We wondrously waltz down the Danube through Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia on a Viking longship captained by Marco Sageder. The Baldur is one of many long, slim vehicles crafted for this purpose and increasingly popular amongst older tourists because they offer easy access to city cores, delicious meals and comfortable staterooms.
After arrival via Air Canada in
Munich, we travel by coach to
Passau where, next morning after breakfast, we enjoy a walking tour of the Dreiflussestadt or City on Three Rivers, at the confluence of the Danube, Hz and Inn Rivers. We see the impressive Bishop's Residenz, 14th-century Town Hall and the magnificent 17th-century
St. Stephan's Cathedral, containing Europe's largest pipe organ. Equally impressive is the remarkably high water mark etched on buildings that reflect 2013's worst flood in 500 years.
Linz, we travel again via coach to
Salzburg, the famous film location for
The Sound of Music. Viking employs its own comfy buses. We drive through the scenic Austrian countryside to the Old Town area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A walking tour features the birthplace of
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the
Hohensalzburg Fortress just above the city center. We have a few hours free time to enjoy Salzburg's narrow cobbled streets and colourful shops. We lunch in one of the charming cafés, make a mandatory purchase of
Mozartkugel - Fürst chocolates at the Café Konditorei, and it's back to Baldur, named after a Norse god.
Next morning, we visit the 900-year-old abbey at
Melk, a Benedictine monastery, originally one of Leopold II's castles and a highlight of the trip. I'm astonished by its spectacular wall and ceiling frescoes and the comprehensive collection of medieval manuscripts. I could easily remain in the library all day! We set sail after lunch, stopping at the picturesque Wachau Valley town of
Durnstein, where we sample local vintages from this famous wine-producing region.
After a sound sleep and breakfast, we set off on our half-day tour of
Vienna, one of Europe's most elegant and romantic cities. We view the Ringstrasse, lined with imposing palaces and grand residences, encircling the medieval Innere Stadt (Inner City). Other remarkable sights are the magnificent
Hofburg Palace, glorious
St. Stephan's Cathedral with its gleaming spire and the beautiful
State Opera House. A McDonald's restaurant set amidst all of this splendour is a good washroom respite but seems rather gauche. We skip a ride on a traditional horse-drawn fiaker, but eagerly sample the famous
Sachertorte Viennese pastry in a sidewalk cafe.
Bratislava, Slovakia's charming yet tired capital, we examine attractions like the medieval Town Hall complex and fortifications at Michael's Tower, the baroque Jesuit Church and Gothic St. Martin's Cathedral.
Budapest at night with the lit Parliament Buildings is such a gorgeous sight that it's often featured on covers of tourism brochures. We visit both the older "Buda" and more cosmopolitan "Pest" sides of the city, starting with Pest's National Opera House and historic Heroes' Square. In Buda, we walk along Castle Hill to Fishermen's Bastion and then visit Matthias Church.
The great advantage of longships that ply enticing European rivers is that they usually tie up near the city centre, so we head back to the ship for lunch. After lunch, we stroll along Vaci Utca where we find excellent
Herend porcelain produced in Hungary since 1839, the country's renowned peasant embroidery and other Hungarian souvenirs.
The city's 19th century Moorish-style
Dohany Street synagogue is Europe's largest and one of the largest in the world. Severely damaged during World War II, it was restored in the 1990s after the fall of Communism. It also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum. 400,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
World War II Memorial affects me the most. It consists of a poignant scattering of empty shoes along the Danube's riverbank, close to our ship. It honours Jews killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen. Ordered to take off their shoes, they were shot at the edge of the water such that their bodies fell into the Danube and were carried away. The sculptor created sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes made from iron, attached to the stone embankment. It's a potent reminder of a dark period in European history.
Viking is highly regarded in the industry and frequently placed at the top of its class. I readily see why. All facets are well organized, precise and are delivered at a gold standard. In each country, the tour guides were knowledgeable and professional. The ship's cuisine and appointments such as the outdoor Aquavit terrace and the airy, glass-enclosed atrium-style lobby are first rate. The small footprint size allows easy access to ports and for us, it an opportunity to make new friends!
Besides writing for the five Niagara Postmedia newspapers, Mike has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of four thousand viewers.