Avalon Waterways 16-Day River Cruise Part 1 – Budapest to Nuremberg04/09/2023
Words & Images by Shane Boocock
Monday the 29th May 2023 was an auspicious day, one to be celebrated. Exactly 70 years ago, at 11:30am on the 29th May 1953, Ed Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay conquered Everest. The closest thing I’d come to climbing on this Avalon Waterways River Cruise would be scaling the top of hilltop castles that sit high above the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers…I doubt Hillary would have been even slightly impressed.
I bordered my Avalon Waterways cruise about 11am and duly waited in the lounge with Al and Robyn, whom I’d met waiting for our shuttle bus connection, along with all the new arriving passengers. My bags were brought onboard and suite-tagged for the Royal Deck. Once we had been given a safety briefing I was free to wander the city and take in the sights as the rooms wouldn’t be ready until about 2:30pm – this is standard practice on most cruise ships.
The 29th May was also a holiday in Hungary (Pentecost Day or more commonly known as, Whit Monday) so all the shops and markets were closed, with only restaurants and bars remaining open. Having found a long pedestrian only street full of cafés and restaurants not far from the ship it seemed only right to sit in a comfortable spot, order Hungarian Goulash along with a cold glass of Hungarian Dreher beer…it now felt like my trip had begun.
Avalon Waterways have just 12 cruise ships plying the waters of Europe along with a formidable reputation for delivering excellent service, quality food and wine as well as superbly appointed 200 square feet Royal Deck Panorama Suites and a wealth of service experience hosting guests from around the world. On board the Avalon Impression was a real mixture of nationalities but the majority were Australian, American, Canadian, a number of British and a few Asian couples as well as a large contingent of New Zealanders.
‘The Magnificent Rivers of Europe’ trip can be started in Amsterdam and finished in Budapest or, as in my case, the trip started in Budapest and would finish in Amsterdam. On board was a true United Nations of staff: our Captain was Hungarian, the Bar Manager was Bulgarian, the Head Chef was Serbian and our Head of Service was Romanian. But don’t despair, English is spoken by almost all the on-board staff.
Every day there are usually three Avalon Included Excursions to choose from, which fit in with Avalon’s Active Discovery or Classic option programs. Avalon Optional Excursions are trips that you have to pay extra for. It is best to decide what options to sign up for pre-cruise as they can always be changed once you are on board.
Budapest: Hungarian Countryside Wine Tasting Tour: (Optional Excursion NZ $120.00). This was my first trip away from the ship that I’d signed up for with some reluctance (Yeah, right!) for an Optional Excursion. What started out as an eight person small wine tour suddenly ballooned to 20 people when more passengers from a second Avalon cruise ship joined us.
On the itinerary were two small boutique wineries to be visited over a 3.5 hour excursion. The two vineyards, Kalmaroor and Orosz Gyula’s tasting rooms were both tucked away in deep cellars with old, arched dungeon-like stone or tile ceilings making it cool and cozy. To be honest, the excursion became more of a drinking tour than a tasting tour. The location was just beyond the industrial outskirts of the city offering pleasant but limited countryside views.
Back on the ship that evening I plonked my frame down on a stool at the bar whilst the rest of the passengers found seats around the Panorama Lounge in larger groups. Happy Hour had started at 5:45pm…lasting one hour. The bartender quickly poured me a chardonnay with ice – something she became so used to doing it would often be poured before I could ask for one. Her name was Monika and she was a smiling Bulgarian, very bubbly and as funny as any comedienne I’d ever witnessed. We became good friends over the course of the trip. That evening the crew made preparations to depart Budapest in darkness to sail overnight to Bratislava.
This was my second night sleeping on the Royal Deck located on the upper 3rd tier. The suites are semi-luxurious with exclusive Comfort Collection Beds and bespoke interiors along with floor to ceiling sliding glass doors, which allowed me to lean out over a mini-balcony rail. This particular cruise ship, Avalon Impression, has a length of 135 metres and enough suites to hold a total of 166 passengers. On this trip, however, I was told there were just 91 passengers – making it more comfortable and spacious at both meal times and on the upper deck during the day.
It was time to depart our Danube River mooring as the setting sun dropped below the horizon and the glittering skyline of Budapest revealed all its bridges and glorious buildings festooned in lights including the Buda Castle district and the Hungarian Parliament building.
