Cruising the Danube River on Avalon Illumination

Melk City in Austria is one of Avalon Illumination’s stops on its Blue Danube river cruise. Photos by Tanya Lara
Sailing into Passau, Germany

When I look up, the night sky is filled with stars — something you never see in cities anymore because of all the lights and pollution.

This is when the Danube, a river that crosses 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, feels new to me again. It is the third of our seven nights on the river and the stars are so bright above this little town somewhere in Austria.

I am on a fam tour with top travel executives and media hosted by Baron Travel, the general sales agent of Avalon Waterways in the Philippines, and Turkish Airlines.

Our group is sailing on the Danube, bookended by two of Europe’s most beautiful cities —  Budapest and Prague — on Avalon Illumination, a beautiful river ship that glides on the water with the grace of a queen and the age of a pageboy (Avalon has one of the youngest fleets in the industry; Illumination is only four years old).

In every itinerant’s journey, new details push our sense of awe to the surface once again — that day passing through Spitz in Austria with the houses on the riverbanks taking my breath away; the misty morning coming into Passau in Germany, a mist so thick it covered the autumn colors on the hills and then slowly lifting as though in a striptease; that day in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic looking at the rooftops, something that had been on my bucket list for a long time; and the taste of a cup of hot chocolate between my freezing hands at the stern of the ship while watching the sun rise and enjoying the quietness.

Autumn colors
Yep, we love Turkish Airlines! Joining the fam tour are Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando, I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong, First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia, AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo, Pan Pacific Travel’s Kaye Cervantes, the author Tanya Lara, Baron Travel’s Wally Cervantes, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago, Our Awesome Planets Anton Diaz, and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura.

You’ve often heard the comparison of ocean liners to floating cities, and of river ships to boutique hotels. Both are accurate descriptions, but let me add that Avalon Illumination has the personalized service and intimacy of a bed and breakfast with our cruise director Tony as the host, giving talks in the lounge to what feels like a small, intimate group of travelers but in actuality is about 164 passengers in four decks.

The rooms feature floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, a good-sized bathroom with L’Occitane toiletries (important to women!), a sitting area and cable TV. It becomes a running joke in our group which fireplace channel they’re watching because there are 10. Yes, 10 different wood-burning fireplaces accompanied by classical music.

The 164-passenger Avalon Illumination is like a boutique hotel that floats on Europe’s most beautiful waterways. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways
The staterooms have a sitting area and floor-to-ceiling windows. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Avalon Illumination has three dining options: the main dining room which serves buffet breakfast and lunch, and a la carte dinner (we order off-the-menu too because, well, everyone becomes a foodie on a cruise); the Panorama Bistro for light meals and Avalon’s signature healthy cuisine options; and the Panorama Lounge and Bar for drinks and a happy hour every afternoon.

The quality of food and wines is fantastic. The meals often feature local dishes and wines, depending on where the ship is docked. We had schnitzel in Austria, Nuremberg sausages in Germany; and porcheta, goulash, Riesling and Wachau Valley wines in between. And champagne every single day.

Oh God, the champagne! If you ask for a bellini or mimosa at brunch on a day when there’s no morning excursion onshore, they’re not going to say no —  because what’s a late breakfast without alcohol?

From Anton’s awesome 360-degree camera. Photo by Anton Diaz

The lounge I like best is the one at the stern of Illumination — it’s open round the clock, has coffee and tea-making facilities, cookies and hot chocolate. One night, a couple of the girls and I bring out a bottle of vodka and they tell the scariest ghost stories from all their travels (it’s the night before Halloween); some nights, it’s just me and several people reading their books.

At every stop, Avalon offers a free walking tour and optional tours for a fee of between 49 and 96 euros. If it’s your first time to Europe, it’s a great way to see more.

This is what Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura do as they take the free walking tour in Vienna and the optional tours to Schonbrunn Palace and Bratislava. Then First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia and I join them in the optional tour to Cesky Krumlov while the ship is in Linz.

Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, who befriended practically everyone on board, agrees that a river cruise takes out the hassle of traveling through several countries in one trip. “What I enjoy most is that you only have to check in once and at the end of the cruise you check out. We’re able to visit cities and towns that aren’t normally part of the itinerary, like the towns of Krems, Melk and Passau.”

The jaw-dropping Melk Abbey with its gilded statuary and frescoed library and church. To many of the travel executives I was with, this was a highlight of the river cruise.
Melk Museum starts out as a dimly lit space…till you see what’s inside.
Beer in Melk as the sun goes down.

In Melk, we explore the jaw-dropping baroque abbey and its magnificent frescoed library and church, and gold-plated statuary. Our Awesome Planet blog’s Anton Diaz and I are the only ones allowed to take pictures inside because you have to get a permit prior to your visit. Later, walking in the courtyard and still shookt from the opulence of the abbey, we joke about how the Benedictine monks took not having the vow of poverty to the extreme.

Melk is a charming town that seemingly grew because of the abbey, a smattering of souvenir shops and restaurants that glow at twilight with a forested area between the town and the Danube.

This small-town scene would be repeated throughout our stops and the vistas passing through Spitz, which is said to be the prettiest in the Austrian part of the Danube. Stopping at Durnstein with its vineyards and local spirits that we snap up from the shops; at Regensburg with its medieval stone bridge and gothic cathedral that’s the little brother to Cologne Cathedral; and Passau with St. Stephen’s Church’s period history of when the Catholic faithful were turning away from the church and the flood that devastated the city, which was eventually cleaned up with the help of young students who used Facebook to mobilize.

The fairy tale-like Cesky Krumlov. I wouldn’t be surprised if a princess rode through the cobblestone streets on a horse and rescued her prince from the evil witch.
Gaye, Zoe, Pia and I have some Czech beers, sausages, pancakes and goulash.
I wonder if homeowners ever get tired of tourists taking pictures of their homes in Cesky Krumlov.

The optional tour that I take is to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. It is a dreamy place, a fairy tale-like town of towers, gabled roofs and a palace — and the Vltava River that flows from Prague. Unfortunately the tower is closed because of strong winds, so I leave without a photo of the whole town as seen from the tower.

The architecture is a mix of baroque, gothic and renaissance styles — and then there are the riverside houses that somehow look like they’re from the pages of children’s books that tourists can’t take enough pictures of.

I wonder if the homeowners ever get used to this or if, every time they peer out the windows, they let out an expletive.

Regensburg in Germany is at the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers. It’s a charming town with a gothic church that’s considered to be the little brother of Cologne Cathedral.
Gigibeth, Cyndee, Zoe, Pia and I in Regensburg with the spires of the gothic cathedral showing in the background.
Corporate International Travel’s Shan Dioquino David leads the charge to Pandorf Outlet Center, with Cyndee Wong and Gigibeth Santiago and their Uber ride back to Vienna. This is the first of many shopping expeditions.

In Vienna, Avalon Illumination treats us to a night of classical music at City Palace Billrothhaus. I am seated next to history buffs Wally Cervantes, SVP for Baron Travel’s Leisure Division, and his wife Kaye Cervantes of Pan Pacific Travel who are digging the Strauss concerto. Vienna is right up their alley, being the seat of the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the greatest powers in history.

But there’s another wonderful thing about Vienna that Filipino travelers would love — its proximity to the outlet center Pandorf which has over 160 stores. Corporate International Travel’s Shan David, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago and I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong take an Uber to Pandorf.

In the evening they come back on the ship with a fleet of Rimowas (seriously, a fleet!) winter jackets, and a million other finds. Our jaws drop at the amount of shopping they did — accompanied by amazement at their finding things that cost thousands of pesos back home which they got for a couple of hundreds. And this is just the first shopping expedition!

Handcrafted Wieser gin, whiskey and vodka in Durnstein.
Vltava River in Prague. Charles Bridge, which brings you to Mala Strana, is oftentimes very crowded. An alternative is to take the modern bridge, then you actually get a view of Charles Bridge while crossing.

In this part of Europe with four capital cities that are always strung together on a trip, I’ve always thought of Vienna as an old lady in a fur coat, Bratislava as not exciting — but Prague and Budapest are like energetic, trippy kids with old souls to me.

