Unexpected Pleasures of a European River Cruise

By Ginger Dingus

On a crisp spring morning while cruising up Europe’s Rhine River, I slide open the door to my cabin’s balcony and listen to the birds singing from the wooded shore. Early risers out bicycling or walking their dogs along the river bank pop in and out of view. A white swan glides past. A medieval town appears, its church spires capped with green onion domes. It’s my favorite time of day aboard Viking Cruises’ 190-passenger riverboat Viking Skadi.

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More surprises wait during my two-week Grand European tour traversing three rivers and 68 locks on a route taking me from Amsterdam to Budapest. Here are my top five unexpected pleasures on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers.

Shopping with the chef

“Our friends told us if Viking offers a shopping tour with the chef, do it! It was their favorite excursion,” exclaimed Gary, a river cruise passenger from Atlanta. Docked for two full days in Vienna, the offer of a complimentary afternoon outing with Viking Skadi’s head chef was too good to miss.

I joined a group of about 25 passengers, chef Thomas Pfeiler and the concierge. We headed via the metro to Vienna’s eclectic, expensive and open-air Naschmarkt. Chef Pfeiler first showed us the locally grown and produced goods. We sampled cheeses, stuffed olives, sausages and bread, all temptingly arranged on an outdoor table just for us. We wandered past a dozen stands selling imported goodies before moving on to a tasting of fresh dragon fruit and jackfruit from Asia. There was plenty of free time for a coffee, glass of wine or gourmet food shopping before finding the metro and riding it back to the dock and our riverboat.

Glassblower on board

The entertainment on a riverboat generally provides a glimpse into local culture or cuisine. While nearing Miltenberg, Germany, a glassblower ventured aboard to demonstrate his craft and show off his wares. “Those bowls remind me of Chihuly,” my husband exclaimed, looking over the numerous pieces of glass art spread out for sale in the ship’s lounge. Turns out, Karl Ittig, a sixth generation glassblower from Wertheim, is personally acquainted with renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. Ittig has even taught at Chihuly’s Pilchuck studios in Washington state. It’s a small world indeed.

An amusing fellow, Ittig captivated us with stories of his childhood behind the Berlin Wall, all the while demonstrating flame working (as opposed to using a studio furnace or kiln for glass fusion). One brave volunteer helped him create a colorful glass ornament by blowing on a super-heated glass tube. The lucky passenger received the finished piece as a souvenir to take home.

Life in a windmill

If you thought raising a family in a lighthouse back in the day was tough, wait until you join one of Viking’s daily included excursions and see what it’s like to live inside a windmill. At Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Netherlands, we stepped inside one of 19 windmills still working until 1950. In summer, we discovered, the miller’s family would spread out, filling sleeping quarters and play rooms on several floors of the tall structure. In winter, however, it was so chilly, everyone moved into the windmill’s cozy kitchen/living room. A nook beside the woodstove served as the sole bedroom, shared by all.

Winter or not, work continued for the miller. His windmill pumped rainwater into the nearby river in order to keep the land and any homes from flooding. Today, electricity and modern pumping stations do the job.

Living in the lap of luxury

On the flip side to the cramped windmill, the Bishop’s Residence in Wurzburg, Germany came as a total surprise. History classes never taught me that bishops, actually prince-bishops, lived in palaces. Not only is the Wurzburg residence a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the country’s largest and most ornate palaces. The building, begun in 1719, is a dazzling combination of German baroque, Vienna’s imperial baroque and French chateau styles.

From the moment you enter the building and gaze at the ceiling above the grand staircase, you’ll be in awe. The spectacular 2,000-square foot fresco ceiling painted by Venetian artist Giovanni Tiepolo alone is worth the visit. Yet, nothing prepares you for the Mirror Cabinet, an incredible room covered with gilded mirrors. Damaged in a World War II bombing, the mirror room has been remarkably restored. Note: The only downside to the palace visit is no photos are allowed in any of the 40 rooms open to the public.

Soaking in grand thermal baths

Arriving in Budapest, Hungary, our final port, we took a turn soaking up the good life along with a few hundred other tourists and locals. The thermal baths of choice on Viking’s extra charge tour were the Szechenyi Baths, a palatial complex of 15 indoor soaking pools and three large outdoor swimming pools. To our surprise, all pools and saunas are co-ed, and everyone wears a swimsuit. No topless bathing here.

First, we changed into our swim gear in a private dressing cabinet. Each well worn walk-in locker opened by way of a modern electronic wristband. Our room steward aboard the Viking Skadi had given us each a towel, robe and slippers, though most baths do rent these for day use if you go on your own. Next, we explored the indoor pools, checking each for temperature. They ranged from a cool 65 degrees to the hottest at 104 degrees, with various warm pools in the mix. All pools, except the cold plunge, were crowded with bathers, chatting and people-watching.

The building of Szechenyi Baths, one of the largest spa complexes in Europe, took place between 1909 and 1913. Renovations are on-going. The waters come from a 169 degree underground well. Hungary, according to our Viking tour guide, has more than 1,000 hot springs with about half currently in use. The springs are the reason the Romans originally settled in the area, he said.

With that tidbit, I added another “Who knew?” to my growing list of European river lore.

Viking Cruises offers European river trips on its fleet of nearly identical, 443-foot long riverboats, called longships, including the Viking Skadi. For itineraries and information, go to www.vikingcruises.com.

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