Vienna’s imperial grandeur

The A-ROSA Donna cruises through the Danube’s glorious history. Michael Edwards savours the culture and the cuisine.

Vienna imperial past - Johann Strauss

Where did it all go so wrong for Vienna? It wasn’t all sachertorte, Strauss waltzes and strudel in a bewildering 20th century.

Back in 1900 Emperor Franz Josef, who had ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire of 55 million subjects for over half-a-century, had plans for his capital’s population to expand from 2 million to 5 million. Meanwhile his wife Sissi, who wanted to keep an 18-inch waist despite adoring sachertorte and ice-cream, was the original fad-dieter.

Today, Vienna has four opera houses, three orchestras, dozens of grand boulevards and some of the finest patisserie in Europe – but just 1.8 million people. Franz-Josef will be turning in his grave. The once grand Hapsburg empire has disintegrated into some 19 nations.

The Danube – frequently green and occasionally grey but never Strauss’ blue – tells the story of some six centuries of Habsburg rule. It is a geological narrative of a river cutting through a craggy terrain for nearly 1,800 miles until it empties into the Black Sea. A backdrop of autumnal hues of browns, golds, oranges and reds – trees clinging to the sometimes, steep sides of the Danube valley – has been developing nicely for some 1.8 million years.

Donna cabin

Our journey, probably the most romantic of Europe’s river cruises, had begun in Austria’s Engelshartzell, with a single rose presented to every lady as we boarded our 100 cabin ship for a Danube Highlights 5 night cruise taking in Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.

Our first dinner, a Bavarian evening, paid tribute to the journey the river had made before we set sail starting from its source in Germany’s Black Forest. At Passau – a spectacular narrowing isthmus of Baroque houses, cuckoo-clock creators and leder-hosen – the waters of the Danube more than double when joined by a confluence of the River Ilz but mainly the River Inn.

Dining on the A-ROSA Donna, dress code smart-casual, is conveniently informal. Dine when you please, sit where you like. Chefs keep the feast of a buffet topped-up whilst waiting staff deliver your drinks. It’s an international cruise of Americans / Brits and Germans so we were all sailing away, at up to 15mph, from our problems.

You can opt to guide yourself by bike or foot around Vienna, “The underground’s easy,” our host Suzanne encouraged but Vienna is a big city and most of us wisely opted for a bus tour.

Hundertwasser House in ViennaOur first stop at the Hundertwasser House is a left-field surprise. Friedrich Stowasser was a Viennese artist / sculpture who changed his name to Friedensreich Hundertwasser and his career to eco-friendly architecture. He believed in bringing the countryside into the city. His 1980s creation, now fixed rent council flats topped with tree-lined roof terraces, has undulating floors and some interesting design features: he planned a hole in bathroom walls so that families could keep talking. Fortunately, his ideas for internal compost box toilets failed to receive planning permission.

Schloss Belvedere, ViennaMore typical of Vienna’s architectural splendour is The Belvedere Palace: named for its stunning view of formal gardens, across to St Stephen’s cathedral and the Viennese Woods. It was the plan of Prince Eugene of Savoie, a genius of a military strategist, who despite being heavily outnumbered by Turkish forces relieved the 1683 siege of Vienna. That was after France’s Louis XlV, in an era before political correctness, had told the vertically challenged Eugene that “he was too ugly to lead an army.”

We walk through the park, 3,000 potato sacks will protect 3,000 rose bushes when winter comes, towards the Hofburg Palace where the President’s grand offices sit amongst museums and a national library. But there’s a problem. Austria’s political parties, hamstrung by the inconclusive results of a proportional representation election, cannot agree on a compromise candidate.


If only life was as simple as the Spanish Riding School where immaculate white horses perform flawless dressage routines as they have for five centuries. When the Hapsburg family lost their Spanish territory they simply moved the school east. Incidentally, the horses are granted 6 weeks annual holiday taken on a countryside farm.

Vienna’s most prestigious shopping boulevard, the Kohlmarkt, has come a long way since it’s days selling either coal or cabbages. As kohl meant cabbage and kohle was coal the designer shop street probably started out as a vegetable market.

After a visit to the towering St Stephen’s gothic cathedral with its famous striped roof it is time to return to the ship and farewell drinks of Mozart liqueur or Prosecco on the quarterdeck as we sail away from Vienna.


But, as the Donna, heads east, to sail through the night to Budapest, there is one last taste of Vienna. Our evening meal honours Austria’s cuisine of noodles and schnitzel and trout sprinkled with almonds.

So, Ultravox had mystically sung, “This means nothing to me, Ah Vienna.” But for the A-Rosa Donna’s cruisers, as they reach for a glass of schnapps, a chorus of Julie Andrews’ from The Sound of Music singing “These are a few of my favourite things” may have been more appropriate.

Find out more about Danube cruises

A-ROSA River Cruises ( ) on the Danube are bookable through a range of UK tour operators who package the cruise with flights, transfers and in some cases excursions.

Shearings Holidays –

Newmarket Holidays –

Andante Travels – who offer specialist archaeological cruises –

Disclosure: Our cruise was sponsored by A-ROSA 


Images: Strauss by Federlos from Pixabay; Hunterdwasser House by Manfred Reinert from Pixabay Wiener Riesenrad Ferris Wheel by EM80 from Pixabay

Last modified: June 10, 2021

Written by 10:34 am Cruising