European River Cruising with Crystal Cruises

For travelers wishing to visit several destinations at a relaxed pace without having to pack, unpack and repack at every location, cruising is always a good choice. If you are looking to river cruise with excellent food, impeccable service and knowledgeable local guides, all-inclusive Crystal Cruises is a great option.

Mid-October I embarked on Crystal’s Ravel for a 10-day journey commencing in Vienna on the majestic Danube River. Handed a glass of champagne on the gangway at embarkation, I was pretty certain this would end well. Happily I was 100-percent right. Built in 2018, the 443-foot Crystal Ravel holds a maximum of 106 passengers with 68 European crew members. Wonderful service truly embodies Crystal’s six-star status. On this autumn journey there were 60 North American and British guests, ranging in age from 40 to 80. By day two, it felt like a private cruise filled with friendly acquaintances and delightful staff for whom no request was too difficult.

Suites are approximately 250-square feet, have Julius Meinl espresso machines, a replenished drink-stocked refrigerator, a small desk, and floor-to-ceiling windows with a Juliette balcony making for a constant panoramic wonderland. Flat screen televisions have live news stations, movies, and complimentary WiFi (though pre-voyage you’ll want to download books or shows onto your devices). Marble bathrooms have rain showers with excellent water pressure, luxurious bath towels and top shelf Caudalie products. Luscious bedding, high-count sheets and elegant satin black-out curtains assured dreamy slumber.

The Ravel has 24-hour room service for any midnight munchies, but you’ll likely be too satiated by the delectable, innovative meals prepared under the supervision of Executive Chef Georg Pfandl at the ship’s principal restaurant, the Waterside, or its Bistro Ravel, which has a more casual, tapa-style menu. Alexandru Brobonea, Ravel’s Executive Pastry Chef, confirmed through his baking talents what we carb lovers all know: “Diet” is a foul, four-letter word, and anything in the English language containing the word “die” should be excised. Except perhaps “I’d die if I can’t have another warm pretzel, chocolate chip cookie, or creamy dessert.” Fear not, weight gain is not imperative since included excursions provide for plenty of walking or hiking. There is also a small onboard gym and indoor plunge pool, and those wishing to be outside, the perimeter of Ravel’s top deck can be jogged or walked. Few things are more pleasurable than an autumn jog with Handl, Mozart or Strauss playing overhead while the Ravel glides by fairy tale villages.

The delightful Danube

Our first stop was UNESCO World Heritage Site Wachau Valley’s village of Durnstein, about 60 miles from Vienna. This charming village of cobblestone streets, is surrounded by vineyards, mainly Gruener Veltliner and Riesling grapes. Opting for the hiking excursion we climbed to Kuenringerburg Fortress. Originally built in the 13th century, we were rewarded atop with stellar views of the baroque Augustinian Abbey, notable for its blue-and-white facade against the Danube backdrop. No small wonder Durnstein is dubbed the “pearl of the Wachau.” Another excursion brought us to Melk where its enormous Abbey envelopes the horizon impossibly resting on a bluff rising about 185 feet above the Danube. Built in the 11th century as a Benedictine monk retreat, its excessive Baroque opulence seemed ironic given the Benedictine poverty vow.

At the 13th century Artstetten Castle, Crystal arranged for interested passengers to have champagne and converse with the charming Countess Alix de la Poeze d’Harambure-Fraye. Her great, great, great, great grandfather was Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand whose 1914 assassination with his wife Sophie in Sarajevo resulted in WWI’s commencement. Artstetten has an informative small museum, great photographs and in the basement crypt rests many of Countess Alix’s family.

Another perfect day ended at Ravel’s Bistro with a delicious meal of prosciutto served local apricot jam and figs, marinated salmon with roe and pulled pork sliders, complemented by delightful Austrian wines.

Linz, Austria and the Czech Republic’s Cesky Krumlov

Home to the famous shortbread and red currant Linzer tort, Linz has bakeries here like elsewhere in the region that are a carbo-loader’s Nirvana.

