Setting sail along the Danube
Two brown bears amble around the castle moat just metres below my feet. One scratches its back on a fallen tree branch while the other clambers on to a rock to tuck into a fruit platter. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, I hear how the enormous creatures have been kept in the magnificent castle of Cesky Krumlov, a Bohemian border town, for more than three centuries, first brought to the site as a PR stunt. The castle owners, the Rosenbergs, wished to promote their claimed ancestral link with the noble Italian Orsini family (Orso being the Italian for bear).
The bears are just one of a string of surprises in the Czech settlement, which is truly a hidden gem. Possibly Europe’s most Instagramable city, Cesky Krumlov looks like a backdrop from a Disney film: a fairy-tale town of earthy and pastel-coloured turrets and towers set on cobbled hills hugged by the Vltava river.
It was another river that brought me here, in a fashion befitting storybook royalty. The day trip is part of a cruise along the Danube with AmaWaterways aboard its largest and most innovative ship yet: the swanky AmaMagna.
This inherently luxurious vessel is 72-feet across – almost twice the width of other boats on the river – and with just a handful of extra rooms. It is a decadent floating hotel with four restaurants, a cinema and a gym, while the top deck is home to a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and mini putting green.
Our living quarters are practically palatial: a sumptuous king-size bed, sofa and reception room; balcony with a coffee table and chairs; en-suite with his-and-hers sinks and a walk-in shower.
After flying direct from Edinburgh to Munich, our five-day jaunt along the Danube sets sail from the Bavarian town of Vilshofen, the ship’s home port, where our tour is welcomed with the “Oktobierfest” – the cruise company’s out of season answer to Munich’s Oktoberfest.
We dock first in Passau, known as the City of the Three Rivers; the meeting place of the Inn, the Ilz and the Danube. We enjoy a whirlwind walking tour with a five-star guide, Babette, who takes us into the Ratskeller to sample Löwenbräu, Passau’s local brew. Sadly there’s not time enough for a mooch around the Dachshund Museum – the world’s first and only museum dedicated to the man’s best hot dog-shaped friend.
We sail through the night to Linz, although the movement is imperceptible to us on board. Carving a niche as the Austrian city of progress – distinguishing itself from the allure of musical Salzburg and the inevitable draw of capital Vienna – Linz is home to the somewhat contradictorily named Museum of the Future, which offers a glimpse of how innovative technologies are likely to shape our lives in years to come.
Despite its forward-thinking attitude, locals favour tech-free havens, cafés where phones and laptops aren’t welcome. Our guide spells it out in no uncertain terms that an Austrian café is NOT a coffee shop – locals sit in, stay late, sip schnapps and actually chat to each other.
Ceskt Crumlov, Czech
It is here where we leave the Danube for the day to retrace an old salt trade route across the Bohemian Massif to Cesky Krumlov, following in the footsteps of merchants transporting the “white gold”.
The mineral was so valuable, used in preserving meats and other produce (including, of course, cabbage to create sauerkraut) that salt mines powered the creation of wealth still on show today in settlements the length of the Danube.
This gloriously green corner of the world has plenty more in the way of delectable produce. Each evening aboard the AmaMagna a selection of wines sourced from the local groves awaits alongside a feast of regional and international delicacies.
Dining in style
With a four-night stay, we take the challenge upon ourselves to dine in each of the ship’s eateries: the tapas-style Jimmy’s Restaurant helps us get to know fellow travellers, while the casual Al Fresco offers up a lighter menu next to floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the ship’s bow, affording guests a view of the riverbanks along with their meals.
Chef’s Table has the most exclusive feel of the restaurant quartet, with a seven-course taster menu of exquisitely presented fare paired with matching wines. Finally the ship’s main restaurant dishes up an enormously varied buffet which more than encourages overindulgence.
Zen Wellness centre
Despite scoffing initially at the idea of any traveller being bonkers enough to interrupt such a lavish stay with a trip to the gym, by the second day I’ve eaten so much that I enrol in an early morning fitness class to ease my conscience. Running on the treadmill in the Zen Wellness centre – at the back of the boat – gives me the cosmic push-pull experience of stepping forward while the river moves away, as the ship heads in the opposite direction.
It’s possible that the overindulgence is also behind my slightly bizarre decision for our final full day. After docking near Melk, a lower Austrian hilltop town renowned for its opulent Benedictine monastery, I opt for a two-hour bike ride along the Danube rather than a coach visit to the abbey.
Along with a handful of Scots I brave the low cloud, thickening fog and freezing rain to take in the drenched surroundings from the riverbank, finding an unexpected sense of enjoyment in our achievement. Nothing compares, however, to the blissful relief of jumping into the hot tub after arriving back at the ship, and stargazing into the night sky from the warmth of the bubbles.
The next morning, our final hours in the lap of luxury, we return to the top deck to marvel at the scenery as we float through the fabled Wachau Valley. Among the apricot orchards, vineyards and chocolate-box riverside villages, Raul, the cruise director heading up the truly excellent AmaMagna staff and crew, regales us with tales of the past. Of salt merchants, robber barons and lords competing for ownership of strategically built castles, many now lying in ruins, to profit from that most precious of minerals which has shaped the settlements along the Danube.
It’s with the heaviest of hearts that I step ashore for the final time and bid goodbye to the AmaMagna: she will continue to Dürnstein, Vienna and Budapest and I ache to go with her.
AmaMagna, 6 December 2020, 7 nights, free flights and transfers included (Glasgow or Edinburgh). Budapest (overnight), Bratislava, Vienna, Weissenkirchen, Melk, Linz, Passau, Vilshofen (overnight)
D grade, lower deck fixed window, £2,952pp AB grade, main deck outside balcony, £3,989pp
Add 2 nights pre-cruise hotel stay in Budapest for £385pp
Add 3 nights post-cruise hotel stay in Prague for £644pp or both for £1,029pp
Contact the Barrhead Travel experts on 0141-222 2223 or visit barrheadtravel.co.uk to find your nearest store.