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Planes, trains and river cruises

What makes travel worth the effort and expense? A few elements stand out. Traveling with people you really like. Check. Going to cities that you always wanted to see. Check. Returning to special places from your past. Check. Exceptional food and beverages. Check. Spectacular scenery. Check.


Traveling with old friends makes the planning of a trip easy, and the trip itself is then an opportunity to create even more great memories. We wanted to show our friends Salzburg, Austria, a city we knew well and loved. Then, we decided a river boat cruise was the easiest way to see a number of areas in the region. The joy of not packing and unpacking while covering hundreds of miles from Budapest to Prague was our choice. We chose the Avalon’s 11-day active cruise that offered biking, hiking, and kayaking to help work off the amazing amount of calories offered at every meal. But first, there was Salzburg.


Salzburg, Austria

In Salzburg, we especially wanted to revisit the Schloss Leopoldskron, a magical palace where we had stayed several times before. It’s a beautiful castle and a peaceful place. 


The Schloss’ 300-year history is filled with sadness and loss, as well as with hope and light. In 1736, the Schloss was built by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Leopold Anton Freiherr von Firmian. Religious wars and strife was commonplace in those days, and Prince-Archbishop Von Firmian (a Catholic) is remembered for his cruel expulsion of more than 22,000 Protestants from the Salzburg principality. It’s said that the seizure of assets from that expulsion paid for the building of the Schloss.

The Schloss passed through several owners until it was was sold to Max Reinhardt, Europe’s most famous theater impresario and co-founder of the Salzburg Festival. Reinhardt created the magical place that the Schloss is today, decorating whimsical and wonderful rooms as a backdrop for his plays and the musical theatre he would stage with friends. That ended, however, when Reinhardt (who was Jewish) fled Austria in the 1930s to avoid the Nazi occupation, never to return.

The setting is particularly evocative, since the exterior (and some interior rooms as inspiration) were used in the filming of The Sound of Music, one of my all-time favorite movies. Ironically, locals are not huge fans of the movie, which took certain liberties with the actual historical individuals depicted. The women of our group decided to take a semi-private Sound of Music tour and escaped the afternoon of the tour without singing “Do Rey Mi.”

Two days wasn’t enough time, but the river called. We took the Eurostar for a quick five-hour train ride to Budapest, Hungary, where we would meet the cruise ship. We packed an enormous picnic complete with Austrian wine, and the time on the train flew by. On our own for a day in Budapest, before the cruise began, we took a soak and a massage at one of Budapest's famous thermal baths. An afternoon at the Gellért Baths is a rejuvenating experience!


Budapest: The Pearl of the Danube

In Budapest, Avalon booked us into the Intercontinental, which is a perfectly fine hotel. On a previous visit, we had splurged at the Four Season Gresham Palace, and that was amazing. This time, we settled in for the night, looking forward to exploring Budapest the next day.


It was our second visit to this grand city, and we still didn’t take in all of its sights. Budapest is a city where history and modernity intertwine seamlessly. We aren’t crazy about bus tours, but it is a sure way to pack in a lot of places. While we had signed up for the “Budapest on Two Wheels” bike tour, that morning it was pouring rain, and we nixed the idea of biking. Instead, we explored the stunning Buda Castle. The sights from a river taxi allow you to see the Chain Bridge, the Royal Palace, and the majestic Hungarian Parliament Building.


The optional wine tasting tour that afternoon took us in a small van to the Etyek wine region to visit some lovely (small and large) wineries before we set off on the river. Then it was time to board the Avalon Passion, with its 84 suites and staterooms.


The Danube Scenery

The Danube River, Europe's second-longest river, is unparalleled, with rolling hills, lush vineyards, and charming villages lining its banks. Our state room was larger than we expected, with a panoramic window that allowed a great view (as did seats on the open-air deck). All the meals were seated in the dining room, and dinner was served, while breakfast and lunch were ample buffets.



At each stop along the river, day excursions were offered to passengers. Splitting up as we cruised into Visegrad, the men went to a medieval knights tournament that included a long hike up a steep hill, while we women tried our paddles on a canoe adventure. The canoeing was designed for novices, thank goodness. It was a great way to get a river-level view of the Danube Bend, a highlight of the trip.


