Brian Crisp slept in one bed but visited six countries on a 15-day journey from Budapest to Amsterdam
The sea of swarming people rushing to the exit of Budapest train station parted for just a fraction of a second. It was long enough for me to catch a glimpse of the small dark-haired Hungarian holding a multi-coloured APT sign.
I did a little victory dance.
After 22 hours of air travel and three hours on a train from Vienna our holiday was about to begin.
The man quickly grabbed the big bags, loaded them into his Mercedes taxi, and a few minutes later we were on board the AmaReina _ the Queen of the river.
My wife and I were in cabin 301 _ one of three owner’s suites. Day one is about getting to know the ship and your fellow passengers. The only sailing we did was a spectacular night-time sprint through Budapest. It was a bit like taking a car on a test drive really. Captain Tom took her away from the dock and we cruised up the river, past the houses of Parliament, and back to our docking point. Budapest is one of those cities that shines in the dark and the best place to see it is from the water _ on the top open deck with a glass of champagne in hand.
The effects of jet lag are very much on display today. The main lounge area is populated at 5.30am with people, body clocks still on Australian time, taking advantage of the 24-hour coffee facilities.
On the good side it does allow us an early start to exploring Budapest and I exercise my freedom of choice and opt to forgo the organised bus tour and take to the streets on foot.
Budapest is a shopper’s paradise _ especially at sale time in July. Most of the big brands are here and my wife managed, without even breaking a sweat, to add a new outfit to her wardrobe.
Every traveller has different priorities and we are spending this 15-day trip with neighbours Wayne and Barb _ who are travelling under the aliases of Conrad and Eva (more about that later). Wayne is a foodie and the Budapest markets _ with fresh fruit and veggies, boutique butchers, and wine and cheese merchants _ is a sensory delight. Despite not having any Forint, the local currency, Wayne managed to convince a stall owner to sell him some Russian caviar. By the smile on her face I think she got the better of the exchange rate.
Back on board by 12.30, the AmaReina started the journey to Vienna _ her first stop. This is the same journey that took us three hours by train, but on the river the pace of life is slow, so this trip will take 22 hours.
This is the day we ate Vienna. We caught the local train (2 Euros) to the Naschmarkt _ Vienna’s biggest open-air market. We didn’t sit for lunch. Instead we hunted and gathered. There’s more than 120 stalls selling a plethora of foods. Everything is fresh. Everything is available to be tasted pre-purchase. And there’s plenty of local beer to help wash it down. The pork knuckle was a little messy, but according to Wayne who was still eating it two days later, worth the effort. At night we were treated to a private concert at the at the renovated City Palace Liechtenstein _ one of APT’s signature events. My advice for what it is worth is don’t miss this concert. It is amazing.
While the boat stayed in Vienna we headed by bus to Slovakia to explore the capital city of Bratislava _ where car giant VW makes the Touareg and the Audi Q7. Like most of Europe Bratislava, with a population of about 500,000 is a mixture of old and new. The new we did by bus. The old, my favourite, we did on foot first passing through St Michael’s Gate and then wandering down the narrow, and winding, cobblestoned streets. My Scottish-born wife made bad choice for lunch and pressured us to eat at Lochness Scottish pub. My new motto for this trip is top eat local. In Austria that means Schnitzel, in Germany sausages.
After a night of sailing we woke in the small Austrian town of Durnstein, on the banks of the Danube. The day started with a walking tour of the quaint town where Richard the Lionheart, the King of England, was imprisoned in 1192. He was only there for a short time but long enough for him to become the town’s tourism icon.
To compensate for the amount of eating we have been doing, Wayne and I joined the cycling tour between Durnstein and the ship’s next stop, Melk. It is 32 kilometres with only one hill that lasts for about a kilometre. Twenty-three of us started the journey. Twenty-two finished. One lady hailed a taxi back to the ship. The youngest cyclists were a couple from Kiama in their early 30s while the oldest was a 72-year-old man. The cycling tour kept pace with the ship and we arrived simultaneously in Melk three hours after leaving Durnstein. A quick shower and change and it was off on a walking tour of Melk, famous for its magnificent Abbey. I’d certainly earned my schnitzel tonight.
A Sound of Music Salzburg tour or Cesky Krumlov? That’s today’s decision. APT tours are very much about choice. And each day you can hear passengers discussing the pros and cons of various day trips. I went to the World-heritage listed city of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. It did involve about four hours in a bus but this preserved city became a UNESCO site in 1992 and is always going to be worth the effort. Cesky Krumlov, with its short-sharp-steep hills is not an easy place to explore and the only way to do it is on foot. The good news is there’s plenty of places to stop to eat and more than 300 historical buildings to explore.
