DREAMSCAPES SPRING 2020
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DANCE ME ON THE DANUBE
 
(2019 - Winter Issue)

Writer: JUDI SCHARF



My husband and I disembark our flight from Toronto to Vienna, a touch weary and bleary-eyed, when we spot our Crystal River Cruise representative; she takes care of everything and presto, whisks us away to a comfy bus, en route to the Danube River and the docked Crystal Ravel.

And so unfolds a well-choreographed, seamless entry. Alena, the cruise director, welcomes us in the lounge and in minutes she has photos and our ID cards ready. As we are ushered into our cabin, we see the luggage already placed atop our bed. One glance about and I begin to feel light and easy. The suite is airy, spacious and inviting. Grey, white and greenish tones along with contemporary furnishings create a modern, crisp ambiance. Facing us is the focal point, the grand floor-to-ceiling window taking up almost the entire wall. We’ve never seen anything like this before. The large upper glass piece opens to different positions and can slide down beside the lower glass base thereby forming a kind of “balcony.” 

We happily note there’s ample room to walk about so we won’t clumsily be bumping into each other. We even have a small walk-in closet for storage! The king-size bed looks alluring with its cosy duvet and luxurious linens. But the bathroom in soft grey and white truly delights us; a double vanity and glassed-in shower are welcome treats.

I soon realize I’m feeling at home and relaxed. My walk has a definite bounce in its steps as we proceed to explore the boat itself.

The Crystal Ravel resembles an elongated, thin barge, with a white and glass, sleek exterior. Amazingly within, there’s space for a workout room, spa, launderette, indoor pool, lounge and restaurants. Light spills in everywhere from the large windows. Like a magnet we are drawn outdoors where we discover what will become our favourite space, the Vista Deck. Feeling like our own personal deck, many seating areas sport comfortable couches, chairs, lounges and tables that seem to be waiting for us, blankets at hand for chillier evenings. Two large canopied areas and umbrellas provide much-welcomed shade.

The atmosphere is certainly ultra-luxurious, but also unpretentious. Amid the modern, elegant public spaces the prescribed “smart casual” dress lends a friendly, relaxed tone.

REMARKABLE CARE

We quickly recognize the outstanding feature is the superb service. The waiters are mature, of Eastern European descent and adept at anticipating and fulfilling our needs before we even perceive them. Everyone addresses us by our names. We are impressed to encounter executive chef Chris Albersdorfer nightly as he frequents the tables in the Waterside Restaurant checking on the dining experiences. And all passengers are thoroughly indulged in their own suites, serviced by both a cabin steward and a personal butler! On this particular voyage there are 70 staff and 80 passengers! (With 55 cabins, the total capacity is 106 passengers.) Friendly, attentive service that goes above and beyond is simply the norm here. This remarkable care and attention to detail move all along, smoothly and graciously in a kind of steady background chorus.

On board, we simply have no concerns. Everything is already considered and done with us in mind. Most of the excursions, the wines and liquor, gratuities, transfers to and from the airport, and meals are all included. During the Waterside Restaurant’s free-flow seating, ever-changing breakfast and lunch buffets that incorporate local cuisine and fresh ingredients are always enticing; full-course dinners elegantly served between 7 and 9 p.m. prove to be outstanding, night after night. The Bistro Ravel offers light fare, desserts and ice cream during the day but most nights (reservations required) it presents an incredible tasting-menu dinner that we so love we return to savour it again. 

LESSER-KNOWN ROUTE

Our voyage begins in Vienna, Austria, sailing along the Danube south to Belgrade and back to Vienna, stopping in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia. For us it is a lesser-known route that promises new discoveries. Even Vienna, a city we’ve visited previously, presents an unexpected but unique experience. On a Crystal tour, Vienna’s Jewish Heritage, we are privileged to visit the artist, Arik Brauer’s home and gallery where his granddaughter meets us, recounts Arik’s story and shares and interprets his paintings with us. Her respect and love for her grandfather is almost palpable. Arik Brauer, a child Holocaust survivor who incredibly remained in Vienna throughout the war, is today in his 90s, and stills paints daily!

