Waltzing down the Danube river in style

The Danube is not blue. Never mind the title of the famous waltz composed by one of Austria's gifts to the world - Johann Strauss II. As our Avalon Vista cruise director Sabine Klocker remarked: "Grey Danube does not have quite that romantic ring to it."

Well, it is not quite grey or green - it has this indeterminate colour that is still pleasant to look at, nothing like the teh tarik-coloured rivers in Malaysia.

What was really stunning to the ragtag group of media members, travel agents and paying guests from Britain, Canada and the United States on board was the scenery. The Austrian countryside and the pretty little towns along the banks of the river were picture-perfect.

Spring was slightly delayed this year in the south of Germany and Austria from where we set out on the river cruise. A week earlier, there had been massive snowstorms in the area, so most of the flowers had yet to bloom, and the trees still had bare branches. Still, there was beauty in the starkness.


After two nights of onground excursions in Bavaria and Munich, we started the cruise proper in Passau, close to the Austrian border. We docked overnight at the City on Three Rivers, where the Inn and the Ilz join the Danube.

I gave a silent thanks that, for the next six days, I would not have to pack and unpack, unlike if I were on a ground tour and travelling via a coach. I was not so silent, though, when I walked into my accommodation, and yelped in delight.

My Panorama Suite stateroom had wall-to-wall and wall-to-ceiling panoramic windows (which can slide open) and the room was stocked with everything a luxurious hotel room should have. You can just lie on the comfy big bed that faces the windows and soak in the views.

A word of warning: If you want to draw the curtains, like I did, prepare to suddenly get a shock (and shock others) if the ship docks when you are unaware, and you find people on the shore taking in views of you.

Oh, yes, if you still need to keep in touch with the outside world, the room comes with complimentary Wi-Fi - though service can get a bit iffy at times. It helps if you are a chronic insomniac, or if you have to answer work e-mail, like me.

The selection of movies available also helped, as did the cameras mounted on the bow and stern - to see what's coming or what you missed. The views can be so enticing that you forget sometimes you are in your sleepwear when you race to the top deck to catch that scenic moment.

There are three decks on the ship, which can take about 180 passengers. The ship can even be booked for company trips or events.

I have to give top marks to the 48-member crew, from the wait staff to the cleaning crew to the "front desk" to the excellent cooks and kitchen staff. We were fed constantly.

On top of that, there is a 24-hour lounge that offers snacks and hot beverages. Depending on where the ship is, the menu may be changed to include local dishes and drinks.

Do not worry about having lots of free time because you have all those land excursions to fill your time with. And there is sufficient time to relax at night.


Another plus about river cruises is that, unlike ocean cruises, you are not stuck at sea for days on end. Every day takes you to a new stop and a different adventure on land. And yes, no "seasickness" as the conditions are rarely bad.

The scenic city of Passau was a good introduction to the river, as we saw evidence of how it affects the lives of inhabitants along the river. Two years ago, there was major flooding and we could see from the stains on the walls of buildings that the flood waters had risen very high.

The city also has the largest pipe organ in Europe - with 17,388 pipes and 231 stops - housed in the St Stephen Cathedral.

We were also lucky to have a local guide, Alex, who managed to make architecture and art sound very entertaining. So entertaining that I forgot to take notes, but I dare say I can now tell the difference between Gothic and Baroque architecture.

After Passau, we encountered the first of seven locks before reaching Vienna. Locks are used for raising and lowering boats, and as we were going downstream, our ship was lowered. It takes about 15-20 minutes each time and is worth a look when your ship passes through.

The next day proved interesting, as a number of guests went on an optional excursion to the Czech Republic. I opted to do a walkabout with Citra, a travel agent from Jakarta, around Austria's third-biggest city, Linz. Austrian cities are small and Linz has a population of under 200,000.

The main square is quite compact and bisected by tram lines, and has a striking Trinity Column (you find that in a lot of towns in Austria) in the centre. Grab the famous Linz Torte (a sweet tart). I grabbed something better - a cute little glass of Freistadter Beer.

This is a pretty town filled with cathedrals (normal for Austria). Do not miss the largest church in Austria, the imposing Neuer Dom (yes, Austrians speak German), while the much older 17th-century Baroque Alter Dom is a good counterpoint.

We wandered off the recommended path and found a hill that gave great views of the other side of the river bank. You know what they say, when you wander, get "lost".

Next stop, Grein, which proved to be another pretty town, with a square you could cover in five minutes. Its claim to fame is that it has the oldest theatre currently in use in Austria (check out the old prison in the theatre and the hole-in-the-ground toilet). There is a rumour that Napoleon watched a performance at the theatre but, alas, it is not true. Also worth a visit is the late Renaissance-style Schloss Greinburg and the Upper Austrian Navigation Museum.

Then came decision time, as I had to choose between the opulent Baroque style of the vast and imposing Melk Abbey, or the basic and bare Renaissance style of the Schallaburg Castle. I opted for the latter, being Baroqued-out. It proved quite different, but the terracotta engravings in the main courtyard proved to be a good study of the local stories and fables.

Another brief stop, at Krems, proved to be a bit underwhelming. It is part of the Wachau region, which is famous for its wine, apricots and apricot liqueur, so be sure to grab some there.


Our final stop was the jewel of Austria, its capital Vienna. The City of Music, the City of Dreams and a city of culture, architecture, museums and grand palaces. I found it even more beautiful than Paris and no matter where you turned, you found yourself gasping in awe.

Legendary classical musicians and composers were either born here or produced their greatest works here. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, the two Strausses, Haydn, Salieri, Brahms, Mahler, Liszt and Falco (OK, he's pop but he rocked Rock Me Amadeus).

It is also the city of the Ringstrasse, the most beautiful boulevard in the world, filled with architectural delights and gardens, and which observed its 150th anniversary on May 1.

Found in or around the Ringstrasse are the Gothic cathedral Stephansdom, the tallest one in Austria; the Vienna State Opera; the neo-Gothic Rathaus; Votivkirche; the Greek-revival Austrian Parliament building; and the beautiful Baroque Karlskirche, among others.

You can shop to your heart's content at the famous Naschmarkt, where you can find all kinds of fresh produce and processed foods as well as eateries, and the very long Mariahilfer Strasse.

Exploring Vienna itself would take at least five days, I think, so my only response would be: "I will be Bach."

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