In Budapest, where we begin our trip, which is cut short because of the low river level, I take our group to the city’s most famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert (more on Budapest in another story).

In Prague, where we are taken by coaches after disembarking in Passau, it is AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo that is our de facto tour guide, Prague being a city that he loves, in major part because of his devotion to the Sto. Niño. Walking through Stare Mesto and the medieval streets where Kafka hung out, where the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 took place, where Czech beer is downed like water (the Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world), we cross Charles Bridge with its baroque statues.

Through Mala Strana on the other side of the Vltalva River, Dondi takes us to the John Lennon Wall and finally to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, the shrine to Sto. Niño.

Prague’s Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square is the third oldest in the world, first installed in 1410.

Dondi and Cyndee both love Prague in the same way I love Istanbul and Budapest — which is to say we will never get tired of these cities. We will always go back even when we get old and broke!

“Prague is a total package for me,” Dondi tells me. “It’s a time capsule of then and now. I enjoy its heritage buildings shouting at every corner, its food making its own statement, and I always say a little prayer in the church for our dear country. The Sto. Niño reminds me to be like a child — to enjoy and learn every day.”

We explore the city for two days — and outside the city for our champion shoppers. You can get dizzy in the old part of Prague with its hordes of tourists all day and night, in the bars and clubs, palaces, museums and shopping, the Astronomical Clock and Wenceslas Square.

Years ago when I was in Prague, there were puppets being sold that laughed like a witch when you waved your hand in front of their faces. This time near the square, I find a stall selling marionettes, and small wooden frames that reference John Lennon’s Wall with these words: “I’m a dreamer too.”

The John Lennon Wall in Prague has been welcoming graffiti artists since the 1980s.

* * *

In the Philippines, Baron Travel Corporation is the general sales agent (GSA) of Avalon Waterways. For December 2018 and 2019 itineraries and sailing dates, call 817-4926 or log on to

Turkish Airlines flies daily from Manila to over 300 destinations worldwide. Call 894-5416 or log on to

You may also book your flight and Avalon cruise through the following travel agencies: Manila — Airspace Travel & Tours, 522-3287; Binondo — I Love Travel, 232-1366/67; Quezon City — AllPoints Travel, 410-1527, 410-1538; Pasig — Geographica Tours, 994-8284, Corporate International Travel, 631-6541 to 44; Makati — Mondial Tours, 886-6300/47/48; First United Travel, 818-7181, Pan Pacific Travel, 810-8551 to 56.

Passau at twilight, sitting on the banks of the Danube.
At Turkish Airlines’ fabulous lounge, coming home with a layover in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
Melk town gives me the key to come back.
Passau in Germany was another town I had never been to. St. Stephen’s Church may look unassuming with its façade, but inside are spectacular frescoes and gilded arches.
Courtyard of Cesky Krumlov Castle. Unfortunately that day, the tower closed due to strong wind.
Groufies with Gigibeth’s “magic” camera and Wally’s long-arm selfie.



Searching for Stalin’s Boots in Budapest
Budapest’s Chain Bridge on the Danube River — looking as blue as Strauss’ waltz at twilight — links what used to be two cities, the hilly Buda and the flat Pest. A cruise on the Danube is a great way to see the city.  (Photo from
Unfortunately, this was the weather I arrived to in 2009 — a snowstorm. But still, I went to Statue Park (Memento Park), an hour away from Budapest, to see what I came here for: Stalin’s Boots and other Cold War monuments.

In 1956, about 200,000 Hungarian students and citizens demonstrated in Budapest to sympathize with the Poles, who had just won political reforms from their communist government and the Soviet Union.

The Hungarians wanted reforms, too, and one of their sixteen demands was the dismantling of Joseph Stalin’s monument in a park in Budapest, installed just seven years earlier, ostensibly a gift from the Hungarian people to the Soviet leader.

The statue was eight meters high and stood on a base of four meters tall. Thousands of angry Hungarians chanting “Russia, go home!” toppled the statue, which broke into several sections.

