Sitting on the teak deck, warm wind whipping through my hair, a glass of sweet Hungarian fizz in one hand and a warm, salty mound of pork-fat bread in the other (trust me, it’s delicious), I’m in the thick of A-Rosa’s traditional sailaway party, and I’ve got a big smile on my face as I’m embarking on a Danube river cruise.
We’re waltzing down the Danube on A-Rosa Donna, a sleek ship with cheeky scarlet lips emblazoned on her side. She’s blowing a kiss to passers-by as we depart from imperial Budapest, gliding past the iconic pinnacles of the Hungarian parliament.
This great river weaves its way through ten European countries, and over the next five days, I’ll get to experience three of them, not to mention Austria’s famously scenic Wachau Valley, as I sail the beautiful blue waters that inspired Johann Strauss.
A Danube waltz
Joining German cruise line A-Rosa’s bilingual Highlights of the Danube river cruise on day three – after my fellow guests have enjoyed Vienna and an overnight in Budapest – I feel immediately at home.
The crowd on board is predominantly German, but I’m part of a large British contingent booked through Shearings, and cruise manager David goes out of his way to make sure all non-German passengers – including a party from Spain – are well looked after.
Already today I’ve enjoyed a memorable taste of the real, rural Hungary on an excursion to the great Puszta plains. This vast hinterland is home to the Magyar cowboys, masters of the prized Lipizzaner horses. Arriving at a ranch, we’re treated to their version of elevenses – home-made schnapps and warm paprika rolls – before taking our seats for a show.
Whips crack, riders fly through the air in a blur of dazzling blue robes, and we witness the famous ‘Puszta five’ – a single horseman riding five steeds at once. Warmed by the (somewhat lethal) schnapps, we have the opportunity to win a bottle of wine by snaring it with a whip. I accept the challenge and – to my amazement – I succeed.
After the morning’s excitement, there’s still time to discover Hungary’s great capital, and on a whistle-stop excursion, I explore both Buda and Pest, the two distinct halves of this sparkling city.
A-Rosa offers a choice of complimentary cycle and coach-tour excursions, and I take the latter down glamorous boutique-packed Vaci Street, past the bars and cafes of the Jewish Quarter and the brilliant blue and yellow Szechenyi outdoor thermal baths, the largest in Europe.
We’re told that Hungarians are often prescribed a trip to these bubbling natural springs, and I can definitely recommend a little self-medicating if you have the time.
From modern Pest, crossing into Buda is like entering a different world, filled with pastel-hued palaces and home to the mighty turreted fortress of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Climb to the top and you’ll enter the city’s Old Town, where steep medieval streets are lined with picture-perfect gothic churches (cameras at the ready).
Wining and dining
The following day, with my sailing underway, it’s time to discover what A-Rosa Donna has to offer. And for anyone who enjoys their food, the answer is ‘plenty’.
The buffet in the panoramic main dining room is exceptional, with German-style plates of juicy meats, fluffy potatoes, crisp salads, sauerkraut and fresh breads joining seafood platters and mounds of dessert options – my favourite being the crêpe station.
In a refreshing break from tradition, all this is open-seating with flexible timings, so meals fit round your plans and not vice versa. For fans of authentic flavours, there’s even a regional table, where a changing menu reflects the ship’s location (I quickly get a taste for Hungarian goulash and the cheeses from a local market).
A-Rosa is generally an informal cruise line, but for those in search of a special evening, Donna offers the intimate Chef’s Table. Here the menu changes every night, and later during our trip, there are Austrian and Hungarian nights, complete with expertly chosen local wines.
After dinner on my first evening, I grab a Negroni and settle into the lounge, which has both a stage and a dance floor. Tonight is the highly anticipated music quiz, and needless to say, it’s Germany v England. I’m happy to say that it proves to be a thoroughly friendly contest – and even happier to tell you it that it ends in a win for the away side.
Biking in Bratislava
For some reason, waking up early is a lot easier when you’re on the water. Perhaps it’s the view from the cabin – in my case, gorgeous green banks and a dramatic domed church.
