Here we pick up where Our European Adventure – Part 1, left off: Chris and I had been bouncing around Europe on our own for a week. But now, we were about to meet other passengers to board a ship in Budapest and begin an eight-day Danube River cruise.
That was the plan, anyway. But a few days prior, we had started receiving emails from the cruise company informing us of a problem: Because of the long, hot summer, water levels on the Danube River were low – too low for the ship to make it to Budapest. And perhaps too low for it to even reach Vienna.
It was almost certain, they said, that we would spend the first three nights of the cruise in hotels instead of on the ship. And instead of sailing, we would be going by bus.
I was very disappointed. I had been looking forward to cruising the Danube River, not riding a bus. But every cruise company on the Danube was facing the same problem.
So we checked out of the hotel where we’d been staying in Budapest and into the hotel that the cruise company had booked for us to replace our first night on the ship.
The hotel that the cruise company had booked for us was the Hilton on Castle Hill. It was a five star hotel. And once I saw the location and stepped inside, I started feeling like this was a pretty darn good replacement for our first night on the ship.
Not only was it nicer than anywhere we would stay on our own, it came with a fun history: Although constructed in 1976, it was built around the remains of a 13th century church and cloister.
So little pieces of ancient history were sprinkled all over the public spaces of this hotel.
Next we met our cruise director, Alex, who gave us some good news: Conditions on the Danube had improved. And, although we would travel by bus to Bratislava tomorrow, we could board the ship when we arrived. No second night at a hotel!
No More Going it Alone
From this point on, we were firmly in the clutches of the river cruise staff. I don’t particularly enjoy traveling in a pack or being told how I will spend my day. But we’d been on our own for a while now, so it was actually nice to let someone else do the thinking for us.
And one thing I do enjoy is being pampered. And on a river cruise, that definitely happens!
That evening, all of the ship’s soon-to-be passengers boarded a bus for dinner at a restaurant out in the Hungarian countryside. There, we were entertained with traditional Hungarian music and dance.
I was even pulled from the crowd to mix it up with the dancers!
Luckily they kept it simple for me.
The next day, we headed by bus to Slovakia.
Bratislava, or Pressburg as it was once called, had been the capital of the Hungarian kingdom. Later, it was under the rule of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Since Bratislava is fairly close to Vienna, it has a strong musical history. This is where Mozart performed as a professional when he was only six years old.
Later, Bratislava fell in (under duress, as our local tour guide explained) with the Nazi regime. And, of course, it fell under Communist rule.
More recently, it saw the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, which split into two separate countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
And Slovakia chose Bratislava as its capital city, making it currently the youngest capital city in all of Europe.
Now, Bratislava is enjoying a bit of independence. And, because of a strong auto industry, it is thriving.
To me, the city was a fun mix of old and new.
It has a vibrant and user-friendly old-town district with charming shops and cafes.
And its own UFO (with a restaurant inside) atop a bridge.
Next stop: Vienna! Chris and I had spent several days in Vienna on a previous trip. Since we only had a day here this time, we skipped the guided tour and revisited our favorite place: The Museum of Natural History.
This is where science meets stunning interior architecture.
The displays are interesting and unique. (They even have a coelacanth – that rare fish previously thought to be extinct.) But between the architecture and the Edwardian-era display cases, this museum always makes me feel like I’ve stepped back in time.
And speaking of time, we never seem to have enough of it when we visit here.
That evening, we joined other passengers to attend a concert in a small venue.
We would sail on later that night and wake to a very charming small town.
But let’s stop for a moment here and talk about the cruise ship itself.
Life Onboard the Ship
We were on one of the more budget-friendly cruise lines. In fact, as I mentioned in Part 1, the whole reason we’d decided to do this was that we’d found such a great deal on a river cruise.
Since it was a budget cruise line, I didn’t really know what to expect.
