By: Nancy and Charles Nevil
We departed Los Angeles International on Lufthansa for Munich and then onto our final destination, Prague. We had an auspicious precision check-in and then enjoyed the beautiful Business Class Lounge at Tom Bradley Terminal. Our plane (an Airbus A340) was immaculate, the amenities all in place, waiting for new passengers.
Food service was excellent, entertainment (movies-TV) varied, and the reclining seats (almost totally flat at the touch of a button), were the best we have experienced in Trans Atlantic Business Class flying.
Munich Airport is sparkling clean, has a massive array of shops and a large Business Class Lounge fully stocked with food and conveniences. In a short while we were off to Prague, and a wonderful time in an exciting city.
When we arrived at the beautiful Four Seasons Hotel, we immediately felt the delight of European hospitality and the passionate attention to detail which so eloquently enhances Four Seasons properties. The lobby was filled with incredible floral arrangements, elegant Czech glassware, statuary, and art to please the eye. Handsome dark wood and beautiful furniture relaxed us; the attentive staff made us feel very welcome.
We were given a lovely room looking over the Vlatava River, and the views were amazing. The hotel is perfectly situated right in the heart of the city, only a block from the historical Charles Bridge, and steps away from sightseeing and shopping.
Prague at night is beautiful, with lights playing on magnificent architecture. The streets are wide and easy to navigate. The city has touches of Paris or Stockholm which created a wonderful sense of comfort as we whisked into the heart of Prague in about 20 minutes from the time we left the airport until we reached our hotel. Looking across the river to the lighted Prague Castle and the Cathedral spires behind, it was almost like being part of a fairy tale.
Prague is eye catching, youthful, and exciting. After having been occupied by the Nazis during WWII, and then occupied and forced to live under a Communist regime and control for about 40 years, Czechoslovakia, now known as the Czech Republic, was a toy for the Russians until just about 20 years ago. Today, it is a thriving capitalistic state, filled with restaurants and music and tourists. It is unimaginable that these folks can still smile and be happy after so many years of repressive subjugation. BUT THEY ARE, and they are just delightful. Their sense of humor and ability to laugh in the face of adversity, gives them a wonderful view of life.
We spent two days sightseeing with a wonderful guide named Marketa. She deftly toured us around town and through The Jewish Quarter filled with history from olden times, including Hitler’s plan to annihilate the Jews completely. She was a fountain of historical facts, cultural knowledge, and sweet anecdotal humor. This young lady made everything we did fill with delight and her knowledge from history to music to poetry, seemed endless.
On the second day, we toured the Prague Castle grounds, the Castle Gardens and the steep hills descending from the Castle down to the "Lesser City" where we walked across the famous Charles Bridge. Walking in this city is such a splendid experience AND we had great sunny weather until late in the second day. (Note to the ladies: do not even think about stylish high heels, bring comfortable walking shoes, there are a lot of cobblestone streets in Central Europe).
Tomorrow, early on, we board a bus with other cruise passengers and spend most of the day driving to the harbor to start our water journey. We highly recommend a visit to the Czech Republic and Central Europe and we hope we can return to Prague (where English is widely spoken), very soon again.
In a sad farewell to Prague, we joined our fellow cruisers early in the morning and boarded coaches and rode through the Czech countryside enjoying scenery both beautiful and delightful. Our guide, a young Czech lady, spoke, as had many others, of the difficult times under Communism. Industries were nationalized and taken over by the government, privately owned farms were turned into Cooperatives, travel outside of the country was forbidden to most citizens, and the West was the evil spirit that had to be blocked (we were shown tall towers that were used by the Communists to block radio and TV signals coming from free nations). Today, under thriving capitalism, most young people don’t even think of the bad old days. Our guide, however, as we seamlessly crossed the border from Czech Republic into West Germany, told of her youth when her parents talked longingly of travel outside of the country, travel that could not be. As our bus rolled along through green and lush countryside, it hit home quickly, how casually we take our freedom. Lesson learned!
We stopped in Regensberg, Germany’s oldest medieval city with over 1,000 beautifully preserved Romanesque and Gothic structures. It is very touristic but still really charming. As we walked about, the smell of cooking sausages and fragrant smoke from a local indoor/outdoor restaurant called to us and sightseeing was over, it was time to eat. How good it was!
Back in the busses, it was a short ride to Vilshofen, our port town at the edge of the southern Bavarian forest. There was our ship, the small and sweet AMA Amadante. We remained in Vilshofen overnight (rain, sadly, interrupted an “Oktoberfest” shore side celebration), had briefings from crew and enjoyed our first meal on board. We enjoyed tasty German food and had fun, as we chatted the evening away.
The next morning, before sail away, we walked the cobblestoned streets of Vilshofen, enjoyed the friendliness of locals and window shopped.
