Travel Management Daily copy chief Maria Bunnewith sailed on a
Danube River cruise operated by Encino, Calif.-based Uniworld. Her
ABOARD THE RIVER QUEEN -- I stood on the sun deck of the River
Queen as it began its nine-day wine-tasting cruise of the Danube
A stiff wind blew through my inadequate jacket. Ah, Vienna in
The wind, however, did nothing to spoil the fun had by the group
of passengers watching the ship squeeze through its first lock on
its way from Vienna to Budapest, Hungary, a journey that normally
takes about 15 hours.
We were two hours late getting in, due to the schedule of the
opening and closing of the locks. When we arrived, it took Budapest
customs agents another hour to check passports.
All this caused us to miss our morning tour, but we headed out in
the afternoon, by which time the sun had emerged.
Budapest is divided by the Danube -- Buda on one side and Pest
(pronounced pesht) on the other. Buda, the hilly side, used to be
the capital by itself.
The guide on our bus tour was pleasant and informative. She
included tidbits of trivia, such as that Budapest native Erno
Rubik, inventor of the Rubik's cube, was a lecturer at the Academy
of Applied Arts downtown.
As we peered out our windows into the lives of Budapest's
residents, we saw buildings of stucco and stone painted cheerful
colors, many with carved window and door frames.
A bit of Americana was in evidence throughout the city of 2.2
million: a billboard of a guy in a Chicago Bulls uniform shooting a
basket over a bottle of Sprite; a sticker with Tom and Jerry on it
in a cab; signs for Burger King, Pizza Hut, Pepsi, Levis,
McDonald's and Marlboro.
The streets seemed quaint, with their diagonal parking, phone
booths and lots of cafes.
During some free time we had in Budapest, we visited the
150-year-old Dohany Street Synagogue, the second-largest Jewish
temple in the world.
Unfortunately, it closed moments before we arrived, so we had to
gaze upon it from the outside.
On the Buda side of the Danube, we disembarked to visit the
Fishermen's Bastion. Elderly women, some in babushkas, stood in
high-traffic areas repeating carefully practiced English phrases in
an attempt to sell their homemade embroidery.
"Very nice, very cheap," they chanted over and over as they held
up their work for inspection.
The Fishermen's Bastion is actually a fortress from which it is
doubtful anyone ever fished.
In medieval times, every guild was required to build a fortress
to help protect the city. However, the bastion served more as a
decoration for the nearby Matthias Church, the Gothic house of
worship that dominates the Castle District.
Today, most tourists make a stop here because of the fantastic
views the bastion offers.
On our way out of Hungary, customs held our ship up once again
for about an hour. The ship's cruise director said inspectors were
"unquestionably" waiting for a bribe, which they did not
This prevailing attitude of customs officials in Budapest, in
contrast to our warm welcome in the Slovak Republic, spread a
feeling throughout the ship's guests that more time ought to be
spent in the latter and less in the former.
We enjoyed our short stay in Bratislava, Slovakia, partly
because our guide was fabulous. She was a small woman in her 50s
who told us to call her Eva because we could never pronounce her
As we drove around town in our now-familiar motorcoach, Eva
pointed out the many lovely new buildings that went up recently --
all banks. The banks lend money to build buildings, but only other
banks. "We have so many banks but no money," Eva said with a
She pointed out a somewhat unattractive building, a gray
monolith. This, she said, was built by someone who was not a good
architect but was a good communist.
She also showed us a big, beautiful fountain in the town square,
but the water is turned on only after 5 p.m. She didn't know
We saw the Hotel Forum, too. One of the most expensive hotels in
Bratislava, it charges $100 per night, including breakfast.
Eva had a lot to say about the economic situation in her
country, where about 4% of the population are very rich and 40% are
at or under the poverty level.
The average income in Slovakia is 10,000 crowns a year, or about
$240. A house costs $1 million to $5 million crowns, so you need to
work several lifetimes to be able to buy a house, Eva said.
After Bratislava, we headed back to Vienna.
Here we attended a Johann Strauss concert, which we thoroughly
enjoyed and thought well worth the $50 each we paid. It was the
only shore excursion that wasn't included in the tour.
Another stop was Melk, Austria, where we saw the abbey, a
towering, beautiful Benedictine monastery on a hill.
Thirty-six monks live there today. Their main source of income
As this was a wine cruise, a local vintner came aboard the ship
one evening to lecture on wines, and he set up a tasting for
He brought seven wines, but after glass No. 4, I had to go to
This evening, we also docked in Krems, but since we were at the
wine-tasting on board, few of us got to see it. A few who did go
said it was a quiet, small town.
A similar schedule was followed in Linz. Although the wine
lecture by the vintner was excellent, some passengers resented not
having time to see the town.
The next morning, we docked in Durnstein, Austria, where some
people walked into town right away. Our itinerary also included a
tour and wine tasting in town in the afternoon.
A small group of us followed the Melk vintner, Eric (who liked
the ship so much he decided to stay), to a local wine cellar.
We trudged through some vineyards and helped ourselves to
handfuls of ripened grapes along the way.
At the wine cellar, Eric explained to the owners who we were,
and a tasting was arranged. We drank the wine and ate warm, crusty
rolls with it.
The last day of the tour also was spent in Vienna.
For lunch, the whole group went to the Augustinakeller
restaurant to conclude our trip with a traditional dish of wiener