Voyage with virtuosos

Singer Aled Jones takes to the rivers, visiting cities that have inspired great composers and ordinary romantics.

In the words of the Canadian music critic John Terauds, Franz Liszt was "the Justin Bieber of 1830s Europe", a dashing pianist who made young women swoon, just as the teenage pop star does today. It is with that image in mind that I visit the Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum in Budapest, in the Old Academy of Music that he himself founded.

Liszt spent many of his latter years at the academy, at which time, admittedly, he must have been more Paul McCartney than Bieber. There is a powerful aura about the place, particularly in his salon, a sumptuous music room of high ceilings and tasselled velvet curtains, where one grand piano is adorned by a magnificent silver music stand cum candelabrum. Liszt must have held some fantastic, candle-lit recitals in this room in the early 1880s, performing his own creations as well as those of his idols, Weber, Beethoven and Schubert.

I have arrived in Budapest at the start of a 15-day journey to places that have inspired some of the finest works of classical music; places whose sights, sounds and experiences are part of a television series, Classical Destinations.

The TV crew and I are to serenely travel on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers through five countries aboard the Scenic Pearl. It has the feel of a boutique hotel, yet is part of a fleet of "space ships" that Scenic Tours says are the youngest, widest and longest on European rivers.

Waving farewell to Budapest and the inimitable legacy of Liszt, we cruise the Danube and along the western border of Slovakia, past Bratislava, to our next stop, the city that is arguably the world's beating heart of classical music: Vienna. Its sophisticated charms have attracted many of the world's finest composers: Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Mozart all lived, worked and ultimately perished in Vienna.

Beethoven's celebrated Symphony No. 6, The Pastoral, was inspired by the tranquillity of the far-reaching flatlands flanking the Danube near Vienna. We are cruising among some mighty spirits.

Vienna offers much: St Stephen's Cathedral, where Mozart was married, is magnificent, while the opera house and the Musikverein - home to the Vienna Philharmonic and a place where Mahler wielded the baton for many years - routinely stage performances that are world class.

A highlight for cruise passengers is attending a music and ballet recital at the imposing Palais Liechtenstein, in which a champagne reception is followed by a repertoire featuring the works of Mozart and Strauss. A small audience in regal surroundings, we get a sense of what it must have been like for Europe's royalty and aristocracy to enjoy a performance given by Mozart himself in the 18th century.

Continuing west from Vienna, we sweep through the Wachau Valley wine region before arriving at Melk, a delightful town that seems to have been left behind, untroubled by many of the rigours of the 21st century. Here, passengers are treated to a beautiful organ recital by Benedictine monks in Melk's ancient abbey.

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The next day, we dock at Linz, a city that inspired a Mozart symphony. It's not far from Austria's north-eastern border with Germany, so we take a short diversion to Austria's second great musical city, Salzburg.

Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756 and lived here for part of his life, although he never seemed to stay in one place for long. History suggests he was a tortured perfectionist, never satisfied with whatever situation he was in, yet producing brilliant music with apparent ease.

Salzburg is also the setting for The Sound of Music, the most-watched musical film of all time, and the city's summer classical music festival is world renowned. Salzburg's baroque architecture has been remarkably well maintained and, for classical-music lovers especially, this is a destination not to be missed.

Our diversion from the Danube to Salzburg is one of several options offered to passengers; on arrival in Linz, passengers can also choose to cross the German border for a guided tour of Passau or turn to the north and into the Czech Republic to visit the mediaeval town of Cesky Krumlov.

Sometimes it's a pity you can't be in two places at once; at other times, it's great to simply enjoy a peaceful afternoon on board, soaking up the scenery and taking time out. I enjoy the extra luxury of staying on the ship's Danube Deck, where a butler does everything from serving breakfast or morning coffee on the balcony to pressing trousers. Close attention to detail is also evident in my suite, which is impeccable, complete with a flat-screen television, a gleaming en suite bathroom and toiletries from L'Occitane.

As the ship winds its way up the Main and into the Rhine, we cruise into the realm of the great German composers - not just Beethoven, but Hildegard of Bingen, Cologne's Max Bruch and Jacques Offenbach, who wrote the fantastic opera Die Rheinnixen, and the tortured but talented Robert Schumann. We glide through idyllic Regensburg and historic Nuremberg, where the music centres on Wagner and one of his towering operas, Die Meistersingers von Nurnberg. Here I walk the Brahms Way, where Brahms and the great love of his life, Clara Schumann, enjoyed a contemplative holiday after Robert Schumann's death.

After the mediaeval and unspoilt towns of Bamberg, Wuerzburg and Wertheim, we stop at Ruedesheim, where the Winzerexpress miniature railway delivers us to Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Cabinet Museum. A bit off the beaten track? Absolutely - and all the better for it.

Before the ship closes in on the more cosmopolitan attractions of Cologne and then Amsterdam, the Rhine Gorge provides some of the most spectacular scenery of the trip, the river flanked by acres of vine-covered slopes and mediaeval castles.

The best preserved of the latter is the magnificent 12th-century Marksburg Castle, set high above the banks of the Rhine. The castle is spectacular, as is the opportunity for the ship's passengers to enjoy a full mediaeval banquet.

One of the biggest surprises of this trip is how much you can fit into 15 days without ever feeling rushed. The pace is relaxed, although the cruise is certainly over too soon.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qatar Airways has a fare to Budapest from Melbourne for about $2025 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Doha (about 14hr), then to Budapest (5hr 50min); see qatarairways.com. From Sydney, Turkish Airlines has a fare for about $2325 low season, including tax. Fly to Hong Kong (9hr), then to Istanbul (12hr 10min), then to Budapest (2hr). See turkishairlines.com.au.

Cruising there

A 15-day Jewels of Europe cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam is priced from $6395 a person, twin share. See scenictours.com.au.

More information

Classical Destinations: Aled Jones's Ultimate Travel Guide to Classical Music - see classicaldestinations.com; aledjones.co.uk

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