Sailing the Blue Danube aboard Viking Freya
A fierce arctic wind whipped at Viking River Cruises’ Viking Freya this morning at her Budapest berth. The Holiday spirit was definitely in the air.
With Viking Freya scheduled to sail at 8:30 a.m., guests could either participate in the tour of Buda and Pest or remain with the ship as she made her way up the Danube to Visegrad, Hungary, where tour participants would be picked up. Because I’ve done the tour of Buda and Pest before, I decided to enjoy a relaxing morning onboard Viking Freya as she left Budapest. As much as I love the Fisherman’s Bastion and Gellert Hill, sailing past the Hungarian Parliament, completed in 1904, is one of my most cherished experiences.
Once again, I am amazed at how quiet Viking Freya and her Longship sisters are when they’re underway. Even at the most extreme aft end of the ship, vibration and noise are nearly non-existent. In my stateroom, located near the forward end of the ship, I can’t feel or hear a thing. It’s exactly like being docked alongside, yet the scenery doesn’t lie: We are underway.
The Danube is a fascinating river. No one knows exactly where its source is, so distances are measured from the Black Sea, wherein Kilometer Zero is located at Sulina. In Budapest, the distance marker is gauged based on nearby Margaret Island, which is easily recognizable by the mustard-yellow colored Margaret Bridge. It’s at this point that our journey begins, at the 1651.5 kilometer marker. Our journey to Visegrad will take us some 43 kilometers up the Danube, to marker 1694.5. After a short stop to pick up the guests on tour, we will continue sailing overnight to distance marker 1915 – Vienna.
The Danube officially concludes at Kelheim, Germany – some 2415 kilometers from the Black Sea. We’ll pass Kelheim shortly after departing the lovely town of Regensburg on Friday, whereupon we’ll enter the Main-Danube canal for our voyage to Nuremberg on Saturday.
Unlike much of Europe, this engineering marvel has only existed since 1992 and has made travel from Amsterdam to the Black Sea possible. The chief issue here was how to accommodate the change in water elevation from the Main – which is just 450 feet above sea level at Wurzburg – to Kelheim and the Danube, which is roughly 1,200 feet above sea level.
The answer was the Main-Danube Canal: a set of 16 locks that raise and lower ships between the two rivers across a distance of 106 miles. Without this engineering marvel, we would have no way of reaching Nuremberg.
The idea of creating a canal was nothing new; in fact, rudimentary locks and bypasses had existed since the 18th century, but most – if not all – infrastructure in and around Nuremberg was wiped out during the Second World War. By the late 1960s, plans were drawn up for a replacement canal that would run as far as Nuremberg, and the rest was history.
River cruising as we know it today owes much of its success to this single stretch of water.
My decision to spend the morning enjoying Viking Freya’s scenic cruising was an excellent one. Christmas music in both English and German is playing in the lounge, and the smell of fresh-baked gingerbread wafts throughout the room from the small gingerbread town placed by the Aquavit Terrace entrance, created by the ship’s culinary team.
The floor-to-ceiling windows let in absolutely stunning views of the passing waters, and are one of Viking Freya’s greatest features. Sandwiched between another ship and the tall banks of the Danube, the Lounge felt slightly claustrophobic last night, but no more: it is a veritable window to the world here on the Danube today.
But just because it’s a day of scenic cruising doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on; in fact, far from it. A peek at what’s on offer aboard Viking Freya on this Monday, December 2nd:
- 6:00am to 11:00am – Café Breakfast in the Viking Lounge
- 6:30am to 9:30am – Breakfast Buffet, Viking Restaurant
- 6:30am to 9:00am – Continental Breakfast, Aquavit Terrace
- 7:00am to 7:30am – Morning Exercise: Light qigong in the Viking Lounge
- 8:15am – Shore Excursion: Budapest City Tour. You will return to the ship in Visegrad.
- 8:30am – Anchors Aweigh. Viking Freya leaves Budapest and sails for Visegrad.
- 12 Noon – Viking Freya arrives in Visegrad.
- 12:30pm – Viking Freya leaves Visegrad and sails for Vienna.
- 12:45pm – Lunch: Our Wait staff welcomes you in the restaurant.
