Delights of the Danube

Date Posted: 29/08/2013

Janet in Bratislava, as part of her Danube river cruise.

Pictured: Janet in Bratislava, as part of her Danube river cruise.

GTO of the Year 2012 winner Janet Spooner, enjoyed a Danube river cruise with her prize money, to see if it would make a viable option for her group.

It was a real honour to receive the 2012 Group Travel Organiser of the Year® Award, and the last year has been my busiest ever. The bonus was the prize holiday and, having missed the familiarisation trip on the Rhine with my overbooked diary, I thought I’d try Travelsphere’s Danube river cruise on Serenade 1 in July. I do like the idea of travelling to lots of places and unpacking only once.

With my group trips I have been used to being spoilt and having a coach to take us from door to door. I wasn’t going to change my habit, so booked a chauffeur for return trips to Heathrow. Highly recommended - it avoids unnecessary stress. However, on arrival at 5am, there was chaos - silly me for choosing the first day of the school holidays to start mine. Never mind, after a pleasant flight and a coach transfer from Munich with a well-informed guide, we were greeted warmly in Passau by the Serenade 1’s crew and Travelsphere’s tour managers. I do like ‘porterage’ too - our suitcases went straight to our very well appointed cabin.

We met some of our fellow passengers over drinks and a buffet lunch and were advised of our mealtimes for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Goodness, I thought, how much fatter I’ll be at the end of the week!

Passau was a poignant place to start as we saw stained evidence on the medieval buildings of the recent floods on the Danube. A marking on one wall showed a level of approximately three-metres above the pavement on 3rd June 2013, the highest water level the river had ever been with records going back to 1501. 

Janet enjoyed the Puszta Equestrian Show during her time in Budapest.

Pictured: Janet enjoyed the Puszta Equestrian Show during her time in Budapest.

We had seven days ahead of us all the way to Budapest with stops every day in a new town or city. Itineraries for each day and useful notes and maps were left in our cabin each evening. Tour managers Ali and Kate were readily available with further guidance, if needed. 

Linz was our first port of call. Famous for the world’s oldest gateau - Linzer Torte and they make Haribo sweets there too. We caught a tram in the town centre to Postlingberg which was at the top of a hill. At the highest point, near the Basilica, the views of Linz and the Danube were quite spectacular.

The river traffic was interesting as, in addition to cruise boats and day trippers, we saw industrial barges of enormous length, most carrying timber and raw materials for the chemical works and steel mills.

We sailed into a deep lock before arriving in Melk, a small pretty town, again with lots of evidence of flooding. Later that afternoon we set sail for Vienna. We opted for the organised excursion to tour this stunning city with a very knowledgeable guide. The city is full of beautiful buildings, formal squares, churches, art, concert halls, horses and cream cakes. My impression was of a very clean, well-organised and prosperous city - even the trees seemed to stand to attention. A concert was offered as an excursion and I managed to get the last ticket.  This was a ‘not to be missed’, unforgettable evening of Mozart and Strauss with music, ballet and some light comedy.

Leaving the next day, Bratislava was so different from the Austrian towns. It’s the capital of Slovakia and the place where coronations once took place. It’s also the centre for politics, culture and sport. Our guided tour took us through narrow ancient streets and although the city had a certain charm, it could do with a coat of paint and a few repairs. They had an amusing life-size bronze in the centre of town of a workman looking out from a manhole. He had a lovely smirk on his face - I guess from looking up the girls’ skirts!

Serenade 1.

Pictured: Serenade 1.

Our penultimate stop was at Esztergom, once the capital of Hungary, but now fairly run down. It is still the church centre for the country and this was evident from the large Basilica that could be seen from the river.

I had imagined that Budapest would be another tired city, but I was in for a real shock. Most of the 100 passengers were out on the top deck in the sunshine as we sailed into this magnificent city. What an absolute joy to see with all its palatial buildings facing the river.  Our boat came to a moor beside the Parliament Building - probably the finest of them all and our cabin was right beside it. The guided night tour was magical - especially seeing the city, dominated by the river, from a high point. 

Our final excursion was to see the Amazing Puszta Equestrian Show and this was another highlight of the trip. It’s about an hour’s coach drive from Budapest and we were welcomed to a very well kept estate, housing the show and a host of other animals. After some local food and drink we were invited to take a ride in a horse drawn carriage around the estate.  Following a brief look around the mini-zoo of farm animals, we were taken to the arena for the horse show. These champion horsemen amazed us with their stunts of speed, accuracy and dressage, plus plenty of whip cracking. How talented they are.

At the end of the holiday, my thoughts were of a really memorable, relaxing experience in glorious weather - it reached 39 degrees Celsius on the last day. We were in the company of so many different people, but we all got on well and were determined to have a good time. I shall remember how hard the 35 crew worked, particularly in Vienna when numerous lorries arrived, laden with wine, food and housekeeping items for them to stock up for the next two weeks. Even the officers and reception staff took part and every box was moved by hand in a chain gang down to the hold. The crew on the top deck were in the mid-day heat, but they remained smiling and laughing - all to ensure we enjoyed an excellent holiday.

The winner of the 2013 Group Travel Organiser of the Year® Award will be announced at the Group Leisure Awards dinner and ceremony, which takes place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole Hotel, NEC on Wednesday 18th September. Tickets are now on sale.

Click here to find out which four GTOs have been shortlisted for the 2013 Group Travel Organiser of the Year ® Award.

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