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Tuesday, 11 August 2015

A fifteen day adventure from Amsterdam, along the Rhine and Danube, to Budapest.

Viking's Grand European Tour

It was time (last year) to decide on this year's holiday. We had been on a sea cruise to St Petersburg but didn't like days at sea seeing nothing but water – and it wasn't the kind you could mix with scotch. Then we read about Viking's “Grand European Tour”. Fifteen days calling in at fifteen ports, with organised trips and walks in each port, each day. That, we thought, would be less boring than a sea cruise.

So we booked. The total price was £8,549, certainly not cheap. And this was for a smaller cabin! But we were only going to sleep in it, so we decided to spend the money we saved on a larger cabin (or Stateroom as Viking calls them) on an extended stay in Budapest at the end of the trip.

We had read that it was all inclusive, so took the plunge. The following daily details have been taken from their brochure, with a few additions, and I will give much more information on how we found the trip at the end of “Day 15”.

Depart

We caught our BA flight from Heathrow to Amsterdam around 11am, but by the time we got through Customs and were met by the Viking representative who took us to the boat, it was about half past two. We left our luggage at the boat's reception and, although we were invited to wait in the boat's lounge, we walked along the river to the rail station where we withdrew some of our Euros from our CaxtonFX Card. On returning to the boat at 3pm we were told we could go to our cabins where our luggage was already in place. A good start and a favourable impression of Viking River Cruises, afterwards we'll refer to the company simply as Viking.

Day 1    Amsterdam


Our boat, taken near Melk
The boat remained docked until late that evening  and some of the passengers took a stroll through this charming city to admire the distinctive gabled architecture and many canals and connecting bridges that criss-cross the city.

You might visit P.C. Hooftstraat, the popular upmarket shopping street often referred to as “Amsterdam’s Rodeo Drive.” You might also want to visit the Anne Frank House, which is open late most nights, where Anne wrote her famous diary chronicling her experiences while hiding from the Nazis.

A concierge was available with information and suggestions about how to spend your time in Amsterdam.

Day 2    Kinderdijk

Guess what this is!
After we got up, I got ready before my wife so went up to the lounge where I could use the coffee station to pour a Mochaccino (like a Cappuccino but made with chocolate). Alas, throughout our journey, everywhere (including the boat) used that awful condensed like milk which, to me, tastes terrible. I should have taken a tin of Coffeemate with us. Anyway the chocolate made the taste acceptable, and I had two pastries, filled with custard or jam, or both! A typical Italian breakfast. When Pam (my wife) surfaced, we went to the restaurant for an English breakfast, or cold meats and cheese during the voyage.

After breakfast, we went on an organised excursion in the picturesque Dutch countryside of the historic Kinderdijk area. Built in the mid-18th century, the collection of 19 windmills that we visited here (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). They provide an intriguing glimpse into Holland’s past. We were allowed inside one of the working windmills. Families that live in these mills are required to keep them in working order. As we crossed the dike from our boat to the windmills, we noticed these were in fact at a lower elevation than the vessel: much of this part of the Netherlands is below sea level. We then returned to the boat and began sailing towards Cologne.

We gathered this evening to get acquainted with our Programme Director and travelling companions at a Welcome Reception before the Welcome Dinner aboard. The boat sailed through the night.


Day 3    Cologne

Cologne’s magnificent Gothic cathedral
The boat docked in Cologne that morning. After breakfast, we headed out for a guided walking tour including Cologne’s magnificent Gothic cathedral and Old City. Construction of the cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, began in 1248 and continued in several stages over seven centuries. Finally completed in 1880, it largely escaped damage that ravaged the city and the rest of Germany during World War II. The largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe; it is a magnificent church with two soaring spires that symbolise the city, and beautiful stained glass windows.

The rest of our day was at leisure for us to explore this lovely city on our own. Cologne was once a Roman settlement called Colonia Agrippina. You can still see fragments of Roman ruins in some parts of the city, and the Roman Tower near the cathedral was once part of the medieval town walls. The city also boasts Romanesque churches, a Renaissance city hall and the remnants of an ancient Jewish mikvah (ritual bathhouse).

There are many popular museums in Cologne including Museum Ludwig, devoted to modern art, which displays one of the largest collections of works by Pablo Picasso. Here you will also find museums catering for many interests including the Fragrance Museum Farina House, which claims to be the birthplace of Eau de Cologne, and the Schokoladenmuseum, dedicated to chocolate-making.

The boat remained docked here until late in the evening, so we went ashore for an evening stroll after dinner.

There was an optional tour to visit a beer house but, as Pam couldn't drink alcohol, we decided against it..


