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.
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.
WINING & DINING ONBOARD
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?
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.
FAIRY TALE TOWNS & FABULOUS SHOPPING
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.”
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 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.
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!
BUDAPEST & PRAGUE
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.
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.”
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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 www.barontravel.ph.
Turkish Airlines flies daily from Manila to over 300 destinations worldwide. Call 894-5416 or log on to www.turkishairlines.com.
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.