07 Jan Barge along the Danube – AmaMagna Rivercruise
AmaMagna Rivercruise: Luxurious accommodation, informative tours and beautiful views, is there a better way to see some of Europe’s top cities?
Stepping onboard the AmaMagna is like checking into a small, plush hotel for restful break. The only difference is, this hotel is moored on the
banks of the River Danube and is scheduled to take us from Spitz to Budapest, taking in some of Europe’s most beautiful cities along the way.
Vienna, the city of dreams, has a special place in my heart. I visited this historical stronghold — whose past residents include Mozart, Beethoven and Freud — more than 20 yearsago. However, on that occasion, I stayed in a generic motel on the outskirts of the city and getting to the city centre meant taking a bus and a tram. All these years later, my arrival in the city is via the AmaMagna, a rivercruise boat that entered service just a few months ago, which docks near Reichsbrucke Bridge, just a few minutes’ drive from the giant ferris wheel which has been a symbol of this city for more than a century.
With only a few hours in Vienna, time is of the essence so we avail of a tour departing direct from the AmaMagna.
We’ve elected for the slightly faster walking tour (there’s a range of abilities catered for), and our guide sets a brisk pace as he sets a course on foot for St Stephen’s Cathedral, the courtyard stables of the Spanish Riding School and Marie-Theresien-Platz, often via quiet backstreets that bring us past sights that are slightly off the beaten track.
All too soon, it’s time to return to our digs on the banks of the Danube for lunch. At almost 22 metres wide, the AmaMagna is twice the breadth of most of the cruise boats plying this stretch of the River Danube.
Running to just over 135 metres long, the overall effect is of taking residence in a small, luxurious hotel where the staff are particularly attentive. AmaWaterways, the company that launched the AmaMagna just a few months ago, prides itself on the crew’s customer service, and there’s a warmth and friendliness that infuses all of our interactions. It comes as no surprise to learn that one of AmaWaterways’ founding partners was one Jimmy Murphy, a travel industry executive who worked fo rAerLingus and founded Brendan Tours in the US after learning his craft in the tourism industry at home in Ireland.
Jimmy died in 2014 but his surviving business partners, Rudi Schreiner and his wife Kristin Karst, have ensured that his memory is kept alive onboard the AmaMagna: the wine bar, Jimmy’s, is an intimate corner of the ship where one wall is given over to informal snaps from Jimmy’s own life. It’s a nice touch, one that reinforces the point that as regal as this empress of thewaterways may be as she plies her way through the heart ofEurope, it is hospitality and warmth that elevates the over all experience.
Although the AmaMagna is bigger than many of the ships it encounters on the Danube, its passenger capacity has been capped at 196. It means that the 70-strong staff take pride in getting to know their guests, topping up wine glasses atmeal times, becoming familiar with their breakfast order and flashing a friendly smile when they momentarily forget how to use their key card to re-enter the lower lounge from the sun deck (just me? Just me, then…).
The roomy dimensions of the vessel mean that our rooms are no mere cabins: Iluxuriate in a 355sq ft stateroom, which represents the standard level of accommodation on board. (I feel a little surge of smug satisfaction when I note that I have a view out over the water… until I realise that all of the rooms on the AmaMagna are on the outside of the vessel. This means there are no quandaries over whether tospring for the extra cost of an outside room, an issue that regularly rears its head for would-be passengers on ocean-going cruise ships.
I pad about the room, which is equipped with a large bathroom, a sofa, a desk and even a balcony! That night, I dream about long summer evenings spent sipping white wine on the balcony, watching the su nretreat below the banks of the opposite shore as a light breeze plays upon the water of the Danube. Heaven!
With so much to see and do elsewhere on the ship, however, it’s difficult to contemplate staying too long in one’s room — no matter how luxuriously appointed (each stateroom has a TV and computer; and the appropriately named grand suites even have TVs that rise out of the footboard of the bed at the touch of a button). At the heart of the ship is the diningroom where most of the meals are served. Jimmy’s wine bar and the super-salubrious Chef’s Table is just downstairs, while right up the front, at the boat’s stern, is the AlFresco restaurant where light bites, such as pastries, are available for most of the day. AlFresco is also home to one of three coffee docks dotted about the ship, where you can help yourself to tea or coffee 24 hours a day.
It’s via AlFresco that passengers access the steps that take them up to the sundeck where you’ll find sunloungers, a walking track and even a swimming pool. Continue on past the pool, descend a flight of steps and, back inside, you’ll find a fitness studio and even a brace of spinning bikes where you can take a class while watching the main sights of the Danube recede as you ‘cycle’. It takes only afew minutes to get back to the foyer of the ship and the main dining room.
A lift is available to take you up to the main bar area, which is the focus of much of life on board: it’s here that we receive briefings on the following day’s activities, avail of the complimentary sparkling wine at the regular ‘Sip and Sail’ hour just before dinner, and where the more energetic passengers can burn off a few calories with a bit of disco dancing.
