Beginning On the Blue Danube

A European river cruise primer on where to start the journey

By: Ralph Grizzle

Budapest is often the beginning
or ending point for Danube cruises.
As a travel seller, you probably need no convincing that river cruising is one of the best ways for your clients to see Europe. The slow chug along the river is at just the right pace for getting the lay of the land. Sitting on the top deck of a ship under brilliant blue skies, your clients gaze on fabled landscapes punctuated by castles, villages and vineyards. Just a flight of stairs away are all the amenities of a modern hotel restaurants, bars, lounges, fitness facilities, spas, Internet access and comfortable staterooms. More perplexing, however, may be where to begin your clients on Europe’s rivers. After all, Europe has more navigable rivers than any other region in the world and arguably more diverse cultures along its river banks than any place else. Cruising the entire length of the Rhine and Danube rivers alone exposes travelers to 10 countries in Eastern and Western Europe. So with so many choices, where do you send your uninitiated clients?

“The Rhine River seems to be the one river that is mentioned most worldwide,” said Austrian-born Rudi Schreiner, president of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Amadeus Waterways. “But the majority of cruises in Europe actually take place on the Danube.”

The Danube is a good introduction to river cruising in Europe in part because your clients are probably already familiar with the names of some of the cities along the river: Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.

“With the Moselle and Rhine river towns, however, even some Europeans are not familiar with the names,” Schreiner said. “So the typical first-time cruiser goes on the Danube, sees the beauty there, then wants to go on other rivers: the Moselle, the lower Danube and to Holland and Belgium for tulip cruises in the spring.”

Book a client on a Danube river cruise, the thinking goes, then follow up with river cruises to other regions in Europe and even worldwide.

Immortalized in Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, the Danube flows through six countries and meanders for nearly 1,800 miles. The fabled river winds from Germany’s Black Forest through Austria into the Balkans before dumping into the Black Sea. Most Danube river cruises span seven to 10 nights and allow sufficient time to explore the major cities along the river. Some vessels operate roundtrip from Passau; some operate one-way between Regensburg and Budapest; and others cruise between Vienna or Budapest to Nurnberg, which includes transiting a section of the Main Danube Canal over Europe’s continental divide in the Franconian Alps.

Excursions can be made to Salzburg from
Passau, Germany, and Linz, Austria.
Cruises from the Main River may begin in Wurzburg, but more frequently begin or end in Nurnberg, which was the center of the Nazi Party in the 1930s and virtually destroyed during World War II. Only a few historic buildings survived the severe bomb damage, but the city itself has been restored. And while most river cruises take place during the spring, summer and fall, Nurnberg hosts the world’s largest Christmas market, featured on Christmas market cruises during the month of December. Dating back to Roman times, Regensburg, Germany, was practically untouched during World War II. The city is the oldest on the Danube, tracing its history back nearly 2,000 years. Still standing are the Roman gates, Porta Pretoria, built in 179 A.D. Regensburg also lays claim to Germany’s oldest surviving bridge and its oldest restaurant, Alte Wurstkuche, a small sausage kitchen and dining room situated right on the river and within walking distance of where most river vessels dock.

From Passau, Germany, and Linz, Austria, excursions can be made to Salzburg (about two hours away), birthplace of Mozart and the setting for the acclaimed musical, “The Sound of Music.”

Vienna was home to the Habsburgs, one of Europe’s principal sovereign dynasties from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Just outside the inner city is Schonbrunn Palace, the imperial summer palace. Vienna is characterized by beautiful parks, legendary Viennese coffee houses and Baroque palaces. One of the city’s most famous landmarks, Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), is also one of Europe’s most impressive Gothic structures. Composer Schubert was born in Austria’s capital city and Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss composed their greatest operas and symphonies there.

Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, was a “capital in exile” for Hungary’s kings and archbishops during Turkey’s occupation of Hungary and most of the middle Danube basin from 1526 to 1784. Bratislava is dominated by an enormous castle that stands sentinel over the Danube. Though the castle dates back to the 9th century, it was razed in 1811 and rebuilt.

Situated on opposite sides of the Danube, Buda and Pest were united in the 19th century to form the Hungarian capital. The beginning or ending point for most Danube cruises, Budapest was once referred to as the “Queen of the Danube” because of the city’s cultural significance.

On one side of the Danube, hilly Buda retains much of its Middle Age charm. Its cobbled streets and Gothic buildings have been well preserved. On the other side of the river, Pest is the thriving city center.

River cruising is perfect for your clients who want a relaxed tour of Europe, and there are few places better for them to begin than the Danube.