As the second-longest river in Europe, the Danube runs through ten countries, flowing through large parts of central and Eastern Europe. For many years, it has been an artery for transport, economics, and culture. With these also comes a rich culture of food — something that is easily experienced as you travel along the river to see, and more importantly, eat your way across the cities connected to it.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to take a trip along the water on a ship or boat sailing across the various countries connected by the Danube river. We did so on the S.S Maria Theresa, a Uniworld Super Ship-class cruise named for the 18th-century Habsburg ruler who reigned over Austria and other parts of Europe for 40 years.
With 11 suites, 64 staterooms, and almost 60 members of staff catering for up to 150 guests members, this opulently-furnished vessel takes all the trouble out of having to move between different hotels as you travel from city to city as your hotel is basically travelling with you. Exploring the cities is also a breeze, thanks to Uniworld’s tie-up with local guides at each stop. Just disembark, and follow the friendly guides who will show you around, complete with museum tours, cafe visits, and little insights into daily life along each city.
Days 1 and 2: Boarding and exploring Budapest, Hungary
The first thing you will probably notice when boarding the ship is the decor. While the S.S Maria Theresa looks like any other sleek, modern vessel from the outside, the interior of the ship is outfitted like one of the many grand castles you will find along the river. Glittering chandeliers, ornate, grand staircases, and a larger-than-life oil portrait of Maria Theresa all feature in the lobby area of the ship. Even the rooms are furnished in the same style, with opulent canopy beds by UK artisans Savoir Beds and marble-floored bathrooms.
The first meal you will probably have in Hungary is in the ship’s aptly-named Baroque restaurant, which sets the tone for the rest of your experiences on board the ship: stellar, attentive service, and well-prepared food with a focus on regional specialities based on wherever the ship is docked in.
You will undoubtedly find goulash, the national dish of Hungary made with beef, paprika, tomatoes, and vegetables. You will find this in either soup or stew form, although it’s almost always best eaten with sour cream and a hearty appetite.
Don’t fill up on goulash though, Budapest offers all manner of gastronomic delights to explore, which you will get to discover on one of the Uniworld-organised tours (one of the best features on any of their cruises) to the Great Market Hall of Budapest.
Built in 1897, the Great Market Hall (also known as Nagycsarnok in Hungarian) is a sweeping collection of stalls housed in a cavernous neo-Gothic building. Here you will find everything from fresh produce like meat, fowl and vegetables, to dried goods, pickles, and regional and local liqueurs. While tourists flock here for a taste of Hungarian culture, locals shop here too, so the prices are still reasonable, and the experience authentic. If the tour has built an appetite, head to the second floor for some snacks. Try the langos, a local snack of fried, proofed dough topped with your choice of savoury or sweet ingredients — favourites include cinnamon sugar, or a heart-stopping combination of cheese and sour cream.
What to buy in the Great Market Hall:
Paprika – one of the most important spices in Hungarian and Central European cuisine. Comes in sweet, hot, and smoked varieties. Foie gras – Hungary is the second-largest producer of foie gras in the world, although much of domestic foie gras production gets shipped to France, who are already the largest producer in the world. In the market, you will find tinned foie gras treated similarly to pate.
Téliszalámi – Hungarian-style salami, cured with a mix of spices like garlic and paprika. Palinka – fruit-based brandy similar to schnapps. These fiery spirits are distilled from fruit mash, and usually come with a piece of fruit in the bottle to show its provenance, and prove that the liquor is of high-enough proof. Varieties usually include apricot, pear, cherries; while most varieties come in at about 50% ABV.
A QUICK STOP
Day 3: Bratislava and Vienna
The S.S Maria Theresa continues down the Danube from Hungary to the capital of Slavakia, Bratislava. One of the smaller cities in Europe, Bratislava has a quiet charm in the day and an eclectic history that makes for some interesting sights — Soviet-era futurist buildings (The city was part of the Eastern Bloc between 1948 up till 1989) and communist monuments stand beside metropolitan areas, with statues of historical figures.
One of the lattermost is a bronze sculpture of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, who — as the story goes — was asked if he was going to spin a tale around Bratislava when he visited, to which he replied that there was no need to, as the city was already a fairy tale. Shake the statue’s hand for good fortune, and blessings for better writing.
Your time in Bratislava is short, but visit one of the cosy-looking bakeries for a taste of local pastries like the Bratislava roll, or rožky, a baked, crescent-shaped treat filled with sweetened, ground poppy seeds or nuts.