Slovakia: The Beauty of Bratislava: The cruise overnight was smooth and quiet and uneventful as we eventually docked in the capital city of Slovakia. First a light buffet-style lunch was served in the Panorama Bistro or a more substantial menu/buffet lunch served in the Panorama Dining Room. It was particularly appreciated that Avalon Waterways include wine or beer with every meal.
Bratislava was then waiting to be explored as I prepared for our, Included Excursion – A guided walking tour of Bratislava’s Old Town cobblestone streets.
Bratislava is located almost in sight of the Austrian border and is only 16 kilometres away from the Hungarian border. The city became the capital of Hungary in 1541 after the Turks forced the Hungarians to withdraw from Buda. It remained Hungary’s capital from 1563 to 1830. Avalon Waterways had arranged a short, guided visit to the Old Town Hall and then a fascinating explanation from our guide inside the Gothic halls of St. Martin’s Cathedral – Hungary’s centuries old coronation church where 11 Hungarian kings and seven queens were crowned.
I liked Bratislava. With a population of about 440,000, it is small and compact and easy to walk around the narrow cobblestone streets that are overlooked by the imposing Bratislava Castle – a 9th century structure that was rebuilt a number of times and served as the seat of Hungarian royalty until it was finally burnt out in 1811. The castle now houses a large historical museum after it was reconstructed between 1953 and 1962.
Bratislava was once part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, until October 28th 1918, when Czechoslovakia was created. The primary ethnic group residing in Bratislava is Slovak, followed by Hungarians, Czechs, Germans, Moravians and Croats. Slovaks make up about 90% of the population of Bratislava.
This is a popular city stop for river cruises, so expect throngs of tourists following flag waving tour guides on their tour routes. Besides the cathedral and castle other notable sights include the Slovak National Museum, Slovak National Gallery and the Palace of the Royal Chamber – this building was once the Hungarian Parliament. Don’t be surprised, however, if there isn’t time to visit them all. You’ll need to research each destination first and then pick and choose carefully.
On the cruise’s dinner menu tonight was pumpkin soup and a delicious Pork Wellington on a bed of gravy sauce with puréed sweet potato and asparagus. Our departure for Vienna was not until 11:45pm, so Avalon had pre-arranged some on-board live entertainment, for those wishing to stay up late and dance to the groove.
Beer Choices: Patrónsky Pivovar Tmavý or Bratislava Larger by Bratislavsky Meštiansky Pivovar – both are excellent brews.
Austria: Vienna Waltz – Bites & Highlights: (Optional Excursion NZ $132.00). This was a day when a late afternoon foodie safari was potentially more enjoyable than traipsing around gilded landmarks such as the Imperial Palace complex, the Vienna Opera House or St. Stephen’s Cathedral (which I had visited many years ago). We started off with a subway train ride to the city centre. Within one block of exiting the station our tour guide had our small group seated for a wine tasting at Wein & Co – a bar that stocks over 2,000 different bottles of wine to choose from…most out of my price range.
We then walked across to Hoher Markt (a High or Important Market). The origin of this name is based on the important rule, which it played in the past. It’s one of the oldest and most historic squares in Vienna and home to the well over 100 year old Ankeruhr Clock. It is a beautiful unique clock built between 1911 and 1914.
Next on the list was a traditional Vienna Wurstelstand (Sausage Stand), which is a ubiquitous sight in Vienna. Typically it’s a small square booth on a street corner serving up to a dozen different types of brautwurst sausages (all under 5.00 – NZ $9.00) along with about 20 different cold beers. This particular stand was in Schwedenplatz where there are no stools or chairs just ledges to lean against to eat a cheap snack and drink a refreshing bottle of local ale. These traditional street food outlets are located more often than not near transit hubs and subway stations.
Not far from the Wurstelstand, around the next corner, was a Wiener-Bierfest (Sausage-Beer Festival) taking place that had set up numerous beer tents in a village-like square. Once again it was hard to escape the sounds and smells of sizzling sausages and the sipping, spilling or the downing of glass beer tankards. Note: there is also the smell of smoke to contend with as anyone outdoors, in most of Europe, can smoke cigarettes outdoors with ashtrays placed on every table.
Our final foodie stop was in a small arcade where we dropped into Xocolat in the Börseviertel district of Vienna – a sweet smelling store full of floor to ceiling chocolate delights in every shape and size. In a small alcove we were coaxed into sampling three special chocolate treats. Tasting the first one we were asked to identify the inner liquor of a white ball of chocolate to which I replied it smells like apricot. Taken aback our guide confirmed no one had previously managed to get it correct, however, I just happen to have apricot trees in my orchard at home, so the scent was familiar.
