On a cruise down the Danube with my teenage daughter, I discovered the power of travel to open your mind—no matter your age.
Fifteen minutes into our tour of Schönbrunn Palace, the Hapsburgs’ 1,000-plus-room summer retreat in Vienna, my 17-year-old daughter, Hannah, disconnected her Quietvox and, out of earshot of the tour guide, said, “They’re all just like the Kardashians.”
The way she saw it, the social-climbing Napoleon married Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise in 1810 not so much to consolidate peace between France and Austria, but to bask in the rarefied atmosphere of the Hapsburg royal clan.
For her, it was the equivalent of Blac Chyna having a child with Rob Kardashian. “Blac Chyna snuck her way into the family in order to get the Kardashian last name,” she explained. “Like Napoleon marrying Marie-Louise, who hated the French. He just wanted to get into an important family.”
I have to admit that there was an odd — even brilliant — logic to what she was describing. We were on day five of our weeklong Adventures by Disney Danube River cruise, which began in Vilshofen, Germany, and ended in Budapest — and Hannah was having the time of her life. She had already climbed to the top of castle ruins in Austria’s stunning Wachau Valley, sat in on a strudel-making course in Vienna, and attended a Lipizzaner horse performance at the city’s exclusive Spanish Riding School.
I marveled at her energy, but more so at her sense of excitement. Hannah is a seen-it-all New York City high school senior who speaks five languages and spent her early childhood in Rio de Janeiro. I am a former foreign correspondent, and my ex-husband is a Serbian-Canadian photographer who now lives in Belgrade.
After Hannah was born, we traveled the world with her. She is amazingly cosmopolitan, and I worried that she would find a river cruise organized by the theme park’s tour operator lame and boring. And although Hannah politely refused to wear the Adventures by Disney lanyards studded with Mickey Mouse pins we were all given to mark each day’s excursion, she was engaged in a way I have never quite seen her.
That’s in large part because Adventures by Disney, which recently began chartering ships operated by AmaWaterways, doesn’t offer a traditional river cruise. Most companies target an older clientele, and before I boarded our ship, the well-appointed, 82-cabin AmaViola, I must admit I had visions of shuffleboard and bridge.
But among the 110 people on our cruise, I met gay couples, families with small children, and single parents with their adult kids. The vibe? Relaxed and welcoming. These family-focused cruises have proven to be so popular that Adventures by Disney and AmaWaterways are offering 15 sailings this year, on both the Danube and the Rhine.
Like Hannah, I found myself completely captivated by the whole river-cruise experience, which unfolded like a series of mini-adventures day after day. Family activities included a slide deep into a salt mine in Salzburg and a backstage tour of a marionette theater in Vienna. Adult excursions included wine tastings in Krems and tours of food and craft markets in Bratislava and Budapest.
All were conducted in conjunction with local guides who had in-depth knowledge of their native towns. The ship’s crew was also well informed, which I noticed after Hannah started questioning them about everything from where to find the best café mélange to how much we should pay for taxis in our next port.
In many ways, Hannah became the star of the AmaViola and its mostly Serbian staff. They had never met a passenger who could speak their language, and I swelled with pride every time she ordered our lunch or dinner — multicourse affairs that included beef consommé and Hungarian goulash as well as surprises like perfectly prepared pho — in their native tongue.
Every night, as we retired to our warm little cabin with its windows overlooking the splendid cities on the shore, Hannah researched what we would do the following day. Armed with intelligence from Hannah’s new friends in the crew and suggestions from the Adventures by Disney tour guides, who encouraged us to go off the official grid of daily activities, we decided to take in the Albertina Museum in Vienna, where my daughter made a beeline for the indie galleries.
“I love contemporary art,” she whispered as we made our way past paintings by Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol.
By the time the AmaViola docked in Budapest, the last port of call, Hannah’s requests were even more surprising: Could we go to the House of Terror on Andrássy Avenue?
The House of Terror?
During World War II, it was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party. Today, the splendid Beaux-Arts structure, which is tucked into a fashionable neighborhood in central Budapest, is a museum. In February 1945, when the Soviets took political control of the country, they used the building to house dissidents. Hundreds were tortured in a network of underground cells that stretched over a city block.
Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who had saved tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution in Hungary, shared a cell here before he disappeared into a Soviet gulag. “The basement smells like death,” Hannah told me, as we took the tour. Although the exhibits were difficult to stomach, it was important that Hannah was now getting a close-up of what life was like for opponents of totalitarianism.
After the House of Terror, we strolled down Andrássy Avenue before stopping at the chandelier-studded Alexandra Bookcafé, located on the second floor of the former Paris Department Store. We sipped steaming lattes and ordered an array of billowy Hungarian pastries. While she sampled each of the sweets, Hannah had another epiphany.
“You know, Mom, I think I want to come back to a place like this to study,” she said. “History just feels so alive here!”
That night, our last on the ship, I climbed to the upper deck as we sailed past the Hungarian Parliament, lit up in all its neo-Gothic splendor. I looked down at my phone as a text came in from my daughter, who was packing in our cabin below.
“Thank you Mom for an adventure of a lifetime,” it said. Followed by three heart emojis.