Wednesday 30 May 2018

Afloat at Last

Amadeus Brilliant moored at Budapest beside sister ship
Amadeus Silver II on a separate cruise
We had never done a cruise holiday before, although it has long been on our agenda as something we might like to do. Brochure pictures of river cruise ships making their way along scenic rivers such at the Rhine and the Danube look very attractive, and brochure descriptions of the delicious meals and "free flowing wine" are pretty attractive, too ... but these are designed to sell these expensive holidays, so we cannot be sure they would live up to the advertising. By booking this holiday with Great Rail Journeys we were confident from our experience that they might well deliver what they promise and now, at the riverside at Budapest, we were about to find out. Arriving late after a train delay and then heavy traffic was not a good start, but there beside the coach was the crew of the Amadeus Brilliant to take our luggage and show us to the ship: a new part of our adventure had begun.

We were to sleep seven nights aboard the Amadeus Brilliant and so would be able at last to unpack all our clothes, most of which had remained in our suitcase since we packed them many days ago in Stamford. We unpacked quickly because we were soon due in the ship's bar for a welcome drink and to hear the ship's Tour Director give us details about our time aboard. Our cabin, the bar and everything we had seen so far were almost perfect, well up to what we had seen in the advertising. After the talk came dinner which finished in time for us to wrap up against the night air and make our way onto the sundeck (or is it moon deck at night?) for a short cruise through Budapest whose riverside public buildings are all floodlit and make a magnificent spectacle. If we had not been on a cruise holiday but staying in a hotel, we should definitely have had to take one of the many night-time short pleasure cruises offered on the waterfront, but for us it was included in our package holiday without even having to leave our floating hotel.

After the night cruise through Budapest it was already very late and we went straight to bed, although it would have been possible to stay up and see all the buildings again from the other direction. Our cabin had a really good air-conditioning system, a safe for our valuables (such as the MacBook on which I was attempting to keep up with blogging the trip!) and a huge window which we could open and sit looking out by day or night - unless we were docked next to another ship and only had a view of another cabin!

It had been an intensive few days by now, and we opted not to take part in the guided tour of Budapest but to set off at a more civilised time - an hour later - and make our own tour of discovery, which included walking up the Gellert Hill to the Soviet liberty statue, which commemorates the liberation of the city from the Nazis by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. The views over the city from there were stunning, and we were reminded of the enormous price paid in human lives by the Soviet Union for the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination. Lower down the hillside is the statue of St Gellert after whom the hill, and the adjacent spa, are named, and we passed this on the way down towards the castle. Various members of our family had suggested the Soviet Monument Park but this was some distance out of the city centre and we only had the morning to spare because our ship was due to depart after lunch and begin the long journey north to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Broadly speaking we had decided to go on all the included tours and none of the optional ones, because unlike most of those on the trip I am not retired and needed this to be a restful holiday. The tour of Budapest was included but we made an exception for this after being up so late for the floodlight cruise, and although walking to the top of a steep hill was still pretty active, at least it did not start until we were ready! We did not go into the castle but did pop into the tourist information office there and bought postcards to send home.

Lunch and dinner were served on the ship each day, along with breakfast and afternoon tea: this is not a holiday on which maintaining a waistline is easy! We opted for the light buffet lunch in the bar rather than the three-course affair in the restaurant, soon after which the ship was cast off and we began to move along the legendary Danube. It was too windy to spend very long on the sundeck but there is plenty of space under cover: the bar area can take all of the ship's passengers at the same time if necessary. I busied myself writing up the first few days' blog posts and filing my photographs, and soon tea time had passed and dinner was served. It was magical watching the sun go down as we cruised along the river during dinner, and to bed while the ship forged on all night. It was still moving when we awoke in the morning, and had docked at Bratislava by breakfast time.

Opposite the Slovakian parliament, a memorial to
Alexander Dubcek who earlier had tried to bring more
freedom to Czechoslovakia 
Our docking point was right in the city centre at Bratislava, a much smaller city than Prague or Budapest and with an interesting history. A guided tour of Bratislava was included in our holiday package, going by coach to the castle, opposite which Slovakia's new parliament building has been built, and then down into the city centre with the rest of the tour completed on foot. This is another beautiful city, well-kept and ready for tourists. After the guided tour we were free to explore for a while before returning to the ship (which we did in time for lunch). We had to dodge (simulated) gunfire from a celebration of the liberation of the city from Napoleonic forces - although in the town squares a fusillade is as noisy as artillery fire in open space. Stories of Napoleon were nearly as common as stories of the Nazis and Communists everywhere we travelled in mid-Europe, but only here did we get the shock of loud gunfire outside while we were peacefully looking at information in the Tourist Information Office.

After lunch we explored the city on foot again, looking at what had been the Jewish quarter with its small artisan houses, and walking on the short length which remains of the city wall, then strolling along the bank of the Danube and seeing briefly the new shopping centre there which contrasts with the old city centre. I found it interesting that various embassies are mixed in among other city-centre land-uses such as shops and offices because this is a very small city to be a capital, and so the nations are placing their embassies wherever they are able to obtain space, some of them in upper storeys over shops or restaurants, for example. There are still plenty of shops in the main streets, in spite of the new shopping centre on the edge of the central area and the pressure from the diplomatic services for space for embassies.

