There are two things you have to do when visiting Vienna. The first is to visit a local restaurant for a wiener schnitzel; a pork or veal cutlet breaded and served with potato salad or fries. The second is to attend a Mozart and Strauss concert in one of the city’s palaces.
I’ve ticked off the first and now I am sitting in the ballroom of the magnificent Liechtenstein City Palace, listening as an orchestra plays waltzes, polkas and the stirring Radetzky March, while admiring the seriously-opulent gold leaf and stucco on the walls and ceiling all around me. The evening is just one of several special highlights of this river cruise I’m on - a 15-day Europe cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam on APT’s river cruise ship, MS AmaBella.
Still to come is an excursion to Salzburg on the Majestic Imperator, a replica of a train built back in the 1800s for Emperor Franz-Joseph, the ruler of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Empress Elisabeth. It was a journey fit for a king with red carpets, sparkling wine and carriages decorated with inlaid wood panels, drapes, upholstered chairs and thick carpets - but I’m afraid you’ll have to be quick to experience it because the Imperator will be replaced next year with a day out on the Grand Empress Steam Train from Budapest. The Grand Empress Steam Train, available from April to September, promises to be at least as grand. It is named in honour of Empress Elisabeth and will take passengers to Gödöllö Palace, one of her favourite residences, gifted to her and her husband when they were crowned King and Queen of Hungary.
Budapest, where my cruise began, is truly grand, boasting the oldest underground railway in Europe after London, the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe and the third-largest parliament building in the world (it is trumped by the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest and the Palace of Westminster in London). The first time I visited it was still under Communist rule and very grey and unloved. Restaurants had tempting menus but no food and the streets were empty. Now it is buzzing with people, cars, restaurants and cafes serving everything from burgers to tasty Hungarian goulash. A morning tour took us past the synagogue and parliament and stopped at Heroes Square, built in 1896 to mark Hungary’s 1,000th anniversary and Fisherman’s Bastion, a lookout spot with great views of the Danube River below.
From Budapest, we set sail for Vienna, the city from where Emperor Franz-Joseph and his Habsburg ancestors once ruled their vast empire. It is also one of my favourite cities, a joyous place to see everything from opulent palaces and elegant coffee houses to priceless art collections and the white Lipizzaner horses. One of the lovely things about sailing with APT Cruising is that as well as including all excursions in the cost of the cruise, there is a choice of tours most days so you can dip in and out of what appeals without worrying about the budget. Fares also include flights and transfers, gratuities, Wi-Fi and all meals on board.
On MS Amabella, one of four APT ships sailing the same cruise next year, the main restaurant is divided into two sections each evening, with an international menu served on one side and an Italian-themed choice of dishes on the other. There is also a speciality restaurant, Chef’s Table, with seating for up to 24 diners, at the back. We all went to the Mozart and Strauss concert during an overnight stay in Vienna but the next day, while I opted for a tour to the Spanish Riding School, others took an excursion to Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Habsburgs. Others headed out of the city to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
This really turned out to be the cruise that never stops giving. Over the course of two weeks, we sailed on four waterways (the Danube, Main-Danube Canal, Main River and the Rhine), transited the picturesque Wachau Valley and Rhine Gorge, sailed over the Franconian Alps and negotiated 68 locks. We visited opulent abbeys, palaces and medieval towns, saw the chilling Nazi parade grounds in Nuremberg, met a real German princess, Heide von Hohenzollern, in her very own castle and learnt about canals, clogs and windmills in the Netherlands.
From Deggendorf, I joined guide Sylvia for a tour around the medieval centre of Regensburg, one of the few towns to escape the Second World War bombings as there was no industry there to destroy. It’s a lovely town, with narrow medieval streets, towers built by wealthy individuals for no reason other than to show off just how rich they were (the higher the tower, the wealthier you were) and the oldest sausage kitchen in the world, which is my top recommendation for a bratwurst and beer at lunchtime.
The city also has a beautiful 12th century stone bridge that is still intact today. According to legend, the stonemason made a bet with his counterpart building the cathedral that he would finish first but when it looked like he might lose, he appealed to the devil for help to win the wager. In return, he agreed with the devil that he could take the first three souls to cross the bridge. It took only 11 years to build, which was incredibly quick (especially given a renovation has just taken 7 years!) but not fast enough and the stonemason lost the best. However, he came up with a cunning plan to foil the devil, shooing a hen, rooster and dog across the bridge ahead of any people. I guess you could say the devil had been, cuckolded.