Another day, another country ... or two. We'd made the short trip from Vienna to Bratislava in the early hours, so we were now flying the flag of Slovakia. We were taken on a tour of this tiny capital, built on the Little Carpathians, with upmarket housing and diplomatic residences on the hillside. The old town below had a certain shabby charm but also the worst pavements ever encountered, full of holes and hazards. Looking upwards was recommended, as many of the old buildings were dotted with cannonballs, allegedly Napoleonic, lodged in the walls. Meanwhile at a lower level a series of witty street sculptures decorated numerous corners attracting tour groups and the local 'noddy train'.
Our guide Eva made sure we didn't mistake her country for Slovenia. The main industry being car production, with a certain main manufacturer, it could actually be written SlovaKIA! Guests have also been known to ask her 'how far is this from Czechoslovakia?' to which her answer would be 'twenty one years'. Referring to a few years before the separation from the Czech Republic, she described the atmosphere of the 1989 Velvet Revolution with pride and a sense of achievement at leaving Communism behind, although she didn't have too much time for modern-day politicians either.
Seeking some shade from the punishing heat, we stepped back in time in the main square, enjoying a coffee at Cafe Mayer, established in 1862 and Bratislava's oldest. It would have been rude after all not to sample the local hospitality, although in reality we would shortly be back on board for lunch ... and casting off for departure after this shortest of country stops.
Shortly before crossing into Hungary we had to navigate Europe's second largest lock at Gabcikovo, a fascinating process that took a good half-hour, sharing the 60-foot drop with Viking sister ship, Baldur. For the next eight hours or so, she and Legend took it in turns to lead the way through seemingly unpopulated stretches of the Danube. Nothing spectacular to see until Esztergom's massive cathedral, mainly just low-lying banks of gentle multi-green foliage, but it was a lovely chance to relax with a book and enjoy the river breezes and some daytime cruising.
'Spectacular' was awaiting our approach into Budapest. The five-course Captain's Farewell Dinner safely tucked away in very agreeable company, the lights of the city coaxed everyone up on deck in party mood. Having repeatedly seen the Viking adverts punctuating episodes of Endeavour (apparently our American cousins are bombarded by them during the commercial breaks in Downton Abbey), we'd joked that we no longer needed to experience the actual cruise. Think again. Nothing could prepare us for this unique occasion, illuminated buildings and bridges galore, the sheer scale of it taking us by surprise, a reception committee calling and waving from atop the Chain Bridge. We all agreed we'd chosen the best direction for the voyage, nothing could have beaten this.