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“Welcome Aboard!” Those words were music to my ears. Maybe not Bartok or Liszt but music nonetheless melodiously when uttered by Lee Oliver, Viking Lif’s Program Director. I was more than ready for this 15-day Viking Grand European Tour river cruise aboard Viking Lif. And it began on the Danube in Budapest.
Scheduled Grand European Tour river cruise Itinerary
- Day 1: Budapest, Hungary
- Day 2: Budapest and Bratislava, Slovakia
- Day 3: Vienna, Austria
- Day 4: Melk, Austria
- Day 5: Linz, Austria and Passau, Germany
- Day 6: Regensburg, Germany
- Day 7: Nuremberg, Germany
- Day 8: Bamberg, Germany
- Day 9: Wurzburg, Germany and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
- Day 10: Wertheim, Germany
- Day 11: Koblenz, Germany
- Day 12: Cologne, Germany
- Day 13: Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
- Day 14: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Getting to Budapest, the slow way
As a solo traveler and someone who doesn’t fly, it was a challenge to figure out how to get to Budapest. In eight hours on a train from Munich, I was in Budapest. With the help of Viking, I pre-reserved a driver to meet me at Keleti station. Within 30 minutes of pulling into the station and getting into the taxi, I was on board Viking Lif, met our program director and settled into my cozy cabin. Our Viking Grand European Tour was about to begin.
Day One: Arriving Budapest for Viking Lif Embarkation
When I arrived by train from Munich to Budapest, in the late afternoon, other passengers had already unpacked. They had enough time for a short city tour and were enjoying cocktails in the lounge. I had about an hour to get acquainted with my cabin and Viking Lif river ship before the first pre-dinner meeting.
Before I knew it, it was time to head to the lounge, meet the other guests and attend the informative yet brief review of our river cruise itinerary. Suddenly it was 7:00pm and dinner time. I really looked forward to tonight’s dinner. All I ate on the eight-hour train ride from Munich to Budapest was a bowl of Hungarian Goulash. No complaints…the goulash was very good and of course, very appropriate!
It was a balmy autumn night that beckoned tourists and locals alike to stroll along the banks of the Danube late into the evening. I was tired but excited to finally have a chance to walk across Budapest’s historic Chain Bridge. Camera in hand, I must have crossed the Danube four or six times, snapping photos of the warm yellow bridge lights, couples strolling arm in arm, and the magnificently illuminated state buildings that line the riverfront.
Finally, it was time to call it a night. Tomorrow, our Grand European Tour river cruise would begin with a full day of sightseeing before we even got underway.
Day Two: Touring and tasting Budapest
If being chatty at breakfast isn’t your thing, there’s the option for a very relaxing breakfast buffet at Aquavit Terrace every morning. It’s also a good way to plan your morning time if you have a 9:00am or even earlier tour departure. This was usually how my day started; quiet, comfortable, and a cappuccino in hand.
By 8:15am on our second day in Budapest, passengers heard the first warning announcement for our city tour departure.
Know your tour departure time
That’s how it’s done on river cruises. You’re given a 15- and then a 5-minute warning for your motor coach departure. The tour departure time that’s posted is not when you should walk out of your stateroom. It’s actually when the bus departs.
Today’s complimentary morning tour was your basic European city overview; historic places, medieval churches, political hotspots of yore. In the scope of four hours, we would either drive by, stop to view or exit the motor coach to stretch and take photos. Here are a couple of highlights from our morning bus tour:
Still on the Buda side of the river…
Fishermen’s Bastion, built between 1895 and 1902, the beautiful towers and covered terrace weren’t built to defend the territory but to provide unparalleled views of the city. We had ample time to wander along the terrace and up to the Neo-Romanesque designed towers. This is the prime photo op location for sweeping vistas of Budapest.
Back aboard Viking Lif in time for lunch. As there would be on every day of the cruise, you can choose from two lunch venues; The Restaurant with table service and a buffet or in Aquavit for a café lunch, buffet-style. Most days, I chose Aquavit Lounge.
Budapest Jewish and Hungarian History afternoon tour
I was signed up for the optional 2:00PM Dohány Street Synagogue and Hungarian Jewish Museum tour. The motor coach let us off just a short walk to the synagogue. Part of the intrigue was seeing the small shops, bars and cafés in what was once the Jewish Quarter, or Ghetto.
Built in the Moorish Revival style between 1854-1859, it is the largest synagogue in Europe. In addition to the main synagogue (Great Synagogue), inside you’ll find the Hungarian Jewish Museum, the Graveyard and the Memorial.
