A European river cruise is a luxurious way of exploring Danube river cities and discovering countries that were once behind the iron curtain.
The Serbian and Romanian flags flutter on the bow of the MS Amalegro as we cruise the Danube. A dense forest covers the cliffs in a breathtaking palette of autumn shades which tumble all the way down to the grey-green river. We are on the border of two countries, Serbia and Romania.
A light mist hangs above the trees casting a mysterious air over the southern Carpathian Mountains on one side of the river and the north-western foothills of the Balkan Mountains on the other. This section of the river is known as the Iron Gates.
There’s plenty to see on both sides of the river. Our tour director points out an ancient Roman plaque Tabula Traiana on the Serbian shore. It’s a reminder of the Roman Empire’s victory over the Dacian kingdom in 105 AD.
There are oohs and ahhs as we cruise past Europe’s tallest rock sculpture, a soaring 40-metre rock carving of King Decebalus of Dacia whose stern expression is chiselled into the cliff face. Decebalus held off two Roman Emperors before giving in and taking his own life.
On the Romanian bank we pass the haunting Golubac Fortress. The river laps at the base of the sturdy stone turrets which have withstood centuries of invasions.
Danube River Cities
River cruising is one of the most luxurious ways to visit countries which were once ruled by strict communist regimes.
My stateroom has a queen-sized bed, lounge chair, flat-screen TV and writing desk. There are designer toiletries in the en-suite bathroom, thick white bathrobes and bedtime chocolates placed on my pillow each night.
Staterooms are serviced twice daily; in the morning and a turn-down service each evening.
Days are filled with meals with new friends, cocktail-making lessons, attending wine appreciation classes and listening to informative talks about the regions we pass through. Or simply watching the landscape float past.
Each evening enthusiastic local performers bring a strong cultural aspect to the ship; most popular are a delightful Bulgarian children’s choir, an energetic Serbian dance troupe and a classical string quartet.
The menu changes daily and offers contemporary cuisine as well as regional fare that reflects the food of the countries we are in each day. And the quality wine gets better and better as we cruise towards Budapest.
But the real highlight is the daily off-the-beaten-track tours to cities and towns which – not so long ago – were impossible for ordinary travellers to visit.
At some destinations, the ports are located so close to the towns that the ship is only a short stroll to the sights. While at other ports we bus through the countryside to our destinations.
Bucharest and beyond
On our second day, we travel in buses from Giurgiu in Romania to the capital, Bucharest. Glimpses of elegant French Baroque palaces flash by from behind rows of stark soviet multi-level housing blocks.
We visit the Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon). Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu razed one sixth of Bucharest, 30,000 homes, to build this white elephant.
The next day, the buses brush beneath low-hanging tree branches and crooked telegraph poles in Vidin’s narrow streets. Thousands of years of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Bulgarian culture has left Vidin with a potpourri of architectural styles and fine churches.
At the 14th-century Bada Vida Fortress, we’re treated to a performance by a local theatre group dressed in colourful historic costumes. The actors bring the story of the Ottoman conquest of the fort to life with a short Bulgarian play.
Belgrade in Serbia
After a relaxing day of cruising through the Iron Gates we arrive at Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. Not so long ago (1999) the former Yugoslavia regularly made world news as a war zone.
These days symbols of capitalism are everywhere. Advertising billboards with glamorous high cheek-boned models push western cosmetics and chic boutiques sell the latest European fashions.
Many ports offer insights into the region’s war history. In Vukovar in Croatia, the guides share stories about their personal war-survival experiences as we walk past bullet-ridden buildings. In another Serbian city, Novi Sad, we visit the Petrovaradin Fortress where Europe’s coolest bands draw 50,000 visitors a day to the Exit summer music festival.
We cruise to the Hungarian port of Mohacs and bus through the countryside to Pecs. Here the mood is upbeat with dances, concerts and plays organised for the 2010 European Culture Capital celebrations.
On our final day, I stand on the ship’s deck gazing at Budapest’s fairytale spires reflecting at how my cruise through Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary has opened my eyes to a whole new Europe.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of APT Touring and Korean Air
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