Day 4    Koblenz & Middle Rhine

We arrived in Koblenz and began our tour of Marksburg Castle. Set high above the hill overlooking the town of Braubach, the castle is the best preserved on the Rhine. Built with remarkable fortification, it was never besieged by enemies and therefore appears much the same as it did when it was built approximately 700 years ago. 
Our German guide pretending to be a British Aristocrat
The tour lasted approximately two-and-a-half hours and and ended in the late morning where we met our boat in Braubach where it had sailed during our excursion.

We set sail during lunchtime. The Programme Director pointed out the little towns, castles, ruins and other sights along the river, from the famous Katz and Maus Castles to Pfalzgrafenstein fortress that sits on a rock in the middle of the river.

We learned about the famous robber baron from Katzenelnbogen, which intriguingly means “cat elbows.” and cabin number Enjoyed scenic cruising as this is one of the most beautiful stretches of the Rhine. We passed the Lorelei, a legendary rock formation rising 440 feet above the river.

Just after dinner that night, our boat left the Rhine River and begin its journey up the Main River, a tributary which flows into the Rhine at Mainz. We then sailed through the night to Miltenberg.


Day 5    Miltenberg

We spent a relaxing morning aboard enjoying the passing scenery as the boat sailed along the meandering Main River.

Miltenberg's square
We docked in Miltenberg after lunch and were treated to a guided walking tour of this charming town. Its town square, lined with half-timbered façades, is one of the most picturesque in all of Germany. Close by was the ancient hotel Zum Riesen (“the Inn at the Giant”), which is generally believed to be Germany’s oldest inn.

During our tour we also saw the town gates and caught a glimpse of the castle, perched high over the roofs of Miltenberg. During our free time, we visited a local wine shop and saw the local Franconian vintages and stopped at a bakery for a Bavarian pretzel. In the old town, many businesses operate in much the same way as they have for generations. We arrived at our boat in Wertheim where it had sailed during our excursion. The boat then set sail during dinner to Würzburg.

Glass blowing about our boat
We were also given a most spectacular exhibition of glass blowing by a German who is so good he travels to the USA for a couple of months each year to lecture on his work.

The exhibition continued for over an hour and had us spellbound.

A lot of his work was for sale and I purchased a set of six schnapps shot glasses, beautifully made, with a hole for your finger towards the bottom of the glass.

The schnapps flowing around the hole.This has been tested many times since we returned and they are holding up well!!


Day 6    Würzburg

One of the many residencies
We arrived in the morning, and after breakfast got into our coach for the half-day excursion to Würzburg and toured its impressive baroque Bishops’ Residenz, one of Germany’s largest and most ornate palaces and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This former residence of the Würzburg prince-bishop was designed by architect Balthasar Neumann and built over a 70-year period, beginning in 1720. Both the massive reception staircase and overhead ceiling are considered to be masterpieces of design, made even more impressive by the Venetian artist Giambattista Tiepolo’s stunning “Four Continents” ceiling fresco. We saw several of the building’s ornate rooms, each representing a different style and highlighted by the Mirror Cabinet, painstakingly reconstructed after falling victim to massive bombing during World War II.

We spent the rest of our day at leisure exploring Würzburg on our own. This Bavarian city holds a wealth of sights and we saw some of the countless churches built in a range of architectural styles, and visited the municipal art museum that exhibits fantastic regional paintings and sculptures from 22 different European countries.

We enjoyed dinner aboard the boat and cruised through the night.


Day 7    Bamberg

We relaxed and enjoyed the river in the morning as we cruised along its many turns and passed by many small towns. We eventually arrived in Hassfurt around lunchtime and disembarked for a tour of Bamberg with its medieval city centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ve vil walk, watch and enjoy
Our walking tour included a visit to the magnificent 11th-century cathedral, rebuilt in late Romanesque and early Gothic style in the 13th century; this is where both Emperor Henry II and Pope Clement II are buried. We also saw the picturesque city hall built on a tiny island in the middle of the Regnitz River. We made use of some free time and enjoyed Bamberg and sampled some of the town’s distinctive smoke-flavoured beer.returned Here, our Programme Director gave a terrific yodelling type yell to gather us all up before we rejoined our boat in time for dinner as the boat departed from Bamberg.


Day 8    Main-Danube Canal & Nuremberg

Tragedy, of sorts. We had been warned earlier that the water levels where the boat entered the Danube were unusually low and our boat couldn't get through. There was a sister ship further down the Danube at Passau, travelling the other way which couldn't get through either. We were told to pack our cases but leave them in the cabins and our cabin numbers would be the same on the boat at the other end. When we finished our tour in Nuremberg and travelled by coach to Passau, our luggage was in our cabins when we returned. As it was an “Act of God” there was nothing to do but wipe the sweat from our brow.