But we were pleasantly surprised. The deal we’d found came with an upgrade to a “balcony cabin” – although the balcony was really just a huge window with a slider. Still, I loved the big windows and fresh air. The cabin was larger than we’d expected and nicely appointed with lots of storage.
Every evening, the schedule for the next day would be waiting for us in our cabin. The schedule made it clear that we would not go hungry: There was early breakfast, breakfast, lunch, tea time, happy hour, a four-course dinner, and a late-night snack.
Between the meals, the tour itinerary, and the onboard activities, we were kept busy.
And we were making new friends. Sometimes we’d spend the day with them, sightseeing, and sometimes we would just meet up later, over happy hour or dinner, to share the experiences of day.
Often, the ship sailed at night, and we would awake to a new location in the morning. I usually left the curtains open so that, whenever I awoke during the night, I would see new scenery.
Sometimes it was just the water reflecting the moon. Sometimes it was a little town.
And sometimes it was a wall of concrete – because there are ship locks on the Danube. Lots of them.
One day while we were going through a lock, I stuck my camera out the window to catch this guy climbing out of the lock chamber.
Now let’s get back to that cute little town where we were headed.
Dürnstein’s claim to fame (besides being absolutely adorable) is that, in the 12th century, Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in the castle here and held for ransom.
The castle is now in ruins and accessible by a hiking trail from the village. To us, it was definitely worth the scramble. We started out early to get ahead of other tourists.
Views from the castle were gorgeous.
And the area was surrounded by vineyards, some of them within the old defensive walls of the town.
Back in town, we wandered the beautiful little streets. Old-world charm was everywhere.
I didn’t have much luck staying out of the shops. They were all so adorable.
But it was time to get back to the ship and sail along the Danube to Melk.
The big attraction here is the beautiful and impressive Melk Abbey, which sits, of course, on a hill above the town.
Touring this huge Benedictine abbey was a fun way to spend our afternoon. We learned about all the aesthetic changes that had taken place over the ages – and why they happened.
From there, we had a spectacular view of the city and river below.
But my favorite part of the abbey was the garden with its lovely Baroque pavilion.
Inside was a darling coffee shop. And although I will show you an even cuter (in my opinion) coffee shop later in this post, this one was a close second.
We chose to walk back to the ship (instead of taking the tour bus) so we could get a quick look at the town. It would have been nice to spend a little more time here.
But we had to sail on.
Our day in Linz was slower paced, which was a welcome change by now. After a brief guided tour, we spent the day with a couple of our newly found friends checking out the town center.
Then we all rode a tram to a church (called Postlingbergkirche) that sits on the hill above town.
The tram was filled with locals of all ages ready to enjoy their day – because up on the hill there was also a zoo – and restaurants, coffee shops, and other sweet little discoveries.
Linz is the home of the famous Linzer Torte, and near the church we found a coffee shop where we could sample this delicacy.
I have one more city to show you – Passau! It was raining when we visited, but I still loved this city.
Passau is called “The City of Rivers” because it’s situated on a peninsula where three rivers converge. This strategic location has been populated since at least Roman times.
But the city has an old nemesis: Floods.
The flood gauge on the side of this building shows you how bad it can get.
As you can see, the year 1501 was a humdinger.
With all this water damage, it stands to reason that Passau would have some of the quirkiest cobblestone around. This is not the place to wear stiletto heels!
Passau is home to the gorgeous St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
In it is the largest pipe organ in Europe.
But more importantly, just around the corner from the cathedral, Chris made a surprising discovery. While I photographed the town fountain, he ducked into an out-of-the-way coffee shop to get some change. And what he saw made him come rushing back to show me.
He had found it: The most charming coffee shop either of us have ever seen!
Of course we had to sample their cakes. Research, you know.
And this is where I will leave you for now – in Passau on a rainy day, enjoying cake and coffee in the cozy surroundings.
The final installment of my Europe trip is coming soon. In it, we’ll be driving to two cities that are near and dear to my heart – and I’ll share some of my travel tips!
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