22 OCT 2010: River cruising has been around it seems forever. Travel impresario Thomas Cook started the industry when he took wealthy Brits down the Nile River in the 1800s. They oohed and awed from Cairo to Aswan. Who wouldn’t?


I got to thinking about a special river cruise of a lifetime for me and my mother.

The choice was quite simple. The Danube is all I ever heard growing up in a Hungarian household. I’m a first-generation Hungarian-Canadian so took the prescribed piano lessons, played and later waltzed as a debutante to the emblematic Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (whose grandfather was Hungarian I learned on our trip).

Mom has always loved her hometown of Budapest. She’s quick to point out her family lived on the Buda side. She never tires of speaking about the Jewel of Hungary. Her parents and four siblings escaped during the darkest days of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution by ship and embarked on a life altering journey that continues to resonate with her like it was only yesterday.

“I remember we ate like royalty. We dined on spaghetti, even had a beauty contest on board,” she remarks about the harrowing escape on the Ascania, an Italian cargo ship that was retrofitted after World War II to become among the first crop of leisure vessels rebuilt for the Transatlantic crossing.

Thing is my Mom, Maria, has never cruised since. No reason other than raising a family, and these days, minding her grandchildren.

Don’t we all know how quickly life is passing us by? Especially if you work in the travel business as we do.

I knew what I wanted. Something grand, statement-making, and a river cruise highlighting cities along the Danube River that wouldn’t require a heck of a lot of time. (My schedule sadly doesn’t permit multiple week cruises).

But a one-week Danube River cruise was in the cards. Uniworld River Cruises’ The Enchanting Danube aboard The River Beatrice was the chosen one. Lauded as the newest boutique luxury ship to sail the Danube and hailed by Cruise Critic’s Editors as “Best New River Ship” I figured it would be a real winner. All shore tour programmes, complimentary bikes, gourmet food with a la carte dinners and wine are included.

On the day of our embarkation, Budapest was in the throes of the biggest world Triathlon competition to hit Central Europe? All the major thoroughfares were closed. Cabs could only go so far.

Picture me and Maria negotiating streetcar tracks after our cab driver dropped us off, lugging our suitcases down steps to finally reach the gangway. But we didn’t mind. We were embarking on a journey of a lifetime.

At the front desk, Dalma Tothpal candidly smiled and reassured us in Hungarian that we would truly love our suite. Indeed.

Suite guests have a butler, complimentary laundry service, shoe-shining, and of course the perks of a fabulous 225 square foot suite with a French balcony and exclusively made English Savoir beds draped in the finest of linens.

Uniworld considered everything when designing all the rooms. Plush robes, monogrammed slippers, the best bottles of red and rose. For those with a coffee penchant try the ensuite Nespresso bar, and for chocolate fans, it’s the gob smacking Valrhona French dark chocolates that waited temptingly our pillow each night.

The citrus scent of L’Occitane bath products were Mom’s favourites. Mind you, I couldn’t get enough of the Shea Butter body lotion which was mounted conveniently above the sink.

Heavenly views, original art and did I mention two closets with plenty of extra shelves and drawers?
“We listened to our guests in our surveys and added an additional closet,” mentioned Emilia Madrigal, the ship’s hotel manager whose family owns the Intercontinental in Madrid.

Budapest

A German I met in Munich asked me what cities we visited on our river cruise. When I blurted Budapest and Vienna, he quickly replied, “Ahhh, Budapest has Capital Charm while Vienna was oh so 50 years ago.” Budapest is where it’s at.

The magnificent Opera House opened in 1896 as part of Hungary’s Millennium Celebrations (the country was founded in 896 by St. Stephen of Hungary) as did so many other municipal projects like the subway (Continental Europe’s first which preceded even Paris), the inauguration of the Parliament Building and the Hosok Tere (Hero’s Square).

We sampled Gerbeaud tortes and coffee at the esteemed Café Gerbeaud by Vorosmarty Square in Pest and toured the Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda. Maria has a fabulous photo of her mother as a sprited teenager sitting daringly on top of this limestone wall so I snapped a happy snap of my mom mimicking her mom….almost.

On a pilgrimage to revisit her old school we walked down the street she took daily. Like then, it’s an Embassy Row of residences. However the school is renamed. It used to be a Communist one in which the kids wore red scarves and a uniform. Today, it’s a Catholic primary school and the kids donned backpacks and wore a new uniform: jeans.

Budapest was all aglow as our ship sailed away from the port and began to ply up the romantic Danube past the Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion where Mom used to play on the steps as a little girl now in full view.

It was glorious.

Vienna


Royalty was a big deal here. After all, Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the home of the Hapsburg Dynasty (they ruled Continental Europe for over 600 years). All of this translates into decadent opulence and radiant architecture with wide-spanning boulevards ideal for pageantry and parades.

By night, we were surrounded by ornate gold-leaf mouldings, fabulous frescoes and sky high walls as we sat in the historic Hofburg Palace listening to a concert of Mozart and Strauss classics.

By day, we toured the Austrian National Library, strolled along the famous shopping street of Karntner Strasse and visited the St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Outside the Cathedral, white-wigged Mozarts stood luring possible patrons to the evening’s concert at the famous Vienna Opera House.

The Opera House is an easy six subway stops to the Schonbrunn Palace. Locals enjoy picnics by the palace’s free gardens. We signed up for a tour of the Imperial apartments. The palace is undergoing some nips and tucks; but the rooms with the exception of the Great Gallery which was under scaffolding were all open.

Hard to imagine how the rich and famous lived back then. The somber Vieux-Laque Room in its mournful black lacquer was a memorial to Maria Theresa’s beloved husband Emperor Franz Stephan who died unexpectedly of a heart attack. “She grieved for him daily and visited this room every day,” said our guide, about the popular queen who was a.k.a Marie-Antoinette’s mother.

After the Palace visit we munched on Sacher Torta at the luxe Sacher Hotel. The photo I think says it all.

It was indeed a wonderful trip to organize. We laughed every day and I got to see a rare side of my mom away from the grandkids and all the responsibilities awaiting both of us back home.

For a short week we both felt like kids again.

For more information visit uniworld.com

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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