Even with all of the traveling I’ve done over the past several years I’ve never been on a cruise. While ocean-going boats get a lot of press, much of the buzz in wine and food circles revolves around riverboat cruises, particularly in Europe. So when my friend Jerry Kazzaz (www.customtravelltd.com) asked me to join him for a week’s cruise of the Danube River on a Viking River Cruise boat (www.vikingrivercruises.com), I couldn’t say no. Be forewarned that there’s not a lot of wine in this column. What can I say? It was cold in Europe. I drank a lot of scotch.
We flew from Denver through Newark to Munich, Germany, where we ate at the Hofbrauhaus (try the dark beer and wurst plate) and rested a night before hopping on a train the next morning with a destination of Passau. There we boarded our boat, the Idun. We spent the first night of the cruise tied to the wharf in Passau, a jeweled town with the second-largest pipe organ in all of Europe nestled in the local church.
Sunday is a day of rest for most of Europe including Passau. Much of the city was closed down but that didn’t stop us from having fun on the boat. Basic wine service is included in the ticket price (higher end bottles cost more) and I enjoyed the Erhard Morwald house wines with dinner (the same wines were served all week). The white Gruner Veltliner was tangy and zesty, with bits of pineapple, lime peel and pink cherry each taking a turn at the lead. The red Blauer Zweigelt was also quite pleasant, not a heavy hitter but redolent of sour cherry and tasting of blueberry skin and white pepper. Unfortunately neither of these bottles is available for purchase outside of the Viking experience.
Monday we spent in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, where I found local fruits preserved in schnapps and Mozart-themed marzipan sweets wrapped in chocolate. That night, New Year’s Eve, we were in Linz being serenaded on-board by a traditional Austrian band. We then sat topside in the chill air watching fireworks explode over the city.
Tuesday focused on the towns of Melk (home to a 900-year-old monastery that still houses monks) and Krems in the Wachau valley, which is the origination of many of Austria’s most famous dry white wines. One of the add-on experiences available for an extra fee was a tasting of Wachau wines, which I did not attend because I’ve already had the privilege of tasting in up-close-and-personal conditions at the various local wine estates. Later in the day I was also reintroduced to the “original” Budweiser, a Czech beer made by a company that has no relationship to the infamous Bud of American fame. Richer, slightly darker in color than the U.S. version, in my opinion this nutty, satisfying brew blows away its more famous (at least back home) competition.
Day Five was spent in Vienna, Austria and Day Six in Bratislava, Slovakia. Both cities are charming national capitals, Vienna much larger, of course. We toured by coach and foot, with knowledgeable guides, and although I had been to both cities previously I did manage to learn new things, particularly about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Did you know that the Empress Maria Therese had 16 children yet was so prudish that she ordered naked statuary to be melted down and recast as ingots?
The cruise eventually ended in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, another city I’ve previously visited and loved. We walked Fisherman’s Hill in the old town (Buda) and toured the Vaci Utca, the main shopping street that culminates in a massive market building where produce and fresh meat dominate the ground floor and restaurants and souvenir stalls cluster on the second level.
While high-end riverboat cruises can be expensive, they offer a unique way to see the countryside and experience culture. If you have a chance to do so I highly recommend you take the opportunity to cruise in Europe. I definitely enjoyed myself.
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Planned excursions include Italy’s Piedmont during the annual white truffle festival next November (currently available at www.wineontheroad.com/piedmontunfiltered.php) and a luxury tour of the Napa Valley in October, 2013 (www.wineontheroad.com/napaunfiltered.php). You can also book private groups in wine country world-wide or request more information on any of these tours by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Budweiser NV (Plzen, Czech Republic) $N/A
Erhard Morwald Gruner Veltliner NV (Feuersbrunn, Austria) $N/A
Erhard Morwald Blauer Zweigelt NV (Feuersbrunn, Austria) $N/A