A purple haze settled over the landscape as the sun slipped below the horizon and city lights began to sparkle. As I huddled on deck with other passengers, a gentle river breeze whispered in my ear to turn around. A massive Gothic building slid into view, lit up so beautifully that my breath stopped in my throat for a second.
“That’s the Hungarian Parliament Building,” another passenger noted. It was wide and imposing but also regal, swathed in the lavender gauze of a humid Budapest summer evening. The building’s sharp spires poked toward the sky, holding back the enveloping night. The light coming from the myriad windows was so blazing-yellow that the building almost appeared to ignite, and the Danube River held a mirror to the spectacle, doubling the wattage.
It was the first time that day I’d remembered to take out my smartphone to snap a photo, as my brain was still playing catch-up after the long travel day from Southern California and settling in aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaPrima.
The svelte, 158-passenger, 443-foot-long river cruise ship would be our home for a while. I turned to my husband, Steve, who was similarly entranced by the cityscape, and nudged him to pose for a quick selfie with me.
“Where are we?” Steve wondered aloud, as we cruised along to the ship’s soundtrack of Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube” waltz. We felt a bit disoriented—we were taking our first river cruise and our first steps off the continent, and we were half a world away from our two kids for the first time. Steve could sense the melancholy creeping in and quickly shook me from it, offering a toast to our 25th wedding anniversary and to the Danube, which seemed as spectacular a place as any to revel in what felt like a honeymoon moment.
This would be the first of several “Where are we?” moments we would experience as we let our everyday worries float away and the AmaPrima carry us along the Danube to deliver a silent filmstrip view of Bavarian hills, medieval Germanic castles, and locals dipping their toes in the water. The 14-day cruise from Budapest, Hungary, to Amsterdam, Netherlands, stopped in Slovakia, Austria, and Germany, sliding us through a sliver of Europe rich in literary influence, culinary clout, and human history.
Here are some of the lessons I learned.
Budapest is more than Zsa Zsa’s hometown. With eyes as fresh as newborns, we awoke ready to tackle Budapest, which I had previously known only as the birthplace of goulash and the Gabor sisters. “And paprika,” Steve reminded me. It’s also Hungary’s political and commercial center, founded by King Stephen as a Catholic state in AD 1000. We easily differentiated the twin cities, where the Danube splices Buda, on the river’s hilly western side, from Pest, the livelier city side. The two became one in 1873, creating a fun city to try to pronounce (“boo-da-PESHT,” if you want to sound as if you know what you’re talking about).
Steve and I opted for the city tour and giddily donned our Quietvoxes, low-key headphone sets that make you appear somewhat less touristy as you’re hanging on your tour guide’s every word. Our first stop, the expansive Central Market Hall, provided a sensory tour of Hungary among the market’s rows of stalls: Smoky paprika tickled my nostrils, chiles on strings trimmed the booths in deep reds, and Technicolor vegetables invited me to pick them up to see if they were real. I wanted to fill my suitcase with hand-embroidered linens and nesting dolls. Hungarian secret boxes entranced Steve, so he bought a small one for our son, Jack, who’s inherited his dad’s appreciation for mechanical mysteries.
Our new favorite vacation routine is: beer,
bratwurst, church, repeat. The cruise offered shore excursions with different levels of exertion, from 15-mile bike rides to curated strolls through port cities. Most tours led to at least one historic church, and while the different saints and relics blended together, I could never resist the urge to step in and gasp, “Holy cow!” at each elaborate altar. At the end of our Budapest tour, Steve and I stumbled upon a biergarten that I’m pretty sure Hansel and Gretel would’ve visited had they been 21. We toasted our find with a frosty Dunkel and ordered the perennial bratwurst, which accompanied our trek back to the ship. “I could get used to this routine,” Steve chirped hopefully. And by day’s end, we’d grasped two critical points: Regional beer and sausage is a holy union, and German mustard is a gift from the angels.
Balázs Kiss isn’t the name of a shipboard
cocktail. Balázs was our cruise manager, and his skills extended from recommending routes for self-guided town tours to offering lively local history talks in the ship’s lounge. He represented AmaPrima’s style of service—refined but not recherché, attentive without helicoptering, a twinkling wit without the cruise ship “dad jokes.” While Balázs set the tone, the ship set the pace.