We spent the early morning cruising through the Main-Danube Canal. This engineering marvel stretches 106 miles from Bamberg on the Main River to Kelheim on the Danube. Begun as Charlemagne’s dream in 793, it was completed in 1992 with 16 locks that raise the water to 1,332 feet. Connecting the Main and Danube Rivers, today it enables continuous river travel from the North Sea to the Black Sea.

Hitler held his infamous rallies here
After breakfast, we were treated to a tour of this medieval city surrounded by 13th-century walls. Today Nuremberg evokes the notorious post-World War II war trials, but throughout its history, the city was known for its handicrafts, particularly toys and fancy metalwork. We saw the grounds where Nazi rallies were staged. Admired the Imperial Palace and the city’s half-timbered houses and strolled through the Market Square. After visiting the medieval town centre, we had some free time for exploring on our own before a very long coach drive to our new boat in Passau.


Day 9    Regensburg

We had breakfast aboard and some people caught a coach back towards Regensburg, normally the boat would have docked at this town at lunchtime if the water wasn't so low.

After lunch, they met their guide for a walking tour through one of Germany’s best-preserved medieval cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saw the gleaming spires of Gothic St. Peter’s Cathedral with its stained glass windows, the Old Town Hall and the 12th-century Old Stone Bridge, Germany’s oldest bridge.

They had time to take a stroll through town, admiring the many notable buildings, churches, and 13th- to 15th-century homes. Visited Schloss Thurn and Taxis, the residence of the Thurn and Taxis family that was once known as St. Emmeram’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 739. Others sampled Regensburg’s signature dish, sausage and a roll with sweet mustard, at the 800-year-old Alte Wurstküche (Old Sausage Kitchen), Germany’s oldest restaurant before catching their coach back to our boat in Passau.

On board our river barge
Some of us (Pam and me included) were too tired for this journey and elected to go on a shorter coach trip to Schärding where we toured this beautiful small town with its attractive buildings. There was an extensive flea market there and afterwards we went on a beautifully reconstructed barge for a trip with coffee and cake along the Danube and back. A wise decision as, when the guys who went to Regensburg returned, they were hot and exhausted.




Day 10    Passau

Magnificent Organ
After breakfast, we took a tour of this elegant town, called the Dreiflüssestadt (City on Three Rivers), which is situated at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn Rivers.

We saw the impressive Bishop’s Residenz, 14th-century Town Hall, and the town’s magnificent 17th-century St. Stephan’s Cathedral, containing Europe’s largest pipe organ.

After the tour, we attended a thirty minute organ concert before lunch.

The rest of our afternoon was our own; we explored the narrow streets and quaint shops in Old Town. Our boat departed in the late afternoon.

After an enjoyable dinner aboard we cruised through the night.





Day 11    Melk & Krems

This morning, the boat sailed through a beautiful untouched stretch of the Danube called the Strudengau.

The Abbey's main hall
We disembarked for an excursion to the dramatic 900-year-old baroque Melk Abbey, perched on sheer cliffs high above the Danube. It was rebuilt during the 18th century after the original building was destroyed by fire, its stunning library is now home to a wide range of medieval manuscripts.

The interior of the abbey’s church is a kaleidoscope of red, orange and gold, with a magnificent carved pulpit and shimmering ceiling frescoes.

We also saw the imperial rooms, which are now home to a museum chronicling the Abbey’s history from its inception to modern times.

We returned to our boat for lunch and sailed through the Wachau Valley, heart of Austria’s wine country. This area is filled with cultural and historic importance, and is of such unsurpassed beauty that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We docked in Krems in the afternoon. Our boat remained docked here until about midnight, so we were free to explore this charming town on our own. (Alas my camera battery died so I couldn't take any photographs there.)


Day 12    Vienna

The very expensive shopping area
Our boat docked early in the morning. After breakfast we set off on a half-day tour of one of Europe’s most elegant and romantic cities. Our coach and walking tour featured the remarkable Ringstrasse, lined with imposing palaces and grand residences, encircling the medieval Innere Stadt (“Inner City”). We saw the magnificent Hofburg Palace, glorious St. Stephan’s Cathedral with its gleaming spire and the beautiful State Opera House.

We returned to the boat for lunch, and enjoyed an afternoon exploring on our own. We declined a ride on a traditional horse-drawn fiaker, but sampled some mouthwatering Viennese strudel pastry in a pavement café. Our boat remained docked until the early hours as Bratislava was very close.