We returned to the ship for tea and to rest and write up a bit more of this blog before dinner. The "Port Talk" had to cover announcements for the next two days because the following evening would be too busy to fit in a Port Talk then! An early night sounded essential, although having decided not to undertake optional tours we would be less busy than we otherwise might have been.

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
The following morning was Sunday and our ship had left behind the former communist states and had arrived in Vienna, capital of Austria. It was Pentecost Sunday, a principal Christian feast day, and most shops etc were closed but the streets were still crowded with tourists and with people going to church. After breakfast our tour of the city started early and was punctuated by church bells calling people to Mass. To me as a priest it felt very odd not to be joining them, but there was not time in our programme. During the 50 minutes or so that we had free we did have a brief look in the cathedral but although Mass was about to start it was a sung Eucharist with the Cardinal Archbishop presiding so I did not imagine that it would have been over within the time we could spare! Perhaps I should have thought to bring a stole and some service books and offer to hold a service on board the ship for those who wanted to attend ... but I didn't.

Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism
Our mooring at Vienna was well outside the city centre and we were taken there by coach and given a brief tour on wheels, then a walking tour and some free time before continuing by coach and being taken back to the ship in time for lunch. A very large city, well cared-for and with a fabulous cultural history. Austria is high up among the nations that have produced world-famous classical composers and musicians, and opera is a large part of the city's leisure provision to this day, as are several other art forms. Vienna still smarts, though, as a place where Hitler managed to stir up a crowd and build his Nazi movement, and right in the centre of the city is a moving Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism. Those decent people who were persuaded to the Nationalist cause and lost their lives fighting for it are, of course, among the victims. In all of the cities we had visited so far, Hitler and the Nazis, or their policies, had a significant impact on life in the city which has continued to this day, even those that had been through a Communist era since then.

We returned to our coach for more of the tour of the city and to be taken back to our ship for lunch. There was another, optional, tour in the afternoon but we opted not to take this and had a short stroll along the riverside and spent some time relaxing on the sundeck. Dinner was earlier to allow for an optional visit to a concert of Viennese music, which again we opted not to take: I am sure it would have been wonderful, but the idea of this holiday was to rest, not to pack in as much as possible! For those who lives are leisurely a holiday full of activities and tours is great, but those of us who are busy there needs to be more empty time! Great Rail Journeys have the balance about right for me: enough included activity (which we can omit if we like, although we've paid for it) and plenty of optional activity if we wanted to do more - which we'd have to pay for.

Once the concert-goers were back aboard, the ship moved off again to travel overnight to our next destination, the village of Durnstein in the small wine-growing valley of Wachau. We woke to find that we were moored against two other ships: three further ships were at an adjacent mooring just in front of us on the edge of the village. Considering the village has a population of 85, it does well to cater for visitors from six ships at a time! We were given a short tour of this small Austrian village, where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned and held for an enormous ransom, whose main products are white wine and various apricot products, and then along with several other groups of visitors attended a wine-tasting at a family winery. This village was amazingly efficient at getting large numbers of tourists through the variety of attractions they had to offer. Anyone can buy tickets to the wine-tasting, but ours were provided for us as part of the included tour and our local guide worked his talk around the timing that had been booked. The winery operated a gift shop but we thought bottles of wine a bit too large for our luggage and brought back jars of apricot jam as gifts instead. I was amazed that American guests there were trying to buy from this small family business in US Dollars: Austria uses the Euro, which you'd think anyone touring Europe would be able to spend even they had come without Hungarian Forints or Czech Koruna. Back to the ship and we set off again on a lovely sunny afternoon with much time spent on the sundeck.

Melk Abbey, seen from Emmersdorf
At about 15:00 the ship docked at another small village, Emmersdorf, where an optional excursion left by coach for Melk Abbey. We walked into the village to explore on foot: it was set on a fairly steep valley side and single-track railway line crossed a side valley in the centre of the village on a stone viaduct reminiscent of northern England. From the upper level of the village we could look across to Melk Abbey where some of our travelling companions were enjoying a guided tour of a small part of this extensive monastic campus.
St Nikolaus's Church
It was a hot, sunny day and we continued to climb to a church overlooking the whole scene. We were mystified by notices explaining that the building was protected by the Convention of the Hague dated 14 May 1954 in the event of armed conflict: why this church of all the churches in Europe? Would ISIS respect this; would the Nazis have respected it? We went inside and it was astounding in its baroque decor and sheer size for a small community, but that applies to many a parish church all over the Christian world (and to many a Mosque, Temple or other place of worship).

Back at the ship it was tea time and then time to prepare for the evening: tonight's dinner was pirate-themed and the crew dressed in "pirate" costume and left the dining table in a state of disarray as it attacked by pirates (but enough cutlery, glasses etc for everyone!), and some of us managed to cobble together something like pirate dress - I happened to have a suitable t-shirt available and a handkerchief that could just be worn as a headscarf. Our little group of eight who had done so well in a quiz two nights earlier reconvened as pirates and never really quite got over it ... Pirates of the Danube for the rest of the trip ... The ship set sail during dinner and tomorrow was to be a busy day, but that can wait for the next instalment.

My photographs are gradually being uploaded to my Flickr album at


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