Danube waltz: Viking Freya cruise offers history, a sense of intimacy
On the Viking Freya, most of the staterooms measure 135 to 205 square feet. One night I found a towel elephant along with the daily newsletter on my bed. Those are about all she has in common with the cruise ships lined up at Port Miami and Port Everglades.

The 443-foot ship cruises rivers -- this year she's on the Danube. She has no swimming pool, no spa, no salon, no casino, no children's clubs, no fitness center, no hot tub, no belly-flop contest, no art sale, no pricey alternative restaurant, no wall of snapshots you can buy for $19.99 each.

There's almost no nightlife, just a pianist who also sings, and maybe a trivia contest in the lounge which usually clears out by 11 p.m. No beach parties are on the list of shore excursions; no Margaritavilles await at the ports the ship visits.

Everything is set up for Viking's target demographic: affluent English-speakers age 55 and up.

A cruise on Viking Freya is destination-oriented, with at least one stop a day and a history-intensive guided tour at no extra charge in most ports. Almost everyone goes. If you want to skip a port and stay on board, there are lounge chairs on the top deck by the chef's herb garden, board games in the library and lots of well-lighted spots for reading.

The ship is named for the Norse goddess of love, beauty and fertility, but during my week on board, I heard no one call her beautiful. She's short and squat and has almost no curves. Her best physical feature is floor-to-ceiling windows in the public spaces with excellent views out and lovely light coming in. On the Aquavit Terrace, the windows retract in good weather and turn it into an outdoor lounge.

She's my kind of cruise ship.

Viking Freya, 2 years old and holding no more than 190 guests, is part of the first generation of Viking's Longships, vessels the line is building and launching at lightning speed to remain the biggest company on the rivers of the world. This summer, the California-based line will have 53 ships, most of them sailing Europe's rivers, and half a dozen in Asia and Egypt. By the end of 2015, it will have 64 ships.

Freya launched in April 2012. As with all Viking ships and any line's river cruise ship its size and shape were limited by the rivers it would sail and any locks on those rivers. The ships must be slim enough for river channels with ships passing in both directions and low enough to pass under bridges. That leaves no room for most of the basic amenities on oceangoing cruise ships.

The journey I took was the Danube Waltz, a seven-night cruise from Passau, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary, with a day in each of those cities plus four stops in Austria and one in Bratislava, Slovakia.

My cruise was in April, when we had mostly cold and sometimes rainy mornings and a few sunny afternoons. We spent little time in the lounge chairs on the top deck.

The wheelhouse sank so smoothly, so quietly, that I didn't even notice it was happening. I turned to see how close we were to the first bridge of our cruise and was surprised to see the wheelhouse, which is on scissor jacks, six to eight feet lower than it had been just a few minutes earlier. The prow of the Viking Freya nosed under the bridge just then, and a tall passenger on tiptoe touched its underside as we glided through.

With that passage, we sailed from Germany into Austria. Our first castle nothing as big as what the word "castle" implies to us non-monarchists was not far off. Accustomed to the monotonous stretches of blue on ocean cruises, I soaked up the views: small villages, old stone bridges and abutments, the ruins of castles and fortresses, steeples peeking above ridges.

The newsletter said we would go through several locks that night, and later I would awaken to grinding noises, look out my veranda door and see the walls of a lock, stained by Danube waters, towering above me.

We had boarded late the day before in Passau, a medieval town at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, then spent our first full day of the cruise there. On such a small ship, a sense of camaraderie developed quickly.

A walking tour took us through the historic center of town to St. Stephen's Cathedral, where we learned the differences between Baroque, Gothic and Rococo architecture. Bits of that lesson would repeat throughout the cruise, as we visited church after church.

After lunch back on the ship, some of us set off on our own explorations. I visited the Passau Glass Museum, which claims to have the world's largest collection of European glass. Others climbed a hill to a 13th century castle that overlooks the town.

Now it was dinnertime. Viking ships have only one dinner seating in the main dining room, and a lighter menu in the indoor/outdoor Aquavita Terrace one deck above, but dinner hours in both are roughly the same. The ships have no place for late-night burgers and ice cream.

Dress was casual. Although men sometimes wore sport coats to dinner, I saw only a few dresses. On our dressiest night, the Captain's Farewell Dinner, Capt. Ferenc Horvath wore a pirate's eye patch and a hook protruding from the sleeve of his uniform. I like a man with a sense of humor.