While most tour the upper section of the river, a cruise along the Lower Danube from Hungary to Romania is a delight, writes Gilly Pickup
The Danube is a river of superlatives. Mighty by any standards, it is the world’s only river with a waltz named after it and the only one to flow through or form part of a border with so many countries. Ten in fact. Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. It is the longest river within today’s European Union, passes more capitals than any other river and over the centuries has provided inspiration for artists and writers. Just one thing though, it isn’t blue like Strauss said – more a browny grey colour.
I have sailed along this famous waterway before, but only the upper part, not the lesser-cruised Lower Danube which offers generous portions of history and gives a different vision of Europe.
Ports behind the former Iron Curtain are less well known and this is where our AmaWaterways river cruise is set to take us. Our coach whisks us from Budapest airport to join the 164-passenger AmaSerena where our spick and span cabin awaits, as does cabin stewardess Marta, anxious to show us how to operate the lights, pointing out where to find the hairdryer and reminding us to always lock the balcony door when we go out. Ours is a twin balcony cabin, one is furnished with a small table and two chairs, the other, a French balcony, has floor to ceiling glass doors.
The trip starts with an evening cocktail party hosted by Captain Henk – “just call me ‘Hunk’” Klos, hotel manager Zoran and cruise manager Maddy. Then after the mandatory safety briefing and the chance to say hello to some fellow travellers, it’s time for the Welcome Dinner. We are invited to eat in the 28-guest Chef’s Table Restaurant. It offers a many splendoured tasting menu comprising regional specialities, traditional dishes and local wines to accompany each course.
Then we set sail so that everyone can get a good view of brilliantly lit Budapest before returning to the docking place. It isn’t until the following morning that we start our cruise proper and the first of a packed programme of excursions; sightseeing, cycling and walking – tours are graded according to ability – all included in the fare. Many involve travelling in a coach to the destination and then walking around in a small group led by a guide. Before every excursion you’re reminded not to forget your Quietvox, a device through which commentary is offered.
Arriving at the Croatian town of Vukovar there is a choice of excursions. One is a Yugoslav Civil War tour, the other is to Ilok where we tour the 15th century wine cellars and enjoy a wine tasting. Excellent wines indeed, they were served at our Queen’s coronation. Next stop is Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city where we moor for a city walking tour. Our guide explains that the war of 1999 – to Serbians it’s the Civil War, while Croatians call it the Homeland War – devastated the city though in recent years the town has been pleasantly rebuilt. That night after an earlier-than-usual dinner there is the option to visit Petrovaradin Fortress. It has an interesting clock tower – the small hand of the “Reversed Clock” shows minutes while the big hand shows hours. The logic behind it is so Danube fishermen could see the time from a distance. In the Fortress, guests get torches to explore a maze of underground corridors said to be haunted. It looks creepy enough to house the odd phantom but no-one comes across anything ghostly so maybe it’s just a story.
Overnight the engines rumble and we’re off again, this time to the Serbian capital Belgrade, a city with a mix of architectural styles from Ottoman to Art Nouveau and sadly still evidence of bomb damage from the 1990s war. Visitor attractions include the mausoleum of former Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito and the white walled Church of St Sava, the world’s second biggest Orthodox church with impressive bell towers and almost 50 bells. The religion demands that only human voices are allowed here – no organ music. Worshippers must stand during services and because the church follows the Julian calendar, Christmas Day is on 7 January. We go to Mount Avala too, this 511m mountain just outside town is topped by the 204m Avala Communications Tower. The lift whizzes us up to the viewing platform from where there are sweeping views of Belgrade.
Next day is a full day of sailing, commonplace on ocean cruises but unusual on river cruises. We pass through the Iron Gates, a gorge between Serbia and Romania which narrows to 150 metres at one point. We sail past a convent, originally a monastery, where a few people – presumably nuns – wave to us from the balcony. Then it’s another camera clicking moment when a gigantic head hewn in the rock appears. It belongs to Rome’s enemy King Decebalus, carved for eternity into the limestone cliffs. At one point he battled the Romans for freedom for Romania, or so the onboard commentary tells us. The locks capture passengers’ attention too, this massive lock complex is the river’s largest. The good thing about spending a whole day on the ship is the chance to enjoy the facilities – a heated pool on the top deck with swim up bar, small fitness centre and in-room internet, films and music.
But our five-country odyssey isn’t over yet and next morning I am welcomed by sunshine and birdsong in Vidin, a totally-off-the-track Bulgarian town. After breakfast, we set off for Belogradchik, 30 miles away, a village with an ancient fortress on the slopes of the Balkan Mountains. A steep walk over rocky ground takes us past amphitheatres of UNESCO listed weird and wonderful rock formations with whimsical names – the Madonna, the horseman, Adam and Eve, the cuckoo – incredible to think they are around 230 million years old. Later that day we visit Rousse, sometimes written as “Ruse”, a photogenic town with fountains, flower-filled parks, pedestrianised shopping area and loving couples entwined on benches.
On the penultimate day of the trip our daily programme gives the option of a full day city tour of Bucharest, Romania’s once troubled capital. However, the cruise manager does all in her power to dissuade those interested from signing up for this, citing problems from customs regulations to the timing of the ship’s departure for its last port of call, Giurgiu. Ah well, my visit to the 1000-plus roomed Palace of the Parliament building, built under the Ceausescu regime and so huge it is visible from space will have to wait till next time. Next day though, in the taxi going to Bucharest airport, although I don’t get to see Ceausescu’s folly, I do get a glimpse of this city. Outskirts littered with Soviet-era apartment blocks give way to a somewhat faded grandeur, wide, tree-lined avenues and a nod to French panache with a faux Arc de Triomphe. It’s pleasing to the eye. And of course, no time to explore gives me a reason to return to this wilder, underrated part of the Danube, best seen from the comfort of a river cruise ship.
Fact box AMA Waterways offers a seven night ‘Gems of Southeast Europe’ river cruise from Budapest to Rousse (or reverse). Prices from £1,811pp for river view cabin including accommodation, all meals, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, complimentary daily tours, free wi-fi. Regional flights on request. Freephone 0800 320 2336 or visit www.amawaterways.co.uk; I Love Meet and Greet provides airport valet parking; www.ilovemeetandgreet.co.uk