In early November, a friend and I sailed on the Viking Jarl down the Danube. We both were eager to see if Viking could live up to its advertising hype. I would say they do with a caveat; not everything is perfect.
We booked online, which was seamless. Each passenger has an online account, and you can pay your fees. The only issue I had was dealing with the Viking Air portion of the trip. We booked our flights through Viking, which seemed easy enough. However, when I wanted details about the flights, it wasn’t as easy as just making a call. It was multiple calls to a variety of individuals, none of whom could give me an answer. Thankfully, everything worked out, and our seats were as we wanted them. Yes, airlines are not easy to deal with, especially when you are ticketed through American Airlines and flying with the codeshare British Air. Be prepared to ask questions and know where you want to sit. It is a long flight.
We took advantage of booking a pre-cruise extension for Prague and Nuremberg. We spent two days in Prague, then had a bus ride to Nuremberg for another full day before heading to the ship in Regensberg. In hindsight, we should have booked the post-cruise extension in Budapest, if only to escape having the leave the ship for the airport at 4:30 am. Boyan, our tour director for the pre-cruise portion of the trip, did an excellent job of herding all the travelers.
Prague is an exciting and vibrant city. We stayed at the Hilton Prague, which was close to the river. It is an enormous hotel and caters to Viking tours. We were given a standard double room with a bath and water closet. Adapting to European bath facilities is always an adjustment, but you learn.
The city tour with guide Pavel was engaging, and we met fellow travelers we would get to know throughout the trip. After the city tour, we went to the city’s main square for a late lunch with our new friends. We thoroughly enjoyed navigating through the city on one of the city buses. Our second day in Prague was rainy as we toured the Jewish quarter. It was a remarkable story of fortitude.
We made more cruise friends during the two-hour bus ride on the autobahn. Nuremberg was all about history, both medieval and World War II. In the morning, we toured the medieval side of Nuremberg, and in the afternoon toured the Nazi parade grounds, congress center, and Congress Center exhibit, and ended at Courtroom 600, the site of the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II.
The World War II story of Nuremberg wasn’t lost on us. As we were walking to the parade grounds, there was a commotion at the grandstand, and our group and guide knew something wasn’t right. The police were called by another bystander who also witnessed the situation. The police quickly rounded up several of the hooligans. Our guide, Janet, from Glasgow, then related a compelling narrative of the Nazis in Nuremberg. At the Congress Center, a never fully completed structure, we viewed an exhibit, ‘ Fascination and Terror’ on Nazi intimidation. We finished our tour in Courtroom 600, the site of the Nuremberg trials, in 1946. While the courtroom does not look as it did for the trials that were held, it is a reminder that justice does reign.
Nuremberg was our first introduction to mouth-watering gingerbread. Our guide had remarked where to find the best in town, and we did. It will be hard to go back to gingerbread in the states. Once you’ve had the best, it’s hard to settle.
Boarding the Longship Jarl
On Viking bus deposited us next to our ship, The Jarl, in Regensberg. We quickly debussed, identified our luggage, and were onboard to find our stateroom. The staterooms are not large. We had to remind our cabin steward, Andi, who was helpful and kind, that we needed the bed separated into twins. She attended to that while we went for lunch in the main lounge. We met up with our new cruise friends, Aaron and Peggy. They were Viking veterans and gave a quick overview of what to expect from the cruise.
In the afternoon, we took a quick walking tour of Regensberg. It was more of a fast trot with our guide Rosa. She left us on our own to find our way back to the ship. Not hard, but still, all you had was to find the river.
Learning the cruise routine
After unpacking and learning more about our stateroom, the bathroom was a ballet for a shower. There was only so much room, so you learn quickly. Television options were limited, a dozen or so movies, five live TV networks, all news, and of course, as promised, Downton Abbey. That was its only saving grace. I know we weren’t there to watch TV, but sometimes you want the distraction.
Before dinner each evening, we were given an overview of the next day’s port and what tours would be available. It was an excellent opportunity to prepare for the outing. Our cruise director was a lovely young woman looking forward to the end of her cruise time. Her contract was ending in December.
