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Cruising the Danube

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Can you tell where they made the movie Hotel Budapest?" our Viking Cruise program director asks 190 eager passengers lining the ship deck as we first set sail on our eight-day Danube River cruise.

Looking out to the many baroque, neoclassical and Art Nouveau architectural structures lining both banks of Hungary's capital I thought it was too hard to choose given so many enchanting choices. As we cruised past the brightly lit Parliament Building and towards Chain Bridge the answer came over the loud speaker: "You'd have to go to Poland. That's where they filmed the movie."

It was hard to be disappointed in beautiful Budapest as I joined fellow passengers with my camera pointed towards the city lights sparkling on the Danube — the second longest river in Europe that begins in Germany's Black Forest and winds its way through 10 countries to the Black Sea. Among them are Hungary, Austria and Germany, which this river cruise would be visiting, taking in several cultural capitals like Budapest and Vienna.

For centuries, the Danube has been used as an important trade route linking nations. Its boundaries marked the edge of the Roman Empire, and in many of our ports of call we will be able to see first hand the stonework the Romans left behind.

But the real benefit of seeing these European countries from the Danube River is enjoying the breathtaking beauty of the diverse landscapes from the comfort of a deck chair.

As the 135-metre longship Viking Egil gently plies the waters of northern Hungary I was already anticipating Day 2 when it would pass through the Danube Bend — a 64-kilometre stretch considered one of the most beautiful sections of the river — and Day 4 the Wachau Valley. This 29 kilometres is a UNESCO world heritage site, with terraced vineyards hugging the shores, medieval castles and villages dating back as far as Celtic and Roman times.

In the days to come, there would be so many quaint villages, onion-domed cathedrals and other ancient buildings, you could almost be forgiven for momentarily glancing away from the spectacular scenery.

My past cruises have always been on large ocean liners where it wasn't possible to get such an up close and personal perspective of the places travelled. Here, at a slow nautical speed past a shoreline just a stone's throw away, the opportunities to fully take in the beauty along one of Europe's greatest waterways were endless.

Since the Norwegian-based Viking Cruises first launched their four ships 20 years ago in Russia the company has expanded river cruising with more than 20 itineraries across Russia, Europe and Asia.

Our first stop after Budapest is Vienna, Austria where my 25-year-old daughter Chloe and I join the included city tour, then had time to ourselves to enjoy a Viennese cafe and shopping in the Ringstrasse, the boulevard laid out on the site of the old city walls in the mid-19th century. Here palaces, grand residences and public buildings make up this impressive avenue. Later that evening, we take an optional tour — one of five offered in Vienna — and enjoy a Mozart and Strauss Concert by the Vienna Residence Orchestra.

River cruising is said to appeal primarily to the 55-plus crowd, but my alternative-music loving daughter quickly adjusts to classical music. The performance not only includes Strauss waltzes and music from Mozart's "The Magic Flute" but the conductor provides comedic moments ensuring no heads nod off.

Our next stop is to the small university town of Krems, Austria in the Wachau Valley, which has long played an important role in the wine trade. Not surprising the valley's south facing slopes are where some of the best Riesling and Veltliner wines are created.

In every stop, Viking includes a tour so you don't feel you must spend additional money on optional excursions in order to really see the city. In Krems, we set off to a hilltop overlooking the Wachau Valley to visit Gottweig Abbey, a working monastery of Benedictine monks. A highlight is tasting the sparkling apricot wine produced at the abbey and seeing the three-storey imperial staircase with its ceiling fresco depicting the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI as Apollo.

Our next stop on the river cruise is also our favourite — to the charming city of Passau, Germany.

Founded 2,000 years ago, Passau is known as the City of Three Rivers since this is where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers meet.

The guided walk through one of Bavaria's oldest cities ends with a visit to the 17th Century St. Stephen's Cathedral for a pipe organ concert. But this isn't just any church organ.

The baroque cathedral houses Europe's largest pipe organ, with 17,974 organ pipes, and allows all five parts of the organ to be played from the main keyboard one at a time or all together. The organ is said to have inspired composer Franz Liszt write his "Hungarian Coronation Mass."

The final two stops in Germany would also prove to be among the most historically significant - the city of Regensburg and Nuremburg. The former is one of Europe's best-preserved medieval cities and the oldest city on the Danube River, while the latter, of course, is infamous for its role in the Second World War.

A visit To Regensburg would seem incomplete without stopping at Germany's oldest restaurant, near the 12th century old stone bridge, called Alte Wurstkuche — otherwise known as the Old Sausage Kitchen. It is still making as good an income today as it has done for thousands of years selling sausages to locals and visitors.

In Regensburg my daughter and I went on the optional tour and travelled by coach to nearby Kelheim where we took a smaller ship that would allow passage through the Danube Narrows — the narrowest and steepest section of the river. After cruising past scenic cliffs we landed at Weltenburg Abbey — founded in the 7th century — and which is known for its famous brewery started in 1050. You can enjoy the abbey's dark ale on the smaller excursion boat and taste for yourself why it continually ranks first in world ale competitions.

This wasn't our first chance to enjoy one of Bavaria's best-loved brews but certainly doing it while cruising the breath-taking Danube River easily stands out as a fitting end to an unforgettable voyage.

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