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Humming Along the Blue Danube : The hydrofoil trip from Budapest to Vienna is rich in Continental history, takes no longer than the train--and it's fun.

April 18, 1993|STEPHEN WILLIAMS | NEWSDAY

VIENNA — European trains are charming. European flights are civilized. European highways are scenic. Add these qualities, and you've got a European hydrofoil.

Of the above options that tourists can consider in traveling from Budapest to Vienna (or vice versa), floating on or, more accurately, just above the blue Danube River is the most unusual.

Mention hydrofoil and "nauseous" comes to my mind, no doubt the result of too many times across the English Channel. But even when they're heading upstream against the wavy current (toward Austria), the vessels of the DDSG, or the First Danube Steamship Co., are free from that sickening up-and-down motion that high-seas hydrofoils are prone to.

During my journey last spring, my ship--the wide-bodied, low-slung MS Solyom II--wasn't the QE2, but it had all the usual amenities: a liquor/coffee/snack bar, restrooms, airline-style reclining seats for 110 passengers in three separate cabins. Between the fore and middle cabins were viewing platforms for snapping pictures or taking in gulps of Danube air.

The direct service between cities takes five hours, about the same as the train (the ship lines also offer sightseeing tours that make stops and excursions), and essentially follows the most direct east-west route, from Budapest, along the Hungary-Slovak border into Austria.

The price of a one-way ticket this spring and summer is $79. A first-class railroad seat is $42, while the 50-minute flight via Austrian Airlines or Malev Hungarian Airlines in May costs about $200. (The airline also offers a round-trip ticket for the same price, but with restrictions.)

Still, cost is not the issue in traveling by hydro; one goes for the fun of it.

The Danube (Duna in Hungarian) is Europe's second-largest river, after the Volga, flowing almost 1,800 miles from Germany to Ukraine, through Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. The soil around the river is fertile, and the stretch between Budapest and Vienna is also rich in history.

We chugged out of the Hungarian capital just after 2 on a blue-sky May afternoon, about a dozen passengers on board, mostly Americans and a Swedish couple. The Solyom passed under the bridges that connect to the hilly Buda side of the Danube to the flatter, eastern flanks of the Pest, on a due-north heading by the imposing Hungarian parliament building and the lush flower gardens of Margit Island.

This was a front-loaded journey. The final leg passes through green country, but the wildlife is at a premium. In Vienna, the ship docks outside the center, so there's no dramatic city view to anticipate.

Still, the Danube Bend more than makes up for the less-than-spectacular finish.

The bend in the river begins less than 25 miles north of Budapest where the river takes a western turn at the town of Vac, then carves out a U-shape before continuing west at the border between Hungary and Slovakia. Here we passed the 18th-Century Serbian merchant town of Szentendre (St. Andrew), an artists' colony and home to half a dozen notableHungarian museums, including the open-air Ethnographic Museum, which re-creates village life in the Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries.

A bit farther up is the magnificent Basilica on a hill in Esztergom. The massive structure was built on the site of Hungary's first Christian cathedral, which was destroyed by Mongol invaders in the 13th Century. It makes a terrific photo-op from the ship.

Nearer the Austrian border, the blue Danube wasn't as blue as it was muddy green. We passed a continuous stream of enormous black barges crowned with lime-green steering houses. The river here was slightly choppy, the scenery not particularly breathtaking, and the sensation as I cat-napped was of riding a plane through gentle turbulence.

Bratislava emerges out of yellow haze, its smokestacks belching polluting smoke over the port. Bratislava, now the capital of the Slovak slice of the former Czechoslovakia, looked grimy from the river's vantage point. The time might have been the late 1940s: The city looked almost war-ravaged. It brought to mind Prague, a fairyland of a city, and I wondered how another city so close, and part of the same nation for so long, could be so different.

Beyond Bratislava and the "Little Carpathians," the Solyom cruised into west Austria, passing castle ruins of the walled town of Hainburg and into the Marchfeld, a low-lying plain. At that point, psychologically, I was about ready for the trip to end. Half an hour later, it did.

GUIDEBOOK

Vienna to

Budapest

Getting there: The Inter-City Express, the name for the Vienna-Budapest hydrofoil trip, is operated by the DDSG. The firm's American representatives can book tickets and supply brochures and details; call (800) 327-8223.

When to go: The sailing season started April 9, with weekend-only service until April 23. From April 23 to Sept. 19, the hydrofoil leaves Vienna daily at 8:10 a.m., arriving in Budapest at 12:30 p.m. The return trip leaves Budapest at 2:10 p.m., arriving in Vienna at 7:30 p.m. The one-way trip on the single-class vessel is $79; round-trip fare is $114.

The fall sailing season is Sept. 20-Oct. 10. During those weeks, the hydrofoil departs Vienna at 8:10 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and departs Budapest at 12:10 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

The company also offers tours and packages. A two-day round-trip excursion to Budapest by boat includes an overnight hotel stay and a first-class train trip on the return to Vienna. Price is $219 per person, based on double occupancy, including breakfast. Extra days can be added.

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