Beer Choice: Ottakringer Vienna Lager – this independently owned brewery is located in the centre of Vienna – another earthy brew and easy to drink.
Austria: Durnstein’s Kuenringer Castle and Melk’s Abbey in the Wachau Valley. Today the cruise ship docked at two small but beautiful towns nestled in the Wachau Valley. Durnstein is another of those picturesque villages on the Danube that is distinctly attractive with its blue and white cathedral (built 1715 to 1733) on the riverbank and it’s ruined, 12th century hilltop fortress.
It was already turning into a very hot day. I had opted to join an Included Excursion with a group of 14 cruise passengers on an 8:30am guided hike to Durnstein (Kuenringer) Castle to learn about a certain king’s ransom and the history of the castle ruins. This is when I’d recommend taking the guided hike, even though some people decided to do the hike themselves.
It was a steep and strenuous climb resulting, eventually, in spectacular views across the Danube River and Wachau Valley below. It was made all the more enjoyable on learning this was where King Richard the Lionheart had been imprisoned on his return from the Crusades in 1193. A ransom of 150,000 silver marks was demanded to get his release. In 1193/94 a final ransom of 100,000 silver marks was paid and he was released (much to Prince John’s displeasure). To put it into context a good horse in those days could be bought for three silver marks.
Once I’d made it down from the steep climb I peeled away from the group and found a small beer garden in the village where there was just enough time to order a cold one on tap before making my own way back to the cruise ship. It’s worth noting that you might only get a couple of hours to visit these small villages… and it can feel rushed when with an extra hour I’d have had more time to wander in the shops and back streets – it was something mentioned to me a number of times by other passengers at different stops.
Melk’s Benedictine Abbey: Later that afternoon I wandered through the historic Melk Monastery situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube. This Benedictine Abbey was founded in 1089. People come from around the world to see its over-the-top baroque frescoed ceilings and ornate golden statues, incredible library and mirrored room, as well as the abbey’s ornate organ pipe. With the amount of annual visitors surpassing 900,000 a year, it was not surprising to find the abbey grounds awash with tourists and tour groups – it was something I was having to get used to.
Beer Choice: A bottle of German Pilsner – I was too thirsty to remember the name of it!
Czech Republic: Visiting Cesky Krumlov: (Optional Excursion NZ $174.50). After an overnight/ evening cruise towards Passau we disembarked at 8am for a nine hour round-trip excursion to the southern bohemian, medieval town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic – said to be one of the most picturesque towns in Europe. The town centre was originally established on an S-shaped bend of the Moldau (Vitava) River.
Two hours after boarding the coach we stepped into this town’s visually attractive cobblestone streets dominated by a fortified castle, which was described as such as far back as 1253. By carbon-dating wood left in scaffolding holes the castle’s lower arches were deemed to be finished around 1435.
The old town centre of Cesky (Bohemian in English) Krumlov (Crumbled Meadow in English) is squeezed onto a flat protrudent piece of land on the right bank. The 13th century Gothic castle, rebuilt as an enormous Renaissance chateau maybe as a palace or even a citadel by Italian architects in the 16th century, rises high above the Moldau River on a thin ridge of rock on the left bank.
Cesky Krumlov has a population of about 12,000 inhabitants, which is small compared to how many tourists had descended on it. It has more bars and restaurants in its ancient buildings than I’d previously witnessed elsewhere. Beer has been brewed here since the 13th century and the local Eggenberg Brewery is over 400 years old. Not surprisingly, the Czech Republic is said to have the biggest beer drinkers per capita in Europe.
As an aside, Adolf Hitler visited Cesky Krumlov on October 20th, 1938 after he had annexed Sudetenland, which became part of Austria.
Beer Choice: Schloss Eggenberg Samichlaus classic dark beer from the local Eggenberg Brewery – a very unusual beer with similarities to Guinness but very smooth and drinkable.
