After two days in Budapest, I checked in to my home for four days, the Emerald Sun. Emerald Waterways is a division of Scenic Cruises, a five star cruise line, with Emerald their newer four-star line product. Like all of the ships on the river, the Sun is three decks with an open seating area up top. And like most of the other European river cruise lines, the fare includes meals and excursions. Typically, Emerald Waterways includes wine and beer at lunch and dinner, but for this trip, it was open bar.
I have long thought river cruising works very well as a way to see Europe, and this trip reinforced that view. European history is largely about rivers. The Danube is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga, and it has an enormously complex history. It was the northern border of the Roman Empire, and for much of the early history of Europe, it marked the boundary between the civilized south and the barbaric north. It was also an enormously important transportation route. The Vikings sailed up from the Black Sea to spread chaos in the 11th century, perhaps inspiring some of the many castles along the way. The cities along the Danube often started as defensive works, but became important trade centers. So to follow one of the great rivers through Europe is a very appropriate way to experience the history of the continent. Not to mention the logistical advantages of unpacking once and having your hotel room move with you.
The Emerald Sun is typical of river cruise ships. Like all of the ships in Europe, her size is limited by the size of the locks and bridges. At 180 passengers, it is a relatively intimate setting. One quickly gets to know the staff and fellow passengers. Dining is open seating, and as I was travelling alone, this gave me the chance to meet quite a few very interesting people.
Another advantage of river cruising is the food. All meals are included: buffet breakfasts and lunches, and a more formal table service menu for dinners. Food on the Emerald Sun was good and satisfactory, but frankly not great. One assumes the quality of cuisine will vary based on the delxue-ness of the cruise line, and is of higher quality on Scenic, for example, the lines more upscale brand. The buffet offerings for breakfast varied little from day to day. The variety at lunch was better; there was always something on the buffet that was representative of the local flavor, as was the case with dinner. The execution of the buffet and dinners did come up a bit short. We addressed these with management and I am confident that will improve. Mind you, the service at the meals was excellent and attentive and the wine very good. But the pheasant was overcooked and the Weinerschnitzle was dry. This was really the only "flaw" in an otherwise wonderful cruise experience.
We began with a tour of Budapest. Again, this is a huge advantage of river cruising. The intercity transportation along the river is at night, so you have the whole day to enjoy the cities and towns visited. I had spent two days wandering around Budapest on my own, so having someone then narrate as we drove the city by bus was a very nice complement. I had not found and probably would not have found Heroes’ Square, which was very cool, and getting up to the top of the hill to see Statue of Liberty would have been almost impossible without a tour. Our Emerald-provided guide was fantastic, very informative and personable. She hit the mix of enough information with time to wander just right. And it helps that Budapest is just a spectacular city.
Our second day was spent in Bratislava, Slovakia. This is quite a small city and country. We took a walking tour of the old city, which was charming, and had some free time in the afternoon to wander around. I walked down to the shopping mall to see what modern Slovakia looks like, and found it to be much the same as a modern mall in most of the world. The highlight of our Slovakian experience was a drive out into the countryside to visit with a local. By luck we drew a very colorful woman in her 70's, who had much to say about the changes in her lifetime. She, for one, has at least some nostalgia for the communist era which was, to her mind, more stable and safe. She sees modern Slovakia as being somewhat out of control, and she does not think much of the youth of today. She served spiced wine made from grapes from her property and a very nice apple strudel. It was a very interesting afternoon.
After Slovakia came Vienna, and if Bratislava is somewhat of a backwater, Vienna is far from it. The former capital of the Hapsburg Empire, Vienna is still full of grand architecture, museums, palaces, etc. It is an expensive city. A quick note for those of you thinking of visiting Vienna; the center of the city is fairly compact. As is often the case, the old city walls were torn down and replaced with a road, and one could walk at a brisk pace across the central part of the city in less than an hour. Within this area are cathedrals and palaces and lots of little squares, coffee houses and restaurants, as much shopping as anyone could hope for, and many, many people.
Even in fall it was crowded; I can’t imagine high season! I spent a good part of the day wandering around, getting a little lost and getting a feel for the city. We did a tour to the Summer Palace, which is roughly contemporaneous to Versailles. I wish I had more time to explore the gardens there, they are massive. I would like to go again in the summer. In the evening, Emerald arranged for a performance of classical music in a 900-year-old monastery. This was presented by an eight-piece orchestra with narration by the concert master and it touched on all of the most well-known points of Viennese music, with the inclusion, of course, of the Blue Danube Waltz. It was very charming!
From Vienna we went on to the town of Melk, a small town in the Wachau Valley most well-known for its spectacular monastery. The list of guests who stayed here includes Marie Antoinette, The Dalai Lama and Napoleon (who was not invited.) This is as fine an example of Baroque architecture as you will find. From the monastery, it is a short walk through the woods back to the Danube.
At Melk, I changed to a new ship, the Scenic Opal. Emerald is a four star product, Scenic is every bit a five star. The food went from good to outstanding, the service went from excellent to simply wow. And did I mention the wine? From Melk, we sailed back downstream through the Wachau Valley. Castles on hilltops, vineyards climbing the hills, quaint little towns with old churches, this is what Europe is supposed to look like. We sailed to Durnstein, which is a small town with a spectacular ruined castle and a beautiful Church; there are probably not 1,000 people living in Durnstein, and I understand that at peak season several ships a day stop here. We were fortunate, it was late in the day and we were the only ship in town. The town is picturesque beyond belief, and we had a wonderful evening of music and wine in the wine cellar of a vineyard on the edge of town. Scenic calls this event a “Sundowner” and it was a total blast.
The rest of the trip was doing the first half in reverse, a return to Vienna and then on to Budapest. I toured the stables of the famous riding school and saw another performance of music, this time in the Lichtenstein Palace. And back in Budapest, a visit to the Central Market finished off the trip.
Summary: I loved Budapest! I could spend a week or more there. "Yes" to river cruising as a way to see Europe. And kudos to both Emerald and Scenic, but especially Scenic. It is a nice thing to sip a glass of excellent wine while watching Europe slide by. I can’t wait to do this again!
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