Symphonie and the Capitals of the Danube
The Beautiful Blue Danube
With the crack of a whip, the dynamic riding skills of Hungarian horsemen thrilled the crowd in the old wooden stand, providing one of the highlights on a 1000-kilometre cruise along Europe’s second longest river – the Danube. Features editor, John Newton, joined CroisiEurope’s rivership - Symphonie – for the eight-day cruise spanning three countries.
Few on board had any idea what to expect when the ship berthed at Kalocsa in Hungary before heading by coach to the Bakodpuszta Horse Farm for a traditional horse show that topped even the best of circus performances.
The farm – on more than 48 hectares (120 acres) – was owned by the archbishops of Kalocsa until 1997 when it was sold to a local businessman who now runs the property with its 78 horses and rare native breeds, such as Hungarian grey cattle, racka sheep and the long-haired mangalica pigs.
The massive long-horned grey cattle are an impressive sight as they are put through their paces in the big, muddy show paddock. But it’s the harmony of riders and horses that steal the show with their expertise and incredible relationship between each other. And the elegance of the four-in-hand and the Puszta ten-in-hand horse display is unforgettable.
Breathtaking views and historic buildings and castles in Austria, Slovakia and Hungary abound on the CroisiEurope cruise, which starts and ends in Vienna.
Cruising the World Heritage Wachau Valley between Melk Abbey and medieval Durnstein - another highlight – the ship passes gothic ruins and idyllic villages along the way. Monks of St. Benedict have lived and worked at the colossal Melk Abbey in Lower Austria for more than 900 years. During a guided visit, you’ll see the gold and jewel-encrusted cross donated by Richard 1V, the marble hall, museum and the bedchambers where a number of illustrious guests have slept.
Durnstein’s castle ruin, picturesque narrow streets and the Baroque abbey, featuring a ‘Wedgewood’ blue tower, literally breathe history and legend. Overlooking the Danube, it’s where England’s King Richard the Lionheart became – though not at his own will - Durnstein’s first prominent ‘guest’ in 1192. He was imprisoned in the castle for almost two years on his return home from the third crusade after an Austrian duke accused him of cheating. The ransom paid for his release was one of the biggest financial transactions of the Middle Ages.
Symphonie sails overnight to Bratislava, where Devin Castle – first built in 1811 and rebuilt later after a fire – towers above the Slovakian capital. Historical and elegant buildings dominate the Old Town which, unfortunately like other Eastern European cities, is being swamped by tacky souvenir shops.
It’s the longest leg of the journey as Symphonie sails from Slovakia and the 349 kilometres to Hungary. But not everyone heads to their cabin for a snooze. Some are just content to see the changing colours of the autumn leaves along the banks of the Danube, while the more energetic head for the sun deck to play sjoelbak, a traditional Dutch game, or molkky a Finnish bowling game.
And then there’s the food and drink (beer, house wine and some spirits are free during the cruise), to whet the appetite. CroisiEurope dishes are French inspired and as good as it gets with the gala dinner topped off with baked Alaska flamed in Grand Marnier rated by many as the standout.
After the Puszta horse show, Symphonie’s next stop is Esztergom, one of Hungary’s oldest cities, where its basilica dates back over 1000 years. According to Hungarians, the 100-metre tall basilica - which hovers high on a hill overlooking the Danube - houses the largest and most precious treasure chamber in Europe.
Majestic Budapest is an excellent sightseeing city. And, time allowing, the best way to do it is on foot.
But for the less energetic with not a lot of time to spare, the best bet is by two or four wheels – bike or bus – the latter being a guided panoramic tour of the city, including a walk along the river on the Pest side to see the huge, neo gothic style Parliament building and then peddling or driving over to the Buda side of the Danube to the Castle quarter.
We opted to hit the water at the St Gellert Spa and Hotel, which opened in 1918. Budapest is known as the ‘city of spas’ and much of St Gellert’s popularity is enhanced by a surf-bath and bubble bath. Put into service in 1927, the original surf machine, which generates the artificial waves, is still in operation. It’s unique not only to the spa itself, but in the whole of Europe.
The spa also provides a wide range of baineotherapy services and boasts a lava stone massage, herbal spa – and even a chocolate treatment. You can also go for a dip in one of its pools where the water is 40C.
The cruise ends where it started – in Vienna. And, again there are plenty of excursions, visiting the magnificent Schonbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace and Sisi Museum, which puts in comparison myth and truth.
A Viennese concert devoted to Mozart in the first half and to Strauss in the second half tops off the last night in the City of Music.
The 106-passenger Symphonie was one of the first ships to join the CroisiEurope fleet in 1997. She was given a major facelift in 2017 and now boasts a chic interior with a smart, contemporary lounge bar and dance floor. The restaurant and sundeck have also been renovated.
The ship’s upper deck has 20 ensuite cabins (16 doubles, 2 singles, 1 suite and 1 for passengers with reduced mobility, while the main deck has 35 ensuite cabins (32 doubles, 2 singles and 1 suite). The upper deck cabins have French balconies, floor-to-ceiling sliding doors and river-facing beds. All have air-conditioning, TV, telephone (for internal calls only), safe and Wi-Fi.
With moving upmarket part of the challenge, some cabins were removed to offer more passenger space.
Images: John Newton
1,2,3 Bakodpuszta Horse Farm
4. Durnstein’s Baroque abbey
5. Modern Bratislava
6. Old Bratislava
7. Symphonie on the Danube (supplied)