There are many natural and cultural treasures to behold along the great Danube as it flows through the heart of Austria.
After three days on the Danube, its green waters alternating between shimmering emerald and dark, opaque sage, I’m ready to get my feet wet.
It’s day three of my five-night cruise aboard the Avalon Waterways ship Visionary and after arriving at our first stop, the small Austrian village of Durnstein, we’re gathered on a beach getting ready to climb into two-person canoes for a 6km paddle through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wachau Valley.
Reaching from Melk to Krems, the valley is considered one of the Danube’s most magnificent stretches, and is particularly popular as a cycling trail — though I think today we’ve found the perfect way to take it all in.
A short instructional talk and we’re away, our guide leading the way upriver on his stand-up paddleboard. If I thought the Austrian countryside was picturesque from the ship, it’s even more so at water level.
The beauty of the surrounding valley is surreal to say the least and it’s difficult to concentrate on paddling as we glide past picture-postcard villages, churches and castles, fruit orchards (apricots are one of the region’s major products) and terraced vineyards edged by drystone walls.
The biggest “wow” moment comes as we near Durnstein and its Augustinian abbey comes into view, its distinctive blue-and-white tower rising up from the riverbank while high above sit the ruins of the fortress where Richard the Lionheart of England was held prisoner in the 12th century.
The village is every bit as pretty as I expect as we take a brief walking tour of its cobbled streets, quaint shopfronts brimming with apricot schnapps, cakes, chocolates and soaps, before making our way back to the ship.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a first-time cruiser but as we set sail shortly before lunch I decide to remain aboard while some other passengers pedal off on a 30km cycle towards our next destination.
As enchanting as the Austrian countryside is up close I’m content to watch it glide by from the deck, the opportunity to sit back with an aperitif of the famous kaiserspritzer (wine, soda water and elderflower syrup) and soak in our first stretch of sailing time (the initial leg, from Vienna to Durnstein, we sailed in the middle of the night) too good to pass up.
Springing from Germany’s Black Forest and flowing through or past 10 nations, the 2857km Danube is Europe’s second-longest river, behind the Volga in Russia, and is one of the world’s most popular waterways for river cruising.
I’m aboard to get a taste of Avalon Waterways’ new Active Discovery itinerary, which emphasises active, engaging experiences, taking guests off the beaten track and into the beating heart of each destination. Ours is an abbreviated cruise — the full nine-night itinerary will travel between Budapest and Linz.
On this cruise, that means everything from a Viennese waltz lesson to a traditional Austrian bread-making class to an early morning jogging tour of Vienna. Designed with an increasingly active generation of river cruisers in mind, the concept lets the more adventurous passengers choose from an array of physical options, be it hiking the Danube Trail or cycling or canoeing through the Wachau Valley, all designed to offer a more in-depth perspective on each destination.
Active Discovery will officially debut in July.
By early afternoon we have arrived in Melk, its famous Benedictine monastery looming over the village from its perch atop a
rocky hillside and marking the gate of the Wachau Valley. Considered one of Europe’s finest examples of 18th century construction, it’s a spectacular display of baroque extravagance. Its 497 rooms are filled with classic baroque ornamentation: marble, gilding, elaborate sculptures, stuccoing.
The abbey’s library houses some 100,000 books in 15 languages, the earliest more than 500 years old. One could easily spend a day exploring this extraordinary building and its equally beautiful gardens.
That evening the focus shifts to another of the Wachau Valley’s treasures — wine. The Wachau is renowned as a winemaking region and tonight a local winemaker has come aboard to treat the passengers to a tasting session. I learn whites are the specialty of the region (80 per cent of Austria’s and 95 per cent of the Wachau Valley’s wines are whites), particularly riesling and Gruner Veltliner.
We sample three drops from Domane Wachau, one of the country’s biggest wineries, and practise our Austrian cheers — “prost”. Not only can I dance and cook like the Austrians, now I can toast like them. It’s yet another charming insight into the local lifestyles and customs of our host country.
Early the next morning we sail from Melk towards Grein, where we trace our way through the nostalgic streets to the city square and the municipal theatre, the oldest still in use in Austria. From the square we walk up a hill to Greinburg Castle, a magnificent privately owned building that’s one of oldest residential castles in the country. Originally built in 1490, it was extended and altered in the 17th century.
The castle is the seat of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty, whose ancestry we’re given a fascinating insight into during our tour. The Austrians are famed for their strategic marriages, which helped the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha become one of Europe’s most significant ruling dynasties.
For instance, we learn, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’s marriage to Queen Victoria of England was just one of the unions that helped the house form the basis of many of Europe’s former and current ruling families.
Our short visit to Grein over, we board a bus and head west to Linz. With just over 200,000 people Linz is Austria’s third- largest city, behind Vienna and Graz in the south-east. Its proper name is Linz on the Danube, so as not to be confused with Germany’s Linz on the Rhine. Although we’re told it’s very much an industrial city rather than a tourist highlight, Linz proves to be a delight.
The city is perhaps best known for its Linzer torte — a delicious jam-filled pastry topped with slivered almonds — as well as for some particularly well-known residents. German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler once lived and taught in Linz, and Beethoven and Mozart composed symphonies while staying here (Mozart gave his first public concert here in 1762).
If you fancy becoming a resident of Linz, the Tower Hermit project offers the chance to spend a week living in a hermit’s room in the Cathedral of St Mary — a utopia of solitude 68m above the city streets in which to contemplate and reflect upon one’s existence without the modern worldly distractions.
The evening’s itinerary offers a change of pace as we set off on a walking pub tour which includes a drink at Sandburg, a makeshift beach bar complete with deckchairs and beach sand, which is clearly popular on this Tuesday night.
Just after midnight we set sail for our penultimate port, Engelhartzell.
In the spirit of active discovery, my choice of activity from the day’s program is a roughly 5km hike along the Danube Trail. The cloudless sky and 20C-something temperature provide the perfect conditions for a hike and after a short bus ride to Haibach we set off through the rolling green meadows, alive with cornfields, roadside blackberry bushes, wildflowers and apple trees.
The green of the Danube is even more vivid from our summit 240m above the river, today’s shade a shimmering, opaque combination of sea foam and pistachio.
We’re back on board for lunch before we sail for our final destination, Passau, near the Austrian and Czech borders.
It’s said that Napoleon once remarked he’d never seen a town more beautiful in Germany. A university town, it’s home to almost 50,000 people and about 12,000 students.
Passau is also the youngest city of Bavaria, Napoleon’s reforming of the map of Germany meant the city was handed over to Bavaria in 1803.
We wind our way through the charming streets, through the Old Town with its Italian baroque influences, the cathedral with its sumptuous golden pulpit and down cobblestone lanes edged by buildings that lean in ever so slightly (owing to their sand foundations) and are each painted in a rainbow of colours.
In early times when the people couldn't read and needed to find a certain business in the city, the colour of the building was their makeshift signpost.
We spend our final evening back on board, chatting over our final dinner in the ship’s dining room before heading up to the top deck for a farewell drink under the stars, the Danube, sparkling black under the moon and the city lights, our companion as always.
There are eight departures of the Active Discovery cruise between Budapest and Linz between July and October, 2017. The cruise, onboard Avalon Luminary is priced from $5219 per person, twin share. Optional three-day extensions to Prague are from $5219 and to Salzburg and Munich from $6932. The price includes cruise and extension.
Travel agents, avalonwaterways.com.au and 1300 230 234.
DisclaimerCy Clayton visited Austria as a guest of Avalon Waterways.
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