From Prague to Budapest
I can hear but I can't see her since I sit at the back of the bus. Lubrica Gazova is her name and she's the guide for our afternoon in the capital of Slovakia - Bratislava.
Lubrica's speech is heavy with thick l's and rolling r's which are at once comical and sinister and remind me of bad horror films. Trrrransyllllvania dahlink.
"After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, so called because no one died, we were split into two republics - Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The people did not like it because we are so similar. Now we are in the EU and have the Euro. You can imagine how overjoyed we are that we can now dedicate our hard-earned money to the collapsing economics of Europe. Hello, such a pleasure."
Lubrica points out that we will soon be passing the parliament buildings. "We have 120 parliamentarians who are simply excellent at creating problems," she informs us.
Next is the presidential palace. "Our president is nothing special. Before we have collective communism, now we have no communism, thank god, but he has forgotten everything about that time so he is a typical communist. We send him overseas quite often but so far unfortunately he is promptly delivered back to us."
When the bus stops at a castle, Lubrica issues a warning: "We have pickpockets who are even more industrious than our politicians so hold your bag in front of you."
We shuffle out. I can't wait to catch a glimpse of this maverick with the deadpan delivery. I'm not sure what I'm expecting but it isn't a small woman in beige dressed like it's 1959, with an old-fashioned hair-do to match.
Lubrica raises her half open umbrella, also beige, and exhorts us to follow, which we do without a moment's hesitation. By now we'd do anything this woman asked. We all adore her though we can't decide if we prefer her or the guide in Prague.
Who couldn't love a woman who explains all the major art movements on show and then says, "In Prague we always say we start life as gothic, lean and dark, and then we move on to Baroque, heavier and more decorated, and then it's over-the-top Rococo. Myself, I am in the late Baroque-Rococo phase."
Lubrica has the harder job of the two though. Bratislava is no Prague. It's no Krems, Grein or Vienna either, the other stops on this tour so far.
It's got bad graffiti, crumbling Stalinist buildings, bleak apartments and a muddle of lovely buildings next to hideous ones.
Just like home, says one New Zealand wit. We declare Bratislava the capital of grunge. In a perverse way it's almost a relief after all the neurotically clean and cute Teutonic villages we've passed to date.
Of course we haven't visited each one. We're mid-way through a 10-day Avalon cruise along the Danube which started in Prague and finishes in Budapest with numerous stops along the way.
Guided tours at each stop are part of the package. There are also optional excursions that incur an extra cost but why would you want to have all your free time gobbled up when you've only got an afternoon left in a spectacular setting?
If I'd done that I wouldn't have had time to see the Lucien Freud show at the Kunst Historische Museum in Vienna. On the other hand, the day trip to medieval village Cesky Krumlov was a Grimm's brothers' fairytale come true and took me to the home of artist Egon Schiele and a great museum in his honour.
But that's just me. Others chose the concentration camp tour, another bracing antidote to anodyne Austria.
In the end it doesn't matter. The guides are as fulsome as the food on board and as cheeky and funny as the cruise staff. The rooms are almost too good, since we barely spend any time in them, obsessed as we all are with clocking the passing autumn colours from the viewing deck during this unusual Indian summer.
During the entire cruise I only hear of one woman who made it to the hot spa bubbling away on the top deck to view the stars. At night most people head for the bar, to drink, chat and listen to the entertainment, generally music of the region. This is good since the onboard pianist's selection makes lift music sound exciting.
Actually, his abysmal tinkling is the only complaint we can think of when we come to fill in the feedback form at the end of the trip but a fellow passenger, Canadian, says no, that's not fair. He's playing to his audience.
Hang on, we respond. That's not fair. The 143 people on this cruise can't all be musical duffers. But maybe Mr Canada is right. This is a finely tuned operation. Avalon knows its audience. So much so they've even created a special package for New Zealanders and Australians. One where the tips are included. Phew.
Not for the guides though. Our Bratislava queen could barely hold all the money people thrust at her at the end of the tour.
Yvonne van Dongen travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways.
When to go Anytime. Spring, summer, autumn – they all have their different charms. Avalon closes over winter.
Cost This 10-day cruise to the capitals of central Europe starting April 2014 costs from $3778pp share twin for a room with windows but no real view. Prices for a panorama room start from an additional $983pp, subject to availability.
Who to take Your parents. Family groups are common and work well. Avalon offers a gentle walking group at each stop for those with ambulatory issues.
What to pack Smart casual clothes. At least one fancy outfit for the gala dinner and one pair of stretchy pants. You will almost certainly eat too much.
More information Visit avalonwaterways.co.nz
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