Back come our popular cruise reviews, and for the first time we are reporting on a river cruise.
‘Far from the madding crowd’ could be an apposite title for a river cruise on a luxury vessel named after the great British author Thomas Hardy, writes John Barr.
When you add the romantic Blue Danube and historic mid-European towns and cities, plus ever-changing vistas and musical interludes, there is plenty to exercise modern travellers far from Hardy’s Wessex.
The ‘Thomas Hardy’, latest in a fleet operated by Riviera Travel, provided a luxury base for brief exploratory visits to some of Europe’s most iconic cities and landscapes as it glided some 1,000 kilometres from Budapest to Linz and back along the Danube.
We were especially fortunate to embark at Budapest on the inaugural cruise of the ship in early April and to enjoy the five-star floating hotel that carries some 160 passengers and over 40 crew. From slipping the moorings on the eight-day adventure, the standards of service, cuisine, entertainment and communication were excellent.
Overnight passage brought us to the ancient capital of Esztergom with the highlights being the renowned Renaissance basilica, Hungary’s largest church, and the hilltop castle – a wind-chilling experience!
The half-day tour, as evidenced in other cities en route, did little more than whet the appetite for extended visits on other occasions. However, a generally leisurely and flexible itinerary was managed, and there was much to see and admire as the ship headed to Bratislava for a taste of Slovakia and its fast emerging capital city with a beautifully restored baroque old town contrasting with the grim reminders of the Second World War and subsequent communist occupation.
Contrasts in landscape and architecture were revealed as the ship drifted past the towns and vineyards of the Wachau Valley and through a series of locks, with the fascination of delicate navigational skills as the 135 metres long, 11.40 metres wide vessel. seemingly squeezed through the concrete bastion-like walls.
The delight of day four was picturesque Durnstein, with its historic links to Richard the Lionheart who was briefly imprisoned there on his return from the crusades in the 12th century. The crumbling fort contrasted with the ice-blue baroque tower dominating the waterfront and a main street featuring the famed local apricot delights, some strongly alcoholic. Next upstream was Melk notable for the extensive, honey-coloured abbey that dominates the hillside.
Overnight cruising brought an end to the upstream journey, berthing at Linz, capital of Upper Austria, where travellers had the option of a self-guided tour of the cultural and interesting shopping areas, or boarding a coach to journey south to Salzburg with its backdrop of snow-topped Alps. The architectural and cultural wonders of Salzburg are too numerous to list, but dominant is the association with Mozart, whose musical genius was evident from the age of three with his composing skills resulting in a first opera at 14. Great classical music followed and endured, but in modern times visitors also expect to enjoy the sights and music of ‘Sound of Music’ with its story of the Von Trapp family partly set and filmed in the city.
Overnight brought sight of Vienna on day six. So much to see in this great European city which deserves a long weekend at the least especially if wanting to enjoy the music of former residents such as Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and the Strausses or to journey out to the former royal palace of Schonbrunn , not to mention the local vineyards and confections. However, there was the consolation of a musical recital on board plus Viennese food.
A long overnight cruise brought the ‘Thomas Hardy’ back to its home berth for breakfast and a full day exploring the twin cities of Buda, built around a hilltop fortress with extensive views of the Danube , and Pest. famed as the ‘City of Spas’ due to the numerous thermal baths dating from the days of Turkish occupation until the 17th century.
No time for immersing in the waters or visiting the museums, galleries, churches and zoo. But some of the music and culture came aboard after the Captain’s gala dinner in the form of a Hungarian folk music and dance troupe who provided a lively and evocative conclusion to the day and the cruise.
On reflection, a memorable journey packed with cultural and visual experiences and well-paced for adults of mixed ages and mobility and supported by quality communications and service throughout. And, of course, there was a small library among many other facilities such as a gym, massage parlour, hair salon and shop. But the library proved a disappointment: all the books by or about Thomas Hardy had already been borrowed.
John and Sherry Barr travelled with their adult children Kevin and Denise, plus Denise’s husband Ian, on this diamond wedding anniversary family treat.
Photos: The five-star ‘Thomas Hardy’
View the Danube from the heights of Buda.