It could just be AmaWaterways’ most aspirational itinerary: a cruise between Amsterdam and Budapest, covering three rivers, five countries and spanning 15 days. Welcome to AmaWaterways’ Magnificent Europe.
Time seemed to stand still on the river. I was traveling with Chris Stanley, a videographer from Vancouver, Canada, who I’ve worked with for the past six years. We were both amazed at how during the second week of our AmaWaterways’ Magnificent Europe cruise, time passed so slowly, which was a good thing.
On ocean cruises, two weeks often would be one week too much. On the rivers, we were in no rush. No one wanted our cruise to end. Adapting to the relaxed pace, our lives began to mirror the rhythm of the river.
I recall waking early one morning and opening my balcony doors. The fresh cool river air splashed my face as I looked out over the peaceful scene. AmaSonata was pushing along toward Regensburg, parting the river with her bow and sending the water gently rippling toward the shoreline. Ahead the morning sun appeared through the mist, as if it were peeking through a sheer curtain. It was a beautiful scene and one that was repeated each successive day on the river. This is the moment that many people love about river cruising, experiencing the serenity of the river.
At age 29, Chris was skeptical about river cruising. After two weeks on the rivers, he became a convert. If you question whether a young person can enjoy river cruising, you have your answer in Chris.
Looking out on the farmland along the shore, I reflected on a wonderful story I had heard last night, told to me by the cruise manager, Madalina Caldaruse, who we all came to know as Maddy.
As a child growing up in Communist Romania, Maddy often swam in the Danube with her sister. Splashing about on summer evenings, the two girls marveled at passing river cruisers, and though the ships were not nearly as elegant as today’s vessels, the two sisters dreamed of working on those ships.
From their vantage point they could see people in the restaurants and in the lounges. It all looked so glamorous to two girls living under the iron fist of Communism. “Do you think there is a pool?” Maddy asked her sister, both girls giggling at the thought of being on such a vessel.
Remarkably, not one but both girls fulfilled that dream. Today, 42-year-old Maddy works as a cruise manager with AmaWaterways. Her sister, Mirela Varga, holds the same position on Uniworld’s vessels.
It was a remarkable journey considering how the girls got their start in life. “I can’t say we starved,” Maddy told me. “But we had very little food, no electricity from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., no central heating, no running water. We did our homework by candlelight up until 1989.”
Summers, she worked in the fields and went with her grandparents to the bigger cities to sell the tomatoes for which their region was known. Her family was too cash-strapped to pay for a hotel room, so they had to sleep under the table in their vendor stall. “We saved money and protected the tomatoes,” Maddy said with her infectious laugh. “It was actually nice. You know, as kids, we don’t care if we are sleeping outside.”
Maddy’s story is a rags-to-riches story – or better perhaps, a Cinderella story. She was invited to the ball that she thought she would never attend.
And she was only one of the many people, with one of the many stories, on AmaSonata who made our trip so special. Standing center, she is pictured with rest of the crew below.
Like Two Cruises In One
For those who can make the time, 15 days seems to be the perfect duration for a river cruise. Consider that while on seven-night cruises guests would be packing their bags to head back home on the seventh night, those of us on the AmaWaterways’ Magnificent Europe voyage were preparing for what was essentially a second cruise.
It was as if we were doing a seven-night river cruise, back-to-back. With 14 nights, we had a chance to overcome our jet lag and get our body clocks adjusted to European time. Moreover, we were in sync with the rhythm of the river.
Which direction is best, from Budapest to Amsterdam or from Amsterdam to Budapest? “Budapest ends with a bang,” Maddy told me. That bang is an evening “Illumination” cruise in the Hungarian capital city.
None of the guests who I spoke with knew that we’d be doing the Illumination tour. It turned out to be a highlight for many.
To prepare for the event, we dined at The Chef’s Table, situated aft and with floor-to-ceiling windows, framing views of the Danube and the bridges of Budapest. The restaurant is excellent, rivaling the best of luxury ocean cruise alternative dining venues.
From The Chef’s Table is a staircase leading to the top open deck. After finishing our main course, we headed up for the 45-minute Illumination cruise.
