STEPHEN SCOURFIELD wallows in luxury, culture and company on a river cruise through Europe's heart
Tauck’s Blue Danube river cruise begins with two nights at the InterContinental Prague hotel, seven on the impressive MS Joy river cruise ship, and a final two at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Budapest.
So describing it as a “river cruise” doesn’t feel quite right. It is an engaging mix of land and river touring, visiting four capital cities as it heads east through Central Europe, from Prague to Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, with time to wander around Salzburg and Durnstein, too.
In the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, shared and different histories unfold.
Travel stories are often linear, the natural reflection of a journey. Beginning, middle, end. A to Z with lots of vacational vowels and cultural consonants in between. And in many ways this story can easily follow that form — after all, it doesn’t get more linear than following a river, does it? But this story can’t be quite as straight forward as that …
ALL IN THE FAMILY
A river cruise on the Danube features in the thoughts of many travellers, but the American-based company Tauck may not.
So, let’s start there. Arthur Tauck started the company in 1925. On his first trip, in the US, he rented a Studebaker, checked guests in and out of the hotel rooms, carried their luggage, paid tips and for meals, all within the one price they’d paid.
Tauck is now in its third generation of family ownership and a spokesperson says those values are unchanged: “We believe that good value sells itself — you should get what you pay for, and then some, in one upfront price with virtually everything included.”
And, indeed, touring, guides, entrance fees, tips and gratuities and all drinks on board (even the Moet and Chandon welcome party) are included on the Blue Danube river cruise. And there is no single supplement on category one cabins on every departure, subject to their availability.
PACE & PIZZAS
Pace is important, but often invisible to the guest. It includes the planning put into logistics, how much is included each day, the order, how much structure, how much free time, how stories will unfold. A good pace gives flow — a rhythm which has momentum but is comfortable, and the Blue Danube itinerary has this.
Part of this is explained when I am greeted by three tour directors — Stefan Burger, Aggie (Agnieszka) Bonior and Ludmila Hochmanova. Throughout the trip for us 104 passengers, there are a lot of well-trained staff. Tour directors first do the tour as a guest, and then as a trainee, and then in the company of two experienced colleagues.
And throughout the trip, staff are keen to take me to one side and tell me how good Tauck is to work for. “They really care about us.” I hear this many times and I mention this because this is a crew that is valued and appreciated, which works happily together, and that all comes through in the atmosphere created.
In Vienna, when we all go off sightseeing, executive chef Sergesj Gorjasko starts making pizzas, and the off-duty crew head into the adjacent park and hang out together, playing soccer.
For each excursion, there are small groups, Quiet Vox audio devices and good local guides.
The 135m length and 11.4m width of river cruise ships on the Danube are defined by the size of the locks, height of bridges, and by regulations. In some locks, there seems just a fist-width of space between the side of the ship and the wall as the water’s let out and we descend.
To have 104 passengers on a ship the size of MS Joy means plenty of space (other ships this size will have many more passengers). But so too does the design. The staterooms do not have balconies, which I generally find of little use on such ships. They have full floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors (with a rail outside), so the balcony space is saved for the cabin. This results in big rooms and big bathrooms.
They also have the bed “across” the ship — a real point of difference, as guests can pull the doors open, lie on the bed and watch the riverbank go by. The bed and pillows are rather like a big cloud, the design and furnishing is fresh and stylish, the storage space extremely good.
But if MS Joy’s “standard cabins” are good, there are some really great cabins on board, too. The “Category three” suite has a queen-size bed, and then five steps up to a platform with a double storey “loft” window. It’s most unusual.
The “Category seven” suite has a double bed, sofa bed that opens to a double, a full walk-in wardrobe, or storage and dressing room, and is ideal for families.
I really like this ship. The Panorama Lounge is spacious, stylish and unfussy. In aqua tones with cream and white, there is comfortable seating in cleverly designed areas — curved, upholstered benches with high backs, tables and armchairs, and more private tables around the curve of the bow.
Most meals are served in the Compass Rose restaurant — good cuisine presented by very good staff. Breakfast is a buffet, lunch a mix of buffet and a la carte, and there is a full menu in the evenings. Those interested in wines will understand the significance of serving the beautiful Chateau La Chapelle Despagnet 2016 St Emilion Grand Cru from France’s Bordeaux region as one of the dinner wine choices.
The care taken over allergies, and likes and dislikes, is exemplary. The restaurant staff are fully and carefully briefed, and from the first meal, recognise each diner and their needs. It really is extraordinary.
Tauck like “smart casual” for the restaurant in the evening. (So do I.)
