I journaled our river cruise every day for our entire 15-day cruise to Amsterdam. It was a helpful great record of what a European river cruise is really like. This was my first entry, the good, the bad and … you know the rest. I hope you enjoy my tale.
Today was check-in day on Viking Bragi, the ship that will take us on our Budapest to Amsterdam river cruise. Lucky us: While other passengers were struggling with flights and transfers, we had the morning to ourselves and could walk to the ship at our leisure.
Few things could be worse than missing embarkation because of a flight delay. What a nightmare that would be!
We arrived in town a few days before our cruise. That gave us time to explore at our leisure, not to mention adjust to the time change.
Where do river cruise ships dock in Budapest?
Viking's pre-trip literature mentioned that all Viking ships dock on the Pest side of the Danube, so we booked two nights at the Budapest Marriott. As you can see from the below photo, it was on the waterfront, just a few blocks from the Chain Bridge. Check prices here.
We were concerned about finding our ship, but it was incredibly easy to spot. The Bragi was docked directly next to Chain Bridge, mere blocks from our hotel. Talk about convenient!
On our Budapest tour the next day, we learned that Chain Bridge is Budapest's best landmark. Also, it was the first bridge to connect both sides of the city.
Anyway, Bragi was on the right, tethered to her sister ship, the Vili. As you can see from this photo, they were practically under the bridge. I'd bet that a risk-taker could probably jump onto the ship's terrace. (That's not a challenge. Landing on those chairs would hurt.)
Day 1: Beginning our Danube-Rhine cruise in Budapest
I don't know who was more excited about our upcoming adventure, Dan or me. Either way, we both woke up early on the day of the cruise, even though Saturday is our weekly “down day.”
We took our sweet time that morning, savoring the hotel’s delicious breakfast buffet and scenic view for as long as we could. When check out time finally arrived, we rolled our carry-ons down the sidewalk to the ship that would be our home for the next two weeks.
The crew had barely had a chance to see us before they were rushing over to take our backpacks and carry-ons. “Is that all you have?” they asked, incredulous. You should have seen their surprised smiles when we nodded yes. “You need to teach all our other passengers how to do that!” they joked, and our bags followed us aboard.
No sooner had we crossed Bragi's threshold than we were greeted with a cool washcloth and a refreshing drink. The entire check-in process took only a few, brief moments. Just enough time for them to check off our names, hand us our room keys, and take our bags with a promise that we would find our luggage in our stateroom.
The official check-in time for a Viking River Cruise is 3:00 p.m.
Meanwhile, we were welcome to enjoy a light lunch upstairs on the Aquavit Terrace. And perhaps later, we might also fancy joining a jet lag buster afternoon walk around the area? It all sounded good to us.
Standing nearby was a man dressed in a nautical-looking outfit and a name tag saying Felix Anheier. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. Felix introduced himself as the Hotel Manager and smilingly joked that he was Bragi's token German. It seems Viking's HR must have high standards, because he had worked in an exclusive luxury hotel in Bavaria before signing on with Viking.
Out and about in Budapest
Our “jet-lag buster” walking tour was a brief, 45-minute overview of the area around our ship. It was just enough for guests to get oriented, so they could feel comfortable exploring on their own later, without fear of getting lost.
Afterward, we headed to Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, hoping to see and photograph his mummified right hand.
Unfortunately, the cathedral was closed to tourists, because they were having a series of private ceremonies. Apparently, May is the traditional month for weddings in Hungary. They kindly let us take photos from just inside the door, as long as we promised to be quiet.
Hungary is known for its wines and the Tokaj region is even a UNESCO site. With such a stellar reputation, we couldn't resist stopping into a bistro-wine bar on our way back to the ship.
Whenever we travel, we like to sample a few local varieties of vino. Not knowing what to expect, we enjoyed the experience, sharing and sipping our selections slowly and watching the passersby until we had to go.
Shopping in a Budapest grocery
After settling the bill, we sauntered to a grocery store we had passed earlier. Viking allows passengers to bring wine on board to enjoy, and as wine is readily available in shops we decided to get a bottle.
The market was doing a brisk business as we entered. We like to look around food stores because you get a good idea of what the locals prefer to eat and prices of their foods. Some of the produce and meats are different, too.
Yes, my friends, we consider that fun, and yes, Budapest's food is cheap.