Germany: Regensburg, Bavaria’s Medieval Miracle. This was our opportunity to visit the sensational gothic architecture of Regensburg St. Peter’s Cathedral, Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) as well as Porta Praetoria built by the Romans as the entrance to the old legionary fortress called Castra Regina. Along with Porta Nigra in Trier, the Porta Praetoria is the only partly preserved Roman gate north of the Alps. The Castra Regina legionary camp, which was completed in 179 AD faced the enemy territory of Germania. This garrison would have had a military presence of about 6,000 soldiers.
This is a town that is unique in Germany as it’s Roman, medieval and later additions escaped the fatal carpet- bombing like most other cities. During WWII it was a poor and unheard of town with seemingly no industry, so consequently it was never bombed and as such it has all of its authentic, original buildings dotted throughout the town centre. It is easily walkable and it’s a breeze to wander around this strikingly ancient city.
Regensburg’s landmark piece of architecture is St. Peter’s Cathedral. The architect that took over supervision of the new cathedral in 1280 was trained in France, and because of this there was an incorporation of French Gothic architectural themes. This included a central nave, which divides into three sections: buttresses, vaulting and two towers over a facade.
By 1320, the three choirs of this cathedral were ready for daily usage. Between 1385 and 1415 the main entrance to the West was completed. Most of the edifice was finished around the year 1520 – the opening year for the cathedral after 240 years of work had been completed.
Because the cathedral was built out of limestone, restoration work is required year-round and in 1923, the state-run Dombauhütte (cathedral building workshop) was founded, meaning restoration is a never-ending requirement. When I visited one of the towers was completely cocooned in scaffolding, something that will probably be erected again in another 100 years.
For foodies: adjacent to the River Danube is the oldest “Wurstküchl” (sausage kitchen) in German. It is notable as perhaps the oldest continuously open public restaurant in the world. In 1135 AD a building was erected during the construction of the Regensburg Stone Bridge. When the bridge was finished in 1146 AD, the building became a restaurant named “Garkueche auf dem Kranchen” (meaning cook-shop near the crane) as it was situated near the then river port. The present building at this location dates from the 17th century. A family called the Schrickers has owned it since 1806 and still operates it today.
During the summer tourist season the restaurant serves roughly 6,000 sausages daily. The speciality of the historic kitchen is the fried slim sausages served with rolls made with caraway seeds, homemade sauerkraut and mustard. Each plate comes with six slim ‘bangers’ served over the sauerkraut. Add pitchers of beer on a sunny lunchtime, sitting outside at wooden tables with Mike and Ranni, Al and Robyn, Don and Cheryl, with the Danube River coursing by just a stone’s throw away and it doesn’t get any better – believe me.
Beer Choice: Schlossbrauerei Eichhofen Premium Pilsner – cold and decidedly easy to consume on another hot day.
Nuremberg: The next stop on our Avalon Waterways River Cruise was to experience Nuremberg’s medieval architecture, gothic cathedral and Kaiserburg (Emperor) Castle. In its heyday in the 1500’s, Nuremberg (German for Rocky Hill) was the 3rd largest city in Europe, after Cologne and Prague.
Sadly Nuremberg was badly damaged during WWII with over 90% of the city turned to rubble or destroyed. The biggest air attack took place on the night of the 2nd January 1945 when 521 Lancaster Bombers dropped over 6,000 high explosive bombs and over one million incendiary devices on the city – it resulted in over 1,800 deaths and 100,000 people left homeless. Over many decades the people of the city rebuilt Nuremberg including the castle and the three old churches in the Altstadt (Old Town) using as many of the original stones as possible.
Our tour group entered the Kaiserburg Castle area over a bridge into the Frauentor (Women’s Gate) above a moat. It would otherwise have been a hard climb up Burgstrasse (Castle Street) to reach the ramparts, which offer dramatic and eye-catching views across the red-tiled roofs of the city.
The castle and numerous towers form a group of medieval fortified buildings that are perched on a sandstone ridge dominating the historical centre. During the Middle Ages, the Imperial Castle in Nuremberg was one of the most important imperial palaces in the Holy Roman Empire. For centuries it stood at the heart of European history and was a secure base and prestigious residence for the Empire’s head of state. The palace complex now houses a museum which, unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to visit…limited time allows you to only do so much I’m afraid.
If you have the time visit the Altstadt as it is easily covered on foot. There are numerous churches to visit such as the medieval St. Sebaldus Church and St. Frauenkirch Church along with the 14th century Schöner Brunnen, better known as the Beautiful Fountain.
