Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Glorious Danube - Austria

Coming towards the end of our epic 11-day voyage along the Danube on Uniworld's River Duchess...

Vienna - Day 1

After six countries in 9 days, we had finally reached our final destination along this stretch of the imperious Danube River - although not the end of our trip.

We had passed through the rest of Slovakia in the night (even with a midnight departure from Bratislava, it was only a couple of hours to the Austrian border), and now stood close to the end of our trip through eastern Europe.

Surprisingly, for all the reputation as one of Europe's most refined and graceful capitals, the arrival in Vienna was not a memorable one, with the river-front at this point looking distinctly drab and modern (with the notable exception of the 19th century Jubilee Church, or the Church of St Francis of Assisi).

Basically, this was because the river was 'evicted' from the city in 1598 after it flooded once too often, and the re-routed course is now more than a mile from the centre (linked by the man-made Danube Canal of Baron von Hoyos).

With our ship way too large for the Canal, we anchored in the cruise centre at Vorgartenstrasse at around 8am and awaited our chariot for the day - another luxury coach complete with expert local tour guide.

With another 1,000-plus years of history on offer, we knew we were never going to get through even the basic highlights in a day, hence the need for a double overnight stay to complete the cruise and two full days to explore.

To start with, our initial tour was only an appetiser, a chance to get the basic layout of The City of Music, learn the essential history and get a feel for the place that was the capital of the Habsburg Empire for six centuries.
En route, we paid our first visit to the mighty Hofburg (above, former home of the Habsburgs, and now an impressive series of museums, public buildings and the Spanish Riding School), explored the National Library, the impossibly gilded St Stephen's Cathedral and the shopping hub of Stephensplatz, the geographical heart of the city.

Despite heavy destruction in World War II, Vienna's long, rich history has stood the test of time and now exhibits a breathtaking array of Romanesque, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture that makes for a kaleidoscopic view almost everywhere you turn.

Once our official tour was over and the coach headed back to the Duchess, we decided a more in-depth exploration was called for on foot, so we stayed in the city centre, taking in the amazing Naschmarkt (below) a colossal series of permanent stalls, kiosks, restaurants and cafes offering just about every kind of fresh produce, from exotic herbs and succulent pastries to seafood and cheese.
It dates back to the 16th century and was also the obvious place for a tasty lunch before we continued our perambulations by returning along Stephensplatz and enjoying the 'village'-style stalls selling tourist bric-a-brac, along with other window-shopping.

An early return to the ship was essential, both to make sure we were well in time for dinner but also to allow for time to change and prepare for the evening's optional excursion - to the famous Vienna Konzerthaus for an evening of music with the Johan Strauss Salon Orchestra (below).

We knew we had to sample at least a 'greatest hits' package of the city's most famous musical influences, and we weren't disappointed as the likes of Strauss, Mozart and H.C. Lumbye (the 'Danish Strauss'), as well as a couple of arias from The Merry Widow (Franz Lehar), The Magic Flute and the Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), provided the bulk of a captivating programme.
The vocal duets were also followed by two ballet dancers, to Strauss' Treasure Waltz and Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, while a duet from the Strauss operetta Viennese Spirit added further enchantment, along with the obvious finale of On The Beautiful Blue Danube (to give it its full title).

The Orchestra boasted the lightest of touches and the music positively floated around the salon, carrying us with it for much of the time.

And, while the Concert House, with its Mozart Saal, was only inaugurated in 1913, the likes of Strauss and Mozart most certainly still infused the building with their spirit - and that enthralling, beguiling sound so beloved of the 18th and 19th centuries.

To put the cherry on the metaphorical chocolate gateau of a day, our coach driver took us back to the ship via a fabulous night-tour of the city, full of brilliant lighting around the main monuments and buildings (below). And to complete the icing, another night-time 'snack' awaited us back in the Danube Lounge, with fresh breads, cheeses, meats and a wonderful soup. High travelling pleasure, indeed!  

This ‘Imperial Capitals of Europe’ voyage can be booked at www.uniworldrivercruises.co.uk, with Titan Travel (in the UK only) at www.titantravel.co.uk or, for more on river-cruising in general, seek out the luxury cruise-agent specialists of The Cruise Line Ltd on this link.