The low-key vibe meant we could comfortably join other couples for lunch or make easy deck-chair conversation as we passed The Sound of Music scenery. Among the 125 or so other travelers, we met a Canadian executive who owned a cranberry farm, a former Microsoft heavyweight who worked in “mouse technology development,” and a solo world traveler from Chile who was having a grand time on his first river cruise.
To fuel our exploits, the ship fed us as heartily as a German grandmother would, providing a sampling of each region’s cuisine and wine as well as seasonal specialties (how I learned to appreciate Spargelzeit, asparagus season).
Our cabin’s double balconies meant we could comfortably retreat to watch the landscape glide by—just the two of us, sharing thoughts, wondering how 25 years can pass so swiftly.
Port tours are cheesy—in a good way. Sure, we were impressed by the light-pink, neoclassical Primatial Palace and the gothically spired St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava, Slovakia, but imagine our surprise when we stumbled into a small food festival in the city’s Old Town Centre. Steve has a weakness for cheeses, and the beautiful Italian monger didn’t hurt, so he made a beeline for her cart, which displayed rows of multicolored, waxy wheels. I rested on a nearby park bench (okay, monitored) as he sampled cheeses and the two of them laughed over their mutual language barriers. Cheese, it turns out, is a universal language, and Steve scored a flavorful aged raw cow’s milk wedge that we squirreled away in our cabin’s minifridge for midnight snacking together.
Vienna hits a high note. On a sultry evening, Steve and I, dressed in our night-at-the-
symphony best, converged on the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, Austria, with our fellow cruisers. I worried that the ship’s hearty schnitzel–local wine pairing, combined with the warm concert hall and Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” would put me right out. Instead, I realized that many of the classical melodies that have sifted through the fabric of human culture, from Apple commercials to Looney Tunes cartoons, were born of this very soil. Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, and countless others found inspiration in this artistically fertile city that is rife with world-class concert halls and performing arts centers. Heck, I felt as though even I could write an opera here. At the first dramatic pull across the strings, tears filled my eyes as I disappeared into 18th-century Vienna.
Austria’s Dürnstein is darned beautiful. We marveled at the remnants of the castle where Richard the Lionheart had been imprisoned in the 1100s, but our day had a sweeter destiny. We were in apricot country. In fact, a fellow passenger issued a stern proclamation: Don’t leave without picking up a bottle of the local apricot liqueur, which pairs perfectly with vanilla ice cream. We made our purchase and turned back toward the ship, where hollyhocks and geraniums waved at us as we gazed at the orchards and tiered vineyards, of which there are more than 200 in Dürnstein and the surrounding Wachau Valley.
War is hell. As we rolled into Nuremberg, Germany, the tone of the trip shifted from a lively oompah-lederhosen atmosphere to a more somber one. While our previous exploits were more about Kölsch tastings and Austrian abbey tours, once in Nuremberg, I owed it to my high school history teachers to dive headlong into this significant World War II city. The terrifying black-and-white images from books and documentaries came to life as we paused at the Nazi Colosseum and stood in the Nazi Party Rally Grounds built by Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In Courtroom 600 in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where the War Crimes Tribunal tried 22 members of the Nazi Party in 1945–1946 for crimes committed during the Holocaust, I could almost imagine the people and testimonies that were heard inside these walls, bringing at least some level of justice to one of humanity’s darkest periods. I had relished the lighter pursuits of the cruise, but I knew these moments would penetrate deepest into my heart. This is what world travel is really about, I thought as we exited the palace and walked toward the iron gates.
The ship’s a trip. “Coffee, madame?” Steve wafted into the cabin on our final full day, bringing with him the aromas of caffeine and pastries to draw me out of my deep vacation sleep. Most of the time we had stayed busy hopping amid the cobblestone streets in medieval towns, but we also relished the time between towns to savor an afternoon cappuccino in the lounge or chat by the pool about the lessons the trip was teaching us.
During our time on the Danube aboard AmaPrima, we’d savored tangy gingerbread from the Bavarian Black Forest, walked in Mozart’s footsteps in Vienna, and soaked up humanity’s stories that reached into antiquity. And with the help of the romantic Danube and this ship, Steve and I were happy to learn that even after 25 years, we still went together like pilsner and pretzels.
Carolyn Graham is CEO of New Mexico magazine and a devoted schnitzel fan.
Photo: Fesus Robert/Alamy Stock Photo