A magnificent sail and – new for 2019 – steam through Europe
Princess Heide von Hohenzollern opened the vast doors of Namedy Castle in the German town of Andernach and beckoned us inside. “Please look around, it is your home this evening and I welcome you,” she announced before greeting us all individually.
Earlier concerns about possibly having to curtsy, and the correct form of address if she spoke to us, were quickly dispelled as the down-to-earth princess posed for photos before pointing the way to the opulent red-walled knight’s hall where two namesake armoured statues guarded the fireplace. Holding glasses of Champagne, we wandered freely around reception rooms and bedrooms, where formal paintings of ancestors rubbed shoulders with contemporary works of art and small, quirky frog ornaments wearing crowns. I considered kissing one to see what happened when we’re called in to dinner. Once seated, Princess Heide related the story of the 14th century castle inherited in 1988 by her late husband Prince Godehard.
The couple, both passionate about music, set about restoring the tumbledown castle by the Rhine with the initial plan of selling it. But they fell in love with Namedy, moved in and began musical events, including concerts to showcase young musicians. That night, in between courses, we listened to Chinese pianist Zihao Ye play technically challenging works by Ravel and Liszt. It was one of the highlights of APT’s epic and fittingly named 15-day Magnificent Europe itinerary from Budapest to Amsterdam, taking in five countries and stopping at 15 cities, towns and villages.
What sets APT apart from many river cruise lines is that in addition to a choice of daily excursions, each cruise features around six extra special Signature and Royal Signature experiences, all of them complimentary. On our trip the former included food tastings in the charming half-timbered town of Miltenberg and the Royal Signature experiences featured the banquet and piano recital at Namedy and brand new for 2019 – a train trip following in the footsteps of Elisabeth (Sisi) of Bavaria, the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. It started with a welcome reception at Budapest Station’s royal waiting room, which Sisi once used before travelling to Godollo Royal Palace, her favourite country retreat east of the Hungarian capital.
We boarded beautifully restored carriages of the Grand Empress steam train, based on the luxurious railcars once used by Sisi and Emperor Franz Joseph I, and enjoyed an on board lunch before arriving at Godollo and a stirring welcoming fanfare from dashing hussars on horseback followed by a private palace tour.
It was fascinating to hear about Godollo, which was built by an 18th century nobleman during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and given as a gift to the new king and queen. Sisi felt stifled by the constraints of life in the Viennese court and spent as much time as she could at Godollo, where she rode horses and walked for miles in the countryside.
Our guide told us that 500 carts were needed to transport her furniture from Vienna and back each time she stayed, along with an army of 950 servants simply to look after Sisi, Franz Joseph, their four children and any visitors. A style icon of her time, it took Sisi three hours to get dressed! Touring the grand gilded rooms, it was hard to believe the palace fell into disrepair after incongruously being used as a barracks for Soviet troops and a rest home after the Second World War. It was only restored and reopened to the public 20 years ago.
The joy of river cruising is that you sit back and let the sights come to you, and the next day heralded Vienna and a cocktail reception and private concert at the City Palace featuring operatic and classical offerings by Mozart and Strauss as well as a performance by members of the Mozart Boys’ Choir.
We then sailed through a scenic high spot, the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley. This dramatic stretch of the Danube between the Austrian towns of Krems and Melk is lined with steep vine-clad slopes. At Melk we visited the vast Benedictine abbey perched on an outcrop. More akin to a palace than an abbey, the imperial corridor is lined with portraits of Austrian rulers and the cavernous library, with beautiful ceiling paintings, contains around 90,000 books.
By now we were heading towards Germany for the pretty town of Passau followed by medieval Regensburg, famous for its 12th century 16-arch stone bridge built by wealthy merchants, and the rather contrasting sight of what is claimed to be the world’s oldest sausage tavern in an unassuming building nearby.
Ensuing days included the beautifully preserved Bavarian town of Bamburg where I sipped my first glass of Rauchbier, a curious smoke flavoured beer that’s something of an acquired taste. We were assured that by the third glass it would be noticeably better! Another day and another country, and castles made way for windmills as we neared the end of our voyage in the Netherlands.
Back on board there was plenty to enjoy too. Carrying just 162 passengers, AmaVenita is a lovely ship and one of the standout features is that more than half the cabins are Twin Balcony Suites, with both a French balcony and full walk-out veranda which makes them particularly light and airy. Meals were always eagerly anticipated as APT, with partner line AmaWaterways, is the only river company that’s a member of prestigious French gastronomic association La Chaine des Rotisseurs. There’s an open bar and complimentary free-flowing wine is served at all meals – you can even have sparkling wine at breakfast – so it’s no wonder mealtimes were so convivial!
With the home pick-up service at the start and end of the holiday, the friendly and attentive APT staff who waited on us hand and foot, the river banks lined with fairy-tale castles, a ride on a royal steam train and dinner with a princess, we really were made to feel like royalty on this cruise deep into the heart of Europe.
APT Luxury Travel
Tel: +44 (0)800 012 6683
Number of Facilities On Board: Two restaurants, lounge bar, gym, pool, massage room and hair salon.
Number of Cabins: 81 cabins and suites, with complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the ship.
Price Band: Medium to high
Insider Tip: Push the proverbial boat out and book the top-grade cabins and suites that come with butler service, complimentary laundry and other perks.
Reviewer’s Rating: 10/10
Factfile: APT offers the 14-night Magnificent Europe itinerary from £2,198, including VIP home-to-airport transfers, flights, all meals and drinks on board, excursions and tips.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of APT