by Gordon Turner
I arrived hours behind schedule at Vienna’s Handelskai, weary and hungry because of a missed plane connection, and too late for the riverboat Avalon Poetry’s welcome cocktail party and dinner. Not to worry, though. On hearing of my predicament, the receptionist picked up her phone, called the chef, and within minutes I sat down in the dining room to an excellent salad and a refreshing cup of coffee. As the room’s solitary occupant I had a good opportunity to study its dimensions, design and decor, and all three looked just fine to me.
Riverboat cruising in European waters is not a new phenomenon, but it has expanded enormously in the last decade. In fact, when the cruise concluded in Nuremberg, I counted ten modern riverboats docked along the quay. Some were double parked.
That, though, happened six days later.
Eight years had passed since my previous riverboat cruise, and an immediate surprise on Avalon Poetry was my cabin. It measured a generous 16 square metres but its size, to me anyway, was less important than its layout and the quality of its furnishings. It had sufficient closet and drawer space, a mirrored writing desk and a remarkably comfortable bed. The compact bathroom was neat and bright, although a passenger of ample proportions might consider the glassed-in shower stall just a tad tiny. Poetry’s cabins, all identical, are spread over three decks, but those on the two upper decks have view-friendly sliding floor-to-ceiling glass doors, while those on the lowest deck have large portholes.
Vienna is a particularly attractive city to begin or end a cruise. A coach tour proved that this is a city that takes pride in its past, notably the two centuries that preceded the First World War. It is not simply the appealing architecture of its historic core, but the manner in which each building complements its neighbours. As for the buildings’ functions, many of them confirmed what I expected: history and culture, particularly music and the visual arts, leap to life inside their walls.
Avalon Poetry slipped away from Vienna during the night and headed upstream, arriving the next morning in Melk, a pretty town of 5,000 residents. Dominating Melk from a rocky perch is its huge Benedictine abbey. The abbey church’s Baroque interior is flamboyant in the extreme, with scarcely a square foot of its interior devoid of decoration, but the impression I took away was that somehow the almost unbridled extravagance fell within the bounds of good taste.
Back aboard Poetry, I sat down in the lounge to enjoy a scenic stretch of the Danube. This was the river of song and story, of crags topped by castles and churches, of twists and turns in the Danube’s course, and for the next several hours it certainly deserved its reputation. The lounge was a venue for leisurely relaxation, reading, postcard writing, card games and chatting with friends, but it had other functions. There was a bar, a section for the musician who entertained us nightly, and even an Internet alcove. It was also the location one afternoon for the pastry chef’s demonstration, who described her Kaiserschmarren as exploding pancakes. And yes, the samples were indeed delicious.
On any cruise vessel, the topic of food is seldom far from passengers’ thoughts. Avalon Poetry’s galley had a capable crew that consistently turned out admirable meals, with breakfast and lunch being self-service. For my four-course dinner on the day we left Melk, I ordered spaghetti with smoked salmon, cauliflower soup, broiled pangasius filet and a yogurt tart with mandarin sauce. Curiosity prompted me to order pangasius, without the least knowledge of what it was. It turned out to be as tasty a piece of whitefish as I have sampled for many months. A wrinkle I have not seen elsewhere was that breakfast-dish labels were identified not only by name but were colour coded under five headings: high energy; low calorie and low fat; high fibre; low cholesterol; low calorie.
The ship had an extensive wine list, but each evening diners had a choice of red or white as an included feature of the meal. The selections were German and Austrian and they were a good cut above average.
My cruise was built around the theme of Christmas markets, and although I missed those in Vienna, using jet lag as an explanation or excuse, I thought I should sample what Salzburg had to offer. I’m glad I did. The optional all-day coach tour meant leaving the boat at Linz and rejoining it at Passau, just inside the German border. Nowadays, Salzburg means The Sound of Music almost as much as it does Mozart. Fortunately, our guide could talk well about both. The Christmas market, which begins in late November, consisted of 85 booths spread out over three adjoining streets and squares, the stalls selling roasted chestnuts, hand-made winter clothing, handicrafts and Christmas knick-knacks. “Charming” is an overworked word, but it still applies to Salzburg. On our return journey, we stopped at Oberndorf and Arnsdorf, famed for their associations with Joseph Mohr and Franz Grubel, writer and composer of “Silent Night.” At the Arnsdorf church two local men, accompanied by a guitarist, sang the celebrated carol in its original form. Their sincere and unaffected performance remained with me long after the coach had caught up with our vessel in Passau.
During my six days aboard, two of Avalon Poetry’s most enticing amenities remained virtually unused. One was the spacious open-air Sun Deck, which could be explained by November’s chilly weather. The other was Sapphire Deck’s small and elegant indoor fitness centre, with exercise equipment on one side and a whirlpool on the other. That gently bubbling whirlpool is, in my opinion, the logical spot to finish off a day’s sightseeing.
The reason for Avalon Poetry’s dimensions became clear when we entered the Main-Danube Canal. She fitted neatly into the locks with scarcely a foot of clearance on either side. The canal cuts through rural Bavaria, a region of forests and farms, before emerging at Nuremberg. And here in this city was the best Christmas market of all. It was not only its size—160 stalls, all centrally located around a church square—but its scope: food, Christmas decorations, knitwear, wood carvings, costume jewellery, toys—and that’s just a small sample. No war toys, though. If a steaming mug of glühwein, three tasty Nuremberg sausages on a kaiser roll, a spicy gingerbread cookie and a yummy marzipan potato do not constitute a nutritionally balanced meal, I say, “So what? It’s Christmas.” Add the sweet voices of a children’s choir on the church steps and you have the makings of a thoroughly enjoyable visit. Hint: try to avoid Saturday afternoon, when crowds are thickest.
I disembarked at Nuremberg and spent the next two days in Prague, a city where two days are never enough. On my homeward flight, at 38,000 feet, I thought back to my cruise. I could have visited the cities and towns by road or rail, or maybe flown between the main cities, but it was far more satisfying to make the journey by riverboat.
Just the facts:
Avalon Poetry is 130 metres long, 13 metres wide, and was built in 2005. She has 84 cabins and 4 junior suites, giving her a passenger capacity of 176. Her fleetmates are generally similar in dimensions and layout. They sail European rivers (Rhine, Moselle, Main and Danube) and canals from April to December on cruises of varying lengths. Some shore excursions are included in the rates; others are optional. Pre- and post-cruise hotel stays are available. Contact The Cruise People, Ltd. for more information on all river cruises.