On the streets of the Old Town I bumped into Mike and Ranni and it seemed appropriate that we should sample some Franconian beer, so we ordered a pitcher of Tucher Pilsner at a small café and for the first time we poured the slightly murky amber liquid into German ceramic beer steins instead of glass steins.
One of Nuremburg’s best-known inhabitants was pioneering German Renaissance painter, printmaker and theorist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). His house is now a museum and well worth the visit.
I’m not sure how they know this but it is said that in Nuremberg they serve four billion bratwurst sausages a year. This bratwurst sausage is long and thin and the recipe was supposedly first recorded in 1313. Somehow I have a feeling it’s true!
Beer Choices: Dunkles Hefe Weizen or a Tucher Pilsner – either one will make a trip to Nuremberg enjoyable.
(Editor: Avalon Waterways River Cruise from Bamberg to Amsterdam will be featured in the Summer Edition of Let’s Travel Magazine)
My cruise companions mentioned were from various parts of North America: Al and Robyn from Southern California, Parri and Mike from New Jersey, Donald and Cheryl from North Carolina and Liz, Callum and Belinda from Alberta, Canada.
The author was hosted by Avalon Waterways but paid for his own international return airfares, as well as all additional ground services.
Avalon Waterways River Cruises:
Avalon Waterways has redefined cruising by going against the current and away from the ordinary. Delivering unparallelled experiences and boundless exploration, Avalon puts you in the captain’s seat to navigate your journey, fuel your passions and steer clear of the unexpected as you cruise down the world’s most memorable and mesmerising waterways. One step aboard their modern, luxurious Suite Ships with the grandest views in cruising and you’ll see how the tides are changing.
Starting 1st September 2023, Qatar Airways we will be resuming direct daily services from Doha to Auckland return.
River Cruise Tips and Tidbits
- Carry US$ cash, as it is the only currency they will exchange for Euros on-board the ship
- Buy some wine, beer or spirits before you depart for the convenience and indulgence of having a tipple in your cabin as complimentary drinks are only served during meal times and happy hour
- Prior to the cruise start exercising to get fit. There is a lot of walking every day, so expect to cover between three and six kilometres on each daily excursion
- Bring a Thermos Flask along so that getting coffee/tea refills means less walking from your cabin to the Club Lounge and back again numerous times a day
- Don’t always stay with your tour leader – investigate destinations on your own and discover hidden gems
- Carry all four coloured ‘tour guide’ tabs, so if need be you can switch over to a different freelance, independent tour guide
- Expect to pay cash in smaller towns, cash or credit cards in bigger cities
- Guide commentary is via headphone/audio set which some days works fine but sometimes they can start crackling – some people used their own headphones
- Prepare to be swallowed up by huge amounts of tourists – travel is back big time in Europe
- Your cabin/suite key card also doubles as your Tag-out and Tag-in when going from and coming back to the cruise ship
- A briefing of every day’s schedule is on your TV so you can plan your day. There is also a front view facing bow camera, so you can see what’s lies ahead
- Be aware everything except restaurants and bars are closed on Sunday and during holidays in Germany
- Sometimes as many as three river cruise boats will be docked side by side – potentially blocking your views so close your curtains at night as you might wake up with a view in to somebody else’s cabin or balcony
- Be prepared for some scheduled excursions times to be altered due to hold-ups navigating any one of the 68 locks en-route
- WiFi is not perfect on board so don’t expect it to work all the time, especially in rural areas
- Service Providers can also have very low or offer no signal at all in many rural areas
- Expect on certain days that the upper deck rails, seating tables and canopies to be lowered on some sections of certain rivers to make it possible to navigate under low bridges
From the 1st September 2023 Qatar Airways will recommence their daily direct flights from Auckland to Doha using their A350-1000
Business Class Qsuite:
- Spacious interior with high ceilings and an abundance of natural light
- Double bed in Business Class
- Unique quad configuration – transforms four seats in to social area
- High definition 22” touch screen monitor
- Over 6,000 entertainment options
- Exclusive Diptyque Amenity Kit, quilted mattress, duvet and pyjamas
- Dine-on-Demand service
- 281 seats in a 3-3-3 configuration
- High definition 6” touch screen monitor
- Over 6,000 entertainment options
- Baggage allowance range from 25-35kgs (dependent on fare type)
- Amenity kits – on long-haul flights
- ‘Quisine’ dining – serving larger meals with more reusable/ recyclable components
Note: Hamad International Airport in Doha has six lounges