Never again will I dismiss river cruises as being slow-paced and sedentary.
I’m running along the streets of Vienna and my heart is pounding with such force I fear it is about to burst out of my chest like a proverbial bat out of hell.
Not for the first time, I bitterly berate myself for choosing this energetic excursion – one of many on this Avalon Waterways cruise along the Danube – but the prospect of exploring the Austrian capital’s stately surroundings on a jogging tour had proven irresistible.
There was just one problem. I’d never jogged anywhere in my life. As a middle-aged full-time working mum of two, my paltry exercise regime consists of sprinting for trains and occasional knockabouts on the tennis court.
My intention to get fit in preparation had fallen by the wayside, so when I turn up in trainers and running gear for our 8am departure, I’m praying there will be other slowcoaches who I can skulk along with at the back.
Alas, only two other hopefuls have signed up for this pre-breakfast jaunt. One is my friend Pip, who, to my horror, suddenly announces that she’d taken up jogging earlier in the year (I feel betrayed!) and a 40-something Canadian woman who casually talks of competing in half-marathons.
My heart sinks further when our guide Dominic reveals he’s in training for his fourth marathon within 12 months, while his friend Florian “only” runs 45 miles each week!
There’s nothing for it but to come clean, reveal my unfit state and admit that, as a journalist, I’m only doing this for research and will need frequent stops to take pictures. These interludes subsequently prove to be my lifesaver.
After taking the subway to the city-centre, we’re soon trotting past the imposing St Stephen’s Cathedral, and along the deserted Graben shopping street towards the Hofburg Palace and Spanish Riding School.
It doesn’t take long for me to build up a sweat as my breathing deteriorates into brief insufficient gasps, but I try not to pant too loudly as no one else seems out of breath.
I pray that Dominic will stop to talk about the attractions we are passing, giving me a desperately-needed reprieve, but much to my disquiet he seems happy to chat while remaining on the move.
I can’t fail to notice how much Vienna lends itself to jogging with pedestrianised streets, beautiful parks and glorious Baroque architecture that helps to distract me from feeling that I’m about to collapse.
As we pass rows of public bike stands, I eye them longingly, wishing I could jump on and cycle off instead; and when a van creeps behind us along one of Vienna’s pedestrianised streets, I’m tempted to thumb a lift.
But 90 minutes and 3.5 miles later, we are done and, while I feel shattered, I’m just pleased to have survived. However, perching on a nearby wall for a much-need rest almost proves to be my undoing as I promptly seize up and stagger to my feet feeling like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, with creaking legs that ache for the next two days.
Yet, despite everything, this is a wonderful way to explore the city and brings a completely different perspective as you pound streets devoid of tourists. But rather than follow my masochistic example, I’d advise being fitter to fully enjoy it.
Two days later and I’m back in action, but this time on two wheels as I join around 20 other keen cyclists on a 12-mile ride from Krems to Spitz that perfectly showcases Austria’s famously picturesque Wachau Valley.
We pedal past serried rows of vines before joining the riverside cycle path past the dramatic ruins of Kuenringer Castle at Durnstein where Richard the Lionheart was incarcerated during the 12th century.
It is so blissful I feel quite disappointed when our journey comes to an end, though the plus point of such exertions means that wining and dining during this cruise becomes a guilt-free pleasure as I feel I’ve earned such treats.
Buffet breakfasts and lunches are appetising, but could do with a little more choice, while the four-course dinners are good rather than outstanding, though memorable high points include the grilled beef tenderloin and pumpkin soup, which is the best I’ve tasted.
Free drinks with meals ensure the wine flows, and it’s pretty decent too with rosé and sparkling varieties in addition to usual reds and whites, freely dispensed by waiting staff without the reluctance to refill glasses that you sometimes sense.
Life aboard Avalon Impression is well organised and supremely comfortable and our Panorama Suite, where my bed faces vast windows that can be pulled back to create a French balcony, makes an ideal haven to recover from exertions while admiring wonderful river views.
Our fellow guests – there are 139 in total – mostly hail from America and Canada, with a small sprinkling from the UK and Australia. Many seem younger than the normal river cruising crowd and they are definitely fitter.
But this isn’t a prerequisite on this special Active & Discovery sailing as there are numerous excursions that don’t involve breaking into a sweat.
I’ve taken many river cruises, but the choice of activities on this voyage from Budapest to Linz is the most varied I’ve seen.
Each day brings tours designated as Active (hiking, biking, canoeing, jogging), Discovery (wine-tasting and behind-the-scenes “insider” tours), and Classic (coach tours, museum visits and beer-tasting). Price isn’t really a factor either as most are included.
Such a selection brings daily dilemmas, and I regret opting for a disappointing medieval tournament experience over a canoeing trip. However, a visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz proves to be fascinating and emotionally, rather than physically, demanding as our excellent guide bring alive the horrors of Austria’s only concentration camp.
A challenging three-mile hike over the forested hills surrounding the Danube finishes off our week in active style with the reward of magnificent views over the Danube Bend, where the river loops around the rugged terrain.
Once again, I find myself puffing to keep up with my fitter companions, but I comfort myself with the thought that at least this pace is more to my liking and I don’t have to break into a dreaded jog.
Avalon offers eight-night Active & Discovery Danube sailings between Budapest and Linz, with regular departures between April and October. Sailings in 2021 from £2,227pp, excluding flights and transfers (0333 259 4939; avalonwaterways.co.uk).