Danube river cruise: A waltz down Europe's river of love

The skies above Salzburg are steel grey, and the city most famous for Mozart and The Sound of Music is sodden. Novelty shops are selling out of brollies, coffee shop windows are steamy with the exhalations of huddled patrons and chocolatiers are doing a brisk trade in Mozartkugeln – those delectable balls of pistachio marzipan coated in layers of nougat and dark chocolate.

"Believe it or not, the alps are out there," says guide Eva Riedler, gesturing towards the wall of fog that separates us from Austria's peaks.

But no matter: Salzburg does not have to be blue-skied and mountainous and laced with the sweet sound of Julie Andrews' voice in order for its charms to be appreciated. Delights come in the smaller details: flowers in virulent shades springing from the mossy graves at St Peter's cemetery, which is tucked into the flank of Monchsberg Hill. Crocheted squares affixed in some fit of whimsy to the bars of tiny old windows that face onto the platz. Lovers brightening the links of the Staatsbrucke Bridge with shiny, water-speckled locks that alert passers-by to the fact that Alexandra loves Andrej, Chris loves David, Mani loves Babsi.

Beneath these lavish devotions runs the Salzach River, on its way to a series of rendezvous, first with the Inn River and then with that famous old romantic, the Danube.

"And what colour is the Danube?" Riedler asks. "It's blue for those who are in love."

Down on the Danube, where Scenic's newly-christened ship, the Scenic Jasper, is moored, there's no trace of blue, not even in the reflection on the water's surface of the now-clearing sky. The river is in fact sage green; it runs like a glossy ribbon from Linz all the way to Melk, whose Benedictine abbey appears to those approaching it like a mighty ship floating on the Danube.

The abbey – founded in the 11th century and the subject of several refurbishments since then – is set in grounds clipped to perfection and contains within its butter-yellow walls all the joys of baroque design: extravagant sculptures and altar paintings, embellished crucifixes and vestments, gilt finishes and grand ceiling frescoes, and a spiral staircase which, when viewed from its base, appears to be a brilliant golden whirlpool.

Marie Antoinette stayed here on her way to her marriage to Louis of France. She brought with her a retinue of 260 – a terrible imposition on the monks, who were obliged to offer warm Benedictine hospitality, to feed the guests and heat their draughty accommodations. But love was in the air, and a dynastic coupling was about to occur: was the Danube blue for the young Marie Antoinette as she gazed upon it from within the abbey's embankments?

Down on the shoreline the ship awaits. She is a fresh, modern foil to all this history unfurling alongside her as she makes her way down the Main, Rhine and Danube rivers and then back again. Just days earlier the ship was christened by her godmother, Australian writer Kathy Lette, who declared her the most luxurious cruiser in Europe and promised to always keep an eye on her – preferably from the comfort of a Royal Panorama Suite, the largest of its kind on Europe's waterways. Lette's enthusiasm was well-founded: the Scenic Jasper is an elegant ship, unpretentious yet replete with sophisticated touches such as personalised butler service, degustation meals and onshore events designed exclusively for its passengers. The Jasper is the first of two next-generation Space-Ships to be launched by Scenic this year; another two will take to the water in 2016 – one of them along Portugal's sublime Douro River.

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Downriver from Melk, the village of Durnstein sits beside the water as though poised to jump right in. The ship docks here overnight and passengers awake to views of the striking blue and white steeple that arises from this Wachau Valley settlement. But the soft pastel shades of the tower obscure a brooding, crumbling edifice perched on the outcrop high above the village: Durnstein Castle, the place where Richard the Lionheart was once held captive by Leopold V, the Duke of Austria.

The narrow back lanes of Durnstein peter out into a dirt track that snakes up the hill towards the castle ruins. The story of Richard the Lionheart unfolds on signboards dotted along the route, forming a themed trail of sorts through the Middle Ages: there was the plotting of Richard the Lionheart against his father, King Henry II; the cruelty of the Crusades; Richard's desire to become a troubadour; and the ransom of 100,000 silver marks said to have been paid for his release from this prison that now lies defeated, a heap of sagging walls and scattered stones.

