Danube river cruise (2009)

Budapest on the River Danube

Words Jeremy Miles Pictures Hattie Miles

SOMEWHERE between the Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic and the site of the old Stalin monument in Budapest, we floated through a fairy-tale world of castles and cathedrals and, yes, schnitzel with noodles and whiskers on kittens.

Sailing down the mighty Danube – Europe’s second longest river – provides the discerning traveller with a huge mixture of experiences. Astonishing sights, beautiful scenery and a troubling but necessary history lesson.

For this great waterway (which isn’t blue by the way, more a grubby, yellowy brown) cuts a majestic swathe through Central Europe and an ever-changing world. One minute it can be Christmas every day and Julie Andrews’ voice floats on the Alpine breeze, the next offers stark reminders of totalitarian monsters, hatred and death.

A tourist poses for pictures with a Czech military guard

We started our Avalon Waterways tour firmly on dry land with a three-day break in Prague, staying in the five-star luxury of the Hilton Hotel. This is the hotel of choice for visiting presidents and rock stars, and no wonder.

It was here that we met our fellow passengers and our excellent and entertaining cruise director – the wonderfully named Dragan who, with his shaved head and theatrically sinister Austrian accent, resembled a Bond villain.

Happily his intentions proved entirely positive and for the next 11 days, both aboard our cruise vessel, the MV Poetry, and at his desk in the Hilton foyer, he would prove an unflappable Mr Fix-it.

It was from Prague that we took an optional tour to the Terezin concentration camp, a sinister holding station that played a crucial role in Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Disguised, in an extraordinary wartime propaganda exercise, as a health spa, Terezin proved a place of starvation, punishment and disease where thousands died. It was also a halfway house to the gas chambers.

Though the spectre of the Second World War and the subsequent Communist stranglehold on Eastern Europe cast its shadow across our entire journey, it also shed light on the sense of survival that inhabits so much of mainland Europe.

The Terezin concentration camp with the motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” Work Makes Free over its gates.

Boarding the Poetry at Nuremberg, scene of the Nazi War Trials, we set off on a truly remarkable trip that would take us through a dizzying mix of picture postcard scenery, including ancient castles and historic cathedrals.

Climbing through a series of spectacular locks from the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal to the river proper, we sailed to historic ports like Regensburg, Passau and Melk, gliding through the rising mist of the beautiful Wachau Valley to Vienna and then on to Budapest.

Every stop provided jaw-on-the-floor sights, amazing Baroque architecture, solid silver altars, art treasures, winding cobbled streets and history – social, religious and political – stretching back over centuries.

It wasn’t all high-culture and self-improvement, though. In Salzburg we were treated to an insight into the home city of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and also a dedicated Sound of Music movie tour. To the accompaniment of a singalong soundtrack, we visited the original film locations and heard how, while they love Julie Andrews, the locals are still not too keen on Christopher Plummer, who got all moody on set, hated the children, insisted on staying in a separate hotel and later dismissed the famous musical as “The Sound of Mucus”.

Watching the river flow: The Danube and the 12th century bridge at Regensburg, the oldest working stone bridge in Germany.

As well as sightseeing, our journey offered opportunities too for shopping and the chance to sample Bavarian beers, specialist sausages, gingerbread… the list went on.

The catering aboard the Poetry – three meals a day and quality wine with dinner each night – was so good there was barely room for an alfresco Bratwurste for elevenses.

Street graffiti in Prague

The ship was a state- of-the-art river cruiser. Supremely comfortable and beautifully run by a friendly and mainly Hungarian, crew. Entertainment was provided nightly and we quickly found convivial dining and drinking companions. Our 125 fellow passengers included doctors, lawyers, a vet, a petroleum geologist, a sculptor, an economics lecturer and even a couple who hire out private jet aircraft to celebrity clients. It just shows that it’s good to pull out of life’s fast-lane once in a while. I can’t think of a better way of doing it.