Once again, we flew LOT, the Polish airlines, this time to Budapest, Hungary, from O’Hare in Chicago to begin part 2 of our cruise on the Danube. Budapest is where we ended our tour a year ago. This year we were booked on Avalon Waterways to sail from Budapest to Vienna. If I were to plan this cruise again, I would combine last year’s jaunt to the Black Sea and back up the Danube to Budapest with this part of the cruise, rather than dividing it into two parts. But hindsight is 20/20.
As usual, I was exhausted not only by the travel time, but also by the 6-hour time difference. Noel falls asleep the moment he settles into his seat on an airplane, but even sleeping pills don’t work for me. I call our journey a “cruise,” but actually we spent only three nights on the ship and eight days touring on land and traveling to our destination and back. We opted to extend our trip with one extra night in Budapest at the beginning and 2 extra nights in Vienna at the end.
We had a nice supper and drinks at the bar at our Budapest hotel, the Corinthia, a late 19th century hotel famous for its luxury Royal Spa. The bar itself offers an impressive array of cocktails, including a cosmopolitan martini in a jerry-rigged cocktail glass made from a china teacup.
Built in 1896 as the Hotel Royal, the building was extensively remodeled in the 20th century and again in the 21st and renamed the Corinthia after its current owner, the Corinthia Group. Last year we stayed at a Hilton property on the Buda side (the west side) of Budapest. The Corinthia is located in Pest (the east side) of the city. The Danube runs down the middle. In the 19th century classical concerts were held in the Royal Ballroom of the hotel. Béla Bartok, the Hungarian composer, frequently conducted there.
I noticed right after we arrived at the hotel that almost everyone speaks English to each other. I was told that Hungarian is a very difficult language for foreigners to learn, especially adults, and many of the employees are not Hungarian. Apparently, there is a major labor shortage in Hungary that is only partly due to COVID. Historically, the country has had 20% lower wages than nearby Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. However, the service at the hotel and its restaurants was excellent, by and large.
We had hoped to visit the Harry Houdini Museum in the afternoon of our first full day, but sadly there were no tickets available. Noel had been a budding magician as a teenager and Houdini was his idol. Although Houdini claimed to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, he actually immigrated as a toddler to the States with his parents in the 1870’s.
That evening we had a truly fabulous dinner at the Caviar and Bull, a gourmet, 5-star restaurant attached to the Corinthia. We began with a starter called “cauliflower steak,” supposedly grilled cauliflower, but it bore little resemblance to grilled cauliflower. It was absolutely ethereal, one of the most delicious and beautiful dishes I’ve ever eaten. We followed it with grilled trout on couscous, another yummy dish, but it couldn’t compare to our cauliflower starter. We accompanied our food with superb Hungarian white wine. This reinforced our impressions of the wines of eastern Europe that we experienced a year ago. There are good red wines in this part of the world, but the best wines are the whites and they are quite inexpensive by our standards. We relied on recommendations by the sommeliers throughout our journey and were never steered wrong.
For our second full day in Budapest, we had signed up for a tour called “Bits and Bites.” It was a combination walking and tram tour of the traditional markets and popular cafes and bars where the average Hungarian shops, snacks and drinks. We tasted nothing out-of-the-world spectacular but it was a good education and it was nice to revisit many of the streets we had explored a year ago. However, our Hungarian guide left something to be desired. He bordered on rude. He rushed us through a very interesting underground market adjacent to a tram station and seemed quite put out when some of us asked questions about the food we were seeing. But I must say that the tram system in Budapest is very good.
We did learn that Budapest is Hungary’s largest city by a long shot. The rest of the country is very rural with most of the population living in Budapest. I did relish the fact that we walked seven miles that day even with taking the tram from time to time.
The next morning, we checked out of our hotel and boarded a bus for a tour of two local wineries outside the city before transferring to the cruise ship. In contrast to our guide from the day before, this day’s guide, Tamás Lovász, was superb. Guiding in the wine country is his second career and he appeared to be having a love affair with the region’s wines.
We learned that Hungary has hundreds of small wineries that don’t produce enough wine to export. These wineries are organized around “terroirs” as in France but the sizes of the terroirs are generally much smaller than the French. Although most of the wines are white, there are some excellent lighter reds like Pinot Noir.
The first winery we visited apparently started off as a hobby for its farmer-owner and evolved into a business. The second began as a business and evolved into a restaurant with a good-sized winery attached. That’s where we had lunch. It was a delightful way to spend our day before boarding our boat.
Our Avalon Waterways boat was new, less than a year in use, with basically the same layout as the one we sailed on last year. It was great to sleep in a queen-size bed again. We had twins in the Corinthia. Although we were offered a tour of Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia, the next day, Noel and I opted to stay on board. We had basically experienced the eastern European urban scene the year before and wanted to read and rest.
On our third and last full day on the boat we visited the magnificent Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its extensive manuscript collection that is in the process of being digitized, a wise move considering the precarious current political situation the world seems to be in. The abbey and its precious collection have survived two world wars in the 20th century and numerous wars and conflicts before that. 24 monks still live in the abbey.
The abbey was founded in the 12th century by Leopold II of Austria who gave one of his castles to some Benedictine monks, but by the 15th century the abbey and its monks had degenerated. To what level I don’t know but I’ve read Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, so I have a pretty good idea. The Melk Reform Movement arose about then and reform came to the abbey and its inhabitants.
I was totally intrigued not only by the beauty of the abbey itself but even more by the contemporary art in the gardens surrounding this very large edifice. We were only allowed to tour the first floor and not allowed to take photographs inside, but the art in the gardens was enough.
An Irish saint and martyr by the name of Coloman of Stockerau is buried there. He was tortured and hanged in 1012 by residents of Stockerau, a village near Vienna. He had stopped there on his way to the Holy Land and was mistaken by the locals as a spy because of his foreign appearance. He couldn’t speak German, so he was unable to defend himself. At that time Austria, Moravia, and Bohemia were at war with each other. Apparently feeling guilty about their treatment of him and impressed by his stamina under torture, locals in the same village made him into a saint and subsequently attributed several “miracles” to him. His martyrdom stands as a warning against xenophobia. Colomon is honored by a remarkable, contemporary wood-carved statue made by Franz Gundacker, a Melk carpenter, using only a motorized saw.
That afternoon our ship cruised through the beautiful Wachau Valley that runs 36 kilometers, roughly 22 miles, between Melk and another medieval town called Krems. The valley is an Austrian tourist favorite and a highly regarded wine region. In addition to the spectacular scenery, there is some very interesting artwork along the banks of the Danube. One piece that stands out is the “Wachau Nose,” a concrete model of a nose that is big enough to walk through. Apparently, plaster casts were made of 70 noses of local folks to get just the right shape as a model of the typical Wachau citizen’s nose. Noses are important in the Wachau Valley to smell the fine wine produced there and the apricots grown there for the valley’s famous brandy. The Wachau Valley is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Because this was our last full day on the ship, we had the captain’s farewell reception and “gala” dinner that evening followed by a short but very fun dance party with music provided by a remarkably energetic twosome called the “Dandy Duo.”