From atop this rocky outcrop, one can see the Danube spread out below, and one can imagine its flow onwards to the city of Vienna, where high culture awaits: transcendent recitals of Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss in the Garden Palace of Liechtenstein, performances by soloists from the Vienna Ballet Company, chance encounters with Lipizzaner stallions crossing Vienna's backstreets on their return to the stables after an early morning workout at the city's famed Spanish Riding School.

Along the way, golden envelopes bearing invitations to dinner at the Scenic Jasper's Table La Rive appear on the end of feather-soft beds. On the night of the dinner, executive chef Exequiel Cruzat and his team deliver a degustation feast containing such sensations as lemongrass creme brulee, mushroom cappuccino and chocolate cake with balsamic cherries. Cruzat, apparently, refers to this grand finale as chocolate lava cake, for reasons the diners are about to discover: it oozes from its shell soft and sticky, rich and chocolatey, and – to be frank – quite deadly. Passengers can't help but waddle back to bed.

But some vigour and curiosity is required for the onward journey: the Danube flows eastward from Vienna, past the Slovakian capital of Bratislava with its genteel, aged buildings that frame graffiti splurged along its docks, all the way to the grand city of Budapest. Guests awake in the morning with the Hungarian capital's Parliament spread out before them like some magnificent, dawn-flecked denouement.

There is much to discover beneath the skin of this conflict-hewn city. There is undulating Buda, and tightly-packed Pest, where bars have sprung up among the ruins spawned by generations of war and occupation. It takes time and effort to find these veritable phoenixes, known colloquially as "ruin bars"; they are hidden in the crevices of the Jewish ghettos, tucked between the walls of neglected city buildings. Locals are often oblivious themselves to these gems – not even the Hungarian hipsters idling on the pavement can be trusted to send one in the right direction. But eventually they appear from the twilight gloom of Budapest's alleyways, bars like Szimpla, where the light is moody, the barman is grumpy and objets hang about like apocalyptic totems: rusted birds' cages, traffic cones, shisha pipes.

These ruin bars are far removed from the baroque edifices that spill out all along the Danube, yet no less credible. Hawkers here offer snacks of peeled carrots to accompany one's cocktail. The moon shines in through the gaping ceiling. Lovers hide in smoky corners. One can hear the faint chords of Strauss' The Blue Danube waltz swimming through this space. Ah, the Blue Danube. It might be real, or just imagined.

FIVE MORE ONSHORE EXCURSIONS

CYCLE

Hop onto an electric bicycle and take a guided ride along the River Danube from Durnstein to Melk as the Scenic Jasper glides along the river beside you. The excursion winds through the Wachau Valley, taking in beautiful scenery, fresh air – and a well-earned drink should you choose to stop in at one of the pubs along the way.

TASTE

Join the ship's chef and a local culinary specialist on a tour of gourmet food markets in Vienna, Strasbourg, Belgrade, Paris, Bordeaux and Avignon. Sample local ingredients, and then return to the ship to watch the culinary team transform them into regional dishes. Finally, tuck in.

DISCOVER

Explore the twin cities of Buda and Pest – linked by the iconic Chain Bridge – during a tour of Hungary's capital city, stopping off at Heroes' Square, Matthias Church and Castle Hill. In Budapest you can also submerge yourself in the waters of the Szechenyi Thermal Bath and Spa, one of Europe's largest spa complexes.

SING

Enjoy an exclusive production of The Sound of Music classics in Salzburg, where the movie was filmed. A cast of professional actors, a children's choir and a 16-member orchestra will perform well-loved songs such as Edelweiss and Do-Re-Mi along with Mozart classics and Austrian folk music.

EXPLORE

Travel from Vienna to Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, by coach and explore the charming old city that is also one of Europe's newest capitals (before 1989 Slovakia and the Czech Republic were one country known as Czechoslovakia). Board a local train for the return trip to Vienna.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See www.scenic.com.au

GETTING THERE

The newly-launched Scenic Jasper and Scenic Opal cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest and vice versa.

STAYING THERE

Explore Europe's waterways in 2016 on a 15-day Jewels of Europe River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest on board one of Scenic's next-generation Space-Ships. The cruise sails along the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, passing the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Hungary, Austria and Germany along the way. Fares start at AU$7295 a person twin share, including free flights to Europe.

The writer was a guest of Scenic.

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