The Danube, it turns out, is not “blue” at all but a murky green. At least it was from where I sat on my balcony in the late autumn sunshine, watching the occasional swan drift by. This was my first river cruise and I had no idea it would be so enjoyable. I had imagined a much busier and fustier experience.

Yet here I was, aboard APT’s slick Concerto river ship, MS AmaVenita, enjoying the serenity of life on the water, belly purring after a top-notch lunch, and kicking myself for having curtailed a 15-day Budapest to Vienna itinerary to three days.

The couple of hundred Australians with whom I was sharing my space were fun and adventurous. They also commented regularly on my “youth” – reason enough to book another cruise.

Our adventure began in Budapest. Before setting off we were offered a selection of tours (included in the fare). The itinerary also offered time to explore independently. I joined a group heading to Godollo Palace, about an hour from the city centre, where we were greeted by a small trumpet-bearing cavalry and given a detailed tour of the palace’s baroque interior by an impressively coiffed and supremely knowledgeable guide disguised as Franz Joseph I, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary from 1848 to 1916.

From this month, APT’s passengers will journey to Godollo Palace on a restored royal steam train once used by the emperor and empress (see box, below). The train wasn’t quite finished when I travelled late last year but the experience is one of APT’s exclusive events.

The Grand Empress steam train

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An afternoon walking tour with another erudite, personable guide took us around some of Budapest’s highlights – including the Royal Palace and Fisherman’s Bastion – and appraised me of details new to me, despite previous visits.

Exploring solo, I reminded myself of the city’s contrasting charms: flamboyant Habsburg-era architecture, Lenin busts in dusty communist-era shop windows and the deeply moving Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial − shoe sculptures that pay tribute to the Arrow Cross terror, which saw thousands forced to strip before being shot in the back and washed away by the river.

It was a sobering reminder that the past is never far away.

That evening, to the accompaniment of classical music, our ship cruised beneath the city’s grand illuminated bridges and monuments. Staff passed around apricot-flavoured schnapps and blankets to keep off the chill. Later, in the lounge, I chatted to a couple who had both been born in Hungary and later naturalised in Australia. We talked of their return to Budapest after decades away, and I mentioned the shoe memorial.

Budapest’s Shoes on the Danube

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“I remember seeing that when I was a child,” said the woman. It took a moment before I realised she meant she had seen not the memorial, but the shooting itself. “I was only three years old,” she continued. “But I remember seeing the people lined up alongside the river and wondering what was happening. My father was wounded in the leg a few years later by a Russian soldier for asking the time. We got out to Australia, where my parents met another Hungarian family with a son around my age. That boy is now my husband, Peter. We’ve been married 60 years.” 

We arrived in Vienna the next afternoon, where I reaquainted myself with the interior of the grand St Stephen’s Cathedral before indulging in apple strudel at Café Hawelka − one of the city’s legendary coffee houses. 

The cruise line did an excellent job of whisking us back to the city’s glory days. That evening’s “signature experience” was at the baroque Stadtpalais Liechtenstein (City Palace): a champagne reception followed with a performance by the City Palace Orchestra. We heard selections from Vienna’s most famous musical sons, Strauss and Mozart, plus charming solos and duets by a male baritone tenor and a female soprano. There were also appearances by members of the Mozart Children’s Choir.

The encore, perhaps inevitably, given the exclusively APT audience, was Strauss’s famous waltz, An der schönen blauen Donau, better known as The Blue Danube.

The Danube River is the second longest river in Europe

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“As you may have noticed on your trip,” announced the compère, “the Danube is not blue.” My ears pricked up. “There are several explanations suggested for why Strauss gave the composition this title. One theory is that it was a reference to the Franco-Austrian war, during which French troops were killed along the Danube, their blue uniforms changing the colour of the water. Another is that he wrote it under the influence of alcohol. ‘Ich bin blau’ (I am blue), means ‘I am tipsy’ in German…”

The 15-day Magnificent Europe river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, departing May 11, 2019, costs from £5,945pp including excursions (0800 012 6683; aptouring.co.uk).

Travel like royalty on the grand Empress

When the Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife Elisabeth (known as Sisi) travelled in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they did it in style on the Grand Empress steam train. After arriving in Budapest for a short city tour, APT guests will follow in the royal couple’s footsteps.

The journey starts in the Royal Waiting Room – the same one used by the royal couple – at Budapest station. The steam locomotive is powered by an historic engine nicknamed the Buffalo. Its elegant teakwood dining car built in 1912 is the perfect setting for a three-course lunch.

Once in Gödöllő, guests step straight from the train to the Royal Palace, which was gifted to Sisi and Franz Joseph on their coronation.

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