Day 13    Bratislava

A castle we later visited
We docked in Bratislava before breakfast time. After breakfast, we disembarked for a coach and walking tour of Slovakia’s capital. Set picturesquely at the foot of the Little Carpathian Mountains, Bratislava is dominated by its massive square castle.

On the tour we visited the Old Town, where we saw beautiful St. Martin’s Cathedral, Michael’s Gate with its 15th-century tower, the Main Square, aristocratic palaces, the baroque Jesuit Church, Rolland Fountain representing Knight Rolland and the National Theatre.

We returned to the boat for lunch and sailed for Budapest.

This evening we gathered to toast our memories and said farewell to new found friends during the Captain’s Reception and enjoyed the special Captain’s Farewell Dinner.

Sailing into Budapest towards midnight
For those with a culinary interest, the farewell dinner was a seven course affair, with wine.

We approached Budapest at around eleven o'clock in the evening. The city was brilliantly lit up giving an opportunity of taking some lovely photographs.








Day 14    Budapest

Our boat docked close to the Elizabeth Bridge or the Chain Bridge on the Pest side of the city.

We disembarked after breakfast for a tour of Hungary’s lovely capital. The Danube cuts through the heart of the city, separating the Buda Hills and the Old City from the elegant boulevards of modern Pest. We started in “Pest” with a ride along the Andrássy út where we saw the National Opera House and Heroes’ Square. Saw other landmarks, including the Parliament, before crossing the river to the more traditional “Buda” side of the city. Here our tour highlighted the massive hilltop castle complex with its turreted Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church. We also saw the famous Chain Bridge and Elizabeth Bridge, two of many that connect the two halves of this vibrant city.

Horses were fearless of the whip.
This afternoon we took an alternative tour (£35 each) where we travelled an hour out of the city to visit the Hungarian Horsemen: Lazar Equestrian Park  and discovered the heritage of the legendary Hungarian “cowboys.”

On the outskirts of Budapest, near the edge of the Puszta region where the cowboys herd their sheep and cattle on horseback, we were greeted by these fearless horsemen and enjoyed a traditional Hungarian Pálinka (brandy) and Pogácsa (biscuits).

Then we were treated to a horseman exhibition where young riders control their horses with only bridles and the cracking of six-foot whips. They must treat the horses very kindly or the horses would have cringed at the loud cracks of the whips.

They use no saddles or stirrups—the horse and rider are as one in a display based on trust between the two. After the show, we visited the stables. We returned to our boat for dinner aboard.


Day 15    Depart

After breakfast, everyone disembarked and transferred to the airport for the return flight home, or carried on to wherever else they were going. We stayed in Budapest for three days, but didn't see very much as we were totally exhausted.

Conclusion

On the plus side

Not only was everything included – not the bar; but wine or beer was included with lunch and dinner – there were little extras which we found made life easier and/or more interesting. Every day, in the cabin, a new bottle of water was added, whether we finished the previous bottle or not.

The cabins were fully made up every morning and we had clean towels whenever we needed them.

In the evening, in case we had rested on the bed, they were smoothed down so were unruffled when it was time to retire.

Whenever we went on a tour we were all given a bottle of water and, when the weather was inclement, a large Viking umbrella. And when we returned from a walking tour we were either met by the chef with a tray of sweetmeats or the receptionist with a tray of drinks.

Every night in the cabin we were given a double page “newspaper” showing the times and happenings for the following day. In addition, a précis of what was happening in various countries were available at reception. I didn't read the UK one as I didn't want to spoil my vacation.

There was plenty of entertainment during the evenings with a resident pianist. Everyone loved Bobbie on our first boat, and his evening playing was soft and lovely. If you were still up at eleven o'clock, he would start the Rock 'n' Roll going!

Sasha, our Program Director was absolutely terrific, keeping an eye on the pulse, always where he was needed. Half German, half English, and living in Italy, he was very adept with languages.

No cheap flights, British Airways chosen. No unearthly hours, Heathrow to Amsterdam and Budapest to Heathrow both late morning.

On the minus side


Exhausting. Took us three days to recover.

Expensive laundry returned prices, during the fifteen days I paid over 200 Euros. Mainly shirts, blouses and underwear. It was handed in during the morning and returned to the cabin by the time we got back from local tours during the late afternoon.

We took hundreds of photographs

We have put all our photographs on the cloud so if you'd like to see them, send me an email (twzaite@gmail.com) with your name and I will send you a link. Approximately 450 cut to 6x4.


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