Summer in Europe is Festival season. In Melk I bumped into Australian jazzman James Morrison who was headlining a concert. Regensburg, about two hours north of Munich, too was in the middle of a jazz festival when we arrived and the streets were overflowing. There were so many people on the streets I managed to lose the tour guide as he took us over the bridge and into the city. Thankfully I lost him near the world’s oldest sausage kitchen, Wurstkuchl, and spent a lazy Saturday afternoon listening to music, drinking beer and eating fine sausages, sauerkraut, rolls and mustard. At night, while a disco party raged below (for about an hour mind you), we sat on AmaReina’s top deck under a blanket and watched the evening turn to darkness.
We’ve been onboard for a week now. Although I don’t know every one of the 157 passengers’ names, I do know quite a few. The other difference is that everyone is sleeping in a little longer as the holiday feeling kicks in. Breakfast now is busy at around 9am, rather that 7am like it was last Sunday. Today we enter the Main Danube Canal which links the North Sea to the Black Sea. Nuremberg is Bavaria’s second largest city famous for Lebkuchen (gingerbread) _ thanks to an historic access to honey. In the 13th century Nuremberg was one of Europe trade powerhouses.
I have to say that APT is a slick organisation and everything onboard runs like clockwork. But even it can’t influence mother nature. The skies opened and dumped on Nuremberg so hard that we couldn’t even leave the bus.
Bamberg had a World Cup headache on the morning I arrived. Germany had beaten Argentina 1-0 to secure football’s most prized possession the night before and the city had stayed out celebrating until three in the morning. In fact I’m sure our guide for the day had come straight from the party _ but who could blame him.
Bamberg was one of the few German cities not to be destroyed by bombs during World War II and that adds to its charm with very few modern eyesores to be seen. It offers a long list of architectural wonders, strongly influenced by northern Germany and Hungary, typical to towns in the Upper Franconian region. The area known as Little Venice, Klein Venedig, with its half timber cottages is a neighbourhood with textbook charm.
Christmas is not just one day of the year if you happen to live in Germany’s best preserved walled town of Rothenburg, founded in 1274, where you will find the enchanting and captivating shop of Kathe Wohlfahrt. Every Christmas decoration imaginable is available _ big and small. We bought 200 Euros worth of trinkets including a miniature old fashioned television set that when you switch it on an ice skating rink inside lights up and skaters glide through the winter wonderland. I’m expecting to arrive any day now in the post.
Rothenburg is a one-hour bus ride along the autobahn from Wurzburg where our ship is docked. A word or two about the guides. In each town APT uses local guides who usually are very good. But don’t feel you have to stay with the group. These towns are small and it is very hard to get lost. I tended to stay with the guide for 10 minutes just to get my bearings and then head off and do my own thing.
Oh no!. The bus for Miltenberg left at 8.30am. I was still in bed. Not to worry though the ship was berthed in Wertheim, a small town, with an interesting glass museum and a several shops selling glass artworks. I had visited this town four years earlier. I don’t think anything had changed. The pace of life is slow. People, in the centre of town, stand in the middle of the road to chat. Trucks delivering produce to the stores wait until the conversation ends.
This afternoon we continue continue our journey along the Main (pronounced by locals Mine) River. Even after 10 days, the locks still fascinate guests on the AmaReina. Every time we stop to prepare to sail through a lock guests head outside to watch every manoeuvre.
Rudesheim is yet another wine-making region and yet another picturesque German town along these wonderful rivers. The medieval town is filled with beer gardens, cuckoo clock stores and gelato venders like so many others. But it does have a significant point of difference and that’s Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum. This amazing collection is the brainchild of Siegfried Wendel who has turned his hobby into an obsession _ and his livelihood. There’s more than 350 automatic musical instruments from the very first jukeboxes through to gigantic pianolas _ all still working and some very, very loud _ especially the orchestrions. In the afternoon we enter the Rhine for the first time and it’s the Castle freeway with 30 on display either side of the ship. Some are restored, others are in ruins. But all afternoon I hear to constant click of cameras.
Cologne. What can I say! You have to love a town that offers a chocolate themed walking tour and has a giant golden Lindt bunny dominating the view along the river. But before indulging I climbed back on the bike to cycle through some of Europe’s most impressive Summer gardens.
We finally arrive in the Dutch masterpiece of Amsterdam. And even though we have been on a ship now for two weeks, there’s no better way to orientate yourself with this city than on its canals. Amsterdam has a well-earned reputation for its sex and drugs red light district but its museums are the real deal _ especially the Van Gogh museum.
We also headed into the countryside today to get a close-up look at the Netherlands’s famous windmills.
It’s time to pack and pay. We have travelled from Budapest to Amsterdam and hardly had to pay from anything along the way. Of course you can spend as much money as you wish off the ship, but the thing is, you don’t have to. Our bags collected from our room at 8.30am and by 9 we have started the next stage of our holiday. Back on the ship everything is cleaned and ready for the next group.