Cruising in Nostalgia on the Danube River

Uniworld River Cruises, Inc.

A new cruise between Budapest and Passau from Uniworld’s Monarch Collection offers a window into the grand fin de siècle lifestyle.

On the banks of the Danube, in the sprawling shadow of Budapest’s art nouveau Gellèrt Hotel, as the last strains of Liszt’s Campanella died out over the last dregs of high tea, the Hungarian pianist and the ship’s steward bade farewell to one another with a bow.

It might have been something out of a Stefan Zweig novel—or out of Wes Anderson’s 2014 The Grand Budapest Hotel: that arch, Zweig-inspired cinematic pastiche of Central European grandeur and melancholy. But here on the River Beatrice, Uniworld’s unabashedly nostalgic, fin de siècle-inflected Danube riverboat, such Austro-Hungarian courtliness felt entirely fitting.

Uniworld’s recently launched Monarch Collection of cruises is designed to offer travelers on its Danube Routes between Budapest and Passau a “unique perspective on the life and times of royalty past and present.”

Even without its themed excursions, the River Beatrice felt no less artfully nostalgic than Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Its staterooms were decorated with Egon Schiele–inspired sketches (mine included one of two women in a suspiciously languid, if not quite compromising position). The menus for its nightly six-course dinners were printed with elaborate coats-of-arms. Its stewards were uncannily ubiquitous, if not potentially psychic: halfway through my asking after a lost scarf, my steward—then clearing another stateroom—produced it seemingly from his sleeve.

A riverview suite aboard Uniworld's River Beatrice.
Courtesy Uniworld River Cruises, Inc.

But even ashore, the cruise proved an exercise in Austro-Hungarian elegiac decadence that rivaled Zweig’s own: a shipboard concert of Liszt and Chopin’s most mournful melodies in Budapest, our first stop; two days later, a private guided tour to the tack-room and stables of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. There, imperially snowy stallions, their bloodlines as meticulously traced as those of the Habsburgs themselves, still engage in impeccable military dressage under the eighteenth-century teal moldings of the Winter Riding School. At night, we were taken to a private Champagne concert of Mozart’s arias, along with the inevitable Strauss waltz, at the nearby Palais Eschenbach, where a portrait of Kaiser Franz-Josef—whose stubborn conservatism helped augur the crises of World War I (“our last Emperor!” sighed our guide)—stares down the wood-paneled walls. Morning lectures on the more salacious parts of Habsburg history, the fin de siècle Empress Sisi’s notoriously tight corsets, the number of generations of inbreeding necessary to produce the protruding “Habsburg lip,” lent us an air of complicity: the world of balls and waltzes, schlosses, and courtiers, was, for a week, at least, our own.

Nowhere was this passion for the past more evident than at Schloss Artstetten, the white-turreted chateau in Austria’s Wachau Valley, most famous for its association with the doomed Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, who lived there until his 1914 assassination in Sarajevo. There we were greeted by the pearl-clad Princess Anita von Hohenberg, Franz Ferdinand’s granddaughter and the castle’s current caretaker, and her recalcitrant lapdog Momo, for an informal audience: equal parts World War I history and gossipy family saga.

The Blue Bar at Hotel Sacher, Vienna.
Steve Outram / Getty Images

She motioned to the family portraits on the walls. Her children, she told us, with half a smile, lived in the turret wings—as far away from the reminders of their bloodlines as possible.

“One always has one’s ancestors in one’s rucksack,” she sighed. “All of us.”

At times during the cruise, these ancestral presences threatened to weigh us down. Along Vienna’s tourist-thronged Kärnerstrasse, the costumed buskers and the corseted and bewigged opera pamphleteers gave the Inner Stadt the uncanny, unwelcome sense of a revivified family crypt. In those moments, it was tempting to disagree with Zweig when he writes in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, that the “great and mighty Habsburg Empire” has “vanished without a trace.” Instead, it had remained, at least in name: its aesthetic commodified into gaudy artifice.

But by night, when the moon flooded the milk-white, angel-carved facades of the old city, ghosts were easier to come by. Passing by the main café of the Hotel Sacher, where tourists elbow their way past the queue for an apricot-scented bite of iconic Sachertorte, I wandered into the main hotel lobby, then found myself in a nearly empty room: the half-hidden, unmarked “Blue Bar” (the sofas and chairs at the bar’s ten-odd tables are indigo velvet; the walls navy brocade, trimmed with gold). A woman whose wrists were weighed down by diamond bracelets sat alone at one of the tables, nursing a martini and a separate glass of ten olives on ice. I ordered a Sachertorte. We sat in proximate silence under a gilded portrait of a woman in an Edwardian hat.

The courtyard of Durnstein Abbey, Wachau Valley.
Getty Images

All along the Danube, quiet, unexpected, moments like these made the past I longed to enter feel far more present than all the imitation Mozarts along the Kärtnerstrasse. In Budapest, I discovered a wildly ornate café—the gilded, chandelier-punctuated, mirror-paneled Lotz Hall—sequestered on the top floor of an otherwise contemporary bookstore on Andrassy Avenue. Later, past Vienna, in the vine-strewn Wachau Valley village of Durnstein, I walked alone among the ruins of old castles where Crusader king Richard the Lionheart was once imprisoner, traipsing down through forest paths to the Habsburg-era Durnstein Abbey (a violently pastel-blue). At the river’s edge, each tiny apricot house sells liqueurs distilled from the petals of violets and roses. Later still, I cycled the twenty miles along the river between Durnstein and Melk through pastel Wachau villages like Weisenkirchen, and past the fishermen who stood so still overlooking the rushing water. I spent my afternoons at high tea: reading Central European writers (Zweig, Gregor von Rezzori, Robert Musil) in the lounge, its olive and scarlet brocade no less elegant than the banquettes of a Viennese coffeehouse, listening to Chopin and Liszt playing in the background on repeat, the river lapping at the boat.

I remembered something the Princess von Hohenberg had said: “History comes full circle,” she’d said. “Everything old is new again.”

Uniworld’s 7-day “Enchanting Danube” cruises run regularly between Budapest and Passau between March and November from $2500 per person (double occupancy) in low season. “Monarch Collection” options, including a reception with Princess Anita von Hohenberg at Castle Artstetten, are available on select sailings.

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