Last month Peggy shared the first part of her cruise along the Danube River with Emerald Cruises aboard the Emerald Destiny. Meanwhile, let’s rejoin Peggy and hubby Peter as they explore three capital cities on the Danube.
Vienna: Experience Elegant Café Society
Get inspired With a Visit To The MAK
As Peter and I continued our fabulous Danube River cruise on the Emerald Destiny, we landed in Vienna on Day 5, our final port in Austria. It’s a city I have wanted to visit ever since reading a book in college called Fin-de-Siécle Vienna: Politics and Culture. With a title like that, it might seem like a yawn of a book, but to my provincial young mind, Vienna sounded like the most exciting place in the world, where Europe’s brightest minds gathered in cafés and discussed art, literature, philosophy, and politics.
As part of the cruise, Emerald includes tours in every port, giving passengers a chance to learn more about the places we visit. In Vienna, we joined our guide after breakfast for a tour of the city, including an overview by bus of the Ringstrasse. Vienna’s grand boulevard is known as a marvel of urban planning, where palatial museums and government offices celebrate the glory of the Hapsburg Empire. Our guide said, it’s like “a necklace of beautiful buildings and important parks.”
Soon after our walking tour commenced, a small group of Lipizzaner horses ridden by their trainers pranced by. The Spanish Riding School, home of the famous stallions, is based in the Hofburg Palace in the city center, so daily walks in the local park provide exercise for the horses. Next our guide led us past Art Deco buildings, down the shopping street, and finally to St. Peter’s Cathedral, a stunning Gothic masterpiece, which unfortunately suffered extensive damage during WWII. Today it’s completely restored and definitely worth seeing.
After a quick peek, Peter and I stopped in one of Vienna’s charming cafés, not far from the cathedral, and ordered coffee and apple strudel, the city’s specialty. I think we were the only tourists there. The vibe was laid back, and we would have liked to linger longer, but after our tasty strudel, the streets of Vienna beckoned.
While some fellow passengers hopped on the metro to Schönbrunn Palace, the lavishly decorated summer home of the Hapsburgs, Peter and I visited the MAK or Museum of Applied Art, where you can marvel at everyday objects transformed into works of art—from furniture and carpets to tableware and lamps.
The MAK Design Lab featured an exhibit focused on sustainability and design. Did you know you could create beautifully designed coffee cups from coffee grounds? With its creative, eco-friendly versions of objects we use every day, this exhibit inspired us to buy a gorgeous pepper mill in the gift shop. Made of acacia wood, it will remind me to embrace art in my daily life.
Hear an Intimate Concert in Vienna
Plus Oompah & Hungarian Music Onboard
That evening after dinner we attended an intimate classical concert presented exclusively for Emerald Destiny passengers. While many excursions are included, this DiscoverMORE option required an additional cost.
The concert setting was a small music hall with excellent acoustics and a rich history. The small orchestra played Strauss’ “A Night in Venice,” Mozart’s “The Turkish March,” among others. Of course, the grand finale was—wait for it—Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz.” We loved the evening’s performance—a highlight of the cruise.
Emerald Cruises also offers two onboard concerts during the Danube Delights cruise. Our first night on the ship we were treated to a traditional Bavarian “Oompah” band complete with men in lederhosen, singing and yodeling. Another evening we enjoyed Hungarian folk music and dancing. The band—three violinists, an upright bass, and a hammered dulcimer—played upbeat folk tunes as dancers spun around in circles. The women wore brightly colored dresses, and the men had on vests, hats, and black leather boots. During the dances, the men clapped and slapped their boots and shouted “Opa!” while the women whistled and whooped. Both concerts added local flavor to the cruise.
Most evenings, our esteemed activities manager, Drazen, led before-dinner activities in the lounge, such as trivia contests, and after dinner, the lounge turned into a disco, where you could dance the night away. Emerald Destiny also offered spa services—massage, anyone?—as well as morning yoga and Pilates.
Bratislava: Cinderella of World Capitals
Plan a Visit to Kautz & Krupa Winery
Next stop: Slovakia, a young country formed when Czechoslovakia broke into two separate countries in 1993. Peter and I had visited the Czech Republic before, but this was our first visit to Slovakia. We landed in Bratislava on a crisp fall morning, met our guide, and walked through the capital city’s quaint old town.
Overlooking the city is a fortress which was completed in the 1600s but gutted by a fire in 1811. Renovation began in the 1950s, and today it stands as a testament to the glory days when Bratislava served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary as well as the coronation city. Maria Theresa was crowned here and made the city the center of her eastern kingdom for 40 years. Today Bratislava reenacts Maria Theresa’s coronation every June with a celebration of pomp and circumstance.
As we strolled through Bratislava, our guide talked about the period of “normalization,” when the Communists controlled Slovakia, and said nothing was normal: “It was a time of economic stagnation.” Today the compact city has a lot to offer visitors—from museums to art galleries to wine cafes.