Just before noon, our ship departed for the quaint and ancient city of Passau. The trip down the Danube and through interesting locks (which dropped our ship almost 10 meters ---- 33 feet --- at each lock), was spectacular as we cruised the river. On shore in Passau (after a scenic water tour of the city prior to landing), we visited a church with what is reputed to have the second largest pipe organ in the world, (now that’s a real set of pipes), enjoyed this clean and interesting little town on the Danube. We toured the shops, tasted local pastry, (dodged cars which did not stop at crosswalks), went back to the ship for a fabulous Captain’s Dinner, and then we left for our next port, Linz, in Austria.
Linz has a huge Town Square replete with lovely restaurants, shops and a mixture of old and really modern architecture. It’s a fun walking city, even in the slight drizzle we encountered. Linz is Austria’s third largest city (population 200,000) and is home to a very large Steel making plant (makes the rails for all of the fast trains in Europe), and a chemical manufacturing plant. Employment opportunities abound. Linz is scenic, a bit, energetic, a lot, and a great jumping off point for our next city, the home of Mozart -- Salzburg.
We boarded busses for our two hour ride to Salzburg and even though the rain became a steady companion, it was wonderful (once we got to the City Center). The outskirts of Salzburg are typical and uninspired but once you get into the heart of things, Mozart is everywhere, from his birthplace, to his house, to beautiful spectacularly colorful gardens. What a fun place to visit! Throughout the year, there are music festivals, and endlessly, references to The Sound of Music which was filmed near here. (We have the feeling Austrians are not in love with that music or telling the story all day long, they just do it to make American tourists happy). Be comforted and know that the song Edelweiss is not an Austrian Folk song, and is not, in fact, Austrian at all. It was written by Rogers and Hammerstein expressly for the film. This is a fact that Austrians relate over and over again!
Salzburg is lovely, but our visit was far too short. We’ll just have to return some day.
At night, after a most delicious dinner, we had wonderful shipboard entertainment by some singers from Salzburg as we watched ever changing lights on buildings ashore and from a carnival across the Danube. It was a great day and a charming evening.
Traveling down the Danube at night, we arose in the morning to find ourselves in the Austrian town of Melk, home of a very famous Benedictine Monastery established in 1089. Today, there are 30 monks living there, although the main use of the baroque buildings and grounds is to serve as a private Catholic school with (this year) 940 students. The monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in history. The Collegiate Church standing on the grounds is one of the most important buildings in the baroque style in Europe and it is visually spellbinding. We left the monastery, walked down into the “old town”, enjoyed the shops and open air markets, walked back to our waiting ship, and had some hot refreshment to take the chill out of our bodies. After lunch, we sailed off to Krems, enjoying what is said to be the most beautiful part of the Danube as we quietly sailed downstream.
Just when you think you have seen it all (villages start to look a lot alike as you float down the Danube) you are suddenly jolted into sheer and absolute joy as your bus takes you on a 10 minute drive from Krems to Durnstein. You have to walk about 2000 feet from the bus parking place because Durnstein is tiny and the streets narrow, far too narrow for a bus to navigate. You walk along the Danube and up and through a short tunnel and there is a fairy tale medieval village right out of a movie set. It is ADORABLE and the people are sweet and welcoming. The town is rich in history and almost too precious to be real. The main street (once part of the major route through the Wachau Valley), has been replaced as a through route by a tunnel running beneath the city; now, traffic only comes to Durnstein for a purpose.
Little shops line the main street (which is about 1500 feet long). At the far end, overlooking the Danube from a high cliff, you will find a most beautiful old world Relais and Chateaux hotel. The Schloss Hotel Durnstein invites visitors to savor a European flavor that is not found too often anymore. Built in 1630 as a Renaissance residence, it has been privately held throughout and so the sense of history and elegance has remained throughout the years. There are beautiful guest rooms, outdoor and indoor swimming pools, and a fabulous looking restaurant all waiting for visitors to enjoy. Being a Relais and Chateaux hotel, you KNOW the food is going to be spectacular. We only wish we had been able to savor a meal there! Ah, but there is always next time.
Even in the drizzle, our visit to Durnstein was one of the most delightful experiences of our cruise.
This is a good time to talk about our ship, AMA’s Amadante. It is clean, beautiful, welcoming, and a relaxing “home” for the week long trip. The crew all speaks English, our Cruise Director Debbie is informed and informative, a real bundle of energy. You will never go hungry; food is quite good. Our young Captain and his fellow officers do everything they can to keep you happy and excited about the journey. Our evenings have been replete with local (and very good) entertainers, a wine tasting off shore one evening, and music from our on board pianist. This is not an ocean cruise, there is no rocking and rolling, the ship is small and intimate. River cruising is totally relaxing and AMA really does it well.
On the other hand, if you are looking for the ocean cruise amenities and diversity, you will really not find it here. The rooms are quite small (although fully stocked with everything you will require) and there are no dining options. There is one restaurant, and they ring a bell for dinner. Not quite the luxury one might find on other ocean going vessels. You must “go with the flow” and once you do, you ease into a different cruise experience, and just enjoy it.
