‘Melodies of the Danube’

Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Like joyful childhood memories of carousels and cotton candy, memories from a scenic sojourn are melodies that should be part of our life’s playlist.

Because happy memories are like songs, they are music to our ears, and we can play them over and over again. They bring a smile to our face even when we’re alone, a glow in our eyes even when we’re facing a blank wall. Strung together like notes in a staff, memories become part of our life’s symphony.

A modern-day sage was once quoted as saying, to be truly happy, “Invest in experiences, not things.”

Experiences spawn memories, and memories are melodies in our life’s refrain.

How apt then that a recent cruise down the Danube, Europe’s “blue ribbon” was dubbed, “Melodies of the Danube.”

The cruise on AmaWaterways’ AmaSerena was a waltz that took us through four countries nestled on the banks of the Danube — Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, with a side trip to the Czech Republic. The Danube has inspired generations of artists, poets and musicians and Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube is perhaps the most popular waltz of all time.

Invited by North Star International Travel Inc., a group of travel agents and I embarked on a familiarization cruise down the Danube, Europe’s second longest river, and discovered many charming towns and cities on its banks — creating melodies and memories.

We embarked on the AmaSerena, which boasts a ratio of only three passengers per crew member (thus ensuring very personalized service), in Budapest. One of the most magical cities in Europe, Budapest is charming by day and magnificent by night. When lit up, it rivals Paris.

The following day, we walked from the ship to the colorful Great Market Hall, where you can buy Hungarian sausage and lace, caviar and crystal. I suggest doing your shopping for local crafts here, as the rest of the cruise — save for a day in Vienna — is mostly centered on sightseeing. As it should be.

Budapest is actually a twin city — Buda and Pest, which are sliced by the Danube.  We were taken to the hilly Buda side of the city to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a terrace in Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romanesque style. From there, we motored to nearby Matthias Church, whose colorful roof is a palette of over 100,000 hand-painted glazed tiles. The area around the church and Fisherman’s Bastion, which are both on Castle Hill, is interesting enough to linger in — and incredibly photogenic, too.

From Budapest, we sailed to Bratislava, the underrated other half of the former Czechoslovakia. From the ship, we walked to the city’s Old Town, with its stunning Mirbach Palace. Another beautiful cathedral, St. Martin’s Cathedral, greets you,

Bratislava is full of whimsical, quirky statues and pieces of sculpture. Like a man peeping out of a manhole, as if staring at women’s legs! There is also a statue of storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, on whose back was etched the Emperor without his clothes and The Ugly Duckling.

On the fourth day of the cruise, we explored the city of Johann Strauss and sachertorte — Vienna. Since I had been to Vienna before, I opted for the hidden Vienna walking tour, which takes you down paths and alleys less traveled.

But first-time Vienna visitors must revel in the fact that the city is a cultural center — name a famous classical composer and most likely he is from Vienna or once lived there (like Mozart and Beethoven). Visit the Vienna Opera House (near a shopping center, thus, so worth it); St. Stephen’s Cathedral and motor around its famed ring road, Ringstrasse. But best to find a coffee house and relax with coffee and some of Vienna’s tortes (I find them dry, though, compared to our creamier versions). Two guided bike tours were also offered: one along the river and the other, a 24-kilometer, three-hour tour to the 18th-century Klosterneuburg Abbey. Since the only bike I ride is stationary, I joined the walking tours instead. An optional tour, for which you pay extra, is the Mozart and Strauss concert.

My favorite stop along the Danube — it still sings melodies to me when I think of it — was in Grein. After a brief motorcoach ride from the ship, we walked through Dürnstein’s medieval cobblestoned streets, 16th-century townhouses, wine taverns and the blue Baroque Abbey Church.  It is a mild climb up the town’s main street, which culminates in something similar to Baguio’s Mines View Park from where I beheld one of God’s most beautiful landscapes — lakes and rivers intertwining, mountains kissing the sky, spring flowers caressing the ground. From Dürstein we motored to the magnificent Melk Abbey, an active monastery. Originally founded in the 11th century, the yellow monastery, which seems as big as the UST campus in Manila, houses a famous library with countless medieval documents. The Abbey, painted yellow and done in Baroque style, has one of the most jaw-dropping chapels I have seen in my life.

Our cruise director Rico Martinez’s favorite tour is the Grein Castle Tour. For me the journey by foot to the top of the castle was more awesome than the castle itself. At every step to the castle, one is tempted to stop and inhale not just the fresh air but the view — so postcard pretty. Steeples and spires jutting over tiled roofs; roofs rising over green valleys that meander to plains that embrace blue rivers.

Grein Castle is Austria’s oldest residential castle. Overlooking the Danube river, it offers splendid views of the Austrian countryside.

Day six of our cruise brought us to Linz, a city with vibrant music and arts scene. The walking tour took us to Landstrasse and the historic city center. I bought my best flea market finds in Linz!

There was an alternative tour to Salzburg, a must if it is your first time in Austria. Salzburg was the setting of one of the most popular movies of all time, The Sound of Music.

We were also given the option to visit Cesky Krumlov, a charming town in the border of Austria and the Czech Republic, at no added cost.  Best known for the art and architecture of its old historic town, Cesky Krumlov also boasts Bohemia’s second largest castle. During the Communist era, Cesky fell into disrepair, but since the peaceful revolution of 1989, much of the town’s old glory has been restored.

The last stop before we disembarked in Vilshofen in Germany was a pleasant surprise — Passau. Known as the Bavarian Venice, Passau is also called “the city of three rivers” because the Danube, the Inn and Ilz rivers all converge here. Do not fail to visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home to one of the largest church pipe organs in the world, with 17,774 pipes and 233 registers. To me, St. Stephen’s nave, with the frescoes on the ceilings bordered by white trim that look like white icing on a wedding cake, is the most splendid I’ve every prayed in. It was where we heard Mass on Easter Sunday.

The beauty of this AmaSerena river cruise is that it showed us that the blue Danube is indeed a waltz, so melodious we can play the memories it gave us over and over again, and let our hearts dance with each memorable note.

Highlights of the cruise

I asked the travel agents who went on the cruise for their most memorable experiences.

Faye Joyleen Tan:

Meeting friends and waking up to the melodies of birds every morning and the view of small towns from our balcony. Therapeutic. A great respite from city life. I also enjoyed the walking tours from expert guides.

Marianne Guidote Velez:

I met new friends and reunited with long-time friends. Grateful for the blessing of being surrounded by God’s beauty especially as we sailed through such quaint towns. I felt the Lord’s presence as we were serendipitously led and guided to magnificent churches.

Marites Tanada-Palanca:

Traveling along the Danube was so picturesque, and some places felt like we were walking into a medieval storybook. The guides for all excursions were excellent as they were able to bring to life the complicated and often intertwining characters in history.

Oh, and I must mention the food on AmaSerena was consistently delicious and the service truly five-star!

Shan Dioquino David:

One advantage of taking a river cruise is you get to visit beautiful historic towns that cannot be reached by an ocean liner — like Dürnstein and Passau.

For my on board experience, I will never forget our tasting menu  at the Chef’s Table. Everything was just perfect, the menu, the selection of wines and the ambience.

(For inquiries and bookings, contact your travel agent or North Star International Travel

at 848-7802, 485-7272 Ext. 214 or

e-mail [email protected])


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