As AmaSonata set sail, we stood out on deck with all of Budapest lighted, including Castle Hill, the impressive Parliament and the bridges. It was stunningly beautiful.
As we approached Hungary’s impressive Parliament Building, no one on board could identify what we thought were stars above the building. As we got closer, the “stars” actually turned out to be birds.
The next morning, a local told me that the birds were migratory herons that appear only in very late summer and early fall. The spectacle was one of many that we experienced during two weeks on AmaSonata.
In the other direction, the trip begins with the Illumination cruise and ends in Amsterdam. The Dutch capital’s Red Light District serves as the “Illumination” cruise there, and AmaWaterways’ ships dock within walking distance of the district of Amsterdam known for its ladies of the night.
Not Your Grandfather’s River Cruise
Through all the years that Maddy has worked on ships, she’s seen a lot of change. “I was thinking at lunch today that I am surrounded by a lot of couples in their fifties,” she told me. “When I started 17 years ago, most of the guests were in their eighties and some were even in their nineties. I think the average age is becoming younger because of the active experiences we offer, the hiking and biking. When I first started, we had no bike tours or hiking tours.”
Our cruise was certainly active. On one day, more than 20 of us bicycled from Melk to Durnstein, a distance of 20 miles. On another day, a group of us joined the guided hike up (22 percent grade in places) to the Veste Oberhaus fortress overlooking Passau. Others bicycled about 14 miles on a Passau guided bike tour.
Shawn and Sue Phinney cycled from Würzburg to Kitzingen on a guided bike tour that covered 22 miles. “It was fantastic,” Shawn said.
It was just the type of cruise that the Colorado couple could appreciate. They told me that they had been on a few ocean cruises, but “they never did much for us,” Shawn said. “I understand why people like them, but we like to be active; we want to hike and bike, to visit museums and see the cultural attractions.”
Shawn said he could have done the same trip in a rental car, but driving from Amsterdam to Budapest would have required covering a distance of more than 850 miles.
Our river cruise took 15 days to cover that distance — at a leisurely pace. “We like not having to pack and unpack,” he said. “And when we travel on our own in Europe, we rarely stay in the same place twice.” That would make for a lot of packing and unpacking on a two-week trip.
Earlier during our trip, I stood out on deck with Steve Miller, a Californian traveling with his wife. We were transiting a particularly beautiful passage on the narrow Main River. “I wish we had the time to stay on for the return trip from Budapest,” Miller said to me. “But my wife still works. I’m retired and have the time and would certainly do it.”
Certainly, the landscape would not get old, and with at least two complimentary excursions offered in each destination, Miller and his wife could have had a completely different experience cruising the itinerary in reverse.
Miller added that everything he’d heard about river cruising was wrong. “I had heard that it was for the newlyweds and nearly dead,” he said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Indeed, as Maddy indicated, river cruising, at least on AmaWaterways, does appear to be skewing toward a younger demographic when compared to years past.