My favorite activity in Bratislava took place after lunching on the ship. As part of the cruiseline’s EmeraldPLUS offerings, passengers can visit private homes and learn about everyday life in Bratislava. Peter and I joined about a dozen other passengers for a visit to a family vineyard, Kautz & Krupa, in a village outside of the city.
Martin, a sixth-generation winemaker, welcomed us warmly and showed us around his family’s 16th-century manor house. We felt transported to an earlier era while exploring the grounds of the property, which is slowly being restored as funds become available. Behind the garden, an opening in a stone wall revealed the family vineyards, which have been designated a UNESCO cultural monument.
It was a brilliant afternoon, and the vineyards glowed in spectacular fall colors of gold and rust, but we said goodbye to the pretty scene and the warm sun and descended into the manor’s 500-year-old wine cellar, described as one of the most beautiful in the region. Martin, who used to be an IT manager, said he realized he “had a strong relationship with the family business and the house,” so he left his job and now devotes himself, with the help of his uncle, to creating authentic local wine using a variety of grapes.
We descended deeper into the stone cellar to a tasting room, where Martin poured samples of his family’s wines. They were incredible, and I left with two bottles of cabernet franc, a steal at 5.50 euros each, and great memories of how one family’s love for winemaking has lasted through the centuries. I can’t wait to return to Bratislava and learn more about this “Cinderella of world capitals.”
Budapest: A Capital City With Stylish Flair
Don’t Miss the Magnificent Parliament House
Early the next morning, Peter and I watched the beautiful city of Budapest, Hungary, come into view as we navigated our last few miles of the Danube River. The magnificent Parliament House with its huge red-tiled dome and myriad spires flanks the left side of the river—Pest—while on the right, Castle Hill and the Fisherman’s Bastion dominate Buda’s skyline. The two cities became united in 1873, and today Budapest has become one of Eastern Europe’s most desirable destinations.
After docking, we boarded a bus for a guided tour of the capital city’s many highlights. First, our guide, Laszlo, taught us how to pronounce Budapest. In the Hungarian language, the st combination is pronounced like sch, so Budapest sounds more like Budapesch. He also told us that the “rich and famous” live on the Buda side and Pest is “for everyone else.”
The bus zigzagged through Pest first, and I was struck by the stylish flair of the city, almost as grand as Paris. In fact, Budapest is known as the shopping capital of Eastern Europe, and the main boulevard, Andrassy Ut, is lined with brand-name boutiques: Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Rolex, and Louis Vuitton, to name a few.
At the boulevard’s end, Heroes’ Square is home to the Millennium Monument, built in 1896 when the city celebrated its millennial, the thousand-year period since the first Hungarians arrived. Laszlo said they came from the east with horses and yurts, but little else is known about their original homeland. The millennial celebration occurred at the peak of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, when it was the third leading economy in the world.
The city was devastated in WWII, Laszlo explained. Seventy-five percent of the buildings were ruined, and the remaining 25 percent were damaged. Today the rebuilt city is gorgeous, and we couldn’t wait to explore further. After the tour concluded on the Buda side, Peter and I wandered around the Fisherman’s Bastion before finding a sunny café, where I ordered—what else—a hearty goulash soup.
The House of Houdini, a small museum with artifacts of the magician’s life, looked like fun, so we bought tickets and enjoyed a brief glimpse of Houdini’s colorful life. Also included is a magic show, mostly card tricks, but the magician was smooth and movie-star handsome, so he was fun to watch. We never could figure out how he did the tricks.
Our cruise was nearing its end, and Peter and I were sad to say goodbye to Alex and Drazen, as well as the friends we had made on the ship. Our first river cruise had been amazing, and Emerald Cruises proved to be the perfect choice. We loved everything about it: the meals and activities, the cities we visited, our cozy cabin, and most of all, the impeccable service from the ship’s friendly staff. We can’t wait to join Emerald Cruises again for another river adventure.
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The Danube River Ports We Visited
Vienna is an elegant city that looks as if it’s frozen in time. Gleaming palaces, museums, and government buildings invite visitors to discover the city’s charms. Or while away the afternoon in one of Vienna’s grand cafés, sipping your coffee and people watching. Here’s where you can find out more about the city’s history as well as tourist information, including hotels and restaurants, and the latest Covid updates. Go to www.wien.info/en.
Bratislava is a quaint city with an amazing history. Known as the coronation city, Bratislava served as home base to Archduchess Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire. You’ll love the charming old city center with lots of shops and restaurants. Get more travel information, including how to get around, tours, and special events, as well as Covid updates at www.visitbratislava.com.
Budapest, Hungary, is considered one of Eastern Europe’s top destinations for shopping and arts and culture. Spreading out on both sides of the Danube, Budapest will enchant you with her charming streets and cafes. Don’t miss a soak in one of Budapest’s thermal baths. Find out more about Budapest and Hungary at visithungary.com.
Next month: Join Peggy and Peter as they continue exploring Budapest and take a bath in the famed Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, the largest thermal baths in Europe, and then continue their European travels in Northern Italy.