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Dancing The Danube Waltz

By Sally Macmillan

It’s hard to believe you’re in the centre of a European city when you wake to the sound of horses trotting down the street. But this is Vienna, and horse-drawn carriages are as much a feature of this graceful city as its opulent palaces, monument-lined Ringstrasse and historic coffee houses.

We’re here to join the Scenic Jasper, on a voyage along the Danube from Vienna to Linz, Durnstein, Bratislava and Budapest, which will include a private concert in the Liechtenstein Garden Palace.

Before we join the ship, we view a training session of white Lipizzaner stallions at the 18th-century Spanish Riding School to view a training session of the white Lippizaner stallions. Six immaculately dressed riders put the horses through their paces in the arena accompanied by classic Viennese music and a fascinating commentary.

It’s just one awe-inspiring experience on a cruise packed with cultural highlights. Author and comedian Kathy Lette is the ship’s godmother and she declares “Not only is river cruising the best way to see Europe – no sat-nav malfunctions, no orbital ring roads, no traffic jams or cancelled trains – but this sleek cruise ship is so luxurious it should be renamed HMS Hedonism.”

The queen-size bed in my spacious balcony suite is so comfortable I sleep through breakfast at our first port of call. Not to worry as butler Natalia arrives bearing tea and pastries within minutes of my panicked call. Every stateroom on the ship has a butler, 24-hour room service, a minibar restocked daily and other luxury touches such as L’Occitane bathroom products and plush bathrobes.

Breakfast is required to fuel the (optional) 34km cycle from Durnstein to Melk, our next stop along the Danube. The ship’s electrically-assisted bikes are a joy – you can breeze up any incline while taking in the glorious surroundings.

The following day, we moor at Linz for a half-day trip to Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace and the setting for many scenes of the movie The Sound of Music. The exquisite city is also home to the grand Hotel Sacher where the original Sacher-Torte was first produced in 1832 and is still served today in the hushed environs of the formal café, and where Julie Andrews stayed during the filming.

We have a full day and night in Budapest, but even a week wouldn’t do justice to this extraordinarily beautiful city. From the moment I see the sun rising behind the Hungarian Parliament buildings across the Danube, I am hooked.

Back in Vienna, we have a choice of guided tours to Schönbrunn Palace, the magnificent former summer residence of the Habsburgs; or Bratislava, the capital of neighbouring Slovakia. A small group of us take the train to Bratislava to spend more time exploring the city. That’s another attraction of river cruising – you can enjoy as many of the included excursions as you like while enjoying your ship as a superbly appointed hotel that travels with you.

Bratislava is an intriguing mix with its medieval Old Town, crumbling mansions, graffiti-daubed Soviet-era buildings and traffic-jammed roads. Lunch at the Flag Ship restaurant is hearty Slovakian fare – garlic soup, potato pancakes and a gnocchi-type dish made with sheep’s cheese. It goes down nicely with locally brewed beer.

We have a full day and night in Budapest, but even a week wouldn’t do justice to this extraordinarily beautiful city. From the moment I see the sun rising behind the Hungarian Parliament buildings across the Danube, I am hooked. Like Prague, Krakow and Lubliana, among others, Budapest has become a hub for students, backpackers, intellectuals, artists and international partygoers. Our tour of Buda (the western, hilly bank of the river) and Pest (the flatter, city-centric side) takes us to landmark sites including Heroes’ Square, Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion on Castle Hill, plus the WAMP contemporary design market.

Thermal baths have been part of Hungarian life since Roman times. The Szechenyi Spa Baths complex in the centre of the city has 15 indoor baths and three outdoor pools. Even though it is a chilly spring morning, all the facilities are well-patronised, mostly by locals. Massages and medicinal mud baths are also available if you book in advance.

A night out in the romkocsma or “ruin pubs” in the old Jewish quarter is a fitting finale to our cruise. These arty bars started popping up in old factory and tenement buildings a few years ago and are furnished with the “found art” materials. Some host informal art exhibitions, experimental films and creative workshops. However, the ruin pub we discover is hosted by a seriously grumpy barman.

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