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The Christmas Spirit is alive in Budapest and onboard Viking Freya
This afternoon in Budapest, I stepped aboard the gorgeous Viking Freya, one of Viking River Cruises’ brand-new Viking Longships. Docked in her prime location along the Danube near the city’s famous Chain Bridge and just a stone’s throw from the Hungarian Parliament, her white hull and large picture windows were certainly turning heads as passersby ambled over for a closer look.
I arrived just after 11:30am at Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc International Airport, which was known as Ferihegy International until last December. Today marks my third trip to the Hungarian capital, a city I wasn’t entirely sure I would like when I arrived here for the first time one year ago. But as anyone who has been here can tell you, Budapest is a city of remarkable contrasts. It’s easy to fall under her spell.
In Amsterdam, the weather had improved drastically by the time it was time for me to say goodbye this morning. I can always gauge the effectiveness of a hotel by their early-morning checkout, and the Doubletree by Hilton Amsterdam Centraal Station did a marvelous job of getting me settled up and on my way, even at 5am. Service was friendly and efficient, and I capped last evening off with a dinner featuring assorted cold-cut meats and a glass of Merlot in their intimate SkyLounge located on the 11th floor, overlooking the city.
Sometimes when I travel, I forget what day it is – and occasionally, even where I am. Call it the travel writer’s curse. But there was no mistaking my location this morning as I rode the “Stoner Express” into Amsterdam’s Schiphol station. I had thought it was Monday morning until I realized that my 5:45am InterCity express to Rotterdam via Schiphol was packed to the rafters with people likely having just left Amsterdam’s famous Coffeeshops. And while I like to have a bit of a laugh at the experience (the train was jam-packed - people I didn’t even know were high-fiving me as they walked by), I want to emphasise to those who haven’t been here before that I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion: these were just ordinary people from all over Europe and the Netherlands who’d had a fun Saturday night out on the town. And I’ll take that happy, jovial atmosphere over other inter-city metros any day.
After leaving the airport, our motorcoach took us to a place I am beginning to recognize well: the river cruise dock at the foot of the magnificent Chain Bridge. There, Viking Freya and her newer sister, Viking Embla, were docked side by side – and I was happy to see a familiar face onboard the latter.
I first met Hotel Manager Rebeka Pevec aboard another river cruise ship last December, during my first foray down the Danube. If you’ve sailed with her before, you’ll realize how effortless she makes everything look, and she does so with a smile. Now working for Viking, she’s also become a good friend in the intervening year, so I was thrilled when she took me for a little tour of the Viking Embla to see some of the incremental differences made between successive Longships.
To start, the glass sliding bathroom doors and closets that were featured in staterooms aboard Viking Odin have been replaced with more durable woodgrain ones. There have also been minor décor changes as well, with additional European and North American-style power outlets added and relocated, and the relocation of the light switches behind the bed to the front pieces of the nightstand.
Some configuration changes were also made to the Category A suites to allow for more available space in the closet, while the impressive Restaurant has been given soft furnishings outfitted in a dark charcoal palette as opposed to Viking Odin’s bright grey.
I was thrilled that she noticed these small changes and was eager to show them off to me; it’s fantastic to see that even after only six ships in service, Viking is making a conscious effort to tweak successive vessels to improve the passenger experience further.
Back onboard Viking Freya, staterooms were made ready at 3pm. My stateroom attendant, Maria, personally escorted me to my Category “A” Veranda stateroom on Deck 3. There, she took the time to explain all of the bells and whistles to me, including a few surprises I hadn’t expected since my short stay aboard Viking Odin in March.
Chief among these: the semi-transparent wraparound glass wall in the bathroom. It looks like normal, sea-foam green frosted glass until you press a switch located just on the inside of the door. Suddenly, the frosted glass becomes transparent, allowing you to see the entire stateroom. Once more push and it becomes frosted again. It’s a heck of a neat trick.
This wall has been done away with on Viking Embla, but still exists here aboard Viking Freya. And that’s too bad, because it does succeed in making an otherwise small bathroom seem much larger than it really is. The bathrooms aboard Viking Freya may be economically sized, but they make up for it with cool features like adjustable-temperature heated floors.
