In Travel

Discovering Central Europe Down The Danube River

Carving its way through no less than 10 countries, the Danube, the second longest river in Europe, flows through more than any other river in the world. The culture and traditions of the villages and towns it passes are some of continent’s most well-preserved, the architecture within them, some of the most jaw-dropping and the scenery, some of the most stunning.

And the best way to see it all? By flowing with it, of course.

“Travelling by river is really beautiful,” says Caspar Van Helden, U Host of U By Uniworld, the newest name in river cruising. Its Danube Flow route weaves past the tiny, traditional villages, big, buzzing cities and rolling green countryside of Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

The section of the Danube it traverses is a popular one. River cruises have for years taken advantage of it. The Uniworld offshoot, with its ships slick and matte black and its rooftops Ibiza-inspired, is the first to focus on the millennial and early baby boomer crowd. Surprising considering how convenient river cruising makes for visiting the area.

“Every town here is different,” says Van Helden. “There are very small towns that have rich local history and people still wearing the local outfits like lederhosen and dirndels. And the bigger cities have an array of cultural adventures from historical museums to music scenes.”

Passau and Straubing in Germany’s Bavaria are two such small towns. Sleepy spots, they spring into life when local summer festivals are on. Sunday mornings you’ll find their pubs packed with locals tucking into beer and sausages. And lots of both. After all, it’s sausage land here.

Bavaria is known for its baroque architecture, and prime examples of it can be seen along most of its streets. In Passau’s St Stephen’s Cathedral, enormous gold babies and angels fly overhead. In the town’s hilltop fortress Veste Oberhaus, windows are painted onto its façade. The baroque technique is a popular one designed to trick the eye.

“It’s super over-the-top stuff,” says Van Helden. “It has to be your style to like it, but it’s impressive. The churches with the onion domes – you see a lot of those in the small towns everywhere. Some people think those are like Russian Orthodox because they have those domes as well, but it’s actually typical Bavarian style.”

Gothic architecture can also be spotted throughout the region, continuing all the way to Austria. There lie the wildly picturesque villages of UNESCO world heritage site Wachau Valley. Scattered in the hills between the larger towns of Melk and Krems, their red roof houses and pastel-coloured buildings are so postcard-perfect, they appear two-dimensional.

Strolling through the villages’ narrow, cobblestone streets, is as if stepping into a Disney fairytale. The region is where Riesling first grew roots, and today is home to some the world’s most expensive wines.

Further along the river is capital city Vienna. Though the country’s official language is German, Austria is generally known to be more relaxed than its neighbour – something further proven by its architecture. The commanding St Stephen’s Cathedral is at its city’s centre with dozens of other striking gothic buildings dotted around it. But it’s not only about the preserved past.

“There’s also a lot of fun, new stuff going on in Vienna,” says Van Helden. “They’ve built a very modern glass hotel next to a gothic cathedral so the one reflects to the other. So it’s not only about old architecture and history, there’s a lot of modern, avant-garde stuff going on as well.”

Vienna’s nightlife scene, made up of trendy bars lining the Danube Canal and discreet discothèques, is lively. But it’s the nearby capital city of Budapest with its affordable drinks spots and Jewish Quarter ruin bars that attracts revellers from all over Europe. In fact the city is one of the fastest developing tourist destinations in the world.

Though the sights and scenery along the Danube can of course be seen by land, they’re afforded added allure when approached by water. “When you sit on the sundeck, and you see the landscape fly by and the beautiful towns and the vineyards, and you have a cocktail and a little music, it’s just incredible,” says Van Helden.

“It’s like a beautiful resort that floats itself through the countryside. You don’t get that in a regular hotel that’s just stuck somewhere.”

Published 10 August, 2018