European riverboat cruises, such as those offered by Viking River Cruises, provide exceptional onboard experiences plus fascinating historical insights.
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I am writing to you this week from the brand new Viking River Prestige, currently sailing up the Danube from Budapest, Hungary, to Nuremburg, Germany. I first took this same voyage almost 15 years ago on one of the first Viking River boats, the Viking Danube. We happened to meet her in Budapest a few days ago, and while she appears somewhat older by comparison, in fact, I can tell the experience for the passengers has changed very little - and what was changed is for the better.
This new riverboat has French balconies for all of the staterooms safely above the waterline. "French Balconies" in the cruise trade; floor to ceiling sliding glass doors that open with a railing to keep you from falling off the boat. It is not exactly the same as a balcony, but in a way it turns your entire stateroom into a balcony. The access to fresh air and the ability to take pictures at unusual camera angles by leaning over the railing are the same as a "real' balcony, and in a way I prefer French balconies because to "real" ones because they don't take any square footage away from my stateroom.
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Probably the most surprising aspect of this trip is the sheer number of touristic riverboats now sailing these rivers. The European river boat tourism industry has just exploded. I am seeing dozens of riverboats from a number of companies, some I don't recognize, and some I do. The boats are all modern, very few are any older then the 1980s and many of them were built in just the last few years. This new generation of riverboats is longer, sleeker and come with private balconies for many staterooms.
This Danube itinerary is considered a classic in the river cruise business. Our cruise host, Marek, presented his personal story on what it was like to grow up in Slovakia, within the Soviet satellite system as a child. He describes a society where his father told him he must do as he was told - questioning the system would get you in serious trouble. You were given a job and a place to live, but absolutely no motivation to work harder for a better job or nicer home.
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Sadly, even if you had the ability to accomplish more, "more" was simply not available to you - even at the most basic level. There would only be one brand of bread, beer soap or light bulbs for sale on the store shelves - and if you wanted to buy a car you had to pay for it and wait literally five years for its delivery. You got whatever model was available when your number came up - and if you didn't like the color or upholstery, too bad.
The most enlightening thing Marek said was that it did take a while for the idea of capitalism to sink in, but once they got it, they ran with it. The Hungarians (which were known as the most prosperous Soviet satellite state during the cold war as well) are now almost back to the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire pre-World War 1.
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Seeing the new Budapest this week was a revelation. If you ever take this cruise I recommend that you read up on the 17th to the 19th centuries when the Hungarians and Austrians together ruled most of Europe. Seeing the Schonbrunn Palace of the Hapsburgs was nearly as impressive as Versailles. Had it been restored to the point that Versailles has been, I'm sure it would be equally impressive. By contrast, I have also taken a Viking River cruise in Russia, from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and it has taken the Russians quite a bit longer to catch on to capitalism. That cruise is equally rewarding in its own way, especially when comparing the opulence of the Romanovs to average Russian peasants whose way of life literally has not changed much at all even since the days when the Communists still ruled.
Moral of the story - take a European riverboat cruise. It isn't just what you see from the river, it is the "included in the price of the cruise tours," plus the great cuisine from local purveyors. This is the kind of travel experience of a lifetime that lends a life perspective.
To comment on this article - come to my virtual cruise where I comment directly from the riverboat in Europe: Viking River Prestige: Virtual Cruise