A history lesson on the famous Danube

The parliament building on the Danube in Budapest
The parliament building on the Danube in Budapest
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There are few better ways of learning about the flow of European history over the centuries than from the comfort of an elegant river cruising ship like the Avalon Tapestry.

Cabins are air-conditioned, the views from large portholes are stunning in the heart of major cities, and the fine food never stops landing on the table in front of you.

To drift lazily down the 1,700-mile Danube is to connect with a tide of European history both highly cultured and fearsomely bloody - from the Romans to Richard the Lionheart, from the Hapsburgs to Hitler.

It was in Budapest that we boarded the Avalon Tapestry for a voyage which would take us through five countries to a final stop in Nuremberg.

Almost immediately after moving off we could see the spectacular Budapest structures, including the impressive Parliament building.

Budapest was always one of the more progressive Soviet Bloc cities and has flourished in the last 20 years.

For nearly 60 miles the river forms the divide between Hungary and Slovakia, and the first big town we passed was Bratislava on the Slovak side.

Our enthusiastic guide Hans was keen to stress that Bratislava had really pushed on after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

The first disembarkation point was Vienna, a cultural delight. We were whisked to a concert in the city by the Salon Orchestra, in the Kursalon Wien, built in the Italian renaissance style in the 19th century.

A 13-piece orchestra backed by singers and dancers took us through some of the familiar sounds of city – including Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and – inevitably – Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube.

We were frequently told that at no point is the Danube ever blue. Nevertheless, there was something rather special about listening to Strauss’s music while actually in Vienna and on the Danube.

The highlight of the Vienna trip was the night coach drive after the concert. Hans was practically beside himself as he reeled off the names of one glorious floodlit building after another.

Next day brought a tour of the Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna. Completed in 1749 under the Empress Maria Theresa, this is a regular treasure trove of a palace.

The next morning we woke on the boat to clear skies at a spot close to the old town of Duernstein.

It was here in the 1190s that Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned.

Beyond Duernstein we entered the most spectacular part of the Danube – the Wachau Valley. Vineyards and green hillsides towered over the river. We passed ruined castles and picturesque towns.

We stopped at the town of Melk for a visit around the abbey and next day the coach left early for a tour to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Before Krumlov, we called in at Budweis, famous for its Budweiser beer.

Back on the boat the next stop was the lovely medieval town of Regensberg in Germany, which boasts no fewer than 1,300 listed buildings of historic interest.

Then came a trip down the Danube Gorge – a stretch of the river overlooked by jutting cliffs of limestone. We passed a rotunda dedicated to those who had fallen in the Napoleonic Wars, and later we toured the Weltenburg Abbey – yet another magnificent church building.

Last stop was Nuremberg, notorious for the Nazi rallies and the subsequent post-war trials of the German war criminals.