The Weeping Willow memorial is in the courtyard behind the synagogue. On its leaves are inscribed the names of 30,000 Holocaust victims. The father of actor Tony Curtis, Emanuel Schwartz, funded the weeping willow memorial. The courtyard was named Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who managed to save thousands of Jews from going to concentration camps.
After a stop at a small shop for a Hungarian pastry called, “Flódni”, we boarded the bus to head back to the ship. We returned just in time for Cocktail Hour.
Tonight was the official “Welcome Aboard” toast by Captain Marcin and Hotel Manager Eve. One sparkling wine down and just before dinner, we had our next day’s briefing. Next port going north on the Danube would be Bratislava, Slovakia.
READ MORE: My Top Ten Things to See in Budapest
Day Three: Bratislava, Slovakia and its funny little men
I woke up to see that we were underway, gently cruising along the Danube towards our next port, Bratislava. Following breakfast and before we’d arrive, a mandatory safety drill was held. Warm autumn weather quickly drew everyone to the top deck and the drill took all of 15-20 minutes.
Afterwards, many of us stayed and either walked laps or settled into a lounge chair. With a mid-afternoon arrival into Bratislava, the day would be relaxing and informative. Program Director Lee led an enrichment talk about Vienna coffeehouses (where to go and what to eat) and a background about Austrian-born composer Wolfgang Mozart.
Locals have a great sense of humor as can be sensed when you try to find all the bronze statues. When I was in Bratislava, I counted eight almost human-size bronze statues. How many can you find?
Day Four: Vienna, Austria
This wasn’t my first visit to this medieval city. From the beautifully baroque Schönbrunn Palace to a peek at the Spanish Lipizzaner Horses, Vienna has something surprising or magnificent around every corner.
I decided to pass on the complimentary morning motor coach tour of the city and get some writing done. One thing to note about Vienna, river cruise ship dockage is too far to walk to the city center. It is walkable but most people opt for a bus into the city and some will then walk back to the river ship.
Too good to pass up, I signed up for the Chef’s Tour to the Farmer’s Market (Naschtmarkt). A bit of walking, two subway trains and we were smack in the middle of a working class neighborhood and a several-blocks-long farmer’s Market.
After a couple of hours, we were back on the subway, walked two blocks through Mexikoplatz and past St. Francis of Assisi Church and we were back on Viking Lif…in time for cocktails, of course. But not much time to spare. I signed up for the optional ($) tour to go to a concert hall for a Mozart and Strauss concert. Every river cruise line offers this but I’ve never done it, so I signed up.
Everyone was really quiet on the motor coach back to the ship. It had been a busy, long day from one end of the city to another. But when we arrived back to the ship, we were greeted with a special bedtime treat: goulash soup in Aquavit. The bowl accompanied me back to my cabin. Within a hour, I was asleep. One more port in Austria tomorrow.
Day Five: Melk, Austria and all that glitters is mostly gold.
Melk is a curiously monastic community with resplendent Melk Abbey high on a hill overlooking the Danube. Cobblestone street wind through town, leading to the Abbey’s grand entrance. Monks from the Abbey stroll through town and work in the Abbey as they have for more than 900 years.
Plan to spend about an hour inside the Abbey. You can walk up to the entrance or take a motor coach to the top of the hill.
The baroque interior is dazzling, the library has over 80,000 medieval manuscripts and several hidden doors. Leave time to step outside for a sweeping view of the city and Danube below. It’s a pleasant stroll over a little bridge back to the river ship, or take the motor coach again. The town is lovely with cafés and small boutique shops.
With a “Be back on board” at 3:45pm, we were welcomed with an Austrian apple strudel-making demonstration. Then the habitual cocktail hour, daily port briefing and the slow walk into the dining room. Another satisfying multi-course dinner and off to bed.
Every night on the river cruise there’s entertainment in the lounge. So far, we’ve had the onboard musician at the keyboard and dancing, Slovakian folk dancing show and the goulash event. With days so busy, evening entertainment has been kept to a minimum. I think Viking knows that we’d be exhausted.
Day Six: Passau, engine issues and a slight detour
Surprise! We were informed last night that Viking Lif was having engine trouble and we’d not make it to dock in Passau. Instead, Viking Lif would tie up in Linz. So at 8:15am, (it was a really early wake-up!) passengers boarded Viking’s motor coach for a full nine-hour tour.
