The Vikings Arrive in Bratislava
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
December 2, 2014
This morning, guests onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Baldur had the chance to sleep in and enjoy a relaxing morning of scenic cruising along the Danube. With our scheduled arrival time in Bratislava, Slovakia slated for 14:00 this afternoon, many guests chose to do exactly that, resting up and escaping the last of the jetlag from their long journey’s from North America.
Guests onboard this sailing are predominantly from the United States, but there are a handful of Canadians like myself onboard, and a few couples from the United Kingdom as well. In fact, the UK is a rapidly growing market for Viking and other river cruise lines, as residents there look to see Europe in a vastly different way.
But just because it’s a relaxing morning here onboard doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of things to do. The Wheelhouse was open for guest visits this morning from 10:00 on, and at 10:30, a presentation on the coffee houses of Vienna was given to help prepare guests for our day in the Austrian capital tomorrow.
For many, this was their first chance to see Viking Baldur pass through one of the many locks that line the Danube. The fascinating process brought guests to the upper Sun Deck to watch the entire event unfold. For me, even after countless river cruises, I am still intrigued by the raw mechanics involved in raising and lowering a ship like ours.
There was also a bit of an unscheduled diversion: a guest onboard had a medical emergency. Normally, I would never mention something like this here, but I feel its worth noting: an ambulance and an escort car raced onto the access road just west of the lock as we were transiting through it, and once we had emerged, Viking Baldur moved quickly alongside the pier, where paramedics from the ambulance jumped onboard. That’s the thing with river cruising: ships don’t have onboard physicians simply because they are not needed. In this case, the guest was taken off the ship and quickly whisked away. The entire process took mere minutes, and my understanding is that the guest is doing well and will be fine.
Of course, one of the chief joys of river cruising with Viking is simply sitting in the gorgeous lounge and watching the scenery pass by. With floor-to-ceiling windows and the entirely glass-enclosed Aquavit Terrace, few river cruise ships can offer the same kind of ambiance that Viking has cleverly crafted for this onboard gathering spot that really does serve as the social hub of the ship.
Also worth noting: the cookies served onboard next to the coffee stations that flank either side of the Viking Lounge are in popular demand on this sailing. So good, they’re reduced to crumbs nearly as soon as they’re placed out!
This afternoon, Viking offered a guided walking tour of Bratislava that would depart at 14:30 and would run until 17:00. Because I’ve already been to this charming town twice, I chose to skip the tour. If you’ve never been here before, though, I’d highly recommend taking this included tour – you’ll miss out on much of the history and as a result, you may not appreciate what it is you’re looking at.
My two previous visits to Bratislava have been in July and September, and I was excited to explore this gorgeous city during the winter months. What surprised me, however, is that in contrast to the bustling streets found during summer and fall, Bratislava in the winter is almost entirely devoid of tourists, save for those coming ashore from the river cruise ships. Streets are dark and deserted, and more than a few shops are closed and boarded up for the season.
The bustling street cafes of the summer have long since been packed away, and you can walk a beeline down the center of the streets in the old town center without fear of being clipped by cars or cyclists.
This surprised me, as I didn’t realize that Bratislava’s tourism industry was so seasonal. It’s the sort of mass exodus you’d expect of places that are primarily tourist-driven. In many ways, visiting Bratislava in December reminded me of visiting an Alaskan town in the off-season: deserted.
That doesn’t mean that my day here wasn’t enjoyable; Bratislava has its own unique Christmas Market offerings, including heavily-spiked drinks that I have yet to see anywhere else. You can get drinks with lavender and berries in them, or with pieces of ginger, or other fruits & plants. Culinary offerings also changed markedly from the Hungarian choices yesterday in Budapest; if you’re headed to Bratislava, try the homemade potato chips served up hot and on a skewer; they’re deliciously good.
With the focus of the markets in Bratislava mainly on food and drinks, don’t expect much in the way of shopping. I notice some of my fellow guests are walking around with concerned expressions on their faces; claims of not being able to “find anything to buy” seem to be common. I have to admit I don’t quite understand this: I’ve always thought the purpose of the Christmas Markets is to go sample the traditional local food and drinks as opposed to souvenir shopping, which you can do anywhere in any city in the world at any time. Perhaps it reflects the North American mentality of “shop-til-you-drop”, but I can’t be certain. One thing I do know: the markets should encourage you to slow down and simply enjoy them for what they are.
This evening, Viking held a special cocktail party for their past guests in the Aquavit Terrace. Known as the Viking Explorer Society, this event recognizes the past guests onboard by offering them some delicious goodies (canapes and the like), coupled with complimentary spirits and other beverages. Compared with my cruise in France last week, where nearly everyone onboard was a past Viking guest, my sailing this week only has a dozen or so Viking Explorer Society members onboard. It’s quite interesting to see, as it means that out of the 190 guests onboard, roughly 170 of those are Viking first-timers.
What will be interesting to see is what impact the voyage makes on them as the week goes on. Many folks here are on their very first river cruise, and already they seem entranced by the experience. After all, how could you not be?
One of the best accolades I’ve heard in a long time came from a first-time river cruiser and first-time Viking guest. Over cocktails we got to chatting and he said to me, “I love this experience. It’s just like the ads.” Indeed, it is – Viking’s television advertisements are wonderfully done, and even I sit up and take them in when I see them running between shows back home.
It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, there were no Viking Longships on the rivers of Europe. When I tell guests that Viking has been around since 1997, they’re flabbergasted. Many of them view Viking – and indeed, river cruising – as something entirely new.
Credit goes to Viking for that. They didn’t just make river cruising known back in 2012 when they launched their first four Viking Longships – they made it sexy.
Our full journey:
Viking Baldur - Danube Waltz Christmas Markets
|November 29, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||Flight from Bordeaux, France to Budapest, Hungary. Overnight in Budapest at the Kempinski Budapest|
|November 30||Budapest, Hungary||Embark Viking Baldur; free time to visit the Christmas Market. Traditional Hungarian dinner onboard.|
|December 1, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||City tour of Buda and Pest, including Castle District - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.|
|December 2||Bratislava, Slovakia||City tour through Slovakia's capital|
|December 3||Vienna, Austria||Ringstrasse tour or free time; optional excursion to the Christmas Market at Schonbrunn Palace; optional evening concert.|
|December 4||Durnstein & Melk, Austria||Free time or optional walking tour in Durnstein; tour of Melk Abbey.|
|December 5||Linz, Austria / Salzburg, Austria||Full day excursion to Salzburg, Austria; free time. Return to ship late at night.|
|December 6||Passau, Germany||Walking tour & free time|
|December 7, 2014||Passau, Germany||Disembark Viking Baldur; transfer to Munich, Germany for onward journey home.|