By Liz Fleming

If the idea of days spent in luxuriously warm mineral water baths or strolling cobblestone streets appeals, and your best-ever evening entertainment involves the sound of a symphony orchestra, put the Viking Danube Waltz cruise at the top of your ‘must do’ list.

 Hungarioan ParliamentFazoni/iStock

With an itinerary that begins in Budapest (learn to pronounce the ‘st’ like ‘sht’, so you can fit in with the locals) and continues with tastes of the Danube valley that include Vienna, Melk, Linz, Salzburg and more, Viking offers a European feast for the senses. Add to that a ship that’s accommodating on every level – from outstanding service (when was the last time you were greeted by the entire crew, waving and smiling like you’re a long-lost friend as you came aboard?) to great food and welcoming suites on a signature Longship and the end product might just be the cruise for you.

The Viking Gullveig, one of the ever-growing fleet of Viking Longships, has 95 outside staterooms, all with glorious views. Our Explorer Suite had a large sitting room with corner sliding glass doors and a sunny balcony where we watched the passing countryside. A separate bedroom and spacious marble-enhanced bathroom decorated in warm woods and rich leather gave a rare and luxurious chance to spread our wings and breathe.

Viking Longship in BudapestCourtesy of Viking River Cruises

The ship is a marvel of minimalist comfort, with an almost Scandinavian simplicity. The furnishings in the dining room and lounge are a simple blend of rich wood grains and soft grey, cream and brown leather, chosen, we thought, to blend with the colors of the shoreline and contrast with the Danube waters.

The cuisine was a great blend of healthy choices, comfort food favorites (the lobster mac and cheese is reason enough to book a return cruise) and local specialties. The service was outstanding at every meal and the after-dinner atmosphere was livelier than on many ships, thanks to an endlessly accommodating pianist/DJ.

Viking Longship_Aquavit TerraceCourtesy of Viking River Cruises

Viking Longship_Explorer SuiteCourtesy of Viking Cruises

The Danube was with us everywhere, in the dining room and the lounge where floor to ceiling windows brought the outdoors inside. We left our curtains open from morning, until late in the evening and drank in the sights and sounds of the river - vineyards and church spires, fields still green in the mid-November sunshine and the grey, green and sometimes blue Danube herself.

Our journeys ashore took us deep into the culture of a part of Europe that has shaped the history of civilization – beginning with beautiful Budapest.

As locals will tell you, there are two types of people in the world – those who live in Buda and those who wish they did.

Trust me when I say it won’t take long to fall in love with Budapest. For me, five minutes of floating in the baroque-style bliss of the elegant Hotel Gellert’s baths was all it took to begin a steamy passion for this ancient Hungarian city. What’s not to love about a place that offers, among many other historic, gastronomic and architectural wonders, a collection of traditional 16th and 17th century Turkish baths open to the public but housed in settings so lavish they wouldn’t disappoint a Roman emperor? Bring your bathing suit!

Hotel Gellert bathsCourtesy of Hotel Gellert

Straddling the Danube River, the city is divided in two – Buda and Pest. While Pest is the seat of industry and commerce, Buda is bursting with stunning Baroque, Gothic, and Art Nouveau architecture, fascinating shops, the wildly rugged statuary in Heroes Square and eight beautiful bridges to take you across the water and back. The oldest and most famous of these is the Chain Bridge – best seen at night, festooned in white lights.

We spent a glorious half-day exploring the Buda Castle area, winding our way through the cobblestone streets surrounding Trinity Square by the famous Matthias Church and the Royal Palace. When we’d overdosed on gilded turrets and spires, we tucked ourselves into a tiny pastry shop for a cup of exquisite coffee and some dangerously delectable cake.

That was the first of our coffee and cake ashore, but it certainly wasn’t our last. In fact, after making our way through Vienna, wandering the stalls of the early Christmas market shimmering in front of the Rathaus, gaping at the world-famous Opera House and Parliament buildings, and stealing a glimpse of the Lipizzaner stallions in their stalls, we found two of the city’s must-visit coffee houses, the Café Sacher and the Café Demel. In a city known for coffee house culture, the choice was difficult but the treats lived up to their delectable reputation. Just for good measure, we also checked out a few of the bakeries and chocolate shops, carefully sampling the goods – we do take our jobs seriously.

We fed our souls along with our stomachs at a special concert at the glam Palais Auersperg, featuring the music of Austria’s favorite sons, Mozart and Strauss, organized specially for Viking’s guests. Though I’m not particularly well versed in classical music, I found every piece such a part of our collective culture that I knew them immediately and enjoyed every note.

Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, was another port that fed our love of music. Once famed for its salt mines, Salzburg now welcomes 300,000 visitors each year bent on celebrating their passion for the "Sound of Music". Tour operators offer excursions that take the faithful to see the steps of Mirabell Palace where the little von Trapps lined up to sing "Doe a Deer", the square where Maria danced and sang "I Have Confidence", and the church where she married her gruff but handsome captain - at least in the Hollywood version.

Mirabell PalaceBlueJay Photo/iStock

In reality, the von Trapp family lived a slightly different story. Though there were lots of children, a happy second marriage to an almost-nun-nanny and an escape to America as the Nazis invaded Austria, we learned that the real von Trapps suffered financial hardships and lived on one floor of their formerly grand home, not in the manor house shown in the film, had a wedding in a completely different and less photogenic church and left Austria not by hiking over the Alps but rather by stepping onto a train. Oh...and "Edelweiss" never was an Austrian was written by Rogers and Hammerstein.

Disillusioning? A bit, but our learning only fueled the fun of exploring Salzburg to search out the locations in the film. Sometimes the truth is what you - and Hollywood - make of it.

Later as we tucked into a soul-warming plate of goulash and dumplings in Salzburg’s popular Elephant Cafe, we thought about how like a feast our cruise had been, filled with tastes of history, music, art and fine cuisine. We devoured every experience and are already planning a return to the table.

Originally published in Dream Voyages Spring 2016 issue.

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