My husband, Alan, and I had traveled to Northern and Western Europe, but have always had Eastern Europe on our bucket list. I know that my heritage is rooted in Germany, while his family tree extends to Czechoslovakia and Hungary from as early as the 16th century. Last August, we took a river cruise in the Bordeaux region of France and met a wonderful group of seasoned travelers, who all told us that the Danube River cruise was one of their favorite trips. I was excited to begin planning our next adventure and knew Avalon Waterways had what we were looking for.
August 19-20, 2017
On Saturday, we boarded a Lufthansa flight to Munich and had a short layover before reaching Budapest on Sunday, where our cruise would be departing from on Tuesday. Upon our arrival, we were greeted outside the baggage claim by an Avalon Waterways representative, who guided us to the shuttle that would be taking us to our hotel. Little did we know, we were arriving on the most celebrated holiday in Hungary, St. Stephen’s Day (similar to our 4th of July)! Traffic was a little crazy but eventually we arrived.
We stayed at the Sofitel Chain Bridge, which was located on the Pest side of Budapest, right on the Danube River. We had a gorgeous view from the room and would absolutely stay there again if we find ourselves in Budapest.
After a quick meeting with our Avalon tour director, Roos (pronounced “Rose”), we walked just a few blocks from our hotel and found a pedestrian area that was filled with restaurants and outdoor seating. We watched a wonderful parade that ended at St. Stephen’s Basilica. We decided to grab a seat for dinner before the crowd dispersed and made our way to the restaurant Aszu, which had a great selection of traditional Hungarian fare and a few more familiar dishes. Both of us ordered the Paprika Chicken and it was delicious.
After dinner, we strolled down the street that followed the river and watched a spectacular fireworks show over the Chain Bridge in celebration of St. Stephen’s Day.
August 21, 2017
Monday morning began with a guided City Tour that touched on Heroes Square and the Dohany Street Synagogue on the Pest side then Buda Castle and Matthias Church on the Buda side. In the afternoon, we went on a culinary tour with 6 other couples. We walked for a total of about three hours, and stopped at a traditional butcher, a wine and cheese shop, and an ice cream parlor.
After the tour we split off from the group and walked across the Chain Bridge back to the “Buda” side to do some more exploring. We walked around the Buda Castle before finding dinner. I was excited to try the traditional Hungarian Goulash (beef stew), which lived up to my expectations. It was a beautiful evening with the “Pest” side of Budapest as the backdrop. It was certainly a photo opportunity!
August 22-23, 2017
Before leaving Budapest later in the afternoon, we took some time to visit the House of Terror. One of the saddest museums and memorials I have ever seen. It is full of exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes of 20th century Hungary. Certainly something to make you think. What seems so foreign to us is still so fresh in the minds of the people of Hungary.
We met up with 10 other couples for a tour of the countryside that included stops and wine tastings at two different vineyards as well as a gourmet lunch prepared by the owner of the second vineyard. Everything was delicious and everyone in the group was becoming fast friends.
Our home for the next seven days was the Avalon Visionary, a small ship carrying 115 guests on board. Avalon is the only cruise line with beds facing a wall of windows, so we were eager to take advantage of the scenic experience. We sailed all night and through the next day. We took advantage of the outstanding weather and had lunch on the top deck of the ship, while watching the small towns of Hungary and Slovakia pass by. We have already met so many nice people from every corner of the world: Australia, Belize, Canada, Chicago, England, New York, New Zealand, and Texas.
Our day aboard the ship consisted of eating, napping, and learning to waltz! We enjoyed an early dinner before disembarking in Vienna. We went into town for a concert at what used to be the beautiful palace/home of a prominent local family…a perfect evening.
August 24, 2017
The day began with a guided City Tour of Vienna. We drove along the Ring Road, the road that surrounds the Old Town and is built where medieval city fortifications once stood. It has been designated by UNESCO as part of Vienna’s World Heritage Site. The road is lined with some of the most beautiful buildings I think I have ever seen. Among them are the Vienna State Opera, Academy of Fine Arts, Palace of Justice, Parliament, University of Vienna, Vienna Stock Exchange, just to name a few. I wish we had more time to explore here…we will just have to come back!
We took a short walking tour through a quiet part of Old Town and were given about an hour to explore on our own. Not nearly enough time to see it all. The afternoon consisted of a tour of Schonbrunn Palace, the former imperial summer residence, as well as a great history lesson on the life of Queen Maria-Teresa, who ruled Austria for over 40 years and gave birth to 16 children (one of them was Marie Antoinette).
Our ship was docked in port until 10:45 pm so we went into town for dinner. Our tour guide recommended Griechensbeisl (please don’t ask me to pronounce it). We each ordered the filet mignon and a nice glass of Zweigelt. Afterwards we agreed we should probably try to walk off some of that dinner so we made our way back to the ship on foot. After about 30 minutes I realized we must have made a wrong turn…thank goodness for Uber!
Avalon brought a musical duo from Slovakia on board to entertain us tonight. They were fantastic! One is the conductor and the other is the principal violinist for the symphony orchestra in Bratislava. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
August 25, 2017
Today we woke up in Durnstein. A tiny little town in the Wachau Valley where King Richard I the Lionheart was once held prisoner. One of the gentlemen in our group from England has traced his family tree all the way back to the 12th century and discovered that he is a direct descendent of King Henry II and King Richard I the Lionheart so he was quite excited to see Durnstein.