Eating and drinking on board the S.S Maria Theresa
The chefs on board make it a point of pride to serve the regional cuisine of wherever the ship is docked in, which could mean schnitzel while in Austria, and pretzel dumplings while in Bavaria; and even locally speciality cured meats. Lunches are casual, buffet-style affairs, while dinner sees sit-down, multi-course meals complete with, you guessed it, regional wines.
The Habsburg Lounge is also a great place to hang out, with live performances, and a very well stocked bar that includes some interesting spirits like Elephant Gin, which is distilled with uncommon, African botanicals like buchu, lion’s tail, African wormwood, and fresh apples. It’s great even when drunk neat, and has the added bonus where part of the proceeds from sales of the gin go towards elephant conservation.
CULTURE AND COFFEE
Day 4: Vienna
Vienna’s known as the “City of Music”, and it’s something you will be constantly reminded of with the multiple references, plagues, monuments, and even merchandise featuring the various legendary composers from the city, the most prominent of which is Mozart, who has his likeness on everything from keychains to chocolates.
Food in Vienna is hearty, with many dishes featuring pork: schnitzels, weiners (sausages named for the city) eaten with rye bread and curry ketchup, and schweinsbraten — roast pork with sauerkraut and potato. Try and get a table at Reinthaler’s Beisl (Dorotheergasse 2-4, 1010 Wien, Austria, +43 1 5131249), a bustling family-style restaurant, to eat like how the locals do.
The food here is honest, well-cooked, with generous portions. Cafe culture is strong in the city, and the Viennese coffee houses are an institution in their own right, having been listed as “Intangible Cultural Heritage” under UNESCO for being an invaluable part of the culture: where artists, thinkers, and politicians gathered, and where ideas are born. You won’t, and probably shouldn’t find a venti soy latte, or even possibly cappuccinos at these places— Viennese coffee plays by its own delicious rules. Instead, head for the beautiful-sounding and ubiquitous melange, which is essentially a milder cappucino with large amounts of steamed, frothed milk; or the einspänner, which is espresso topped with sweetened whipped cream.
Stop by Gerstner K. u. K. Hofzuckerbäcker (Kärntner Str. 51, 1010 Wien, Austria. Tel: +43 15261361) for three whole levels of culture, coffee, and confectionary. Settle into the beautiful space and enjoy some coffee with another Viennese institution, the sachertorte, a sinfully dense chocolate cake layered with a smidgen of apricot jam.
Day 5: Dürnstein
If you enjoy a tipple, then Dürnstein is really where your liquid journey along the Danube starts. The town along the picturesque Wachau valley is also home to some of the best white-wine producing wineries in Austria, thanks to hot summers, harsh winters, and the different microclimates in each parcel.
It’s also home to the Nikolaihof winery, Austria’s oldest wine estate, which lies on historical, even ancient land that’s had evidence of wine production dating as far back as 470 A.D. They’re also one of the first vineyards in the world to practice biodynamic farming, and are Demeter-certified. Of course, great stories do not make good wine — great winemakers do.
Run by the Saahs family, Nikolaihof produces some critically acclaimed bottles, but production is small at around 100,000 bottles a year of mostly Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. A visit to the winery affords you the chance to sample the cooking of the lovely matriarch of the family, Christine Saah, and also taste some brilliant, energetic wines with a characteristic mineral bent, thanks to the chunky granite soil of Nikolaihof’s vineyards.
Day 6: Linz
Save some of your drinking for the day though, as there’s be more liquid delight the next day in the nearby town of Linz. Here, you will get to visit the Koeglerhof Cider Farm as part of a Uniworld tour, where Klaus, the owner, makes some of the best cider on his farm, while also raising some of the best geese in the country.
At Koeglerhof, you will find cider like never before. Pressed from indigenous apples and pears grown on the far, the cider here is bottled with vintages in mind; and can range from aromatic, sweet styles to even dry, complex bottlings not unlike Champagne. Lunch here is also a treat —everything you eat is grown and made on the farm: from the cured meats, to the freshly-baked bread. Buy a bottle of cider, juice, or even brandy — varieties include apples and even carrots— back as a souvenier.
Day 7: Passau
Your final stop on your drinking journey, and your cruise is Passau, German city that borders Austria where three rivers, including the Danube, converges. The town's part of Bavaria, and Bavaria means beer. Stop by Loewen Brauhaus Passau (Rathauspl. 2, 94032 Passau), where award winning beers are made. Their Stockbauer Weisse Original won the bronze in the European Beer Star Award 2016; and is a top-fermentedm full-bodied brew that's fruity and naturally hazy. Have your fill of beers here, because this is also where your trip on the S.S. Maria Theresa ends, and reality looms once more.
For more information, email [email protected] or call +65 6292 2936.