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Delights of the Danube - A European river cruise

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Delights of the Danube - A European river cruise

As I reach for a ripe apricot hanging delicately from a low branch, the biblical tale of Adam and Eve plucking forbidden fruit crosses my mind briefly. Indolently biting into the juicy offering and letting the flavour absorb into my tastebuds, I figure a little bit of sin isn’t always a bad thing.

Given the beauty of Austria’s lush Wachau Valley, where I am surreptitiously pinching fruit, it feels almost sinful just to be standing here. Acres of green vine-covered hills make up most of the landscape, while a smattering of apricot orchards adds a splash of colour to the countryside. The benevolent autumn sun casts its warmth over this pastoral idyll and the scent of freshly mown grass lingers in the air.

After licking my fingers and disposing of the pit, I bid a reluctant farewell to the orchard and continue onwards to my next destination. I’m one of six Uniworld passengers who have opted to bicycle the 28km from Melk to Durnstein instead of staying onboard the River Beatrice for the leg. One short ferry ride, countless hamlets and a sun shower later, I arrive at the cobblestone main street, lined with little shops and restaurants.

This medieval town is perched halfway up a hillside and a collection of rustic houses branch off from the main street, some hidden behind gardens of beaming sunflowers. The ruins of Kuenringer Castle, whose walls once held King Richard the Lionheart captive, still remain on the hilltop. From the summit a breathtaking view of the surrounding valley and winding Danube River below can be enjoyed.

Boxes of apricots and jars of preserves are exhibited in shopfronts, and I wander into a few stores displaying free sample signs and have my first taste of apricot schnapps. The sweet liquid warms me to the core, and I can’t resist trying a few other flavours, along with pieces of chocolate-coated apricot. It seems that in the Wachau Valley, the apricot is king.

I return to the boat sometime later, a little bit unsteady on my feet, and I’m unsure whether it’s a consequence of the bike ride, the hike up to Kuenringer Castle or my schnapps sampling escapades. Probably a combination I decide.

Food is such an integral part of European river cruising, and I begin to associate the glorious cuisine with each city and town we visit. Even the food onboard the Beatrice is made with local ingredients and is prepared fresh daily. After returning the bike and heading to my room, I find a platter of fresh fruit on the table. It becomes a daily novelty, a selection of olives and cheese sticks one day and roasted nuts the next. Food is the common thread of this voyage.

Only the previous day, during our shore tour to Salzburg, our guide navigated us through the intricate alleyways to sample the famous original Salzburg Mozartkugel. Nicknamed Mozart Balls, this chocolate praline delicacy has been dubbed as Salzburg’s edible souvenir. While many replicas can be found throughout the country and even the world, the original little store that started the trend in 1890 can be found down Brodgasse Alley, near the birthplace of Mozart himself.

With Vienna next on the itinerary, I inquire about the sort of local treats that are popular in the city, and a staff member informs me that the chocolate cake (known as sacher torte) is world famous, along with Austrian wine, of course. With this in mind, I indulge in a nice sauvignon blanc before heading off for an early night.

A group of us kick off in the morning for a classic Vienna city tour, which takes us around the main attractions located along Ringroad, such as the impressive State Opera House and City Hall. Our guide hardly draws breath as he rattles off details about each landmark we pass. We are in serious danger of suffering a neck injury so quickly are we looking to our left and right.

We abandon the bus at the National Library and as we do so, regal horses trot past us in the streets. We head off in the direction of St Stephen’s Cathedral – the gothic structure that looms in the city centre and looks oddly out of place compared to the modern shops that have been built around it. Our guide informs us we can climb the 343 spiralling stairs to the top for views all over the city and a handful of us take up the challenge. Arriving at the top dizzy and sweaty, I can at least say it is worth the effort, and we take in the bird’s eye view of the city below us. I reward myself at the bottom with two scoops of creamy mango and raspberry gelato, and spend my free time discovering the nooks and crannies of Vienna’s extensive streets and alleyways.

I normally feel guilty for resting instead of sightseeing when on holidays, but from a cushioned deck chair on the Beatrice I can do both guilt-free. Provisioned with a cup of coffee and armed with my camera, the terrain of Austria serenely glides by and a few people on shore even wave or shout out hello. It is a beautiful way to see parts of the country that other modes of transport do not allow.

It’s hardly a surprise when the captain informs us that the view from the deck isn’t to be missed when we sail in to Budapest the following morning, and we are given an estimated time of arrival. At 8am sharp the interior of the ship is deserted as most people line up on the bow, while a few enjoy the view from their balconies.

We have front row seats to some of the city’s best landmarks. Parliament House looms on the water’s edge, its gothic spires pointing skyward, as we sail straight under the historic bridges that connect the two sides of this city, Buda and Pest.

Hungary has endured a succession of invasions and occupations, suffering heavy damage during World War II in particular. But the city has bounced back in a big way, and today the Pest side is the commercial and financial centre, while across the river, Buda is the hilly and relaxed part of the city. Monuments are everywhere and the Fisherman’s Bastion is a beautiful quarter that provides stunning views over Pest, particularly at night.
While some buildings still remain bullet-ridden – and monuments serve as a grim reminder of the past – locals seem more interested in moving forward than looking back.

Our tour guide jokingly mentions how Hungarians love their food but don’t exercise enough. “We may not live a long life, but we live a happy life,” she tells us. After walking along the main shopping strip and venturing into the city, I stumble across a little cafe and stop for a break. I can’t resist the chokolade torta, with its four layers of chocolate sponge and three of chocolate cream all encased in a wrapping of cocoa. I part with my remaining forints and act like a local; standing at the window and watching the people go by.

I can’t remember the name of the street or the name of the cafe, but it will be a memory that stays with me forever. That’s the joy of river cruising – you get to have your cake and eat it too.