The Amavenita is the latest of APT’s river ships. Our cabin turned out to be smaller than it looked in the brochures, but it was more than adequate, with glass doors out onto a tiny balcony where you can watch the river go by. We had a bed, side tables, a wardrobe and a large Mac computer which provided internet access, TV, movies and a bow cam. The ensuite was compact, but functional.
Having checked in and unpacked, we were summoned to the lounge for the pre-cruise briefing. It felt a lot like turning up for the first day at a new school where the only other person you know is sitting next to you. The Amavenita can carry 164 passengers. So late in the season, 137 passengers, the vast majority Australian, had signed up for a tour of duty. Looking around the lounge at the sea of unfamiliar faces, I was pleased that 27 berths were empty. I’m not a people person at the best of times.
The tour director wasted no time in taking centre stage. Cherie is an Australian, hailing from Newcastle, but she’s been an expat in Europe for many years. After briefly extolling the virtues of the trip and mentioning some of the highlights, she got straight into logistics. There were rules and we were expected to follow them. In particular, we had to pay attention to timing. If we were supposed to be back on board by (say) 6:30pm and we weren’t… maybe we could take a taxi to the next port? Whenever we went ashore we had to collect a leave pass from the reception desk, and hand it back when we returned. That way they could keep account of who was on board – and who wasn’t.
Cherie is a thoroughly competent and very nice lady and I’m sure every group she’s worked with did as we did – assigned her a nickname. Some of us called her the head mistress, others the governess. But it was good-natured and very Australian. The need for rules was obvious. The ship had daily targets as well as 68 locks to negotiate, and a bunch of holidaying adults isn’t all that different to a bunch of seven-year-olds.
Then it was time for our first meal on board, which meant sitting at a table with strangers. We were lucky. By sheer chance we shared a table with a couple from Brisbane and a couple from Karratha who were very much on our wavelength. Sandra and Colin, and Vicky and Bruce soon became our best buddies and we often hung out together. Needless to say some people we avoided and yes, there was the occasional bit of private bitchiness. See? Just like school.
The food is often touted as one of the highlights of these tours – and with good reason. Wherever we were, the chefs tried to use local ingredients and local dishes, and match them with regional wine. I think there were only two or three times when I might have given the meals less than 8 out of 10 and one of those was in Amsterdam, where I know what the local food should taste like.
Anyway, back to the river. While we ate some excellent food and drank a glass or three of local wine, the ship headed up stream, out of Budapest, then sailed around Margaret Island and back down river so we could admire the spectacle of the city by night. Pardon the blurriness. I didn’t have a tripod and the ship was moving. And it was dark.
We stayed the night on the ship moored at Budapest. The following day we broke into four groups (red, yellow, blue and green – we all had a coloured card as well as our leave passes so we would remember which bus we were on) and boarded coaches for a sight-seeing tour of the city. Yes, I felt a bit of a prat following a guide holding up a coloured sign (red, green, blue or gold) with Amavenita written on it. But that was how it had to be.
First we saw a little more of Pest and admired some of the statuary depicting the city’s history.
Then we paid a brief visit to the wonderful opera house, partially financed by Emperor Franz Joseph. His stipulation was that the building could not be more opulent that his opera house in Vienna. In fact, Franz Joseph only attended one performance – the grand opening. However his wife, Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissy) liked Budapest and came here often. Although without the Emperor she could not use the Imperial box or rooms. (rolls eyes) The highlight of the visit was provided by a tenor who sang several songs from a balcony while we enjoyed a glass of bubbly.
After the opera we climbed back onto the buses and crossed the river to Buda. The palace surrounds on the top of the hill was packed. The weather was warm and the locals were jostling the tourists. Just as well it wasn’t the weekend. After a brief walking tour we were given time off to take a few pictures and mooch around. Pete and I found a shop in a park and ordered hot chocolate to drink. Maaate! This wasn’t Milo or Ovaltine. I reckon this was melted down chocolate with a generous squirt of cream on top. You drank it with a straw – but not for a few minutes because it was hot as hell. Seriously yummy, of course.
That done, we climbed back on the buses, which took us down to the Amavenita and we were off, upriver, admiring the stunning autumn scenery.