Photo by Brenda Ernst
Photo by Brenda Ernst
The AmaViola, our luxurious home for eight cycling-filled days.
A cruise skeptic changes her tune after a voyage down the Danube.
I’ll be honest up front: As a traveler, I’ve generally shied away from both cruising and large-group travel. So when I tell you that my eight-day Backroads-AmaWaterways cycling cruise down the Danube subtly changed me and the way I saw Europe, I hope you’ll understand that this is coming from, not a cruise acolyte, but a skeptic who saw the light.
Ironically, the light first dawned at 4:30 in the darkness of early morning. It was the second day of the trip, which had started in Prague, and I woke to the gentle growl of the ship’s engine, my jet-lagged mind tricked into thinking that it was much later than it was. It became clear that further sleep was out of reach. The possibility of getting a cappuccino while my 149 fellow passengers slept, however, was very much within reach. I pulled on a few layers, left my comfortable, river-level cabin, and headed to the lounge. As I walked past the sliding doors that lead to the deck, they slid open, washing in a wave of cool, sweet-smelling air.
Cappuccino in hand, I headed for the uppermost deck. It was empty with only a few crew members standing near the bridge. One of the crew helped me pull up a chair to the bow of the ship and brought me a fleece blanket. I settled in.
The beauty of this kind of cycling cruise is that it really is for everyone. We had the option to ride an e-bike or a regular bike or a fancy bike with clip-in pedals. Each day, two to three routes were available; we could go leisurely or burly, depending on our energy levels. Heck, we could even skip the bike altogether and just get a massage on the ship. The day prior—our first day of riding—I’d picked the moderately hilly 35-mile ride, from Vilshofen, Germany, to Passau. Traveling on a bike, to me, is like absorbing the world with your body. You feel the vibration of the road in your hands and bones, you dip in and out of pockets of scent, you feel the wind on your neck and ears. Thanks to first-day jitters, I have especially strong sensory memories of that initial ride: fields of dried cornstalks curving under the weight of the breeze; the complex scent of manure, fennel, pine, and wildflowers; the burn in my thighs as we climbed mini mountains, the Austrian Alps mocking us in the distance.which was nearly crowned the Chuck Norris Bridge, thanks to the Internet) from Austria into Slovakia, a former Iron Curtain country. Immediately, Austria’s smooth, well-maintained roads gave way to overgrown trails so pitted and bumpy they made my teeth chatter. Goats and sheep appeared at random.
Our trip ended in Budapest. On our last evening, Backroads arranged for a night sail down the Danube and, to celebrate, they hosted a white party (one of those elegant affairs to which you wear white clothing) on the top deck. At the beginning of the week, I’d been apprehensive about traveling with such a large group. But 192 hours, 180 cycling miles, and five countries later, my fellow passengers felt like family—a very large, extended family with branches I didn’t totally know or get. Still: We felt connected. It was cold that night, so in order to maintain the dress code, many of us wrapped ourselves in our white AmaWaterways bathrobes. As we stood on the top deck, warmed by the robes and the sparkling wine, I soaked in the lights of Budapest, fully onboard with whatever was to come next.
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