We are surprised to learn that Esztergom was actually the first Hungarian capital, the seat of the early kings and that nearby Visegrad was where royalty resided in the summers. Esztergom is a charming town on the Danube. Today it is renowned as the location of the centre of the Hungarian Catholic Church. The imposing beautifully domed Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption (also known as the Basilica) contains an inspiring High Altarpiece, the largest of its kind painted on a single canvas. We also marvel at the old (AD 1506–1519) Bakócz Chapel with its intricately carved wood; this chapel was painstakingly taken apart and numbered so it could be perfectly rebuilt and incorporated into the Basilica.

As the boat approaches Vukovar, Croatia, we are moved by the sombre bullet-riddled watch tower and the large, simple white cross emerging along the water’s edge. Vukovar, like so many cities along the Danube, has known countless wars, destruction and rebuilding throughout its history. As recently as 1991, when Vukovar was besieged after the breakup of Yugoslavia, death and devastation crippled the city. But today the war scars are healing and people are out enjoying the Old Town, which is gradually being restored. In Eltz Palace we visit the fascinating Municipal Museum and are also treated to a lovely concert by the local music students; the spirit of Croatia shines through.

SUBLIME SAILINGS

Back on the Crystal Ravel, relaxing on deck is simply heavenly. As we settle into our lounges, we feel the caressing breezes and the warming sun while scenes dance by on both sides of the river to the boat’s gliding rhythm. We think to ourselves, what a wonderful, carefree way to travel! We watch the ever-shifting panoramas and never have to pack or unpack as we visit historical cities in different countries; we simply walk in once the boat docks.

One sun-filled day we sail to the Iron Gates, a series of four gorges between Romania on one side and Serbia on the other. The scenery is breathtaking; lush, treed mountains running down to the river.

TUMULTUOUS PAST

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, has known wars and decimation in its turbulent history; it’s been destroyed 44 times and been the capital of five different states. The vast Kalemegdan Fortress complex figured into that stormy past. There are vibrant areas in the city to explore from Bohemian artist quarters to classy boutiques and shops. But for us the highlight is the evening concert we attend of a Serbian band that combines old, traditional folk music with a modern twist and soon enough the audience is on its feet, clapping enthusiastically. To top off the evening, returning to the Crystal Ravel we are greeted by wafting aromas. We can’t resist the mouth-watering canapes of chicken schnitzel and potato salad, graved lox with mustard and dill sauce, eggs and caviar, goulash soup and mini skewers of fruit that await us.

Serbia’s second largest city, Novi Sad, the “new garden” was aided by the Austrian Empire who sent intellectuals and craftsmen here; a kind of “cultural flowering” ensued earning Novi Sad the moniker of a “Serbian Athens.” We soak in the lively environment as we tour this lovely city to experience the Old Town’s vivid architecture; Freedom Square flanked by City Hall and the Roman Catholic Parish Church of St. Mary’s, the bustling, large market area, and the many interesting streets.

Novi Sad’s past is also filled with periods of destruction and renewal. Coming from peaceful Canada it’s so difficult to imagine the hardships of war and its aftermath being repeated; we are touched by the people’s courage and determination.

 Budapest, Hungary’s capital, is an exquisite city we’ve visited before. This time we encounter a new “dark” side when we depart Budapest at night. Atop Buda’s hills, the grand, old palaces and buildings are lit and aglow while the lower Pest side’s Parliament Buildings, Chain Bridge and other structures gleam and twinkle casting a dreamlike spell. We’re captivated in a kind of slow dance, locked in place on the deck, mesmerized until the last enchanting views slip away.

Daytime finds us in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, where we love walking about. The many squares in the Old Town are brimming with people and we notice lots of children playing and running. It strikes us that we hear more children’s laughter here than we have anywhere else. We chance on a wine-tasting festival being held; bands, local vendors, wines and food enhance the warm, convivial mood.

And too soon it seems we return to our starting and now ending point, Vienna. An evening at the Opera House attending a Mozart concert seems a fitting closing to our Danube cruise. The music and entrancing memories dance in our minds and vividly linger on.

Travel Planner

For more information on Crystal River Cruises, visit crystalcruises.com.

 
 
 
 
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