What was left on the limestone base were the boots, over which the revolutionaries draped the Hungarian flag.

Fast forward to fifty-three years later, in 2009, and I was  in search of this remnant of Hungary’s October Revolution, the surviving piece of this sculpture now known as “Stalin’s Boots.”

I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it.

The boots from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Monument, which was toppled by Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956. And Vladimir Lenin, one of the dozens of communist monuments at Memento Park or  Statue Park.  (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
A giant replica of Stalin’s Boots in the indoor museum.

People go abroad to shop, to eat, to visit museums and landmarks. I do that, too.

But on two occasions, I’ve traveled abroad primarily to see statues. One was to Savannah, Georgia to look at the Bird Girl statue, which I first saw in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and which used to be installed on a gravesite in  Bonaventure Cemetery.

And the other time was this — in Budapest for Stalin’s Boots.

My fascination with the Cold War began when I was a kid reading espionage novels. My head was filled with the sufferings of revolutionaries, spies who fall in love, heart-stopping border crossings, and betrayals.

Later, when I was already working and whenever I had saved just enough,  I would go to countries in the former Eastern Bloc. The Berlin Wall came down when I was still in journalism school, and countries that I used to read about in fiction started to open up, and I followed every piece of news about this sea of change sweeping across Eastern Europe.

During the Cold War, there was very little distinction between art and communist propaganda. After the Berlin Wall came down, and communism along with it,  other countries destroyed their monuments. Hungary scooped them all up and put them in an outdoor museum — outside Budapest.

Hungary was one of those countries. The cheapest way to get from Manila to Europe was — and still is — during winter abroad. It’s also the time when the newsroom is quiet after the Christmas rush and it’s easier to take time off from work.

So there I was in Budapest, which was in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm, in February 2009.

More than a decade before I went to Hungary, I saw a show called Lonely Planet. It wasn’t even a channel then, it was just a show (later called Globe Trekkers) on Discovery Channel hosted by a gap-toothed British guy named Ian Wright, who ate yak brains in Mongolia or something gross like that (long before Anthony Bourdain started doing such things).

In his Budapest episode, he went outside the city to Statue Park (or Memento Park), where Hungary put together all its communist-era statuary. Unlike other newly democratized countries that destroyed theirs, Hungary had the good sense to gather them in one park.

Except, even decades later, this outdoor museum was still not as popular as it should have been. Not a lot of tourists knew  about it or cared to visit it.

But I did.

I don’t remember anything else about that episode except for Statue Park. He showed Stalin’s Boots — the actual ones from the statue that was toppled in 1956 — and the giant plaster cast in the dark indoor museum. There were also several statues of Lenin and generic communist propaganda in the park.

How different the world was before communism failed miserably. And so many people suffered and died because of it.

And then Wright made me laugh my ass off. He pointed to a giant statue of a man running and holding a piece of cloth that could have been a flag…or a towel.

Wright said something like this bloke seems to be yelling, “Your towel, your towel! You dropped your towel!”

Budapest had me at towel.

* * *

I arrived in Hungary after a night in Zurich (there were no direct flights from Manila). And in booking this trip I found a secret to traveling between European countries — always take the poorer country’s airline even if they are code-sharing.

Between Swiss Air and Malév, the Hungarian flag carrier was so much cheaper. I would experience this many other times later, like between Dusseldorf and Prague (Czech Airlines — cheaper than Lufthansa!) or Amsterdam and Rome.

The House of  Terror or Terror Museum on Andrassy üt, an avenue that is often compared with Paris’ Champs Elysées, is a repository of how Hungary’s Secret Police terrorized and victimized its own citizens. The tank is both a symbol of the Soviet Union’s power during the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc countries’ suppression of their people’s freedoms — and on the wall are pictures of the dead and disappeared.
Day and night, people come to light candles and lay flowers for the fallen on a narrow ledge outside the Terror Museum.
Teletypes, interrogation rooms, cells and uniforms of the Secret Police are among the mementos in Terror Museum.

There was an unexpected snowstorm in Budapest when I arrived.

My hotel was only three blocks from the Danube River, which was partially frozen, but I persisted on walking to Buda through the beautiful Chain Bridge and then quickly sought shelter in a museum.

