River reveals wine, old world of kings and modern life

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Travel Management Daily copy chief Maria Bunnewith sailed on a Danube River cruise operated by Encino, Calif.-based Uniworld. Her report follows:

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 River.

A stiff wind blew through my inadequate jacket. Ah, Vienna in October.

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.

Bratislava Castle in Slovakia is on a site overlooking the Danube River that once was occupied by a Roman fortress. 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 receive.

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 real name.

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 sigh.

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 why.

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 is tourism.

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 us.

He brought seven wines, but after glass No. 4, I had to go to bed.

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 schnitzel.

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