At the aft, there is the smaller Arthur’s lounge, bar and cafe, where there’s always food available, and us early risers gather to quietly sip tea and enjoy what Joe DeMartino from Connecticut calls “first breakfast”. Or perhaps I should spell that “foist” breakfast, because Joe has a great “just north of New York” accent and the warmth that goes with it.
And so we come to my fellow passengers. There are all sorts of filters in travel, which so often lead to the right people being on the right trip, with like-minded fellow passengers. That’s where good chemistry starts.
And there are filters in finding and booking Tauck which have done that on this voyage. About half are from the US — and I continually encounter warm, engaging, interested, friendly-but-not-pushy fellow travellers. We mix and chat, and are invited to tables. There’s a really nice feel on board. I like an international mix of guests.
I become friends with Isaac and Raya Sadigursky, from Russia, who now live near Los Angeles. There are eight Australians, including David and Carolyn Corkindale from South Australia and Toby and Patricia Pearson from Victoria.
I spend a bit of time with David and Helena Twist from the Channel Islands in the UK. I enjoy the company of the Americans — from Florida and Texas, New York City (and none of us talk politics). There are 11 people from one family from Virginia.
I like being out in the world. I like being international, and having my brain in other geography, onboard and off…
And so the scene is set, and we can be linear. We can follow the Danube and go with the flow.
“Every day has a ‘wow moment’,” says Ludmila Hochmanova. “I promise you this.” Following the chronology of the trip, she’s right…
In Prague, there is a private dinner, with classical musicians, in the 16th-century Lobkowicz Palace — the only private palace in Prague Castle. With it is served the story of the Lobkowicz family, who twice regained all their property, once from the nazis and then from the communists.
And there is the sight of a manuscript score for Part III of the oratoria Messiah by George Frideric Handel arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This is Handel redrafted in Mozart’s own hand — part of the Lobkowicz Music Archives, which contain the world’s biggest private collection of baroque music.
Still in the Czech Republic, there is a visit to the extraordinary Strahov Monastery Library with its 270,000 books. We have special access to the walk within the book halls, surrounded by the books, while other visitors can only peep through the doorway.
At the little town of Engelhartszell in Austria, we are taken on home visits. I join a group taken to the mountain farm of Regina Leidinger, which dates back to at least 1601, and where Regina maintains traditions and grows Christmas trees.
There’s a pleasant afternoon in Durnstein, with the ruin of a castle where England’s Richard the Lionheart was held hostage during one of the Crusades, and its gilded baroque church.
Some of us ride the Danube Bicycle Path, near Schlogener Schlinge S-bends in Austria.
Tauck’s comfortable coaches (each with a toilet), take me to Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart and The Sound of Music.
Most of us chose to visit the beautiful Schonbrunn Palace, near Vienna; an Austrian version of Paris’ Versaille.
And there is a “private Imperial Evening” at Palais Pallavicini, an opulent Viennese palace which played a role in the 1940s film The Third Man. There are musicians, opera singers and ballet dancers.
As we arrive in Bratislava, not so often visited on Danube cruises, guest lecturer Dr Nora Grancay comes aboard to give a passionate and brilliant one-hour summary of Slovakian history, setting the scene before we step ashore with excellent local guide Maria Zatkova.
In Budapest, there is an insider visit to the Liszt Academy and private recital by outstanding pianist Laszlo Varadi.
And in Budapest, on the final evening, the farewell dinner is in the grand Akademia Club in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Usually only members are admitted.
…and after all that, on our final night in Budapest, we come to the end of this chapter. Or, not quite.
For this city takes on a different persona in the dark — gothic, baroque, rococo, art deco, art nouveau and brutalist buildings, brick and marble and sandstone, lit orange and gold, light reflecting off the river.
A few of us take a last stroll together, eking out not only our time in this bewitching city, but the time we have spent together. We don’t want either to end.
There is very limited availability in September and October for Tauck’s Blue Danube river cruise in 2019, from $7490 per person, twin share or solo for the 11 nights, 12 days.
The Blue Danube is available from April to October 2020, also from $7450 per person, twin share or solo.
There is no solo supplement in category one cabins on every departure.
Bicton Travel can offer two nights accommodation free pre/post a Tauck river cruise — on the Blue Danube at either InterContinental Prague (worth up to $629 per night) or The Ritz-Carlton, Budapest (worth up to $830 per night). This is subject to availability at the time of booking.
The prices include all private Tauck shore excursions ($4120 in value), exclusive events and performances, unlimited drinks aboard the ship including regional wine, beer and premium spirits in addition to specialty coffee, water and soft drinks, transfers, 28 meals, selected meals in local restaurants.
Phone Bicton Travel on 1800 689 842 or email@example.com, or visit Bicton Travel at the corner of Canning Highway and Petra Street, Bicton.