Vienna, Austria: The City of Music and Strudel

Cruising the Danube then takes you to Vienna, Austria's capital. Vienna was new to our friends, and our last visit had been too short, so the city excursions were welcome. We made sure to sign up for a concert, because Vienna is famous for its classical composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss. We also signed up for an opportunity to make strudel and to enjoy a coffee at one of many fantastic coffee houses. The “Vienna at the Break of Dawn” excusion sounded like a bad idea due to its early start, but the excursion turned out to be a lovely, quiet walking tour with a guide and a great cup of coffee at the end.


This stop was also an opportunity for one of our group to be an “Austrian Chef for a Day” and to learn how to make Wiener Schnitzel and Austria potato salad while drinking a significant amount of Austrian wine. Later, we  strolled in the splendid Schönbrunn Palace and the surrounding gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was another highlight. Three of our group took the optional hike and ate dinner up on the Kahlenberg, while one of us may have lolled around in the onboard hot tub.


Cruising Through the Wachau Valley

One of the most enchanting stretches of the Danube is the Wachau Valley, where the river flows through a picturesque landscape of vineyards, charming villages, and ancient castles. The valley is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.


We took the opportunity to taste some of Austria's finest wines and to explore the medieval town of Dürnstein.  The beauty of the Wachau Valley is best appreciated from the ship's panoramic lounge, where we relaxed with a glass of wine and soaked in the breathtaking scenery.


What we thought might be the corniest excursion, “Meet the Count at Clam Castle,” turned out to be a lovely tour of a 12th century castle at dusk hosted by the current owner (the current Count). 



Day seven took us to the city of Grein and another short walking tour. With the Maypoles still fluttering, we spent time at the country’s oldest theatre.


Not all history is happy, however, and we spent a somber afternoon at the Mauthausen Memorial. The Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp was the hub of 49 Nazi labor camps where 100,000 people were exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. We had visited other camps on previous trips, but one is never prepared for the scale and scope of the brutality and savagery of mankind at its worst.



One of our group had a personal mission to taste as many beers as he could during our trip, and the stop at Engelszell Abbey included a Trappist beer tasting at one of the 11 Trappist breweries in the world. While all Trappist beers are abbey beers, not all abbey beers are “Trappist.” Who knew? We tried three types of beer. Our friends then laced up their hiking boots and took an afternoon hike through the Danube Steg. My husband and I napped.


Prague: The Fairytale City

The final destination of the cruise was Prague, the Czech Republic's capital. To get to landlocked Prague, we had to leave the river and take a bus to what was a new destination for all of us. Known as the "City of a Hundred Spires," Prague is a living museum of history and architecture. Its Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle are iconic landmarks. It is a wonderful city to walk in without a destination…just to take in the sights.


The city's cuisine is a fusion of flavors, reflecting its Central European roots. And so much meat! We spent one evening at what was billed as a Czech folklore dinner – it was a full meal with local dancing and singing. The roaming wine steward shot refills into glasses from a flask through a tube. The entire event was rather kitschy, but we tried  traditional dishes such as goulash, trdelník, and Czech beer. So much beer!


Exploring Prague's Jewish Quarter, visiting the historic Astronomical Clock, walking along the Vltava River, and visiting the Lennon Wall are just a few of the activities that helped us explore unforgettable Prague.


And then, sadly, we were finished with our trip.


The journey connected us with the heart of Europe, but it also pampered us with the highest standards of comfort. The Avalon Passion river cruise ship has all of the comforts of luxury travel -- Wi-Fi access, a Fitness Center with state-of-the-art equipment, an elevator, a Sky Deck with a shade system, a dining room, and a bistro—and larger staterooms than the competition. And, since the boat’s capacity was only 125 passengers, the cruise was very comfortable from a “crowd” standpoint.


The beauty of the trip was that our interaries could be customized for each of us, and we could also do whatever we wanted together. The included excursions were very good, and we added a few additional optional ones for our foodie and beverage interests. We were seated as a party of four when we wanted privacy, and occasionally also joined other groups to socialize.


As we sailed along the Danube River, we were immersed in the enchanting cities and landscapes of Central Europe, laughing with dear friends and meeting new ones. What could make better memories?



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