Cruising the Danube with AmaWaterways: Budapest

Last month (it was actually in March, but May has essentially just started, so allow me a little leeway), I started to recount my river cruise experience with AmaWaterways from Budapest, Hungary to Vilshofen, Germany on a cruise up the Danube River.

In those preceding two articles, I intimated that a) I had never really been on a cruise before and b) the reason for that was based on three factors: the fear of airborne illnesses, the horror stories I have heard about ships being stranded at sea, and the abomination that is the tank-top (which I presume is required attire on cruises with such pithy sayings as “Irish You Were A Beer” or “I’m With Stupid”).

Well, most of my fears were allayed once I understood that, since it was a river cruise, be stranded at sea was pretty much impossible, and the trip was scheduled for November so anyone wearing a tank top would soon succumb to Darwin’s Theory.

I figured I could handle the airborne illnesses issue by simply avoiding people—or at least by remembering not to touch anything in common areas. I am not really a germ-a-phobe, but…OK, I guess I am a bit of a germ-a-phobe.

My other worry was my bed. As some of you may know, I am tall. Not “freakishly tall” as my diminutive older brother likes to say, but 6’4” which is taller than 95% of American males. What does that mean? Well, ever since I can remember, I have slept with my feet hanging off of the foot of the bed—footboards are my nemesis. It is usually the only thing I inquire about when booking a room, so it is a fairly big deal.

No need to worry.

The bed in my stateroom. No footboard, phew.

We traveled up the Danube River, covering more than a quarter of its total length and navigating through 16 locks along the way. In all, the river is 1,770 miles (2,850 kilometers) long and passes through ten countries from its origin in the Black Forest of Germany to its delta in Romania on the Black Sea.

We hit four of those countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany), plus a foray into a fifth, the Czech Republic (by bus) over the course of our seven days on the ship (I was reminded several times by the captain the it was a ship, not boat) with stops in Budapest, Vienna, Dürnstein (Melk), Linz, and Passau.

Along the way, I learned a bit about the areas we visited and about being on a cruise. Sure, one cruise makes me far from an expert, but if you are like me and never even considered going on a cruise before, here are some pointers.

Tip 1: Get Out of the Cabin

The cabins, or staterooms are small. Really small. Frank Lloyd Wright kinda small. I used it to sleep, shower, and change, that is about it.

Tip 2: Get to Know the Crew

Back when I was teaching, I learned a valuable lesson: get to know the staff—knowing the names and the backgrounds of people who made my life a heck of a lot easier (custodians, food service, groundskeepers) always pays off. On the ship, one of the bartenders told me that he was really impressed that I remembered his name (and his kids’ names). That made my cruise and his job (apparently) a lot more fun. The crew on AmaWaterways’ AmaLea was nothing short of fantastic.

Tip 3: Go on the Guided Excursions

I get it. Going on a tour with a bunch of people you might otherwise never hang out with can be a bit much (as in wanting-to-blow-your-brains-out much). As one who has traveled a bunch in Europe, the thought of walking around in a group doing the “tourist thing” is about as far away of my ideal way to spend a few hours as is having a root canal. But. You usually do not have a ton of time to visit said spot, so you should make the most of it.

Here are some of the photos I took and tidbits I learned while walking about Budapest with the tour group before we set sail….

I used to laugh at people that would follow around their tour guide who was holding up such a sign. Not anymore. OK, not as much….

  • The country of Hungary has ten million residents and nearly a fifth of them lives in Budapest, three cities (Buda, Obuda [old Buda], and Pest) that joined together 150 years ago, when it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, becoming its second capital (after Vienna).
  • According to one resident of Buda, there are two types of people: “those who live in Buda and those who want to.”

Buda to the west of the Danube is hilly and …

…Pest to the east is about twice as big.

Hungary was founded in 896, when seven Magyar tribes came together to defeat what was left of the Romans. The county had an enormous celebration in 1896 to commemorate its birth, building much of today’s infrastructure of the city. Including (among others) the oldest metro system in mainland Europe…

St. Stephen’s Basilica (named after the first king of Hungary)…

…Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere)…

… the iconic Parliament. Whoa.

Some other tidbits…

Goulaš (goulash) in Hungary is a soup with meat and vegetables whereas in other countries it is more of a stew. It is a Hungarian word which means “cowboy.”

  • For centuries, Jewish population found refuge in Budapest as many moved there in the 1800s as they were given many more freedoms in Hungary.

It’s therefore no surprise that third largest synagogue in the world (after Jerusalem and New York) is in Budapest. Bernard Schwartz, aka Tony Curtis, was born in Hungary and returned to Budapest in the 1990s and spearheaded the renovation of the synagogue that had fallen into serious disrepair.

  • The Hungarian holy crown which was sent to Fort Knox during WWII to keep it safe. There it stayed until it was returned by Jimmy Carter in 1978.

“We are a nation that lives in its language.” The Hungarian people originally came from Asia and employ a very difficult and strange language, which is curiously related to both Finnish and Greek.

During World War II, Budapest was heavily bombed and Buda Castle was severely damaged as the Nazis had used it for their headquarters.

  • The October 23, 1956 revolution was started by a few students but spread quickly through Budapest, eventually crushed by Russian tanks, causing at least  200k people to flee the country. Communism that took root again was softer and more tolerant, and often called “goulash communism.” Hungarians were allowed to travel more and had greater freedom of speech than other communist bloc countries.
  • Communism ended in 1989, greeted by a huge celebration. New government was determined to join large western organizations to avoid slipping back into Communism. Joined NATO in 1999 and EU in 2004 but have not yet met requirements for Euro.
  • There are no skyscrapers in Budapest since it’s a world heritage site and nothing can be higher than the historical buildings.

I learned, of course a ton more from my stay in Budapest, but that is all I have for now. I will offer up some more tips and tales from my cruise next week!


About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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