Jeri Clausing, Travel Weekly’s river cruise editor, saddles up for a solo Vienna adventure after oversleeping and missing her guided bike tour.
One of my favorite parts of river cruising is heading out on foot or bicycle to explore the city of the day on my own.
It's something river lines increasingly encourage, with onboard bikes and concierge and activity guides to help adventurous travelers who want to do things other than the traditional guided city tours.
But one such outing during the recent christening sailing of the AmaMagna was a reminder of the importance of both tapping into that onboard expertise and paying attention to those pre-cruise talks, which like airline briefings are easy to tune out. For instance, they always emphasize three of the cardinal lessons of river cruising: never leave the ship without knowing its docking location and its phone number and make sure you have a map.
In Vienna I violated all three. And while it turned into a fun, albeit at times slightly stressful, adventure, it was also a reminder of why many travelers prefer guided excursions to unscripted solo adventures — and why I still recommend venturing without a plan.
It began when I overslept and missed the guided bike tour of Vienna. Wanting to get some exercise, I grabbed one of the last two bikes with plans for taking a leisurely ride along the river bank before lunch on the ship and an afternoon shuttle into the city center.
About a kilometer or two down the path, realizing there was not much to see, I impulsively headed toward town to see what I could find.
And find I did. I cruised past beautiful parks, over the Danube canal, along residential streets in the old city with beautiful flower boxes and interesting old windows and doors, past bustling street cafes and finally into the heart of city center, where I used Vienna's extensive bike lanes to cycle past some of its most famous sites.
Horse carriages pass the National Theater in Vienna’s city center. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
I watched horse carriages carry tourists past the National Theater, cycled the paths in the park surrounding the towering neo-Gothic Votive Church, into the museum district and past Vienna's famed opera house, enjoying the beautiful architecture combined with the daily hustle and bustle.
A few hours in, I decided it was time to head back to the ship, comfortable with my direction until I came to a dead end in what I thought was a street that would take me to the Danube.
The first person I tried to get directions from walked right past me. Others just shrugged.
Then I saw a young bike deliveryman who spoke perfect English. "The river?" he said, "It's that way," pointing the opposite direction of where I had been headed. "Follow me."
It was a river, all right. It just wasn't my river. I was back at the Danube canal that runs through the heart of the city and which I knew was indeed the opposite direction.
I set off again, seeing some familiar landmarks but ending up back at the canal.
I found a police officer who gave me a bit of a blank stare when I asked where the river was. "Where the big cruise ships go?" I said. Still nothing.
Finally, he said, "You mean the Donau?" Ah, of course no one knew where the Danube was. That's not what they call it there.
With help from a few other strangers, I ended up in the beautiful and massive Prater, or public park, with seemingly endless green space and riding and walking paths. Straight ahead, I was told.
A midexcursion repast at a beer garden. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
It was a beautiful ride, but with the river still nowhere in sight I decided to stop in a beer garden for — what else? — beer and wiener schnitzel.
After lunch, with another wrong turn or two in the park, I made it to the river bank. But there were no river ships in either direction.
"Do you know where the riverboats dock?" I asked some men who were doing maintenance.
"Down there," one said, pointing to the left, then turning to the right and adding, "But sometimes they also dock there."
So off I went, fingers crossed, to the left. A few kilometers later, just as I was getting both nervous and tired from riding into a brisk wind, I spotted the lineup of river ships. Four and a half hours after leaving, I pulled up to the AmaMagna.
Later that evening I opened my pack to discover I had indeed had a map and the ship's phone number with me all along. I laughed out loud, thinking of all the interesting sights and encounters I would have missed had I known they were there, or if I had joined a group tour.