AMA Waterways in Budapest
By David CogswellThe christening cruise of AMA Waterways’ MS Amalyra, the Romantic Danube itinerary, met in Budapest. After an overnight flight from New York I arrived at the small, congenial Budapest airport and wandered through the crowd at the receiving area in search of a representative of AMA. I inspected each sign as the holders stood watching my reaction to see if I would be the person they were waiting for. “Will the real AMA Waterways rep please stand up.” I got to the end of the line and had not yet hit on a match when suddenly a nice-looking young man caught up with me and read my name carefully from his list. “How did you know?” I asked. It was the AMA Waterways tag on my suitcase, so radiantly blue it almost glowed, that gave me away.
He led me to a group of about five people, we waited a few moments till he had everyone and he led us to a small shuttle bus just outside. It was mid afternoon and the weather was perfect. From what I gathered, the spring had just broken. Only a week before it had snowed. But embarkation day was one of those days when just being outside in the sun and fresh air is a sublime pleasure.
I scooted into the van where the breeze was coming through the open door in the back. The suitcases were loaded into a small trailer behind the van and we headed out. The air conditioning was on, but fresh air came in through a sun roof opening on the top of the van. There were plenty of open seats in the van and I sat a couple of seats behind two light haired women seated across the aisle from one another, leaning their heads and hands together in animated conversation like two gleeful schoolgirls reunited after winter break. They embodied to me the adage, “Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet.” I didn’t know who they were, but I was to learn later that they were Susan Murphy, the daughter of Jimmy Murphy, the founder of Brendan Vacations and chairman of AMA Waterways, and Michelle Morgan, president of Signature Travel and the designated godmother of the ship Amalyra.
Susan Murphy, a board member of AMA Waterways, was representing the Murphy family for her father, who had planned to attend the christening, but at the last minute was urged by his doctor to undergo open heart surgery. As Susan’s smiling face would suggest, Jimmy sailed through the operation with ease and was recovering nicely and almost back to his jovial self.
We drove into Budapest and up to the Amalyra, which seemed to smile at us as we approached. We walked inside and were greeted by a crowd of bubbly crewmembers, who gathered at the threshold of the brand new ship to greet us as if we were their best, most honored friends. The ship was decorated throughout with reproductions of paintings of the Viennese Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt, which gave me an extra twinge of childish delight because I was carrying, coincidentally, a notebook with Klimt’s “The Kiss” on the cover.
One of the crewmembers led me to my cabin, a bright little bedroom with brand new carpet, a sliding glass door that opened onto a railing, a framed reproduction of a Klimt garden landscape, a compact desk built into the wall and a flat-screen TV with a keyboard for accessing the Internet. The restroom was to become a topic of conversation during the week, a perfect miniature of a luxury hotel bathroom, with a cozy shower stall with a glass door and an overhead shower as well as a hand shower, and always plenty of hot water. It was great to throw open my suitcase with abandon, knowing this was home for a week and I would not have to organize myself for travel again till the following Monday, which seemed at that moment a point imperceptibly far out on the horizon of the future.
We had the afternoon free and met for a festive Captain’s Welcome Cocktail later in the lounge at which our cruise director, Debbie Albrecht, greeted us and introduced us to our crew. Debbie, an Argentinean by birth, was to become everyone’s best friend during the week, the mistress of ceremonies, coordinator of events and solver of problems. She introduced us to our jolly captain, Jan d Bruijn, and his smiling crew, who came on stage to the fanfare of the piano player, and established themselves as entertainers on top of their other functions on board.
The next morning we took a walking tour of Budapest, formerly two cities on opposite sides of the Danube united in 1867. Buda is high on a hilly area, the old capital and more of an upscale residential area, with thermal springs near the river. Pest is on the broad plain, historically the market and business side, and now the side with most of the major hotels. Our guide was a proud Hungarian, who gave us a glimpse of the Hungarian view of the world. According to him, lines drawn from the north to the south and the east and west extremities of Europe would cross in Hungary, so it really is Central Europe. The region was historically embattled because it is a great fertile plain and was central to the trade routes. It was also rich in silver and gold mines. It was a prize for the fiercest tribes. It was inhabited by Celts and Romans before it was unified as Hungary 1,200 years ago. It continued to be invaded or occupied through the centuries by every wave of conquest, including the Turks, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis and the Soviets, with occasional periods of independence.
Americans credit Reagan for bringing down the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden says his armies were responsible, but our Hungarian guide said the fall of the Soviet Union really began with the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. It was the first rebellion against Soviet tyranny and the regime’s harsh response, with the image of tanks in the streets of Budapest, showed the regime’s true character as a brutal dictatorship and destroyed its image internationally as a progressive people’s movement. It was refreshing to hear an alternative view.
In the afternoon we had free time to walk off the ship into the heart of Budapest, take an optional tour to Szentendre, or sleep, read, watch TV, ride bikes or eat coffee and cakes in the lounge. In the evening we had a Hungarian feast, and at 9 p.m. we departed Budapest. Debbie, our cruise director, invited us to the top deck for her commentary as we took off in the wrong direction. The U-turn was designed to give us the full spectacle of Budapest lit up in glory as we sailed under the Chain Bridge and past the Hungarian Parliament, and many other landmarks, including the Gresham Palace, a stunning Art Nouveau building that is now a Four Seasons hotel and one of the world’s most beautiful, and the Budapest Marriott, which is (sorry!) one of the ugliest. But in fairness, though its architecture may be somewhat of a blight on the local horizon, the view outward from the Marriott on the shore of the Danube is still one of the best in the world.
Onward to Vienna! For more information on AMA Waterways, see www.amawaterways.com. -- David Cogswell