On the Viking Freya, most of the staterooms measure 135 to 205 square feet. One night I found a towel elephant along with the daily newsletter on my bed. Those are about all she has in common with the cruise ships lined up at PortMiami and Port Everglades.
The 443-foot ship cruises rivers — this year she’s on the Danube. She has no swimming pool, no spa, no salon, no casino, no children’s clubs, no fitness center, no hot tub, no belly-flop contest, no art sale, no pricey alternative restaurant, no wall of snapshots you can buy for $19.99 each.
There’s almost no nightlife, just a pianist who also sings, and maybe a trivia contest in the lounge — which usually clears out by 11 p.m. No beach parties are on the list of shore excursions; no Margaritavilles await at the ports the ship visits.
Everything is set up for Viking’s target demographic: affluent English-speakers age 55 and up.
A cruise on Viking Freya is destination-oriented, with at least one stop a day and a history-intensive guided tour — at no extra charge — in most ports. Almost everyone goes. If you want to skip a port and stay on board, there are lounge chairs on the top deck by the chef’s herb garden, board games in the library and lots of well-lighted spots for reading.
The ship is named for the Norse goddess of love, beauty and fertility, but during my week on board, I heard no one call her beautiful. She’s short and squat and has almost no curves. Her best physical feature is floor-to-ceiling windows in the public spaces with excellent views out and lovely light coming in. On the Aquavit Terrace, the windows retract in good weather and turn it into an outdoor lounge.
She’s my kind of cruise ship.
Viking Freya, 2 years old and holding no more than 190 guests, is part of the first generation of Viking’s Longships, vessels the line is building and launching at lightning speed to remain the biggest company on the rivers of the world. This summer, the California-based line will have 53 ships, most of them sailing Europe’s rivers, and half a dozen in Asia and Egypt. By the end of 2015, it will have 64 ships.
Freya was launched in April 2012. As with all Viking ships — and any line’s river cruise ship — its size and shape were limited by the rivers it would sail and any locks on those rivers. The ships must be slim enough for river channels with ships passing in both directions and low enough to pass under bridges. That leaves no room for most of the basic amenities on oceangoing cruise ships.
The journey I took was the Danube Waltz, a seven-night cruise from Passau, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary, with a day in each of those cities plus four stops in Austria and one in Bratislava, Slovakia. Most of the time we sailed during the night so we could spend daylight (and sometimes well into the evening) in port.
My cruise was in April, when we had mostly cold and sometimes rainy mornings and a few sunny afternoons. We spent little time in the lounge chairs on the top deck.
The wheelhouse sank so smoothly, so quietly, that I didn’t even notice it was happening. I turned to see how close we were to the first bridge of our cruise and was surprised to see the wheelhouse, which is on scissor jacks, six to eight feet lower than it had been just a few minutes earlier. The prow of the Viking Freya nosed under the bridge just then, and a tall passenger on tiptoe touched its underside as we glided through.
With that passage, we sailed from Germany into Austria. Our first castle —nothing as big as what the word “castle” implies to us non-monarchists — was not far off. Accustomed to the monotonous stretches of blue on ocean cruises, I soaked up the views: small villages, old stone bridges and abutments, the ruins of castles and fortresses, steeples peeking above ridges.
The newsletter said we would go through several locks that night, and later I would awaken to grinding noises, look out my veranda door and see the walls of a lock, stained by Danube waters, towering above me.
We had boarded late the day before in Passau, a medieval town at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, then spent our first full day of the cruise there. On such a small ship, a sense of camaraderie developed quickly.
A walking tour took us through the historic center of town to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where we learned the differences between Baroque, Gothic and Rococo architecture. Bits of that lesson would repeat throughout the cruise, as we visited church after church.
After lunch back on the ship, some of us set off on our own explorations. I visited the Passau Glass Museum, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of European glass. Others climbed a hill to a 13th century castle that overlooks the town.
Now it was dinnertime. Viking ships have only one dinner seating in the main dining room, and a lighter menu in the indoor/outdoor Aquavita Terrace one deck above, but dinner hours in both are roughly the same. The ships have no place for late-night burgers and ice cream.
Dress was casual. Although men sometimes wore sport coats to dinner, I saw only a few dresses. On our dressiest night, the Captain’s Farewell Dinner, Capt. Ferenc Horvath wore a pirate’s eye patch and a hook protruding from the sleeve of his uniform. I like a man with a sense of humor.
My shipmates were sophisticated travelers. For many, it was their first river cruise, but it wasn’t their first trip to Europe. Some passengers were repeat Viking customers. Many had been on ocean cruises and didn’t like them; some didn’t care to try. Their next trip would be to the Italian countryside where they would rent a villa, or a longer cruise on the Rhine or a yearlong road trip around the United States.
The dining room has no assigned seating. Some people struck up friendships and dined together for the rest of the cruise. Others sat at a different table each night and made new acquaintances. The smallest tables in the main dining room seat six, in Aquavit Terrace, four, so the only option if an anti-social cruiser was aboard was to carry their dinner back to their room (there is no room service).
