There is a curious joy in watching people queue for a coach tour while you look forward to strolling from coffee shop to wine bar with a local. I am greeted by my new BAF (Best Austrian Friend) as I step off the River Beatrice in Vienna, along with only five other passengers who have opted for this alternative excursion. For four hours, we have a delightful guide, and all of her city secrets, to ourselves.
Contrary to the program’s off-putting description of a “waltzing discovery of Viennese daily life”, we are not required to dance our way through the streets. Instead, we meander through Volksgarten, a park famous for its rose gardens and a monument to Empress ‘Sissi’.
But little time is wasted on the statues and temple. If we wanted a history lesson, we’d be on that big bus with everyone else. The lovely Miss BAF knows this, taking us swiftly past the Austrian Federal Chancellery and the Parliament Building.
When we arrive at Central Café, our eyes light up brighter than the Vienna Opera House at night. Located in the former Bank and Stockmarket Building in the 1st district, the opulent space is capped off with vaulted ceilings, arches and columns. Over the decades, Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler have sipped coffee here, but today the tables are occupied by government workers armed with laptops and newspapers.
As the espresso machine hisses and echoes off the walls,I order a wiener melange (similar to cappuccino) and an erdbeer schitte, a strawberry and vanilla cream slice adorned with pomegranates. My new friends – three Americans, two Brits and an Australian – rave about the apple struedel and a five-layered chocolate-and-caramel Dobos torte.
Walking onwards to Judenplatz, we continue through the cobble-stoned streets and pop out at Hoher Markt, the city’s oldest market square dating back to the 13th century. Rather than admiring the baroque fountain or the elaborate Anker Uhr clock, BAF whisks us away from the tourists and toward a sausage stand. This popular Würstelstand is open until 5am and re-opens at 7am, attracting everyone from businessmen having breakfast to teenagers on the way home from a nightclub.
The wurst is cut into pieces and presented with a plastic fork and bread on the side, or as a hotdog, doused in sweet or spicy mustard. It’s a tasty snack eaten while standing at the kiosk.
Our final venue is Wein & Co, which houses a wine store, tasting bar and restaurant under one roof. At happy hour, young Viennese flock here for the 100 different wines served by the glass. The bartender pours us a grüner veltliner, which we enjoy at the long, dimly lit bar.
Wandering down to St Stephen’s Cathedral, we end the afternoon in true local style by catching the subway back to the ship. Saying a sad goodbye to my BAF, I realise how far removed this tour is from a typical cruise ship’s shore excursion, but I think Uniworld is onto something. Best of all, it’s included in the cruise fare and there is no extra charge for any of the food or drinks consumed.
The experience fits perfectly with River Beatrice’s Epicurean Adventurer itinerary. The next day the ship sails down the Danube to Dürnstein, in the World Heritage-designated Wachau Valley, where we have a private Riesling-tasting at Domäne Wachau winery.
A wine-paired dinner is also held onboard, with modern as well as traditional Austrian dishes such as grostl, a hash of roasted potatoes and egg omelette. Most of the wines are Austrian, but a Hungarian dessert wine is matched with crème brûlée.
Regional delicacies are also presented at most ports of call: in Budapest, the chefs prepare goulash soup and spaetzle; in Linz, a Linzer torte; and of course, schnitzel in Vienna.
Arriving in Passau, a Bavarian town at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, we find a waterfront beer garden to people-watch and sample the city’s own brew, Hacklberg. River Beatrice docks overnight, and after the Captain’s farewell dinner, we savour the least European cuisine of the epicurean voyage, but a long-standing cruise tradition, a Bombe Alaska.
Uniworld’s ‘Epicurean Adventurer Program’ is offered on Enchanting Danube river-cruise itineraries at no extra charge. Fares start at $2,995 per person twin-share for an eight-day cruise from Budapest to Passau aboard River Beatrice, including meals, drinks, tips, shore excursions, and use of bicycles. House wine, beer and soft drinks are complimentary at lunch and dinner, and the wine-paired banquet is also included.
Excursions include the ‘Vienna as the Viennese do’ walking tour, a Budapest city tour, a full day in Salzburg, and walking tours of Melk Abbey, Linz and Passau.
See www.uniworldcruises.com.au or call 1300 780 231.
© Louise Goldsbury