Craig Tansley discovers an Avalon Danube river cruise is the best way to see Europe.
There’s only one way to travel through western Europe with so little traffic, so few airport queues and not a single tout or tourist with a selfie stick. Travelling by riverboat is like being in a hotel that moves along with you, so you needn’t ever worry about 2pm check-ins, or 10am check-outs. And getting from country to country by boat never requires waiting in slow security queues for flights that take barely an hour; just the patience to sit on the top deck of your riverboat with a glass of wine watching Germany turn to Austria, Austria to Slovakia, Slovakia to Hungary and so on. The Danube flows for 2850 kilometres from Germany to the Black Sea, and you can ride it as far as you like, while watching Europe slide on past.
It’s on my first evening afloat, in Germany, that I truly appreciate my new floating world. There’s maize fields below us and paddocks of sunflowers and churches with skinny, tall steeples and entire families riding bicycles on pathways just beside the river. I watch out over it like a voyeur, checking for subtle changes in landscapes between countries, wondering when it is I slip from one to the other.
I’m travelling from Germany to Budapest, but I’m discovering it’s the smaller ports - which barely caught my eye in the preparation for my trip - which most surprise me. In Nuremberg, our first port of call, I walk through the old town, stopping for coffees beside the town’s ancient canals. Downriver at Regensburg, I take a day excursion on a tiny boat up a tributary of the Danube to an historic abbey with the oldest beer brewing operation in the world.
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Though it’s Austria’s Wachau Valley which really gets under my skin. This is Austria’s premier wine region – here 800-year-old family vineyards are stacked up steep hillsides right beside the Danube, beside ancient castles perched on the tops of high cliffs, and some villages so small we must walk through them on port calls as no cars are allowed to pass.
Vienna is the highlight of any European river cruise. Forget Paris, nothing compares to Vienna, with its wedding cake architecture and its beautifully manicured parklands all within the city’s central First District. Though I love to get to the vineyards on the edge of the city, where you can walk for views back over Vienna. You should just catch a tram here and stare at the buildings, you needn’t even visit the city’s opera houses at all, just ride around taking in the ambience here at the centre of the former Habsburg Empire.
Don’t forget Bratislava, just beyond Vienna, it flies under the radar of most Australians but its old town is so compact you can see it in a day, stopping at historic bars and cafes to meet the locals. We sail on, and end our journey at Budapest. Regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe, there’s so much to see - from the city’s ancient past to the nasty days of the Nazi occupation and the subsequent Iron Curtain Government. You’ll never have time to see all the churches and shrines in this great city, but when you float down the river you’ll pass one of Europe’s most extravagant buildings - the city’s Parliament building with its stunning high dome in Gothic Revival style - while a castle (Buda castle) looks down on you from high on top of a hill. There’s a frenetic night scene here too should you wish to join in the hi-jinx of Europe’s most underground party destination.