Cruise along the River Danube with three members of the GRJ Sales Team - Kathryn, Lynne, and Mike.
We checked into our Manchester hotel and converged for a very pleasant dinner and a pre-trip discussion of aims and targets. Then, with a 04.00 alarm call booked, we retired to bed for the evening.
Somewhat bleary-eyed, we tumbled into a taxi to the airport, where a seamless check-in procedure with Lufthansa served as the first of several examples of German efficiency and high-quality customer care. Afterwards, we collected our Euros and headed for departures.
The flight from Manchester to Munich is around 90 minutes long and was uneventful - excellent cabin service, good snacks, and a very smooth take-off and landing. We emerged from the airport, identified the bus stop for our local bus to Freising, and went back inside for some much-needed lunch. The range of options was extensive, the labels and prices clear, and the aroma very appetizing.
We boarded the bus from the airport to Freising, a small German town around 8km away from the airport. Here, we joined a regional train travelling south through the beautiful German countryside. The journey was smooth, the passengers were generally quiet, and we sought the opportunity to recharge our batteries following the early start, which now seemed so very far behind us.
The sun in Freising had been pleasantly hot and the forecast indicated that the weather would remain clement for the next few days.
A transfer had been arranged from Passau train station to the ship and, as we waited in the pleasant square, several German holidaymakers awaiting the same transfer approached us. They were welcoming, friendly and full of advice and thoughts. Soon, a bus whisked us through the pretty town to the banks of the River Danube. There, we joined our ship, the A-ROSA Donna.
On board, the Reception team gave us a warm welcome - and a beautiful red rose! - and showed us to our cabins. The majority of the crew do speak English. We muddled along in broken German but we didn't really need to. Two of the reception team, Eva and the hotel manager, Silke, spoke excellent English and all Tannoy announcements were bilingual, in German and in English. The crew provided an unfailingly amazing service throughout.
We unpacked, showered, and relaxed for a short while before the first night Captain's Welcome. Our cabins were wonderful; each was the size of a double hotel room, en suite, with a walk-in shower and wet-room. There was a very large double bed, desk, two chairs, a TV, plus loads of storage space, and a massive double window with doors opening into the cabin. The shower was hot and powerful, and the bathroom, although not large, is perfectly ample for all ablutions. The view from the window as the mighty Danube slipped gracefully past is one of the better ones I've experienced on emerging from a shower room!
We saw a safety video in the evening (in English) and then enjoyed a wonderful dinner. The restaurant is spacious, seating 206 people indoors as a maximum at any given time. The maximum passenger load is 242 in total. The range of options was astonishing - freshly prepared hot dishes, a wide range of salads and vegetables, delectably tender meat, and sumptuous fish. Breads, cheeses, fruit, soft drinks, and an overwhelmingly tempting array of desserts were also available. Everything is arranged buffet-style. It's a good job the ship also boasts a fitness studio!
After dinner, we sat on the stern deck for a while to drink in the fresh Austrian air and then moved through to the lounge where there is live music and a disco, neither of which can be heard from the cabins.
At dawn, I watched as we negotiated one of the huge locks that are spread along the length of the Danube. They are perhaps 150m in length and the depth of several ships. The process happens so quickly and smoothly that you could be forgiven for not noticing it at all. The eddying, foaming waters are mesmerizing.
It's not every day you get the chance to watch the sun rise over the Wachau Valley so I pulled up my armchair and opened the double doors. I spent the next 90 minutes watching the sun rise and the water caress the ship; no report or photograph can replicate that morning's experience.
In the interests of research, I ventured into the fitness studio when it opened at 0700. It boasts six or seven cardio machines with a reasonable view out over the river, plus a few weights. There are showers, a solarium, a spa, and a sauna. Massages and skin treatments can be booked on the ship.
A dizzying array of options was available for breakfast, including cereals, breads, juices, smoothies and fruit, cheeses, and hot options - all freshly prepared to order. Later, at 1100, a regional treat (Bavarian sausage and a beer tasting) was served on the stern deck.
Arriving in the Austrian capital of Vienna, we disembarked the ship for an excursion into the city by coach. The A-ROSA Donna arranged for a local guide to accompany us on our journey to Belvedere Palace and Hundertwasserhaus, among other destinations. Other excursions over the two-day stop included Vienna by Night, Strauss Concerts, the Viennese Coffee House Tradition, and Vienna from Top to Bottom.
Today we were booked on an excursion to the magnificent Schonbrunn Palace. This involved an early (0820) departure on the coaches from the riverside; it goes without saying that breakfast was available early to enable prompt departure. Omelettes devoured, we boarded the bus and travelled through the city to the Palace.
There is a walk of perhaps five minutes from the coach to the Palace façade; however, our visit began with an ApfelStrudel demo in the restaurant. We were served hot fresh coffee and a large slab of ApfelStrudel. One of the bakers then held a short, informative show about the ingredients, the preparation, and how to make the pastry see-through thin.
Afterwards, we went on a guided tour of the Palace. The interior décor is breath taking, with high ceilings and beautiful furnishings. The tour lasted for around an hour, after which we were free to explore the extensive grounds and gardens in warm Viennese sunshine. Throughout, access is good; a lady with a mobility frame was easily able to keep up. Seats are available for those with tired legs.
After lunch, we had the option for some independent sightseeing. We took a taxi into Vienna and headed for St Stephen's Dom, the city's awe-inspiring Cathedral. We had coffee in a wonderful café looking out over the Spanish Riding School, with the famous Lippizaner white horses; Silke enquired after the costs of a horse-drawn tour of the City Centre - only 55 Euros for the three of us for a trip lasting just under half an hour.
We returned to the ship for another incredible feast. Tonight, there was an Asian theme - some piquantly spiced main courses alongside the usual choices. We sailed from Vienna this evening, turning around and heading North for Linz. The passengers converged on deck and the local buildings decorated the Danube with dancing lights.
On the last full day of the Cruise, we travelled North through glorious sunshine and beautiful scenery and reached Linz soon after lunch, where we moored next to another A-Rosa ship, as we had in Vienna. Today's excursion was a walking tour of this quaint city; good shopping opportunities and a little train-on-wheels that you can take to a castle up in the hills are the main attractions here.
In the evening, at around 2100, we sailed for the last time. Sometimes, at night, only a light on the riverbank actually reminded you that we were moving, so smooth was our passage.
We had been provided with a note this evening with instructions about settling accounts, the time for transfer to the train station in Passau, labels for luggage and so forth. We were of course disappointed that this stunning experience was ending but the certainty that it will be repeated took away some of this sensation!
We had a final omelette and other delights then said tearful farewells to many new friends and acquaintances. The bus whisked us away and we boarded a train at Passau, headed for Nuremberg. The train was spotless, quiet, and ran to exact time. We travelled from Nuremberg to Munich, where we enjoyed a light lunch at the airport and took a taxi to the airport.