Danube river cruise: when a river ran red

Unguarded moments of discovery bring the past back into the present, writes Kerry van der Jagt.

'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." This line from George Orwell's novel Animal Farm (1945) is on my mind as I stand outside Budapest's Memento Park looking up at the giant-sized bronze boots of Joseph Stalin. While Orwell's dystopian novel reflects the events of the Stalin era of the Soviet Union, it could just as easily be about the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World War II.

When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, all the bully-boy statues that dominated the streets during the communist regime were banished to a field 10 kilometres south-west of the city. "It's not about honouring dictators," says my taxi driver, "it's about remembering our past."

The bronze boots are a replica of the remains of the eight-metre Stalin statue that was cut off at the knees and toppled during the 1956 rebellion. Perched on a stained concrete podium and surrounded by rampant weeds and broken bricks, the position of the monument speaks volumes. In the words of the park's architect, Akos Eleod: "Only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship."

Two monuments flank the enormous entrance: a sly-eyed Lenin, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto. Inside, the endless parade of personalities continues, with more than 40 larger-than-life monuments spread across the park.

I pass a Trabant, the so-called "people's car", which looks like it ran out of petrol in 1989 and hasn't been started since. In another corner I find the iconic Republic of Councils monument, a giant worker in mid-flight, flag flying and fist pumped against potential enemies of the state. It's all a bit odd, like an abandoned theme park, with hidden eyes watching your every move.

As I stroll from one time-warp relic to another, it's hard to comprehend that just a few hours earlier I'd floated into Budapest on the maiden voyage of Avalon Waterways' latest Suite Ship, the Avalon Illumination.

The journey began five days earlier in Vienna, the "City of Music" known for its dancing horses, waltzes and wedding-cake architecture. On a walking tour, guide Alexi points out historic buildings and gives us tips on where to find the original Sacher-Torte (Hotel Sacher), where geniuses such as Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner drank coffee, (Cafe Museum) and where to enjoy a wine with views of the original bastion (Hotel Palais Coburg).

Avalon Waterways' parent company, Globus, has been operating land tours for 85 years, which means the guides, tours and experiences are all top-class. Avalon river cruises also encourage independent exploration by factoring in ample free time. A nightly newsletter is provided with a map on one side and a list of sights on the other.

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Map in hand, I head to the Jewish Museum Judenplatz, where a temporary exhibition, Amy Winehouse: A family portrait, details the singer's Jewish roots through a collection of personal objects and memorabilia. In a country where about 65,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, reminders are everywhere.

A tip from my guide sends me to the Theseus Temple in the Volskgarten, home to an exhibition by ceramicist Edmund de Waal. This elegant Grecian-style temple in the middle of the park is an art space, displaying a single work of art by one contemporary artist at a time. While the artist's small porcelain pots captivate me, my main interest in de Waal comes from his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir about his once-wealthy Jewish family and the 264 miniature sculptures they hid from the Nazis.

I'd bought de Waal's book in preparation for the cruise, and for quite a lot of the time I'm happy to stay in my suite and read, enjoying the sound of the river trundling along below me. To provide passengers with more cabin space, Avalon Suite Ships have done away with separate balconies; rather, they have a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass doors, which when pushed back turn the entire bedroom into an open-air balcony.

The 83-cabin Illumination (16 staterooms and 67 suites) is the eighth vessel introduced by Avalon since its successful Suite Ship concept made its debut three years ago with the launch of Avalon Panorama. From bow to stern the decor is plush yet contemporary, with large picture windows and daubes of crimson and blue adding to the feeling of space and light.

The postcard promise of drifting past gingerbread villages and waving to people tending fields was something I'd expected. What I hadn't expected was to be so moved by the sheer weight of history that has raged along this waterway. Originating deep in the Black Forest in Germany and flowing through 10 countries before finally emptying into the Black Sea, the Danube River is both beauty and heartache.

From Napoleon's wars to two world wars, the Holocaust, the Iron Curtain and finally, the collapse of communism, the Danube has possibly witnessed more atrocities than any other river. Like a babushka doll, the Danube reveals itself one layer at a time. In Durnstein we walk in the footsteps of Richard the Lionheart.

In Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, I'm introduced to the atmospheric Old Town - as beautiful as any of Europe's finest - where I spend a morning bouncing from cafe to castle to church. With free time I find more treasures: one of Napoleon's cannonballs lodged in a wall, a 16th-century pharmaceutical museum, and a beer called Hell, which is anything but. That night, over a carpaccio of rock lobster and cherry cake, we compare stories; like-minded passengers finding common ground through shared experiences.

On a clear, sunny morning we glide into Budapest, its golden spires turning us all into gob-smacked paparazzi. An orientation tour provides some bearings - hilly Buda, flat Pest - before we scatter like marbles, some to thermal baths, others to shops or markets.

After Memento Park I take an early-evening stroll along the Pest side of the Danube. Walking along the promenade I smell the heady perfume of lavender wafting from the neatly clipped hedges in front of the parliament building. In the distance the metal pylons of Chain Bridge poke through the twilight like bony ribs. Then I see it - a row of discarded shoes.

Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. Created by sculptor Gyula Pauer, the 60 pairs of old-style shoes cast in iron tell the story of victims forced to remove their shoes before being lined up and shot into the Danube River.

In contrast to Stalin's monstrous boots, the sight of a small child's shoe adorned with a fresh sprig of lavender touches me like nothing else. In this moment I learn that the real gift of river cruising comes not from the big things, but from the unguarded moments that crack your heart open when you least expect it.

The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways.

FIVE MORE MUSEUMS ALONG THE DANUBE

HOUSE OF TERROR, BUDAPEST

A chilling museum on Budapest's fashionable Andrassy Avenue that illustrates the grim decades of Nazi and Soviet repression. Housed in the former headquarters of the secret police, it is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes. See terrorhaza.hu

JEWISH MUSEUM DOROTHEERGASSE, VIENNA

A permanent collection of treasures and artifacts tells the story of Jewish Vienna. See jmw.ataustria.info

AUSTRIAN NATIONAL LIBRARY, VIENNA

This former court library houses more than 7.4 million items including ancient texts, maps, paintings and manuscripts. See onb.ac.at

WIEN MUSEUM, VIENNA

Explores themes of social, cultural and urban change in Vienna. See wienmuseum.at

JEWISH COMMUNITY MUSEUM, BRATISLAVA

Located in the only remaining synagogue in Bratislava, capital of the Slovak Republic. Its permanent exhibition is Jews of Bratislava and their Heritage. Limited opening hours. See synagogue.sk

TRIP NOTES

CRUISING THERE

Avalon Waterways' 2015 river cruises are priced from $2382 a person twin share for the eight-day itinerary A Taste of the Danube, travelling between Vienna and Budapest. Highlights include two nights in Vienna, three nights cruising the Danube to destinations including Melk, Durnstein and Bratislava, and two nights in Budapest. Fares include all meals, drinks with dinner, most activities and excursions, entrance fees, transport and guides. Phone 1300 230 234 or see avalonwaterways.com.au

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific operates regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to more than 30 European destinations including arrival and departure points for Avalon Waterways cruises. See cathaypacific.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION

gotohungary.com

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