The ultimate hassle-free vacation in Europe would eliminate unpacking, repacking and unpacking, again and again. We found the answer lies in river cruising, where we unpack once. A European cruise has the added advantage of allowing you to visit several countries in a short span. This mode of travel is remarkably stress-free as our stylish floating hotel follows us from one port to the next. Docking at hamlets along the river, we explored cobblestone streets stalwart castles, glittering palaces, and ornate cathedrals.
Stellar cruise lines, such as Tauck, Viking, and AmaWaterways, offer enticing travel options. To experience river travel firsthand, my husband and I selected a romantic journey through Europe. Embarking on the “Grand European Tour,” we explored four countries spanning 15 days. Cruising along the Danube, Main, and Rhine rivers, we sailed from the stunning landscapes of Hungary to the windmill-dotted waterways of Holland. Our cruise proved to be an extraordinary venue for dancing and romance at every turn.
Our excursion began in Budapest, a riverside beauty and Hungary’s enchanting capital. Strolling hand in hand, we discovered the Parliament Building, a splendid example of Neo-Gothic architecture. The lilting tempos of live music, emanating from a pianist, violinist, and electric guitar situated under the shadow of the Tisza Istvan statue, captivated us. The call to dance was frankly irresistible. Our feet, even though shoddy in clumsy tennis shoes, moved to the rhythmic sounds of Waltz, Tango, and Swing.
Back on the ship as evening dusk glided over the Danube river, the shimmering night lights illuminated the famous Chain Bridge, the oldest and most spectacular of seven road bridges in Budapest. The night was balmy, and jazz played softly in the background. Raising our chilled champagne glasses in a toast out on our stateroom balcony, we seized the moment. Leaning in for an intimate slow dance led to a tender kiss bringing the evening to a perfect close.
The overlay of romance continued in Vienna when the Vienna Residence Orchestra performed Mozart and Strauss masterpieces. The melodies continued to play in our minds long after the concert concluded. Afterward, we joined a session at a local dance school to honor Vienna’s renowned composer, Johann Strauss II, whose music popularized the waltz in the 19th century.
This was a golden opportunity to expand our Viennese Waltz dance skills with the renowned instructor, Professor Wagner. As accomplished dancers in America, we humbly discovered we had two left feet in Vienna. Slightly embarrassed, we noted a significant difference between the Viennese Waltz in our home country and in Vienna, which has graced elegant ballrooms there for centuries. In American Viennese, the waltz starts with the right foot, and in Vienna, it begins with the left foot. Tripping clumsily over each other’s feet, we felt like first-time dancers, until we adjusted to this particular detail.
Before leaving Vienna, we visited the Schonbrunn Palace, the magnificent home of the Hapsburg Dynasty. The enormous and elaborate grand ballroom of the oldest baroque palace in Vienna resides here. Our tour guide suggested we envision a ballroom full of stately gentlemen dancing with swirling ladies in refined, swishing dresses. My husband took the cue and invited me into dance position, waltzing our way around the same grand ballroom where Queen Maria Theresa reigned and danced in for 40 years with her husband and 16 children. Other visitors giggled, and smiles grew as we danced past them. Returning the smiles, my husband announced, “Just maximizing the experience!”
One of the biggest benefits of a European cruise is how quickly we found ourselves in a new location. Further upstream, the Wachau Gorge captured our imagination. Picturesque villages and famous vineyards dotted the shoreline interspersed with lush hillsides crowned with castles and cathedrals. Taking us back thousands of years, we envisioned kings decked out in splendor on stallions, a farmer with an old wooden wagon hauling his abundant produce and frisky livestock to market, or the winemaker selling oak kegs full of his locally produced wines.
At the junction of the Danube and Melk rivers lies the Wachau Valley, which houses the town of Melk. The renowned Melk Abbey is a masterwork of Baroque brilliance. In the ornate Marble Room, we gazed up at ceiling frescoes. The artist painted them while the ceiling plaster was still wet, yielding intense colors that have stood the test of time. Waltz music drifted into this elegant ballroom, bringing us to our dancing feet yet again! My husband is a rare man who looks for opportunities for us to dance as a couple. Lucky me!
Stepping off the longboat to explore the winding cobblestone streets of Bamberg, Germany, we discovered a place off the beaten path called Café am Dom, the oldest coffee shop in this medieval town. Surrounded by German-speaking guests, we sat down at a little table tucked in the corner. Trying to blend in, we settled in to linger awhile. A charming server brought us superb tortes and sipping coffees served on petite silver plates adorned with lace paper doilies, tiny heart cookies, and slender forks. We melded into the inviting surroundings while our taste buds took their turn at dancing.
At one port, we booked a day trip via bus. When we arrived at Rothenburg ob der Tauber, we half-expected to see Harry Potter sauntering down the intricate cobblestone walkways lined with half-timbered houses. This township is one of the last remaining walled medieval towns located on the famous Romantic Road. This thoroughfare was created after World War II to lure visitors to the region and includes sweeping landscapes and vineyards, fairy-tale castles, and ancient cathedrals.
In town, we traversed elevated walkways overlooking the High Altar St. Jakob’s Church and the Gothic-Renaissance Town Hall. Small roughhewn openings inside the stone parapets captured our interest. We could only imagine how difficult it was for guards to see enough to protect the village with such small rock openings. Climbing down the wall on steps of stone, we arrived at the Castle Gardens, beautiful grounds overlooking a lush green valley and the Tauber river. In the cool shade of the park trees, we danced and swayed while a gray-haired musician played a song, perfect for a slow ”Night Club 2 Step”, on his cherished violin.
Our pre-excursion notions of Europe’s waterways evolved into an incredible firsthand appreciation of the exquisite and varied beauty of both the land and people. This stress-free voyage into river travel, via the “Grand European Tour” river cruise, was grand indeed! The rich history, vibrant cultures, astounding natural beauty, and personalized attention defined our journey. The romance of a European cruise will be a treasured memory-making our hearts dance with joy.
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