Early morning cruising on the Main River. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Ahead, Melk abbey. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Sunrise in the locks on the Main River. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Breakfast, with sauce on the side. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Regensburg waterfront. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Wusrstkuchl 'sausage kitchen,' said to be Germany's oldest restaurant, dating back to 1135. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Included in our tour, sausage. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
With sauerkraut, it was tasty. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Afternoon tour from Regensburg to the Weltenburg Danube Gorge for a boat trip and monastery visit. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
A small boat like this one took us through the gorge. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
At the monastery. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Inside the cathedral at the monastery. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Pretzels at the monastery and of course ... © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
... beer. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
The monastery grounds. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Back on AmaSonata, braised lamb shank. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
And dessert. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Relaxing in front of the faux fire: feeling at home on AmaSonata. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Our destination in Passau, the castle on the hilltop. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
A real hike, 22 percent uphill grade. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Yes, we were all winded at the top. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
View from the castle. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
We left the tour to bushwhack our way back. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Passau. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Passau. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Passau cathedral. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Passau waterfront. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Passau. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Linz. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Fresh fish daily on AmaWaterways. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Melk Abbey. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Melk Abbey. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Melk Abbey. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
AmaSonata Hotel Manager Cristian Dumitru (left) and Captain Achim Miertschin welcome us back 'home.' © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
In Vienna, we visited Schonbrunn Palace.© 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Schonbrunn Palace.© 2016 Ralph Grizzle
'Happuccino,' served each morning by Roxana Elena. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
The bathroom in my stateroom. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
My stateroom on deck 2, with twin balconies and an iMac entertainment system. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
A wedding in Bratislavea. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
The excellent crew of AmaSonata. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Maddy Caldaruse, cruise manager, with Ivo, bartender and magician - and a nice guy. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Is he posing? If you knew him, your answer would be yes. The ever-delightful purser Aurel Mangu. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Bratislavan sunset. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Captain Achim Miertschin heads to the stage for his farewell speech. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Stars above Hungar's Parliament? Nope, they're herons, according to one source. Seen during our 'illumination' cruise on AmaSonata after dinner. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Hugs, tears and good-byes. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
The restaurant staff takes a bow. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Our Trip, Part II
After an afternoon in Bamberg, Germany, on day seven of our voyage, we cruised overnight to Nuremberg, where many guests told me that the World War II excursion was among the best tours they had ever done. I had been on that tour before, so I enjoyed a five-mile walk along the river. Another thing I love about river cruising is the accessibility. I stepped off the ship and onto a walking path.
The next morning we called on Regensburg, where Chris and I opted for the Limited Edition Bavarian Specialities tasting. The complimentary excursion included a guided walking tour of the city and samplings of the local specialities.
At the Spital brewery, we sat down for an informative presentation about the local beer, sampling a couple of varieties along with freshly baked pretzels. Afterward, we walked into the city center and stopped at Germany’s oldest sausage kitchen, where we sampled wurstwith sauerkraut, the best wurst I’ve ever had. We burned off the calories, some of them at least, during the remainder of the city tour.
With AmaSonata still docked in Regensburg, the afternoon offered two choices: a guided bike tour to Walhalla (20 kilometers/12.4 miles) and an optional tour, a boat journey through the Weltenburg Danube Gorge and a visit to a beautiful monastery for 58€ per person. We did the latter and enjoyed cruising through the scenic gorge and the short walk to the monastery for a tour, and yes, another beer tasting.
The next morning in Passau, about half of the guests did the optional (and all-day) Salzburg excursion (priced at 76€ per person). They joined AmaSonata at around 6 p.m. in Linz, Austria. We chose to stay in Passau. Some guests did the Passau guided bicycle tour. We joined a guided hike to a hilltop castle overlooking Passau. This was a real hike, with a 22 percent grade in places. AmaWaterways is serious about putting the active in active excursions.
Leaving Passau, the afternoon rewarded us with one of the most scenic stretches along the Danube en route to Linz, where we stopped to embark the Salzburg group and stayed until the late evening.
On the following day, in Melk, we visited the Melk Abbey, as everyone does, and then joined a guided bicycle tour from Melk to Durnstein. It was a highlight of the trip as we cycled through vineyards and orchids and past beautiful castle ruins and charming villages.
The next morning in Vienna, a city tour was offered. As I had done that tour before, I took one of the complimentary bikes to cycle to Klosterneuburg Abbey (24 kilometers/15 miles). The abbey was beautiful but it’s the bike ride along the Danube that impressed me most. With dedicated bike roads and lanes most of the way and good signage, I had no trouble finding the abbey on my own. See the video below.
For those who did the morning Vienna city tour, there was a guided afternoon bike tour to Klosterneuburg Abbey as well as an optional Schonbrunn Palace excursion, priced at 58€ per person. About half the guests joined this optional excursion, which was well done and well-received.
An evening Mozart & Strauss Concert also was offered at 65€ per person. Of the more than three dozen activities, only three had additional fees on our two-week itinerary.
Leaving Vienna, we enjoyed a morning of scenic cruising. In fact, for those who value daytime cruising past the beautiful landscape of Europe, the Magnificent Europe itinerary is hard to beat. While there’s a good amount of late nights and overnights in port, there are also plenty of daytime transits through the most scenic stretches of the three rivers — and the Main-Danube Canal.