After a tasty breakfast featuring A-Rosa’s famous home-made rye bread (they’ll even do you a loaf to take home), we arrive in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava. Here we make full use of A-Rosa Donna’s fleet of bicycles, embarking on a two-hour exploration of the city, taking in the riverbank, leafy parks and the city centre, before finally ascending to the restored Renaissance castle.
At the head of our party is Branny, the ship’s 6ft 4in spa technician, who sweetens the prospect of working off my buffet belly. However, my attention is quickly drawn away from our handsome leader by an eclectic mix of sights, ranging from the stark UFO tower (it looks like a flying saucer on a stick) to the pale pink baroque Primate’s Palace.
Struggling up cobbled lanes packed with €1 beer joints, we finally reach the storybook castle, and we’re rewarded with truly beautiful views.
With limited time in port, a cycle excursion is one of the best ways to see this compact city – and all trips should end at Luculus Ice Saloon. Branny claims this does the best ice cream in Bratislava, and who am I to argue?
Home from home
Stepping back aboard A-Rosa Donna is almost like walking through your own front door. With friendly David to welcome you, and tea and coffee on demand, it’s just such an easy place to relax.
Even the cabins feel personalised, with jazzy striped canopies above the bed, a dressing table, a seating area and a shower with premium Babor products.
Along with a heated pool on the top level, the four-deck ship finds room for a mini-spa for massages and beauty treatments, not to mention a gym, steam room and sauna with floor-to-ceiling windows.
As I discover, it’s perfectly OK to scamper from your room to the spa in just a bathrobe (with no funny looks). This sense of homely informality also makes it perfectly acceptable simply to sit on the top deck, hidden under a blanket, and do absolutely nothing – as I do the next morning, sailing into Austria’s magnificent Wachau Valley.
Set between steep green banks, this famous beauty spot is 18 miles of gruner veltliner vineyards, Lutheran churches, chocolate-box villages and ruined clifftop castles such as Durnstein, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192. It’s all so cinematic that I half expect to hear Maria von Trapp warbling from the hillsides.
With a different outcrop, ruin or village round every bend, hours on deck simply fly by, and cups of tea turn into glasses of sparkling wine.
With the amount of toast-worthy sights, it’s handy that all A-Rosa bookings through Shearings come with a premium drinks package, giving you unlimited access to high-quality wines, spirits and classic cocktails, plus guilty holiday pleasures such as pina colada and Irish coffee.
When you’re in the Wachau Valley, the one excursion you must do is to Melk Abbey, the huge clifftop monastery whose bright yellow baroque bulk dominates the landscape.
Still home to Benedictine monks, it is a labyrinth of grand rooms, with a breathtaking library that contains more than 1,000 precious manuscripts. There are lovely gardens, too, and a stroll here is perfect for getting your land legs back.
Later that afternoon we return to Donna for apricot schnapps, apricot cocktails and doughnuts oozing with – you guessed it – apricots. These famous fruits of the Wachau Valley are so revered that they have official EU protection, so it seems rude not to try them in all their delicious forms.
My Danube river cruise my finishes in Engelhartszell, where many choose to extend their cruise with a city break in nearby Passau.
Final thoughts? It may not have the most glamorous fleet, but A-Rosa simply cannot be beaten for friendliness, homeliness and flexibility. I leave feeling warmer than after a tot of Hungarian schnapps, with a home-made A-Rosa rye loaf tucked safely under my arm.
In the Know
All A-Rosa bookings from the UK should be made through Shearings, which packages
a holiday complete with train, coach or plane transport to the ship.
Bookings with Shearings come with a premium drinks package and are all-inclusive, with spa treatments at a discounted rate.
Mealtimes are flexible and casual, with open seating and the buffet open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch is served 12:30 to 2pm and dinner 7 to 9pm.
A limited number of free excursions are available, plus a wide choice of extra-cost trips, including Melk Abbey.
Get on Board
12-day ‘Highlights of the Danube’ river cruise aboard A-Rosa Donna, round trip from Engelhartszell via Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and Melk, departing 14 May 2021, from £1,749 per person, including seven nights all-inclusive on board, all coach travel from the UK plus overnights in Belgium, Germany and France, shearings.com
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on 26 December 2019 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.