.
Slovakia is the other half of former Czechoslovakia before the split. In comparison, one can see that the architecture is equally beautiful, with a completely different feel. I cannot describe how, but it still has a communist vibe to it, unlike it’s former partner the Czech Republic. Our walking tour of downtown reveled it’s beautiful city with historic castle, architecture and sculptures. Bratslavia was gorgeous and a unique experience.
Interesting facts about Budapest; Don't pronounce it "Buda Pest." It is pronounced "Buda Pesh" and they will correct you. Also, it is a city divided by the river, Buda on one side and Pest of the other, but still called Budapest. Along with Prague and Vienna, this was one of our favorite stops. We were very happy we decided to extend the stay in Budapest three extra days. The Viking cruise allowed one day there for excursion. The next day, we moved to the Prestige Hotel in downtown, which was walking distance to so many historic sites. It was very nice and very historic, and the staff was very friendly. Our guide in Budapest was the most interesting of all stops. While he showed us so many sites and was extremely knowledgeable, it was clear that he had very little love for his country. He had already moved his kids from there to the United States. Funny, we saw him on the street after the tours and asked for his contact information so when we return we could call him. He asked, “You want to come back?” We said of course. He replied simply, “Why?” We told him that his city is absolutely beautiful and there is so much more to see. He started the tour with the question, “What do you think Hungary is most known for?” After several guesses, he said, “It is most known for picking the wrong side of a war. In 600 years, we lost every war and incursion.” Most of Budapest had to be rebuilt after WWII. The historic buildings were rebuilt to original, but rebuilt nonetheless.
The Budapest Castle and Hill City Walking Tour was like walking into a history book. The castle was incredible, and below were cobblestone streets lined with small houses and businesses that would have needed protection from the ruler at the time. St Steven’s Basilica was unbelievably beautiful and still in use. Inside, you will find the hand of St Steven still preserved in a glass box at one of the alters. We visited the rock Monastery, or Cave Church, which housed the Pauline monks who were first established there. It is still used today.
After the Pauline Order was banned in 1950, Cave Church was closed. The entrance to the ancient cave was then walled up with a 2 meter thick wall in the 1960s. It sits high on the hill, overlooking the Danube. It was reopened later, after the war. We toured the Hungarian Parliament, which houses Hungary’s rulers. One exhibit that will bring chills to your soul is the Jewish Shoes exhibit along the bank of the Danube. Our guide explained to us that, during the war Hungarian Nazis would make Jews take their shoes off before they shot them to fall into the river. The
shoes remained along the river as a reminder to other Jews. Today, the river is lined with bronze replicas of the shoes, commemorating the horrors of that war.
Our only disappointment in Budapest was the Thermal Baths. As the weather was somewhat chilly, we looked forward to the warm waters. The brochures all depicted several large baths with a handful of people in them. They were packed shoulder to shoulder with people. Karen called it “People Soup.” We got in a couple of the baths, but didn’t stay long. Later we heard that, just outside Budapest, is another thermal bath that is not so well known by tourists. Next trip, we try that one. I still envision sitting in a thermal bath like the ancients did.
This trip was the most amazing experience we have had thus far. I took well over 1,000 pictures. At every turn there was something wonderful to capture on film. We intend to go back again, concentrating on Prague, Vienna, and Hungary.
But all good things must come to an end. So after two and a half weeks, we headed home. Still in awe of the trip, our flights home were a nightmare. We flew from Budapest to La Guardia in New York. We took an Uber to JFK, then to Chicago for the final leg home. Flights were delayed so transfers were rushed and stressful. Then there was Chicago. Arriving late, we awaited out flight home. It was delayed several times and then the announcement; the flight was cancelled and there were no crews available to change flights. It was after 10pm, so everything in the airport was closed. No food, no booze, and no place to sleep except the plastic airport chairs or the floor. Our replacement flight was at 6am and we were told if you leave the secured area of the airport you have to take all your luggage and go through security again. Being we only had about 7 hours until our next flight, it wasn’t feasible to go to a hotel, so we slept on the floor or in a chair. There was nothing to eat, not even vending machines. To top it off, our final destination was Houston (we live near Austin). Our replacement flight no longer went directly to Houston, but transferred in Austin! If our car wasn’t parked in Houston, we could have gotten off in Austin. So we flew to Austin, then to Houston, then drove home near Austin. Surprisingly, our luggage was there when we arrived in Houston. As I always say, with today’s airline troubles, every transfer is a chance for a cancellation or lost luggage. Lesson learned, if you can afford it, get direct flights or flights with one layover, and plenty of time for delays. We travel a lot and are typically very patient and flexible, but this was ridiculous!
Other than the return flights, and a brief encounter with the German police, the trip was amazing. As I scroll through my pictures, I realized that they do not do justice to the beauty we experienced. This was a trip of a lifetime and one I will always remember. If you ever get the chance, by all means, go! I am anxious to try other river cruise lines, but I highly recommend Viking. Now, get out there and see the world!