As in the very best hotels, it quickly becomes difficult to recall a time when lunch didn’t mean constantly replenished glasses of wine and a wide selection of salads to snack on before opting for, say, the curry of the day served fresh from the preparation station. On two nights we opt for something different – dinner at the Chef’s Table on one night, and at Jimmy’s Bar on another. The Chef’s Table is chic and oistered, with a succession of courses served up with considerable care by the chefs. My favourite? The selection of desserts, all a variation on an apple confection. Divine!
Just 24 hours later, we head for the more relaxed atmosphere of Jimmy’s, where we dine on prawns on a bed of risotto, and sliced beef all served up in Jimmy’s Bar’s signature ‘family style’, that is, on platters that are passed around the table to share. It’s a style of eating that pretty much puts paid to any pretensions of formality, breaking down barriers between the guests.
Having quaffed a little bit too much of that lovingly matched wine, this passenger elects to go to bed rather than dance the night away in the main lounge. There’s simply too much to do and see in the morning. Some time during the night, the boat departs Vienna and heads down the Danube. By early the next morning, we are charting a course between Slovakia, to the north, and Hungary, and I watch the sun come up over the ovakia banks of this river border as I have my breakfast in the dining room. By now the passengers are fully acclimatised to life on board.
For some, this trip is part of an ongoing relationship they have with AmaWaterways: some couples are on their second or third cruise, and one couple have been on more than 50 such holidays with the company.
The staff pride themselves on their professionalism — but I think the secret of their success is their warmth, friendliness and willingness to have a laugh as they go about their work, and the passengers respond in kind. Just as the dress code isn’t formal (think versatile high-end hiking gear during the day, and slightly smart cocktail casual for after dark), the passengers are coming round to the idea that you really can chat to just about anyone. It’s as if they’ves tumbled across an authentically Irish bar here in central Europe.
Before long, we’ve docked in Hungary, and it’s time to explore the capital city, Budapest. Again, there’s a choice of included tours, which we can opt for depending on ability and/or energy levels. We quickly learn that the River Danube plays an integral part in the life of this city. For one thing, it ties together Budapest’s constituent parts, Buda and Pest.
High above the Danube, on the hills of the Buda part of the capital city, the hassles of everyday life feel like a distant dream. The romanesque-style Fisherman’s Bastion, in the shadow of the gothic curlicued spire of Matthias Church, offers wonderful views over the river and the opposite shores, the Pest side of this magnificent city. It’s from here that you fully appreciate how green the city is, and how much of an architectural gem the Hungarian people have been gifted. Over on the Pest side, right on the river bank, is the vast Parliament Building, with its gothic revival design.
In layman’s terms, with its delicate limestone arches, it looks fit for a fairytale princess. It’s also the final home of the Hungarian Crown Jewels and St Stephen’s Crown.
History buffs will recall the role that St Stephen’s Crown played in the fate of Cardinal Mintszenty, the Cold War-era primate who was imprisoned by the communist authorities on trumped-upcharges of treason, including a claim that he had helped snaffle the crown for the purposes of installing a new monarch. The cardinal famously took refuge in the city’s US embassy for a period of 15 years, eventually leaving in 1971 and dying in exile in the mid-1970s.
St Stephen’s Crown? It had been taken from Hungary during World War II and was by then living in the not very salubrious surroundings of Fort Knox, Kentucky. US President Jimmy Carte rreturned the 11th century crown to Hungary in the late 1970sand has been on display in the parliament since 2000.
The Pest side of the river is — whisper it — the more lively side of the city. We visit on a Saturday afternoon and the streets bustle with shoppers looking for bargains and local families out for an early evening stroll. One essential stopping off point is Molnar’s Kurtoskalacs on Váciutca (or ‘Vaci Street’). Molnar’s is famous for its kurtoskalacs, or ‘chimney cake’ – along, hollow confection that takes its name from the stove pipe that the sweet dough was wound around and baked upon. Molnar’s ditched the stove pipes long ago but this traditional snack remains a popular treat that’s made and enjoyed across Hungary.
Book-ending Vaci Street is Vorosmarty Square, which was gearing up for Christmas with a seasonal fair when I visited. But it has the feel of a smart plaza where people are drawn to, 12 months of the year. Not least for the rich chocolate tortein Café Gerbeaud which opened its doors in the mid-19th century. The high ceilings, chandeliers and flock wallpaper evoke a different age and even if the prices are steep (€14 for a coffee andc ake), there is an old-world grandeur that doesn’t disappoint.
It may taken me 20-plus years to return to Vienna, but I very much doubt that I’ll let 20 years pass before I revisit a city as beautiful and vibrant as Budapest. Will I ever be able to retrace my steps in as enchanting a fashion as travelling by stately rivercruiser. A girl can dream…
Sunway is the agent for AmaWaterways in Ireland, call 01 236 6800 or visit sunway.ie. AmaMagna on the Danube – from Budapest to Vilshofen, Germany — departs 02 August 2020, price from €2575pp Cat E Stateroom. Price includes direct flight from Dublin to Budapest and return from Munich, 1 x 20kg bag per person, transfers and 7 nights twin share stateroom. Price includes full board, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner.