AMA’s Romantic Danube + Christmas = Perfection

Nanci Browning on Ama Waterways river cruise in Budapest
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With a slight addiction to Christmas markets and a yearning to sail on the Danube, I booked my husband and myself on Ama Waterways' Romantic Danube itinerary. The itinerary for this much-anticipated cruise was to begin in Vilshofen, Germany and end in Budapest, Hungary. 

We flew into Munich and spent one night at the historical Sofitel Munich Bayerpost, one of TravelStore's Signature resorts with upgrade privileges, and we were upgraded to a top-floor Duplex Junior Suite with a view over the city to the Alps.  After getting settled, we walked around the city to fight off jet-lag and acclimate to the cold temperature.  When we returned to the Bayerpost we used our food and beverage credit (another Signature resort amenity) to have a sumptuous dinner at DÉLICE La Brasserie.

After a comfortable night’s sleep we refueled at breakfast, yet another included amenity, and headed to the train station.  The Munich train station is a short walk from the Bayerpost, and easy to navigate even with our luggage.  After printing our train tickets, we boarded and headed to Vilshofen.

After a smooth train ride and a quick taxi ride, we were at the AmaViola in Vilshofen.  We checked-in with the friendly crew at the front desk and were escorted to our cabin.  I had booked us the entry category, which is E, with a fixed window.  It was a comfortable 160 square feet on the Piano Deck - decorated in bright and cheery colors.  

We had plenty of time to explore the ship before a welcome cocktail and the obligatory safety drill.  AmaViola is one of the newer ships in this young and expanding fleet.  There is a heated pool with a swim-up bar, and I was curious to see how many people on the cruise would brave the cold weather to go for a swim.  There is a fitness room and hair salon, in addition to a massage room, which I definitely planned on visiting at least once. 

After the safety drill there was a welcome beer-fest with local musicians and performers shore-side.  In addition to the beer, pretzels, and entertainment, this was an opportunity to meet some fellow passengers.  I was told the German Pilsner, or rather the father of the German Pilsner, was born in Vilshofen.  The current Pilsner may or may not have any semblance to the original, but it was quite tasty.  This was a fun introduction to our Romantic Danube cruise, and it set the tone for a locally-inspired sailing.

We had a lovely dinner at the Chef’s Table restaurant on this first night, and in true Ama form, the food and service were exceptional.  As with all dinners (and lunches), wine and beer are poured freely.  AmaWaterways is a member of the invitation-only French culinary society, Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, which means, in short, the food is good.  Actually, it’s really good.  You don’t have to worry if the food only passes as palatable.  It is consistently good.  I am less of a foodie as I am a picky eater, and I am never disappointed eating on an Ama ship.

Our first port was Passau, which is as picturesque as a medieval city can be.  Ama does a great job of providing tours for different activity levels.  We chose a hike for Passau and thought it was more of a stroll until we got to the steep pilgrimage steps to the Mariahilf monastery.  Fortunately we did not have to climb the 320+ stairs on our knees, as true pilgrims would.  When we returned to the town of Passau, we took in the beauty of this small town on the Danube, and to fight the chill we ducked into a café for a warm drink.

Our next port was Linz, Austria.  We decided to take a full-day excursion to Salzburg.  My husband won’t admit it, but I think he was looking forward to visiting Mondsee the lake-side town, which was the site of the wedding scene in "The Sound of Music" at the Basilica St. Michael.  It is a spectacular church without its Hollywood connection. 

Fortunately for us, AmaViola had The Sound of Music on-demand, so when we returned to the ship later in the day, we were able to watch this classic movie.  As for me, I was looking forward to the big Christmas market in Salzburg.  I have been to Salzburg, and it is a lovely city, but the main reason this California “girl” was in 30 degree temps in Austria in late November was for glühwein and to add to her smoking Santa collection.

When we returned to Linz late in the day, we had a brief tour showcasing the highlights of the city.  We were most interested in the Christmas market.  It was close to the ship and it was full of locals, as this was a Friday night.  After a quick trip back to the ship to drop off our Salzburg finds, we bundled up and walked to the Christmas market.  We enjoyed the local cuisine, Austrian brats, and of course, glühwein.

The next day we had scenic sailing of the Wachau Valley on our way to Weissenkirchen.  The vineyards, orchards, and castles along the river were as picturesque as I had hoped, and our cruise manager adroitly pointed out significant sights along the river as The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II played in the background.

For a Weissenkirchen tour we chose a hike to the Dürnstein fortress ruins.  The claim to fame here is Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner.  The most impressive part of the fortress is the views of the Valley and the Danube.  If we had an old camera with film, we surely would have gone through several rolls.  Before leaving Durnstein we had to taste and buy the local apricot liqueur.

After our hike Ama had arranged a tasting of a local Weissenkirchen wine.  It was a family winery, and when one of our fellow passengers asked about purchasing a bottle, we were told there were none to sell.  It was a small batch of Grüner Veltliner, and we were fortunate to have had this experience with a small Austrian family winemaker.

Before walking back to the ship, we visited the Christmas market at the local church.  Weissenkirchen means White Church in German, so it was fitting that we made our way to the main attraction of the town.  There was a Christmas market in full swing, and the locals were very kind and happy to show us their local wares.  My husband and I lingered and enjoyed the sweets and glühwein of Weissenkirchen.

The next day we visited the Melk Abbey, which is one of the most impressive sights on the Danube.  It is located high above the river, and the location has been important to monks for nearly 1,000 years.  Melk Abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a Baroque style, beautiful frescos, an impressive library, and fabulous views of the Wachau Valley.

From Melk we were on our way to Vienna.  My husband and I were looking forward to the big Christmas market in Vienna, and we were not disappointed.  It was very cold, but we kept warm with shopping and sipping on - you guessed it - glühwein.  We took the last AmaViola shuttle back to the ship, and this was very convenient because it stopped right at the Rathouseplatz, which is where the big Christmas market is located.

On our second day in Vienna we had a morning excursion with an overview of the city.  We saw the main sights, and I was pleased we got to see some Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School.  The Ringstrasse is very impressive in person, as it is lined with some of Vienna’s grandest buildings and parks.  Our cruise manager found our tour group on the excursion and gave us all a Mozart candy and made sure everyone was happy.  We were, but a little chocolate never hurts.

My husband and I skipped the afternoon excursion for time on our own in Vienna.  We wanted to see the little Christmas markets scattered throughout the city.  Also on our list for must-haves in Vienna was a Sacher Torte.  It was everything we hoped for - the perfect combination of chocolate and fruit with a dollop of whipped cream.  As much as we enjoyed Vienna, we were looking forward to seeing Budapest.

In Budapest we had a superb docking location on the Pest side of the city.  We were near the Great Market Hall, which is where our excursion began.  Our guide gave us the history of the Hall and gave us some time to browse the food and craft stalls.  I was on a paprika buying mission, and this was the place to purchase it.  After our time in the market, we boarded a bus for a tour of the Pest side of the city, which is the flat and newer side of the city.  Our guide gave us good insight on communist Hungary and shared her personal experiences post-communism.  We stopped at Heroes’ Square, which is the largest and most impressive square in Budapest.  There is a huge statue honoring some of Hungary’s most important historical figures.  From Heroes’ Square we crossed the river for the old city of Buda.  We got to tour the medieval Matthias Church, which is not to be missed, and the views of the city from Fisherman’s Bastion were amazing. 

After our tour we had a quick bite on the ship and went back out to find the Christmas markets.  It was a little chilly, and to warm up we decided to try a Kürtőskalács, which I’m told translates to stovepipe.  The shape is a cylinder, and the steam from the hot pastry rises from the chimney-like top.  It was warm with cinnamon sugar and could have fed a family of four.  Too bad it was just the two of us.  We had to do double duty and persevere.  Fortunately we had the Hungarian version of glühwein to help wash it down.

We shopped for local ceramics and handmade gifts, leaving the Christmas market in time to get back to the ship for our final night on AmaViola and the grand finale – a special “Illuminations Cruise.”  Budapest is very pretty during the day, but at night the city is spectacular.  I think all guests were on deck for the cruise past the Hungarian Parliament Building.  The lounge bar staff sent up Hungarian Pálinka (firewater disguised as brandy) to help us keep warm, and I marveled at this fabulous ending to a wonderful week on AmaViola.  Romantic Danube indeed!

We were sad to leave the service and comfort of the ship.  I had grown used to having a recipe waiting for me on our bed when we came back from dinner.  Great nightly 

entertainment was just down the hall.  We had an engaging and fun cruise manager who always had something interesting or witty to say.  We had a cabin steward who took great care of us and always restocked our bedside water bottles.  I was very fond of the locally inspired cuisine, and how it varied day-to-day and country-to-country.  My two massages on the ship were just what I needed after daily walking tours.  And even though we didn’t ride the bikes available to take out (too cold), we had the option!

As it turns out, other guests were due to arrive.   We were not going to be able to keep our cabin past 9 a.m., and while the crew was ever so gently pushing us off the ship, we were after all in Budapest.  With one more day to explore the city we bravely faced the real world post-AmaViola and headed into the lightly falling snow.

A postscript to our Romantic Danube cruise, shortly after returning home we received a postcard from the officers on our cruise.  They did miss us!  Granted the postcard does appear to be mass-produced, but there was a handwritten note, and we were encouraged to sail with Ama again.  With a handwritten note, it would be rude to pass up an invitation, and we most certainly will sail with Ama again.  I can’t wait!  I’d love to help you plan an Ama cruise, too.

Nanci Browning