At 11:00 we set sail for Melk. We found a couple of lounge chairs on the top deck and enjoyed the scenery for the next couple of hours as Roos talked about each of the sites and villages we passed along the way. We docked in Melk at 2:00. We then went on a guided tour of the Melk Abbey. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a must see. It is a working Benedictine abbey. It contains a private secondary school for 900 children. Next to the Sagrada Famila in Barcelona, the church at the Melk Abbey is one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen.
August 26, 2017
We woke up in a tiny town called Aschach. The only reason for stopping here was to let off the passengers going on optional excursions to Salzburg or Cesky Krumlov. The “Sound of Music” is one of my favorite movies of all time so I lightly twisted Alan’s arm to visit Salzburg and see some of the spots where the movie was filmed. The first stop was in a gorgeous town called Mondsee. There is a lake at the base of the mountains where people were paddle boarding and sailing.
It is a popular holiday spot for locals.
In Mondsee is the famous St. Michael’s church where the wedding scene in the movie was filmed. We then drove to Salzburg. Our guide gave us a short orientation tour and then turned us loose. We took the funicular up to the fortress for an incredible view of the city. Coming back down, we wandered the streets in search of lunch and our souvenir Christmas ornaments before having to return to the bus.
August 27, 2017
Today we woke up in Regensburg, Germany. It is the fourth largest city in Bavaria. Besides the fact that it is the oldest city on the Danube, the three highlights were:
Before dinner, Avalon brought two local ladies on board for a tasting of the local beers. They did a great job but it was a little hard to take them seriously given their cute local costumes and pigtails. The beer was delicious and they made it really fun.
August 28, 2017
Today we are sailing along the part of the Main-Danube canal that has 16 locks in a 106 mile stretch of the waterway. A local university professor came on board to explain to us the whole canal/lock engineering masterpiece. Because of the lock system, we were actually 1000 feet above sea level at our highest point, before we started to gradually descend. He was super interesting.
We arrived in Nuremberg in the afternoon and opted for the City Tour. It is the second largest city in Bavaria and dates back to the 11th century, is notorious as the birth place of the Nazi Party and was the location of many Nazi propaganda rallies. In 1945-1946, after WWII ended, German officials accused of war crimes were brought to trial here in the Nuremberg Trials.
After that, we stopped for a tour of Nuremberg Castle and Old Town. It is storybook pretty. They hold a huge Christmas market here every year that draws over two million visitors!
August 29, 2017
We arrived by bus at the Prague Marriott at noon. The hotel is in a fabulous location…a 5 minute walk to Republic Square where you will find a farmers market, subway stop, shops and restaurants.
At 2:00 we met up with a few others for a guided “Secrets of Prague” tour. Our tour guide was Helena and she was wonderful. She has been giving tours for forty years and has seen much in her lifetime. After a short bus ride, we walked to the Charles Bridge. This city is simply gorgeous. Both sides of the river are full of beautiful architecture and history. She really covered a lot of ground with us so we were comfortable exploring on our own later.
We had dinner at a restaurant on the river. The food was okay but the view was spectacular! The highlight of the evening was walking along the Charles Bridge at night while it was full of pedestrians, musicians and artists.
August 30, 2017
Back on the bus at 8:15 for the Prague City Tour. We saw the castle and the church. We saw the Lennon Wall (a tribute to John Lennon). We went back to Old Town to see the Astronomical Clock.
This afternoon we signed up for the optional tour of Terezin. Helena was our tour guide again today. Terezin is a former military fortress an hour or so outside of Prague. During WWII over 32,000 prisoners (5,000 of them women) passed through here. Many were tortured, executed or sent to concentration camps. A distant relative of Alan’s, Anna Skrainka, was here for 18 months 1944-1945. When the prison was liberated by the allies, Anna walked 700 miles from Terezin to Hamburg. Her granddaughter, Angie Littlefield, has researched the story and is writing a book, Walking With Oma. Helena did such an amazing job of describing the conditions that it just left us with a haunting feeling and overwhelming sadness for those who were held there.
Later in the evening, at the recommendation of our tour director, Heinrich, we had an amazing dinner at a little Italian restaurant about 5 blocks from our hotel. We wandered aimlessly around the busy streets of Old Town until our feet just couldn’t take any more.
August 31, 2017
Today was the first day we could sleep in. Heaven. We grabbed sausages and beer for lunch from a vendor at the farmer’s market before boarding the bus for our last excursion. Helena was our guide once again. She really is wonderful. We drove for about 45 minutes to Melnik to see the castle and do a wine tasting. The village is very pretty and quaint. The castle has been in the Lobkowiczs family for hundreds of years (except for a brief period when it was confiscated by the communist party). The wine was very good and it was the perfect way to end our vacation.
I thought Avalon did a wonderful job. We really liked the hotels in Budapest and Prague. The ship was wonderful. The staff on the ship and the tour guides on the ground were very good. I would encourage anyone thinking about a river cruise to go on this adventure!
Email Julie or give her a call at 314-580-4554
to begin planning your Avalon Waterways cruise and discover the best of Eastern Europe.
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