Vienna is beautiful, cultural, exciting, and EXPENSIVE! In Vienna, every time you turn a corner, something more beautiful than the last sight fills your eyes and treats your mind. It is SO beautiful, so fantastic and the food, oh, the food. Sacher Torte, anyone?
The sun came out and we made the first of three trips, literally morning, noon, and night. A short cab ride and we were in the heart of Vienna, walking and sightseeing, window shopping, looking at incredible architecture, enjoying the parks and just sucking in this exciting city. It was then back to the ship for lunch, and then we joined our group for a visit to Schönbrunn Palace. We learned about the Hapsburgs and their rule over much of Europe for over 600 years. We viewed the carriage museum and wondered at the craftsmanship of their many coaches, enjoyed the palace grounds and returned to the ship to get ready for the evening’s highlight, a concert featuring music of Mozart and Strauss. It was spectacular, a true joy, filled with beautiful sounds and humor. There are concerts every single day of the week in Vienna and locals fill all the seats on a regular basis. Music and Vienna are one and the same. After the music ended, it was back to the ship and a beautiful drive past fairy tale-like buildings, exquisitely lighted with care and delight by these happy and proud Viennese people. This is a magnificent city that we would truly go back to and visit for several days.
In one more day, our journey will end in Budapest but today, we have had a journey through more locks and have docked in Bratislava, Slovakia. Until 1993, a part of Czechoslovakia, in what was called the Velvet Divorce, Slovakia and the now Czech Republic separated. The feeling one gets walking through Bratislava’s streets is that there is still a dark and almost unsophisticated atmosphere prevailing. Let us just say that Bratislava would not be a vacation destination of choice for us. Slovakia seems to be taking a long time to throw off the memory of Communist domination and control.
We were told that our sail into Budapest would be grand and eye popping. That was not an overstatement. Peering out of the ship’s gym window as dawn was breaking (Charles and the treadmill have kept company every morning to compensate for overeating), as the dawn broke and morning fog started to rise from the Danube, the river seemed to widen and there, in front of us was the first of many bridges crossing from Buda (the hilly side) to Pest (the flat side) It is a city of beautiful buildings and monuments, rich in history, speaks a language that is one of the most difficult to learn, and still carries scars from its decades long Communist domination. It seems to have been more difficult for the Hungarians to forget the past than for the Czechs, both economically and in terms of the somewhat more sober Hungarian personality.
We took a morning tour, saw a lot of monuments and important sights, ended the tour in a very large covered market (good looking food and of course, a variety of Paprika put ups in dozens of sizes and presentations, all for sale). Our most fun loving travel companions, Star and Mark, and we, enjoyed lunch in the hall (Hungarian Goulash, what else?) and returned to the ship for our last night on board. Tomorrow, we move to the beautiful Four Seasons Hotel for another day of playing and seeing as many sights in Budapest and taking in a museum or two. After that, home to California.
After dinner tonight, the Captain took us for a short Danube Budapest cruise so that we could see all the lighted buildings and bridges. It was an amazing and thrilling sight.
A comment about Internet while aboard. Generally speaking it is spotty and a bit slow. For those (like we) who use AOL to e-mail, beware, it is VERY hard to use when aboard. We recommend using another e-mailing system (G-Mail, Hot Mail) in order to be sure to get a connection. Alternates to AOL are really advisable outside of major cities in Europe.
On Sunday, our last play day before departure, we checked in early at the Four Seasons Gresham in Budapest. When you walk into the lobby, you cannot help but gasp at the awesomeness of the structure. Built between the years of 1904 and 1906, it was originally an insurance company with private apartments and is an art nouveau masterpiece. It is perfectly situated on the banks of the Danube and walking distance to all attractions.
After a most filling (and quite expensive) breakfast, we got ourselves organized and went off to an Ethnic Museum to try and get a taste of culture and lifestyle here in Hungary. Later in the day we walked along broad streets to the National Opera House and enjoyed a wonderful tour of this most beautiful edifice. More walking followed, along the Danube, down a busy walking/shopping street, and then, as our cruise director Debbie had said while we were on board, it was time for the “last supper” with Star and Mark.
The architectural beauty of Budapest is beyond belief and when the lights are on at night, it is a fairy tale city. But in the daylight, many beautiful buildings are scarred, in disrepair and the visitor knows that it will be years, if ever, until this wonderful city can be restored to its glorious past.
We were so fortunate to have stayed an extra night in Budapest as flights were cancelled out of Munich the previous day. With all the tumult and chaos this natural phenomenon of a volcano has caused, we must praise the staff of Lufthansa in every city for accommodating their passengers so professionally and courteously.
Our flight home, although a bit delayed, was flawless. The service was impeccable, and, I know it is hard to fathom, but the food was fantastic! They have a celebrity chef who has planned the menus, and truly, it was like dining in a fine restaurant at 35,000 feet!
We arrived back in LAX tired and glad to be home, but grateful for having the opportunity of experiencing a lovely and enlightening trip to Central Europe.
And the Danube, it too is beautiful and sweet ---just not blue!