- 12:45pm – Café Lunch: Buffet-style lunch in the Aquavit Terrace
- 2:15pm – Safety Drill. Proceed to your muster stations when the signal is sounded.
- 2:30pm – Wheelhouse Tour. Sign-up at the front desk.
- 3:00pm – Vienna Coffee House: Lecture with Program Director Carl West.
- 3:15pm – Austrian Tea Time with Apple Strudel Demonstration, Viking Lounge
- 4:00pm – Galley Tour: Please sign up at the front desk.
- 5:30pm to 7:30pm – Cocktail Hour, Viking Lounge
- 6;30pm – Welcome Cocktails: Captain Simeon Simeonov and Hotel Manager Cornelia Pfeiffenberger invite you for a toast in the Viking Lounge
- 6:45pm – Daily Briefing, Viking Lounge
- 7:00pm – Welcome Dinner, Viking Restaurant
- 9:00pm – Christmas in Europe Lecture, Viking Lounge, followed by Live Music.
As we sailed along from Budapest, I noticed I could see far more shoreline than I was able to on my last trip. I’m not an expert by any means on water levels, but despite the recent rains, the Danube certainly looks quite low. Unlike deep-ocean cruise ships, the depth of water beneath the keel of a river cruise ship can range from several feet to just a few inches. So far, so good.
In Visegrad, we pulled alongside Viking Embla once again, which gave me the opportunity to spot a unique physical difference between the two sisters. On Viking Freya, solar panels run the length of the sun deck on both port and starboard sides, reducing the available deck space by about four feet. On Viking Embla, the panels are gone, relocated to the stern area next to the funnel. Small details, but ones that could set the stage for future tweaks and enhancements given that ten new Viking Longships will launch next year.
After picking up our returning guests, I ventured down to lunch in the Restaurant. Unlike last night’s dinner menu, lunch offered a great variety of foods and some local specialties as well. I opted for the sauerkraut soup (excellent.) and the Hungarian Goulash, which was delicious and not at all what I was expecting (it was served on a plate, and not in a bowl.)
I took part in the tour of Viking Freya’s navigation bridge this afternoon at 2:30 p.m.. If you have any interest at all in maritime navigation or technology, take the tour – it provides a neat look at some of the technology that allows these ships to sail the Danube and turn a journey that used to take months into one that can be accomplished in a mere week.
While it remained too windy to sit out on my balcony, I did take the opportunity this afternoon to spend some time in my stateroom as we sailed along the Danube. I even did something I never normally do while on a cruise: I watched a movie. There are more than 50 titles available on the in-stateroom entertainment center, along with streaming music channels and information on our current itinerary, weather and position.
Tonight, I dined in the Viking Restaurant on a delicious appetizer of Salmon eggs and bacon scallops as an entrée. While I still think there could be room for increased variety in the menu, the quality of the food on offer is superb and the wines have all been above-par, with frequent re-fills available. Today’s selected wines were from Austria, a great choice considering we’ll be spending the next two days there.
At 10:00 p.m., we entered our first lock at 1819.3: Gabcikovo, a double-sluice and barrage lock with an incorporated weir. The vast majority of passengers braved the cold to go topside to Viking Freya’s spacious Sun Deck to properly take in the spectacle. Joining us was our sister-ship-shadow, Viking Embla, and Uniworld’s River Odyssey. Over the course of the next half-hour, we were raised level with the next step in the Danube and carried on our way.
Late in the night, we passed the Slovakian town of Bratislava – a favorite of mine. But tomorrow, Viking Freya will dock in what has to be one of my favorite cities anywhere in the word: Vienna. There’s something almost untouchable about this historic city, which still boasts all the charm, influence and mystery that it did at the turn of the last century. It’s the city that gave us Freud, rejected Hitler, and nursed revolutionaries like Stalin and Trotsky.
The birthplace of European history? Quite possibly – and tomorrow, it is ours to discover, as Viking Freya spends an entire day docked there. A beautiful city, as seen aboard an equally beautiful ship. The Vikings would have been proud.
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Freya continues tomorrow from Austria’s culture capital, Vienna.