Gabriella le Breton explores the hearts of cities and towns while on a river cruise.
The defining memory of cruising the Danube is not the balmy evening I spent watching the lush Austrian countryside slip past as our vessel navigated the Schlogener Donauschlinge - the point at which the Danube curls back on itself - to the sound of exuberant birdsong.
Nor is it the sunny afternoon we motored along the narrow Wachau Valley, flanked by picturesque mediaeval villages, steep-terraced vineyards and no fewer than 45 castles. It's not even arriving in Budapest shortly after dawn, passing the splendid parliament building and underneath the Chain Bridge.
No, my defining memory is learning how to play shuffleboard on River Beatrice's sun deck as a storm bore down in Linz. The city's large Ars Electronica Centre, on the river bank opposite, pulsated with flashing lights in time to booming music, while bolts of lightning lit the mountainous backdrop to this imperial Austrian city. Heavy rain then sent us scurrying downstairs to the lounge, where the strains of the excellent New Ohr Linz Dixieband drowned out the claps of thunder.
Having joined this voyage expecting generous portions of history, lashings of Habsburg architecture and dollops of Strauss, this decidedly contemporary little adventure proves there's plenty more to the Danube than ornate campaniles and schmaltzy music.
The River Beatrice is an attractive, 162-passenger ship launched in 2009 by the American company Uniworld. The crew is unfailingly friendly, my fellow passengers charming and the boat spacious and immaculate. Beatrice has a superb sun deck, with attractive wrought-iron tables, chairs and parasols, and dangerously comfortable loungers from which to watch the ever-changing scenery.
The comfort and elegance are pre-eminent and, together with its sister ship River Antoinette, Beatrice has some of the largest and best-appointed staterooms of any river cruise line in Europe, with made-to-order beds, luxurious linen and spacious bathrooms.
The decor throughout the ship is lavish yet tasteful, with a vast white Murano glass chandelier hanging in the atrium, padded walls upholstered in raw silk and gilt-framed paintings adorning the mirrored restaurant walls. Had our days not been spent admiring baroque and rococo architecture, the opulence might have felt excessive and I did seek refuge occasionally from the crushed velvet and florals in the more muted captain's lounge and library.
One of the main benefits of river cruising is that boats typically moor in the heart of cities, thus Linz's 13th-century main square was just 10 minutes' walk from the boat and, although a fleet of coaches whisked us to the Benedictine abbey of Melk the following day, it was an easy 20-minute stroll through the mediaeval town for a slab of rich linzertorte by the magnificent baroque cathedral on the way to the ship.
Similarly, at Durnstein we were conveyed to a tasting of local wines at the Domane Wachau vineyard aboard a tiny electric train but 10 minutes on foot would have covered it. Perched on a ridge overlooking the Danube as it winds through the Wachau Valley, Durnstein is one of Austria's most compact and beautiful small towns.
Crowned by the ruins of a castle (fine views reward those who make the climb to it), it has pretty shops selling wines, apricot liqueur and pastries. It required great strength to tear myself away from my glass of gruner veltliner, served in the garden of the Sanger Blondel restaurant underneath the town's sky-blue church tower, to return to the ship that evening.
Fortunately, an epicurean dinner lay in wait, meaning the food, which was generally excellent (with the odd lapse), was even better than usual. Clearly, considerable effort went into the creation of menus, which reflected local produce and culinary customs: in Passau, we enjoyed Bavarian beer and garlic cream soup followed by seared pike; in Durnstein, we feasted on Styrian fried chicken salad and duck breast in Burgenland red-wine sauce; and in Vienna, there was the inevitable wiener schnitzel and rich sachertorte.
The Austrian capital was a voyage highlight. An impressive selection of excursions was available but as the Beatrice was moored just 15 minutes' walk from the nearest underground station, from where Vienna's city centre was a 10-minute ride, independent exploration of the city was relatively easy. Furthermore, the ship was docked by the car-free Donauinsel (Danube Island) - ideal for taking an evening ride along the cycle paths that criss-cross the island.
The pace of a river cruise is noticeably slower than that of an ocean cruise, with less distance covered and more time spent in port. However, the end of our cruise in Budapest still seemed to come all too quickly. After a brisk but informative tour of the main sights on both the Buda and Pest sides of the capital, I spent the afternoon admiring brides and grooms emerging from the immense St Stephen's Basilica, watching celebrated Hungarian authors signing their works at a busy book fair and devouring cakes at the noted Gerbeaud Cafe on Vorosmarty Square.
My day in Budapest allowed just enough time to absorb a feel for this historic yet vibrant city, leaving me with the desire to return. But perhaps this is the essence of a river cruise - to give passengers a taste of each place, while leaving them hungry for more.
Lufthansa has a fare to Munich from Sydney and Melbourne and back from Budapest for about $2020 low-season return, including tax. Fly a partner airline to Singapore (about 8hr), then Lufthansa to Munich (13hr 11min). The flight home from Budapest is via Frankfurt; see lufthansa.com. There are trains from Munich to Passau (2hr).
A seven-night Enchanting Danube cruise aboard River Beatrice from Passau to Budapest or the reverse is priced from $3795 a person, twin share between April 29 and August 19. Includes all meals on board, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, shore excursions and transfers. Phone 1300 780 231; see uniworldcruises.com.au.