The lower Danube, offering history and culture while giving a different view of Europe, is ideal for clients seeking a river cruise with a difference.
Mighty by any standards, the Danube 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. I have sailed this famous waterway before, but only the upper part. Ports behind the former Iron Curtain are less well known, and this is where my AmaWaterways river cruise is set to take me.
On board AmaSerena
A coach whisks me from Budapest airport to join the 164-passenger AmaSerena, where my spick and span cabin awaits, as does stewardess Marta, ready to show me how to operate the Apple TV/computer, pointing out where to find the hairdryer and reminding me to always lock the balcony door when I go out. Mine is a twin-balcony cabin; one cabin is furnished with a table and two chairs, the other, a French balcony, has floor-to-ceiling glass doors.
An evening cocktail party is followed by the mandatory safety briefing and welcome dinner. I am invited to eat in the 28-guest Chef’s Table Restaurant, which offers a many-splendoured tasting menu comprising regional specialties and local wines.
Then it’s time to set sail so that everyone can see Budapest’s evening illuminations before returning to the berth. It isn’t until the following morning that the cruise proper starts with the first of a daily programme of excursions: sightseeing, cycling and walking (the latter graded according to ability), all included in the fare.
Wine and phantoms
At Vukovar in Croatia, excursions offered include a Yugoslav Civil War tour and a visit to Ilok where I tour 15th century wine cellars and enjoy tastings. Excellent wines indeed, they were served at our Queen’s coronation. Next stop is Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, where AmaSerena moors for a walking tour.
Our guide explains that the 1999 war devastated the city, though in recent years much of it has been pleasantly rebuilt. That evening there is an optional visit to Petrovaradin Fortress. It has an interesting clock tower with a ‘Reversed Clock’; the small hand shows minutes, the big hand shows hours. This enabled Danube fishermen to see the time from a distance.
In the Fortress, we are given torches to explore a maze of supposedly haunted underground corridors. 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 Belgrade, a mix of architectural styles from Ottoman to Art Nouveau. Visitor attractions include the white-walled Church of St Sava, the world’s second biggest Orthodox church, and Mount Avala, topped by the Balkans’ tallest tower. A lift whizzes us up to the viewing platform and café with its sweeping views of Belgrade.
King Decebalus and the Iron Gates
Next day is a full day sailing, common on ocean cruises but unusual on rivers. The good thing about spending a day onboard is the chance for clients to enjoy the facilities – heated pool with swim-up bar, fitness centre and in-room Internet, films and music.
We pass through the Iron Gates, a gorge between Serbia and Romania. Gliding past a convent, people – possibly nuns, but it’s hard to say for sure from a distance – wave from the balcony. Then there’s another photo opportunity when a gigantic head hewn in the rock appears. It belongs to Rome’s enemy King Decebalus, carved for eternity into the limestone cliffs.
Off the beaten track in Bulgaria
Next morning, sunshine and birdsong welcome us to Vidin, a back-of-beyond Bulgarian town. I choose the Belogradchik excursion, a village with an ancient fortress perched on the mountain slopes.
A steep walk over rocky ground takes me past amphitheatres of UNESCO-listed rock formations with whimsical names: the Madonna, the horseman, Adam and Eve, the cuckoo. It’s incredible to think they are around 230 million years old.
Later that day I visit Rousse, (sometimes ‘Ruse’), a photogenic town with flower-filled parks, pedestrianised areas and couples entwined on benches.
On the final day, the ship berths at Giurgiu in Romania. Those guests who have chosen a post-cruise stay are whisked to Bucharest and have the option of a full-day excursion in the capital with its tree-lined boulevards and even a nod to French panache with a fake Arc de Triomphe.
As Jamie Loizou, sales, marketing and digital director, AmaWaterways, says, “The Lower Danube is a fascinating stretch of river which includes lesser-known destinations of Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria. Our ‘Gems of South East Europe’ cruise passes through the scenic Iron Gates as well as Belogradchik, one of Bulgaria’s natural wonders. We encourage travel agents with clients who may be familiar with the more popular Budapest-to-Vilshofen route to offer this as an alternative.”
AmaWaterways ‘Gems of Southeast Europe’ cruise sails from Budapest to Rousse (or reverse). 2018 Prices from £2,045 pp for a river view cabin. Freephone 0800 320 2336; amawaterways.co.uk
AmaWaterways offers a ‘Fly Free’ promotion with complimentary transfers valid on 2018 bookings made before 31 August, 2017. This includes all European itineraries and the Mekong.
AmaWaterways all-inclusive benefits
- Shore excursions
- All meals on board. Wine, beer, soft drinks with lunch /dinner
- Apple TV/computer (European fleet), internet access and WiFi
- Bicycles for clients’ use
For new-to-river cruisers, it’s worth pointing out that river cruise holidays give clients time to explore destinations while enjoying scenic views along the way.
River cruises are destination focused. Most offer a selection of shore excursions in each destination, so even if clients have visited before you can offer them new experiences.