In the afternoon, we docked in Bratislava, where we opted for the Bratislava Culinary Delights tour. It consisted of a fun cooking class at the local Sheraton hotel, where we learned to make Slovakian specialties. Afterward, we spent our free time touring the city and hiking up to the castle overlooking Bratislava.
The next morning AmaSonata arrived in Budapest, where we joined the Active Walking Tour (8 kilometers/6 miles) and ended the day with the stunning “Illumination” tour.
Our Cruise Comes To An End
It was remarkable at the end of our extended river cruise to think that two weeks earlier we had started in Amsterdam. That seemed like a month ago. We had experienced so much, with more than three dozen complimentary excursions offered, bicycles on board that we could take ashore and pedal on either guided tours or independently, and the pleasure of being on AmaSonata.
As I prepared to disembark, I found myself agreeing with Steve Miller. I wouldn’t have minded staying on board for the return trip to Amsterdam.
The three rivers and five countries are so rich in what they offer, culturally, historically, aesthetically and for active travelers – that I could never get enough. And the experience on board AmaSonata was what the owners always intended it to be – one that delivers more than promised, time and again.
There is no question that I will be back, as will many of the others who cruised with me for two weeks on AmaSonata. It’s in our collective destiny – at least to return to this one beautiful river. After all, as Maddy told me, “Once you drink from the Danube, she will always call you back.”
|Day||Destination||Complimentary Excursions, including Limited Edition Tours||Optional Excursions (2016 prices)|
|Day 1||Amsterdam, Embarkation|
|Day 2||Amsterdam||Amsterdam canal cruise and city tour|
|Day 3||Cologne, Germany (morning), Koblenz (evening)||Cologne walking tour & cathedral visit | In Koblenz, evening walking tour|
|Day 4||Rhine Gorge scenic cruise before stopping in Rudesheim||In Rudesheim, Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum, or|
Gondola ride, or Rüdesheimer Coffee
|Day 5||Miltenberg in the morning and Wertheim in the afternoon||In Miltenberg, walking tour | In Wertheim, walking tour, or Main River guided bike tour, or Limited Edition Pretzel bakery visit and tasting|
|Day 6||Würzburg in the morning, Kitzingen in the late evening||Walking tour or Residenz Palace tour in the morning | Afternoon, Würzburg to Kitzingen guided bike tour (35 kilometers/22 miles) | In Kitzingen, Wine tasting in one of Germany's oldest wine cellars||Rothenburg afternoon excursion 62€ per person|
|Day 7||Bamberg||Walking tour and smoked beer tasting or Bamberg bike tour (15 kilometers/9 miles) or Limited Edition Culinary Tour of Bamberg Specialties|
|Day 8||Nuremberg & Cruise Main-Danube Canal||World War II tour or Medieval Nuremberg or Limited Edition Nuremberg Culinary Tour|
|Day 9||Regensburg||Morning Walking tour, or Limited Edition Bavarian Specialties tasting | Afternoon, guided bike tour to Walhalla (20 kilometers/12.4 miles)||Weltenburg Danube Gorge 58€ per person|
|Day 10||Passau||Walking tour or Passau bike tour (22 kilometers/13.7 miles)||Salzburg excursion 76€ per person|
|Day 11||Melk in the morning, | Dürnstein, afternoon||Morning in Melk, Benedictine Abbey visit or guided bike tour along the Danube (18 kilometers/11 miles) | In Dürnstein, Walking tour and wine tasting or guided bike tour between Melk and Durnstein (32 kilometers/20 miles)|
|Day 12||Vienna||Vienna city tour or Limited Edition Hidden Vienna tour or Alte Donau bike tour (10 kilometers/6.2 miles) | Afternoon bike tour to Klosterneuburg Abbey (24 kilometers/15 miles)||Afternoon: Schonbrunn Palace 58€ per person|
Evening: Mozart & Strauss Concert 65€ per person
|Day 13||Bratislava||Walking tour or Bratislava Culinary Delights tour|
|Day 14||Budapest||City tour or Budapest Active Walking Tour (8 kilometers/6 miles) & an evening Illuminations Cruise|