River cruise ships have been carrying passengers the 3500 km across Europe from Amsterdam on the North Sea to Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea since 1992, when the 171 km Main-Danube Canal was completed. Looking at the map, you can see what a marvelous journey it is! Rivers have played a major role in the history of Europe, and most of the villages and cities along the rivers have existed for hundreds of years. The culture, history, and architecture of the settlements, combined with the spectacular natural beauty of the vineyards, farms, and rolling hills along the river, make this a wonderful cruise vacation option for travelers.
In October, my mother and I covered over half of this grand European river voyage, sailing from Budapest to Amsterdam on the Danube, Main, and Rhine Rivers and through the Main-Danube Canal. We cruised for 14 days on the delightful river vessel the Viking Spirit, visiting four major European capitals (Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, and Amsterdam) and 11 towns and villages along the rivers. We also passed through 68 locks as the Viking Spirit crossed the continental divide of Europe. The cruise covered 1856 km.
Budapest - Things to Do with a Day in Budapest, the Queen of the Danube
Budapest covers seven miles of the Danube River, and seven bridges link Buda and Pest.
We arrived at the airport, which is about 15 miles southeast of downtown, in the early afternoon. A Viking representative met us, and we rode a bus to the Viking Spirit, which was docked on the eastern bank in downtown Pest, directly across the Danube River from the 130-foot Liberation Monument.
Mother and I quickly checked in and were in our cabin (along with our bags) in about 5 minutes. We had a small snack, went for a walk around Pest, and unpacked before dinner.
The next day, we had a half-day bus excursion with a local guide (Viking includes almost all excursions in the cruise fare)that first covered the highlights of Pest including
- Hungarian State Opera House
- St. Stephan's Basilica
- Heroes' Square
- We rode to the top of Castle Hill and walked along its cobblestone streets to see the magnificent views of Pest from the Fishermen's Bastion. Our guide gave us free time, which mother and I used to tour the Matthias Church and a local flea market.
After lunch, we walked on our own around Pest and stopped in at one of the best farmer's markets I have ever seen.
The Viking Spirit sailed after dark, and it was wonderful--the entire riverfront was lit up, and each of the twinkling bridges looked spectacular.
Our time in Budapest had passed too quickly, and we were sailing up the Danube
Wertheim is a picturesque German town strategically located at the confluence of the Main and Tauber Rivers about 156 kilometers upstream from where the Main flows into the Rhine River. European river cruise ships such as the Viking Spirit often include Wertheim as a stopover point on Danube - Main - Rhine River cruises. The half-day we spent in Wertheim was a perfect introduction to this typical medieval village known for its glassworks, Franconian wine, and friendly people.
The Wertheim Castle (Burg Wertheim) was built in the 12th century overlooking the river junction and expanded during the 15th to 17th centuries. The fortress was destroyed in 1634 during the Thirty Years' War. Today the castle remains are among the largest in Germany.
When we left Nuremberg, the Viking Spirit continued its journey on the Main-Danube Canal to the Rhine River and on to Amsterdam.
We were not scheduled to arrive in Bamberg until right after lunch, so at mid-morning the Viking crew treated us to a traditional Bavarian breakfast, complete with sausages, pretzels, and beer. The fact that we all had already eaten breakfast didn't stop us from crowding around the delicious snacks.
After lunch, we rode a bus the short distance from the Main-Danube Canal to old town Bamberg. This charming village was not damaged during World War II, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We had an enjoyable walking tour of Bamberg and especially liked the Cathedral and the garden at Bishop's Residence, which provided a wonderful view of Bamberg's steepled skyline. Our guide was very proud of his city and enthusiastic about educating us about Bamberg.
Bamberg is famous for rauchbier, its smoky-tasting beer, and some of our group used their free time to have a tasting in one of the local taverns. When I asked some of the adventurous souls how they liked the rauchbier, they all agreed it must be an acquired taste!
We had the whole afternoon in Bamberg, which allowed plenty of time for sightseeing and pub crawling.
While we were ashore, the Viking Spirit continued through more of the locks on the Main-Danube Canal. Next stop Wurzburg.
Viking Spirit Reception Area
Stepping onboard the Viking Spirit for the first time, you realize just how cozy this river ship is. Built in 2001, the Viking Spirit is only 37 feet wide and has a draft of less than 5 feet. However, at 375 feet long, the Viking Spirit seems much larger, and she slides along the rivers at about 14 mph.
The Viking Spirit looks much like other ships sailing the great rivers of Europe. They all must be low and narrow to pass under the bridges and through the many narrow locks on the canals and rivers.
The Viking Spirit carries 150 passengers and 40 crew members on her three decks. We all loved the proximity of our cabins to the observation lounge and the outside decks.
One note for disabled cruisers. Although this ship is small and there are only three decks, passengers will have to be able to walk up and down about 10 steps to access each deck since the Viking Spirit does not have elevators.
Viking Spirit River Vessel Cabin
All of the 75 cabins on the Viking Spirit are outside cabins, and most have large windows such as this one. The windows slide open on the cabins on the upper decks. We thought the cabin was quite nice for two people, with plenty of storage room and comfortable beds covered with fluffy duvets at night. The room is equipped with a hairdryer, telephone, and air conditioner. The cabin has both a 220-volt and a 110-volt plug in, but you will need a European adapter.
The bathroom is small but has a good shower and several shelves in the medicine cabinet. The only thing missing in the bath was a soap dish in the shower for the shampoo and conditioner.
The television had a couple of movies each day, but they did not run continuously. There were also the standard international news channels.
The Viking Spirit has open seating dining for all meals, with tables set for 4, 6, or 8 passengers. Breakfast and lunch included both buffet or menu dining, and dinner was from the menu.
The breakfast buffet always included fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon and/or sausage, yogurt, a selection of cheeses and cold cuts, pastries, and several different types of bread. Pancakes, French toast, and eggs to order were available from the menu.
The buffet lunch included a delicious variety of cold salads, greens, and fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, beets, and cucumbers. The luncheon menu always had a selection of soups, a hot main course, and dessert. Many days I had a huge luncheon salad and dessert, while my mother loved the hot soup and homemade bread.
We ordered dinner from a menu, and each evening there was a selection of at least two appetizers, soups, main courses, and desserts.
Passengers could also always request a grilled chicken breast, steak, or Caesar salad for dinner. Many of the dinners (and sometimes the lunches) featured local specialties from Hungary, Austria, or Germany. Dinner was usually served about 7:00 and lasted about two hours, as passengers enjoyed the congenial atmosphere and delicous food.