The menu changed daily, with three or four choices for each course, including a vegetarian entree; in addition, Caesar salad, grilled salmon and steak were available every day. Some of the first courses and desserts were very creative, while the main courses were more conventional, with a nod to healthy eating.
The next morning, our ship docked in Linz, Austria, where most of us boarded buses for Salzburg, about 90 minutes away in the Alps, past green meadows and mountain ridges still outlined with snow. The trip to Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, and the city where The Sound of Music was set, is the most popular Viking excursion on any itinerary.
We walked through the Mirabell Gardens, where a scene from The Sound of Music was filmed, to the house where Mozart was born. Just down the street was the Salzburg Cathedral (Baroque), rebuilt twice since the original opened in the eighth century and still containing the baptismal font in which Mozart was christened.
On the following days, we stopped in Melk to see the Melk Abbey, a Benedictine abbey (Baroque) on a hill overlooking the Danube; Durnstein, where some went wine-tasting and others hiked up to the ruins of Kuenringerburg Castle, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned; Vienna, where our tour ended at St. Stephen’s Cathedral (mostly Gothic with some Romanesque) and where, that night, more than half the passengers went to a Mozart/Strauss concert; and Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, where we had a quick tour by bus and foot by the Bratislava Castle (mostly Baroque) and St. Martin’s Cathedral (Gothic) before casting off at noon for Budapest.
That afternoon, Viking Freya went through the biggest lock on the trip and the only one we went through in daylight. We crowded the rail of the top deck, through some delays, before the captain — no pirate’s eyepatch today — guided the ship in.
The water dropped so slowly that it was imperceptible. Then the metal barrier behind us poked above the water, and a seagull walked nonchalantly across. Cameras snapped all around. Eventually, the water level dropped 60 feet, leaving us in a dark canyon, sunlight above. Then the two gates in front parted, and we sailed out.
Well into the cruise, I looked through my photos and found an abundance of church pictures — steeples, altars, arched doorways, stained-glass windows, painted ceilings — and found myself saying things like “that has so much bling, it’s got to be Baroque.”
If there was one thing I’d change about my cruise, it would be the tours — too much history and architecture, too little art, music or modern life.
Some of what I liked about the cruise: The crew was well-trained and attentive. The tours and other activities were well-organized and ran smoothly. I wasn’t nickeled and dimed. No one was pushing photos, jewelry by the inch, the drink of the day or dinner in an alternative restaurant that cost extra. Wine and beer were included with meals, and there was no corkage fee if we bought wine off the ship to have with dinner. In fact, other than at the bar, it was hard to spend money on board.
I also liked Viking’s willingness to detour from the conventional, whether it was the chef’s organic herb garden on the top deck, an experiment with a new tour of Vienna’s street market led by the chef de cuisine, or an Austrian-themed dinner where we took our plates to the galley for the main course and got a glimpse of behind-the-scenes operations that seemed oddly intimate.
END OF THE LINE
The boat was scheduled to arrive in Budapest after dark, when the bridges and buildings are lit up. But the delay at the lock had cost us our grand entrance, and most people had gone to bed when we arrived. Still, a few of us late-nighters went out on top to admire the sights and get our first impression of Budapest.
The next day, the tour took us through Pest, the flat part of the city, to see Heroes Square, then to the hilly Buda side, with our guide, a local, telling jokes. “They say there are two kinds of people in Budapest,” she said. “The ones who live in Buda and the ones who say, ‘I wish I could live in Buda.’ ”
The bus dropped us off at Castle Hill, where we admired another church (Gothic), bought our last souvenirs of the trip, and walked through the seven towers of Fisherman’s Bastion, a stretch of city wall that the guild of fishermen was responsible for guarding during the Middle Ages .
I walked by the Shoes on the Danube memorial, near where Viking Freya was docked. The memorial honors Jews who, during World War II, were ordered to take off their shoes and stand at the edge of the water so that when they were shot, their bodies would fall into the river. The memorial consists of iron sculptures of 60 pairs of shoes in the style of that era attached to the stone wall. I found it more sad and touching than traditional memorials.
Back on the ship, we went to our staterooms to pack. Some people were leaving as early as 3 a.m. to catch flights back to the United States. The last guests would be off the Viking Freya by 9:30 a.m., and a few hours later, the crew would welcome new guests for a cruise back up the Danube, doing our itinerary in reverse.
Dinner was a little rowdy as we said our farewells. We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, bought each other drinks, talked about where we would go next, wondered how our clothing seemed to take up more room in our suitcases than it did on the way over. Some people who had resisted temptation until now ordered two desserts.
Then the program director announced that the ship was going to circle the harbor, and we all trooped upstairs to see the lit-up city. I could hear the oohs and aahs of the other passengers. A woman standing next to me gasped at the beauty around her. “Oh, I just love this,” she said.
The ship made another turn and we faced the Parliament building, glorious in the moonlight. Suddenly the architectural jargon of all those tours caught up with me.
“You know,” I said, “I believe that’s a fine example of Gothic architecture.”