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Up and Down the Danube

One week, seven ports and masses of culture in mid-Europe on a cruise where economy doesn't mean deprivation

May 02, 1999|ALLENE SYMONS | Allene Symons is a business writer who lives in Santa Ana

VIENNA, Austria — When we decided to cruise the Danube last fall, my husband and I passed up the gala vessels with their mounds of food and nonstop activities and took a chance on an economy--or, as the brochures call it, an "affordable"--river cruise. We were more interested in the itinerary, a leisurely opportunity to see some of the land of Alan's Austro-Hungarian ancestors, than in being pampered and entertained. We narrowed our choice to a seven-night cruise from Vienna that would cover a stretch of the Danube between Passau, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary. This itinerary promised stops with postcard charm and some others still touched by the gritty social realism of recent communist regimes. The juxtaposition turned out to be a good mix.

(The cruise's U.S. operator, GlobalQuest, says the itinerary is the same this year despite the hostilities in Yugoslavia, about 175 miles south of Budapest.)

By the time we arrived at the dock in Vienna, I was expecting the voyage on the almost-no-frills ship, the Deltastar, to be just a bit offbeat, something like my student travel days in the '60s. But now we were two people accustomed to plenty of amenities in our business and pleasure travel. Clearly, an attitude shift was in order.

As our taxi approached the dock, the driver pointed to the modest-looking Steaua Deltei (Deltastar in Romanian, the nationality of the crew; the ship flies the Austrian flag). Two men in red jumpsuits were painting the bow.

"Look, they're adding the final touches to your ship," the driver said. Later we would find out why this was routine, not cosmetic.

We stepped aboard and put on our "affordable travel" attitude. And not a moment too soon. In the rather plain reception area, two robust women wearing housecoats lifted our bags as if they were filled with goose down and carried them downstairs to our cabin.

At first glance, we were disappointed with our duck's-eye view of the river, but it turned out that watching the scenery from the waterline added to the trip's quirky appeal. There were pleasant surprises, too, such as our bathroom, which was bright and roomy. On the other hand, space in the cabin was tight, with just enough room to sit, read and sleep.

Our introduction to the peculiarities of river cruising began that first night, when we were awakened by a rasping noise and beams of yellow light piercing our cabin porthole. The Deltastar was entering one of the 10 locks that manage traffic on the Danube, lifting or lowering vessels from the river's highest water level in the north toward the lowest, at the Black Sea.

We pulled on jeans, sweaters and sneakers and headed for the top deck. It was an eerie but exciting sight: the bright lights and the crew dressed in their red jumpsuits, scurrying around in an air of industrial urgency. The ship had entered a walled enclosure and was tethered to one side. After a heavy water gate closed behind us, the wall appeared to rise as the water level sank, the ship along with it. In about half an hour we had completed our rite of passage and were headed down the Danube.

At sunrise that morning, Alan and I were first to arrive on the second deck, where a pot of coffee awaited early risers. We watched the sun spill over the horizon onto the walls and dome of St. Stephen's cathedral in the hillside city of Esztergom, and I wondered why everyone wasn't on deck to experience this dramatically lighted moment. Coincidentally, on the way back upriver, we saw a sunset paint the cathedral's dome.

After all this early activity, not to mention the jolt of Viennese coffee, I was ready for the breakfast buffet. I filled a big bowl with muesli, scoops of nuts and yogurt, and ladled out a bowl of poached plums on the side.

Meals on the Deltastar were a pleasant surprise, maybe thanks to our lowered expectations. And we appreciated that meals were served in reasonable and not gargantuan portions.

The food was hearty rather than haute cuisine, with multiple courses ranging from soups and seafood cocktails to fish, veal and pork dishes with sauces, to strudels, puddings and pastries. Some dishes were regional, like goulash; others classic, like Beef Wellington. There was ample variety and not a meal we didn't like.

The Deltastar carried about 200 passengers, half of them on a British seniors tour, the rest mostly German and French. There were only four Americans besides us. It was mainly a middle-aged-couples and single-seniors crowd. This may explain why afternoon tea was a major event, timed for the return of passengers from the day's excursions. It was served in the picture-window lounge, to the accompaniment of 1960s hits played by the ship's quartet.

The lounge decor was as dated as the music--when river-cruising affordably, don't expect Martha Stewart--and the cabins reminded me of college dorms. We were told that some renovations were planned for the 1999 season.

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