They had a nice wine department, but you should have seen us attempting to decipher the grapes and varieties! While Dan was distracted with the selection, I sneaked off to another aisle. I secretly wanted to pick up a packet or two of Hungarian paprika as a surprise. He loves to cook and enjoys recreating our favorite local dishes for our friends at home.
Meeting the locals
Do you know, I looked and looked on the spice rack, yet could not find the paprika anywhere! No paprika? In Hungary? Impossible! I shook my head in disbelief. They use that as much as salt, for Pete's sake.
An old woman ambled over, basket in hand, and I watched her select a packet of something. Nope, not what I needed. I touched her arm.
“Paprika?” I asked her, gesturing. Happy to help, she began to search for it, then called a shocked “Nincs paprika?” to a clerk. He rushed over to rescue us.
“Oh, there you are.” Dan's voice caught me by surprise just as the clerk pointed to a separate section with three rows of the precious red powder. I thanked the old woman in the one Hungarian word I knew (köszönöm), and she smiled and left.
Busted. I asked him to select the packets we'd bring back to the U.S.
Tip: Both wine and paprika make inexpensive souvenirs. For good selection and freshness, buy them in a local grocery store, but go for the pricier brands because the cheaper ones are imported. For more souvenir ideas, read our story 5 Best Authentic Souvenirs from Budapest
First evening on our Viking cruise
Before dinner, people gathered in the Lounge to introduce themselves and meet Dewi, Bragi's delightful (and pretty) Program Director. She was there to give a Welcome Briefing. She's Dutch and her name is pronounced Davey. It's the Indonesian version of the Hindu devi, meaning “goddess.” What a conversation starter!
Tip: We found that the lounge is the best place to meet other passengers. Two other good spots are on the Sun Deck and the Aquavit Terrace, but those are more weather dependent.
Dewi gave us an outline of what to expect on our cruise, and told us about optional tours we could take in the next few days. We also got a heads-up that Viking would ask for our feedback at the end of the cruise.
After the briefing, we met our Cabin Steward. Florin is a friendly Romanian chap. He asked us if we had everything we needed and requested that we please let him know if we needed anything else.
Taking advantage of his offer, I asked him for a couple of bathrobes. He offered to bring slippers as well. Well, slippers hadn't occurred to me but, “Yes, that would be nice. And do you have any firmer pillows?” The ones on our beds were way too soft, not to mention small. Call me picky, but seriously. Those things would be flattened into pancakes within minutes of meeting our heads.
I made a mental note to mention the inadequate pillows when it came time to fill out the Guest Survey.
First dinner, too
We met the Maitre d' before dinner, a smiling Filipina named Ria. Viking asks all passengers to fill out a survey sheet before the cruise, so she already knew about our dietary restrictions. (We avoid pork, seafood, and wheat). Ria promised to do all she could to ensure our meals would be perfect.
If tonight's menu was any indication, everyone was going to have a hard time maintaining our weight. The menu options were quite varied, and it was nice to see vegetarian and regional specialty dishes.
More importantly, our food was absolutely delicious. Here's our menu. What would you order?
Silver Spirits package
Some cruise lines include unlimited alcohol in their fare. Viking, however, does not. Wine, beer, soft drinks, and juices are available with lunch and dinner, but at other times you have to pay for them. I'd complain about that, but small things like that help to keep the cost of the cruise down.
That said, Viking does offer a Silver Spirits Package that entitles you to unlimited sodas, juices, beers, and premium liquors and wines whenever you want them.
The standard wines they serve at dinner come from Viking's own Mörwald Winery. Non-drinkers might find that adequate but we wanted to a wider variety. Eastern European wines are hard to find in the U.S. and they use different grape varieties. Besides, we were on vacation and wanted to enjoy an afternoon cocktail and perhaps an after-dinner drink as well. Maybe even two.
The package cost €299 per person on our cruise (2015 price). When I did the math, it worked out to about 20 euros per day, per person. Your mileage may vary but personally, I would prefer to pay one flat fee up front and not have to worry about a hefty final bill.
Back in our cabin
While we were at dinner, Florin had left a copy of today's Viking Daily on our bed. The ship's daily newsletter has a schedule of tomorrow's activities and lots of information about the next day's destination. We also foundd two robes, slippers, and larger, firm pillows.
It's the little things that can make or break an experience, wouldn't you agree?
What a great way to begin a cruise.
Read next: Viking River Cruise Day 2: Tour Budapest