Gilly Pickup sails along the Lower Danube on an Eastern European river cruise
I do love Budapest, the city with a split personality – steep-hilled, historic Buda and the more cosmopolitan Pest. Together they offer myriad charms – grand cafes, ornate baths, a clutch of museums, glamorous boulevards, art nouveau architecture and funky ruin bars with their mismatched, flea market furniture and strobe lights, which like a phoenix have risen from the shells of abandoned buildings.
The city has at its heart the River Danube, my reason for being here this time. I’m about to embark on a luxurious AmaWaterways cruise on stylish vessel AmaSerena. I have sailed along the upper section of this famous river before, but this is my first time on the lesser-cruised Lower Danube which gives a different vision of Europe.
I settle in to my twin-balconied room. It’s super-comfortable with plush furnishings, gorgeous artworks, Apple tv/computer, plenty of storage space and fabulously large marble bathroom with powerful shower. After the mandatory safety briefing and the chance to say hello to some fellow travellers, it’s time for the Welcome Dinner. I am invited to eat in the 28-guest Chef’s Table Restaurant which offers a splendid tasting menu comprising regional specialties and traditional dishes, each course paired with a local wine. There is a main restaurant on board too, with open seating policy.
The following morning AmaSerena sets sail. Every day, guests can choose from a packed programme of excursions; sightseeing, cycling and walking – walking tours are graded according to ability – and all are included in the cruise fare.
Arriving at the Croatian town of Vukovar there is a choice of two morning excursions. One is a Yugoslav Civil War tour, the other is to the village of Ilok where I tour the 15th century wine cellars and enjoy a wine tasting. The wines are excellent, indeed, they have a royal seal of approval. The 1947 Traminac wine was served at HM Queen Elizabeth 11’s coronation.
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. Before breaking up in the 1990s, Serbia, like Croatia, was part of Yugoslavia. 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. I go to Mount Avala too, this 511m mountain just outside town is topped by the 204m Avala Tower. The lift whizzes up to the viewing platform with sweeping views of Belgrade and beyond.
The following day is a full day cruising, traversing the Iron Gates, a gorge separating Serbia and Romania. I sail past a convent, once a monastery, where some people – presumably nuns, can’t say for sure as we are at a distance – wave from the balcony. There is 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. Of course, the locks also capture passengers’ attention, this massive lock complex is the Danube’s largest.
The good thing about spending a whole day on the ship means it’s an ideal time 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. Those who prefer to watch the passing scenery from indoors make use of the main lounge with its panoramic windows. It has a piano and bar with a 24-hour coffee station and library nearby.
But this five-country odyssey isn’t over yet and next morning I am welcomed by sunshine and birdsong in Bulgaria, the country where some locals shake their head to express ‘yes’ and nod to say ‘no’. It can lead to a mix-up so it’s best to avoid confusion by saying ‘da’ – yes, or ‘ne’ – no. After breakfast, we set off for Belogradchik, a village with an ancient fortress on the slopes of the Balkan Mountains. A steep walk over rocky ground takes me past UNESCO listed weird and wonderful rock formations with whimsical names – the Madonna, the horseman, Adam and Eve – it’s incredible to think they are around 230 million years old. Later that day I visit the pretty town of Rousse, sometimes written as Ruse – a photogenic place with fountains, flower-filled parks, pedestrianised shopping area and loving couples entwined on benches.
Then before I know it, we are in Romania, the final country. A brief view of the capital city, Bucharest, reveals a somewhat faded grandeur, wide, tree-lined avenues and a nod to French panache with a faux Arc de Triomphe. My flight beckons and there isn’t time to explore which gives me a reason to return to this underrated part of the Danube, best seen from the comfort of a river cruise ship.
AmaWaterways 7 night Gems of Southeast Europe river cruises from Budapest to Giurgiu (or reverse) from £1811pp for river view stateroom. Price includes seven nights’ accommodation, all meals, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, complimentary excursions and free wi-fi . Regional flights on request. Freephone 0800 320 2336 or visit www.amawaterways.co.uk
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