Cruising Down the Blue Danube

Taking Mom on her first-time visit to Europe
August 15, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

I once believed that travel agents were silly and that cruises were for mindless sheep in need of prodding.

Until recently, my mother pooh-poohed the hoopla surrounding wine, particularly my wine interest and education, and was certain that climbing to the highest spot that a region offers had no merit.

It took a trip—an exciting, educational, and easy river cruise—to turn our thinking around.

My preconceived notions on booking were wrong, and Mom, a.k.a. “Bich Nga,” now sees wine-tasting and devoting oneself to climbing tall things—a hobby of mine that leads to restless nights on her end—as worthwhile ventures. Enlightenment was attained all around.

Mothers teach us all sorts of things, much of it useful. I didn’t learn to set a table but Bich Nga taught me about The Carpenters, cha-cha-cha, that the worms in broccoli are just “protein,” and how to balance sweet, salty, sour, and savory.

She told me, after my relentless prodding, what it was like to run gasoline for the South Vietnamese army, and that sometimes you hide in ditches and swallow horrible sights and smells. She told me about managing a club near Saigon just outside the gates of Bien Hoa Air Base, and that on the night her operation was forcibly closed down, “The Blue Danube” waltz played on the jukebox.

As worldly and brilliant as Mom can be, she’d only really been three places: Vietnam, Guam (briefly as a refugee), and a select few places in North America. I haven’t been able to coax her back to Vietnam yet, but I pried her from a week of work with this trip, promising a return she couldn’t refuse—memories with me.

I’d enlisted the help of Strong Travel Agency, because what does a 37-year-old do with her 67-year-old mother? One’s a sporty adventurer, the other … not. They found the perfect opportunity for exposing Mom to some newness: Europe, boats, and wine—things I know in my sleep. The agent suggested an eight-day river cruise, and for several reasons, couldn’t have been more right.

Truthfully, after eight years in the Navy, I never fancied myself a “cruise” type of gal. Likewise, I couldn’t imagine a cruise could satisfy all my culinary and viticultural cravings. Unaccustomed to itineraries, I never dreamed I’d enjoy sticking to one.

Well, I did, and our Danube voyage aboard Uniworld’s S.S. Maria Theresa was worth the risk. Celebratory events were unrelenting, both onboard and ashore, as it was the 300th anniversary of the ship’s namesake, Queen Maria Theresa, who ruled over many of the destinations we visited.

The S.S. Maria Theresa passes by Parliament in Budapest, Hungary. (Courtesy of Uniworld River Cruises)

I chose the Passau-to-Budapest sailing. On our charter coach to Passau from Munich, I was exhausted, but willed my eyelids open to watch Mom, pressed against the window and mesmerized for two hours of … German countryside. “It’s soooo clean.”

In Germany, we visited Passau; in Austria, Linz, Melk, Dürnstein, and Vienna. Then, after a brief familiarization with Slovakia’s Bratislava, we relished our final days in Budapest,  where I bored her with my own stories, took her to my favorite places, and started to feel so competent, I made her buy me ice cream and candy, so I’d remember my place as “daughter.”

Uniworld river cruises are “boutique,” maxing out at 150 guests. Each locale has its own culinary charm, and the onboard menu and wine list changed with each meal and locale. Dinner was always served fine-dining style, allowing us to order from a menu with the expert pairings by the sommelier. Particularly amazing was enjoying the wines of the Wachau Valley, while staring at that very terroir from the comfort of the ship! We are not picky eaters by any means, but as chefs, we know good food when it hits the mouth.

To this day, I glance at the take-home recipe card of what became an instant classic on my “best things I ever tasted” list: Foie Gras Crème Brûlée. I dare not make it myself yet, it’s too soon. I’m proud to share that Mom tasted all the wine pairings, and PRAISE BE, I even documented her swirling and smelling the offerings.

Each location we visited offered guided tours and more active options—or you could simply go off on your own adventure. That was amazing, because we’d split up and I could be a bit more active, assured she was taken care of.

The lobby of the S.S. Maria Theresa features a marble staircase, a Venetian chandelier, and a portrait of the empress. (Courtesy of Uniworld River Cruises)
Stateroom on the S.S. Maria Theresa. (Courtesy of Uniworld River Cruises)

One morning, after a night of dancing and too many libations, I (wanted to die) couldn’t bring myself to move and she wanted nothing more than some early-morning exploits. She gallivanted with some English ladies we’d met in the saloon. Good riddance! Another morning I ran into her, coming back from breakfast, flute in hand, exclaiming, “Did you know you can drink champagne with breakfast?”

Watching Mom’s reactions to Passau was most memorable because that city was “our first.” She exhibited the same excitement and awe everywhere we went, particularly in churches. In Dürnstein, we attended a saffron workshop, and afterward, I insisted she join other passengers in a walking tour of the small town and then return to the ship, where we’d meet up for dinner.

As for me, I’d been planning to climb my way up to the archaeological attraction, a UNESCO medieval castle mostly in ruins. Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned there for four months, after being captured on his return from the Third Crusade. The history geek in me knew all these juicy facts; Mom had no idea what I was talking about. Mom just saw an adventure not to be missed, as if she were joining me on a high alpine adventure, and made it clear she was coming! Up the 1,024 feet of awkward, broken stone we went, and that’s when I recognized where much of my fearlessness comes from.

Bich Nga Burrill and Amanda Burrill. (Amanda Burrill)

A river cruise with frequent stops offers an all-inclusive glimpse into the scenery, culture, architecture, and cuisine of the cities it visits. Rather than the schlep between destinations seeming a chore, it happens in comfort, sometimes as a nap in your glorious stateroom or sitting topside, sipping champagne and waving to the locals.

I have traveled for a living in some capacity or another since the day after I graduated college. I’m glad I surrendered some control, suspended disbelief, and took the trip; giving Mom my undivided attention for eight straight days was worth it.

On trips such as this, a particular moment tends to stick. On our last night in Vienna, Uniworld arranged a private “Royal Anniversary” Mozart and Strauss concert. Food, drink, and breathtaking sights were a million miles away while I held my mother’s trembling hand—she’s not one to cry and I’m not one for holding hands, but they played “The Blue Danube” waltz for us.

Amanda Burrill sees through an adventurous lens, typically focused on culinary and travel. Her education includes a bachelor’s in archaeology, a master’s in journalism, a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, and wine and spirits credentials earned while living in Paris. She is a U.S. Navy veteran, Ironman triathlete, high-alpine mountaineer, and injury connoisseur who ruminates on