Friends and I decided to take a river cruise for the first time and to be honest we chose Viking because of all the ads we had seen while watching Downton Abbey. Those ads really worked. It is to be eight days on the Danube from Budapest to Nuremberg and we signed up for Viking’s three day add-on package to Prague. Knowing getting any sleep on a plane is always impossible for me I flew to Budapest a day early to get acclimated before boarding the ship, the Viking VAR. We had been told we could board by 11:00 am and there would be a buffet lunch available.
My first afternoon in Budapest was spent walking about seven miles around the city mostly on the Pest side of the Danube. After a good night’s sleep I met my friends in the morning and we boarded the VAR. The first thing that struck me as different from all the other times I had taken cruises was the apparent lack of any security. We were met at the top of the gangplank by smiling crew members who offered to carry our bags on board and by the person who I found out was the Program Director, Dawn Vago. The first time we were asked for any ID was when we stopped at the reception desk after we were already onboard and they asked to see our passports. It was as if we were back in a slower, safer time and it was kind of exciting.
The ship was to be our hotel for the night even though we weren’t sailing till the next day. Dawn suggested we may want to do some exploring on our own and after a nice lunch we did. Our cabins weren’t going to be ready till closer to 2:00pm. We knew we were going to take part in the shore excursion the next morning, one of the daily excursions included in the fare, but there were some places not on that itinerary we wanted to explore.
So we proceeded back up the gangplank again with no special security or ID and headed first to the Jewish Synagogue which we had heard was the largest in Europe. It is a very impressive building in Moorish style architecture. There is a huge beautiful sanctuary with two balconies and it can accommodate up to 3,000 people. We stopped in the Raoul Wallenberg courtyard with its ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture with the names of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in World War II inscribed on each leaf. There is also a small cemetery attached to the synagogue.
From there in order to be ecumenical and because we heard it was a spectacular building, we walked to St. Stephens Cathedral for our next religious experience. It didn’t disappoint. Inside were stunning murals, lots of gold leaf and beautiful sculptures. We learned that it and the Parliament building are the tallest in Central Budapest where no buildings are allowed to be built taller. From the cathedral we headed toward the Parliament building walking along the river front. On the way was another memorial to Jews killed in the war. This while a simple memorial was incredibly moving. It consisted of the shoes of men, women and children left at the water’s edge after their owners were told to take them off and leave them behind before they were thrown to their death in the river. It is a stark reminder of what happens when we come face-to-face with man’s inhumanity to man. Today the people of Budapest were welcoming and charming.
After seeing the Parliament building which looks very much like Westminster in London, a huge impressive building on the waterfront, we started back to our ship. Once again no one asked us for any ID as we walked down the gangplank. Our staterooms were now ready and we went to unpack and get ready for a relaxed evening on the ship. I got the chance to meet two other people I hope to chat with at more length during the week; Hotel Manager Oliver Ulz and Captain Gabor Szegedi. I was also introduced to Executive Chef Rexie Santos, and after dinner knew if I wasn’t careful I could gain quite a few pounds on this trip.
The evening was relaxing and we sat in the beautifully appointed lounge with drinks and without exception the crew was helpful and all had smiles on their faces at all times. We found out our morning shore excursion would begin at 8:00am. It was a great start to the cruise.
Tags: Budapest, Danube Cruise, Viking