The Ravel docked a stone’s throw from Lentos Art Museum with its transparent glass facade beautifully illuminated at night. Containing several Klimt paintings, it was once home to Klimt’s ‘Portrait of Ria Munk III’ that in 2009 was finally returned to heirs of a Jewish woman from whom it was looted during WWII as she was deported to a concentration camp where she perished. The special 200-piece installation “Female Sensibility,” will be showing at Lentos until January 9, 2022.

Massive oak-lined roads with abundant mandarin colored autumn leaves accompanied our drive to Bohemian Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For the climate confused, a dabble of snow was on the ground.Cesky Krumlov’s history is emblematic of the region’s history as the town, and its 13th century 300-room castle changed hands several times. What remains is a marvelous, picturesque town with an Old City protected on three sides by the Vitava River. The local specialty – plum-filled dumplings topped with poppy seeds – was worth every mile jogged in exchange.

Medieval Passau and Bavaria’s capital Munich

Of Passau, Napoleon once said, “In Germany I’ve never seen a town so beautiful.” Most of Passau’s Old City is on a peninsula of narrow lanes boasting Baroque architecture. From most vantages one can see hilltop Oberhaus Museum. Inside the castle medieval life is reproduced, while St. George’s Chapel within has detailed Gothic frescoes depicting his legend. And for those into Dachshunds, there is a museum celebrating these much loved, gravity-challenged canines.

While the jury is still out on whether the Danube flows into the Inn River or vice-versa, Oberhausen has spectacular views of Linde Battery and the convergence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn Rivers. Regardless of the answer, Napoleon was not wrong. Cosmopolitan, shopping mecca Munich is home to the famous Hofbrauhaus, Marienplatz, Rathaus-Glockenspiel, and BMW and its museum. Not forgetting history, our German guide reminded us that Munich was also home to Hitler’s 1923 failed coup – the Beer Hall Putsch. Found guilty of treason and handed a five-year sentence, he served just nine months in nearby Landsberg Prison, where his vile musings resulted in Mein Kampf. It was also sadly famous for the 1973 Munich Olympics Massacre.

The day ended with another great meal onboard of escargot, exquisitely prepared al dente pasta carbonara and a delightful clarinet and piano concerto.

Beautiful Bratislava and Budapest

Once Hungary’s capital and location of multiple Hungarian coronations, Bratislava is now Slovakia’s capital and largest city with Baroque and Rococo architecture aplenty. It’s Old City’s lanes are made for strolling with interesting boutiques and chic cafés. Art lovers will rejoice at Bratislava’s National Gallery’s enormous collection spanning eight centuries. In 1913 a massive fire destroyed much of Bratislava’s Jewish Quarter. In 1926 a Cubist-style synagogue was erected and has a small museum upstairs. Miraculously, the Torah scrolls survived WWII, though the wooden altar had been defaced – our guide removed its ceremonial cover reflecting where a large Swastika had been etched.

The cruise’s final days were spent in Budapest, a captivating dual city merged into one with the Danube at its core. It’s North Stars are the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s glorious Neo-Gothic hilltop Matthias Church on the Buda side – its ornate roof containing nearly 150,000 multi-colored tiles and stellar views –  and the massive Parliament Building – comprising nearly 700 rooms and 88 statues – on the Pest side.

In a city where apparently size matters, two more structures gloriously stand out: the mosaic-covered cupola at St. Stephen’s Basilica near Freedom Square is over 300-feet and 364-stairs to the exterior viewing platform, and Dohany Street’s Moorish Revival-style Great Synagogue, Europe’s largest and the world’s second largest, seating 3,000. Mind-boggling architecture, Parisian-style boulevards, excellent wines, good shopping, and enough Dobos torts and other cakes to satiate the sugar addicts among us, Budapest is easy to savor.

As the Ravel returned towards Vienna and long before disembarkation, many onboard, myself included, were already plotting our return on another Crystal Cruise.

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