My Category “A” balcony stateroom is gorgeous; there’s no getting around it. Décor is soft, modern and soothing, offset by classy shades of dark grey and earthy wood tones. A desk running the width of the bed features eight separate drawers, two North American-style power outlets and two European-style ones. Plus, there’s six different lighting modes available, along with a master dimmer swtich for the lights located over the desk and flat-panel Sony Television – the largest I’ve ever seen aboard any cruise ship, complete with an extensive Video-on-Demand library that features movies, music, television, and even the weather forecast.
Just outside, a sliding glass door gives way to my very own private balcony; not a French balcony, but a real, step-out balcony complete with two chairs and a small table. I can’t wait to try it out!
Maybe it’s because the rest of the room is so shockingly-well designed, but I found the closet space to be lacking. I’m travelling solo on this cruise, and I managed to fill the entire “hang-up” partition with a suit, a handful of shirts and a wool winter coat. So everything else had to get folded and placed on shelves on the other end of the closet, which cleverly has built-in lights activated by the motion of the doors. It’s not a big deal, but it is worth noting. Gentlemen: just give this entire section to your wives right now!
Despite the cold weather (it feels like it could snow at any moment), I knew I had to stroll into Budapest`s Christmas Market, located in Vorosmartyter along Vaci Utca.
In this oddly-shaped square book-ended by the Budapest Marriott and the city`s main shopping district, thousands of people were congregated as the cold winter darkness approached just after 4pm. But the mood here was wonderfully festive, with plenty of Gluhwein (spiced, mulled wine) and smoking meats to tempt your tastebuds. My award for most bizarre dish seen at the Market has to be the rooster testicle soup.
I didn`t try it.
I did however indulge in some splendid Hungarian Winter Sausage and, of course, a cup of Gluhwein to take the chill out of the air as I strolled up and down Vaci Utca, admiring the hand-made ornaments, specialised woodworking, and custom-made souvenirs on offer at every stall.
The mood here is totally different from my last visit two months ago. The air is filled with the husky scents of cooking meats, and the humidity of the fall has been replaced with a chill that comes down from Scandinavia and takes hold, turning rain into heavy, icy pellets. It`s currently minus two degrees Celsius outside, and pouring rain. Yet I think this is the best weather to experience the Christmas markets in. The only thing that might make it better is a bit of snow, and my in-stateroom interactive television tells me that’s a distinct possibility for the remainder of the week.
Tonight, I opted to have dinner in Viking Freya’s more casual Aquavit Terrace. Located on the very bow of the ship forward of the Lounge, the Aquavit Terrace serves up more casual fare at nights, like hamburgers and sandwiches.
Part of my decision to eat there was related to my desire to make one last run at the Christmas Market here in Budapest before it closed at 8pm; the other part was that I just didn’t find anything I wanted on the features menu in the Main Dining Room, which runs a touch thin with only three entrée choices. These are, of course, supplemented with an “Always Available” menu that includes entrees like steak and breast of chicken, but I honestly felt a little let-down when I laid eyes on the menu.
But what initially seemed like a negative experience ended up being a positive one. The Aquavit Terrace was wonderfully relaxing, with just a handful of guests choosing to dine in this gorgeous space surrounded by glass windows on three sides. I may have only had a clubhouse sandwich, but it really hit the spot!
It is also worth noting that my allergy to nuts was taken very seriously by Viking Freya Hotel Manager Cornelia Pfeiffenberger and Maitre d’ David Jiricka who – like the rest of Viking Freya’s crew – seem genuinely interested in ensuring their guests have a one-of-a-kind cruise experience. Bonus points for tonight: they kept the lounge open even though myself and another couple were the only patrons past 11pm.
Tomorrow, Viking Freya will leave her Budapest berth just after 8:30am and make her way down the Danube. Guests have the option of taking the tour to Buda and Pest, or of staying onboard for a morning of scenic cruising. I don’t know what I’ll choose just yet, but one thing is certain: there’s nothing quite like the scenic sail-away that is departure from Budapest!
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Freya continues tomorrow, as we explore both Buda and Pest before setting sail up the Danube, bound for the magical city of Vienna, Austria!
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