It’s not long after 7am and in the gathering light of a crisp autumnal morning Vienna’s elegant streets are deliciously deserted and devoid of the usual tourist hordes. Even locals are few and far between.
Exploring the Austrian capital as it starts to wake up gives me a privileged feeling of peeking behind the scenes, and is a handsome reward for having reluctantly dragged myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness.
This is my fourth visit to Vienna, but I’m seeing it with new eyes as our walking tour guide leads us Pied Piper like into tiny winding passageways, tucked-away squares and ornate churches I never even knew existed.
After an hour or so, with our stomachs rumbling, we’re led into a traditional Viennese coffee-house, as part of our tour, where laden breakfast tables welcome us with freshly-baked bread rolls with slices of ham and cheese accompanied by pots of steaming hot coffee.
It’s a welcome respite and I’m revelling in the relaxed pace which is at complete odds to 24 hours earlier when I passed through the city streets on a three-mile jogging tour which, in my unfit state, almost finished me off!
Yet these are just two of the many stand-out activities on this Avalon Waterways Active & Discovery voyage amid an energetic programme of biking, canoeing and hiking.
However, it isn’t all aimed at fitness fans. Avalon Waterways’ choice of excursions is easily the most varied I’ve seen on any Danube cruise as each day brings a choice of tours designated as active, discovery and classic – something that causes regular dilemmas as I agonise over which one to choose. Price isn’t even a factor either as most are included, which is another bonus.
Having cruised this stretch of the Danube twice before, I’m not expecting such a refreshingly fresh take when I embark Avalon Impression in Budapest for this week-long cruise to Linz.
Sailing through the Wachau Valley brings back memories of the pretty town of Dürnstein, famous for the ruined castle where Richard the Lionheart was incarcerated in the 12th century.
However, unlike my previous visit when I’d sailed in by boat, this time I arrive on two wheels with around 20 other keen cyclists as we follow a route from Krems to Spitz that perfectly showcases the beautiful landscape of this region.
Pedalling on empty roads through vast vineyards and coasting along the cycle path that runs along the Danube’s banks is so blissful, I feel quite disappointed when our 12-mile journey comes to an end.
However, the plus point of such excursion means dining and drinking becomes a guilt-free pleasure as I feel I’ve earned such treats.
Buffet breakfasts and lunches are appetising, though a little more choice wouldn’t go amiss, while the four-course dinners are good rather than outstanding – but memorable high points are the grilled beef tenderloin and pumpkin soup, which is the best I’ve tasted.
Wines are included with meals, and they are pretty decent too, with rose and sparkling varieties offered in addition to the usual reds and whites, and they are freely dispensed by the waiting staff without some of the reluctance to refill glasses that you sometimes sense on such voyages.
Unusually for river cruises, evening dining is not at a fixed time, but usually between 7pm and 9pm, though it seems old habits die hard as most guests make their way downstairs to the dining room as soon the doors open.
Large tables lend themselves to sociable mealtimes, though smaller tables are so close together, diners often end up chatting to their neighbours on these too.
On this sailing, most of the 139 guests are American, with a sizeable number from Canada, and a small sprinkling from the UK and Australia, and many seem younger than the normal river cruising cohort and are definitely fitter.
But this isn’t a prerequisite as there are enough alternative activities to enjoy that don’t involve breaking out into a sweat, with walking tours, museum visits, wine-tastings and even a Viennese classical music concert, though this did come with a €69 supplement.
One of the most mesmerising, and haunting outings is to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz that was the last to be liberated by the Allies after World War II.
The guide is excellent, bringing the horrors of this tortuous place to life by reading accounts from former prisoners giving graphic details of their suffering. Following our afternoon visit, our group departs somewhat wiser, rather subdued, and astounded that something so evil could co-exist among such beautiful surroundings.
The following day I decide to step out on my first hike, and over-confidently join the advanced group, who turn out to be an experienced bunch who make short work of the steep paths.
I’m puffing to keep up, but the spectacular views over the Danube Bend, where the river loops around the hilly terrain, makes the effort worthwhile.
But the views don’t stop there. My Panorama Suite onboard Avalon Impression lives up to its name with vast 11ft windows which can be pulled back to create a French balcony.
As my bed directly faces them, I’m happy to let time drift by as I recover from my exertions while admiring the ever-changing riverside scenes without having to move a muscle.
This is what river cruising is all about.