So I discovered Budapest through its classical art and contemporary museums.

I went to four of them in the next several days in between hopping on and off the red tourist buses, to places like the Castle District, the gorgeous Parliament House, the Gresham Palace, Vasarcsarnok or the Great Market Hall, St. Rita’s Church and other sights.

But it was the museums that quickly became my shelter from the weather, like the National Gallery located in one section of Buda Castle, the National Museum of Fine Arts on the flat Pest side at Heroes Square, and the Terror Museum, which details the Hungarian people’s suffering in the hands of their Secret Police and the Soviet Union.

Terror Museum is located on Andrassy üt, kind of like Paris’ Champs Elyseés. This comparison carries throughout the two capitals, as Budapest is dubbed “the Paris of the East.” This beautiful avenue is topped by Heroes’ Square with statuary of royals and leaders past, its kings, rulers from its seven ethnic tribes and their horses.

Unlike Champs Elyseés, Andrassy Avenue is not bursting with shops. Instead, you find here private villas, some of them now high-end restaurants and coffee shops.

It seems a sign of how the world has changed drastically post-communism, that on an avenue where there was once a prison and torture chambers for those who opposed the communist ideology and a government largely controlled and influenced by the Soviet Union, there is now a Gloria Jeans coffee shop.

Hungarians still remember those times. Outside the musem, on every freezing night that I walked past it, people were lighting candles and leaving flowers on a narrow ledge for the fallen.

Roof outside the museum; and a section paying tribute to the priests that were persecuted and killed, accused of  inciting the peasants to rebellion.
Heroes Square has statues of the country’s Seven Chieftains of the Magyars (or the Seven Tribes of Hungary), other national leaders and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Photo from
It was colder than it looks, so I said, “Dear Weather, my name is Tanya Lara and I am here for the first time! Please let me enjoy Budapest without a snowstorm!” Behind me, at Heroes Square,  is the National Museum of Fine Arts.

They did it perhaps for family members or friends — or for the unknown people who were murdered and disappeared. It wasn’t only the intellectuals or students that suffered this fate, there were also priests and peasants who spoke out and were accused of treason and sedition.

How could such an ideology founded on equality and love of country be so brutal and inhuman? The answer is simple: the most egregious sin and ultimate failing of communism is that it took out human emotions and needs out of the equation, and then enforced its own beliefs. Just like most religions do today.

Inside the museum, where taking pictures is not allowed (I did manage to snap a few grainy ones), the victims’ pictures are stuck on the wall, from the floor to the ceiling across three or four levels, along with a Soviet tank on the ground floor, uniforms of the Secret Police, teletypes, paintings, mock dossiers and interrogation rooms.

In the basement are the prison cells and some are literally no bigger than a cupboard for solitary confinement. These cold stonewalls tell the story of Hungary’s struggle and heartache, of dissidents and their families who grieved. I walked these halls and rooms, thinking, some of them are still grieving to this day, searching for closure.

Castle Hill on the Buda side of the city. (Photo by Kitsune Misao/

* * *

Budapest has one of the most stunning parliament buildings in all of Europe, one of the most beautiful rivers that run through a city, and a bridge that crosses it.

In spring and summer, tourist boats ply the Danube with live music; a marathon starts on the Chain Bridge and goes around both sides of the river, one I had wanted to do before I quit running.

It is a bustling, modern city of cafes, business and commerce that I want to go back to — but not in winter again. I want to see it when it comes to life as any city living in the present and looking at the future.

And yet…all of us are really just drifting on memories — and what is art if not for that?

Thinking about those days in Budapest, I realize that I was fortunate to be forced by the weather to take part in its remembrance of an era thankfully gone.

This painful, Cold War past, not its older, glorious royal past, but the one that still touches personally some of its citizens in their everyday lives. When they pause in the morning while pouring coffee and their hearts stop for a second or two, or when they walk home alone at night, and they are suddenly taken back to the past, by the remembrance of someone who by every right should be there but isn’t.

Budapest’s Great Market Hall or Central Market Hall i the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.