Our first onboard dinner was delightful and tasty and included the best thing on the menu, goat cheese souffle. In my opinion, that dish was the highlight of the food during the cruise. As one passenger pointed out, ‘it’s river cruise food.’ It’s prepared in a small kitchen with good ingredients, but when you’re feeding 190 people plus the crew, it is a daunting task.
I will say the dining room and lounge service was excellent. The crew works hard and doesn’t get a lot of downtime. John Paul, head bartender, learned your drink quickly, Oscar was always polite, and Radu and Johnny in the dining room made it effortless. This is where Viking shines, and the service and the people who provide it make your trip memorable.
We toured Regensberg a bit more thoughtfully on Monday. It’s not a large place, but the cathedral is worth the visit. Leaving Regensberg as we ate dinner was exciting because we entered the first lock we would pass through on the Danube. I was fascinated. I ran up to the top deck to get pictures, and we were so close I could touch the lock wall.
Included with the cruise fare is an overview tour of each city. You can book additional tours for a fee. In Passau, we took a foggy city trek. Then in the afternoon, we took a bus up to the castle that overlooked the city. There was a small fee for the bus and an eight-euro fee for the castle tour. The view was spectacular.
Wachau Valley and Krems
We were up early to enjoy the sail through the Wachau Valley. The valley is a beautiful stretch of the Danube. Picturesque and charming, as promised. After lunch, I headed to the Gottweig Abbey tour, and Cindy went on an electric bike ride through the vineyards. We were both happy with our extra tours and enjoyed another night of dinner, drinks, and conversation.
There is just something special about Vienna. It is a huge and vibrant city. The city tour whet our appetite for exploring and provided landmarks for other places I wanted to see. The Sacher Hotel was a charming stop. We had Viennese coffee and strudel at Café Hawelka strudel. We shopped at a chocolate shop for some Swiss chocolate.
St. Stephens church dominates the main square, and we managed to shop at the opening Christmas markets. I also toured Schonnbrun Palace in the early evening, which they call the mini Versailles. It was enormous. We only saw a small number of the 1441 rooms.
The next day, I toured the Spanish Training School for the Lipizzaner horses. They were smaller than I thought but beautiful, talented, and spoiled rotten.
Budapest is still recovering from its years under communist rule. The massive parliament house is impressive and beautiful, and this city of bridges seems to go on and on. We toured the vast city market where you could find anything from fresh sausage to a new hat. We toured the Jewish memorial, The Shoes, on the edge of the Danube, commemorating where the Nazis murdered the Jews. It makes you think about what horrible things have happened along that river.
4:30 am is a ridiculous time to board a bus for the airport. Return flight times are something to consider when planning a cruise. Again, that may have been avoided if we had communicated better with Viking Air. The process is swift; you put your luggage out in the hall at 3:15 am, then get ready to travel, have a very light breakfast in the lounge, and hope you can sleep on the flight.
Would I cruise with Viking again, yes? Why? Service was excellent; the personnel was kind and helpful. I would recommend the pre- and post-extensions if they are interesting and not cost-prohibitive.
Viking is not the most nor least expensive cruise line. They are an inclusive line. As a travel agent friend I met on the cruise told me, ‘It’s all about expectations.’ Do other lines do it as well, or better, perhaps?
We met many interesting people from across the U.S. I hope to see some of them again on our travels because if Viking does one thing right, it’s getting everyone together in the lounge to drink and have a conversation.
Next time, I will know what to expect and be prepared. I liked having a balcony; it was nice to have a bit of air. The ships are amazingly quiet, even with the airline-style toilet. We never heard a peep from our neighbor’s cabin. It was smooth sailing as well. You don’t know you’re moving unless you notice the land going by. I will say that the alcoholic drinks were strong, which could cause some issues for some individuals. But with the all-inclusive drinks package, it’s hard to say no at times. Viking has their cruise service down to a tee. They do a well-orchestrated dance multiple times a month on each longship they sail. Yes, I will take a voyage with them again.