Sadly, one man had to see a doctor in the nearest town so he and his wife had to stay in Linz. I was working under deadline to file a story, so a 9-hour day in motion put me into panic. Viking’s Program Director, Lee, made similar arrangements for me so that I could spend the day writing instead of touring. I was so incredibly happy when I found out I would have a hotel room for the day in Linz and would get a full day’s writing done.
Even the light drizzle didn’t stop anyone from walking in the city center. After my friend’s doctor appointment, the three of us met for lunch and like everyone else, a walk through town. Linz is one of the most non-touristic larger cities I’ve visited in Europe. It’s very charming. And I’ll bet it’s even lovelier during the holiday/Christmas market season.
At 5:00PM, a white minivan arrived and we were off to meet Viking Lif, fresh from repair. All the other passengers were on their way back from Passau; all of us in time for cocktail hour, daily briefing and another very nice dinner in the dining room.
Onward to Straubing, Germany! Almost halfway through our Viking Grand European Tour. Tempus Fugit.
Day Seven: Regensburg, Bavaria – Germany
This was one of those years in central Europe when the rain seems to never stop. Germany and France had seen flooding at the end of summer and rivers were swollen and overflowing their banks. As we made our way up the Danube, I started to watch the water’s edge. I knew from past river cruises, if I saw tree trunks submerged and debris quickly flowing past us, it meant trouble.
With high water, river ships cannot fit under the dozens of old bridges. Locks get stuck. But Viking Lif made its way to Straubing and by 2:00pm, we boarded the motor coach for the short ride to beautiful medieval Regensburg.
I was so glad Regensburg was included on this Viking Grand European Tour. It’s among my favorite places in Europe. This is the oldest city on the Danube and dates back to the year 179.
While the Dom St. Peter Gothic Cathedral is one of the grandest in all Bavaria and worth a visit, I always head to the Alte Würstküche, meaning, “Old Sausage Kitchen”, it’s the oldest restaurant in Germany.
The restaurant is usually packed with tourists throughout the summer but this rainy October day, I had no problem getting my own indoor table. Once you’ve finished your beer and extras, take a walk across the Old Stone Bridge. Built between 1135 and 1146, it was the bridge used by the knights on the second and third Crusades to the Holy Land.
The Danube began to look a little ominous
What I saw from the old bridge didn’t look too good. The Danube was rushing past us downstream heading towards the Black Sea, its terminus. Trees were submerged. The water was creeping up to the lower levels of the medieval buildings.
While we were in Regensburg, Viking Lif sailed from Straubing to Regensburg to meet us. This was a chance for passengers who simply yearned for a quiet day onboard to just cruise.
Back onboard with time to freshen up before the daily briefing. But tonight, the meeting took a sudden twist. The Program Director proceeded with an (un)expected announcement.
To paraphrase, Lee said, “Pack your bags, we’re changing river ships in the morning”. It was a very busy evening for everyone. We would disembark with our carry-on luggage the next morning at 8:30 AM in Deggendorf, then board a bus to meet sister ship, Viking Skadi, in Nuremberg. Our Viking Grand European Tour was about to take a twist.
Day 8: Changing Ships and a Visit to an Extraordinarily Bizarre Monument
With our luggage taken off the ship and loaded onto busses, we only had to bring along our carry-on bags. I had been through this river ship shuffle three times in the last few years so I knew what to expect. River cruisers seem to roll with the punches. There’s nothing you can do when there’s a flood or a drought except board a bus and change ships.
Viking had a really good plan on the way to Nuremberg. Driving through Bavaria en route to Nuremberg, we stopped at Walhalla, Germany’s monument to its native Germanic language politicians, scientists, artists and other distinguished people over the centuries. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Danube river, Walhalla looms on the horizon bearing a striking resemblance to the Parthenon in Greece.
By 11 AM we were back on the bus leaving Walhalla, heading to our next ship. To explain how this ship shuffle works, our original river ship, Viking Lif, couldn’t go any further upriver – the water was too high to let Viking Lif go under the next bridge. Viking Skadi, on its way south from Amsterdam, couldn’t get past Nuremberg for the same reason. Thus, each ship would swap passengers and bus everyone to the other ship that would then do a U-turn and continue on the route of the original river ship. Everyone would end up that their scheduled port. Viking had this down to a science.
We had reached the half-way point of our Grand European Tour. Where did that first week go?
MORE ABOUT: What exactly happened on this ship-shuffle day
I decided to divide my Viking Grand European Tour river cruise into two parts; one week Budapest to Nuremberg and the second week, leaving Nuremberg to Amsterdam.
Thank you for reading this far – follow the link below for the rest of the story. Spoiler alert: Seven more days of cruising, castles, culture and cuisine.