The Danube is a popular choice for river cruisers, with many opting for the Germany-Hungary route. But for more intrepid clients, AmaWaterways’ Gems of Southeast Europe itinerary offers a lesser-cruised route from Hungary to Romania.
I board AmaSonata, AmaWaterways’ 164-passenger ship, in Budapest, Hungary for the start of the cruise. I’ve travelled the Danube before from Vienna to Budapest, but never ventured further south on the river, so I’m looking forward to seeing what this stretch – which covers Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania – has to offer.
I’m particularly keen to see the Iron Gates, a beautiful narrow gorge with Serbia on one side and Romania the other. Along the way, however, I will discover many more ‘gems’ – and a few surprises. I will also be reminded of the region’s recent troubled history in the form of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
The itinerary begins with free time to discover Budapest before embarking on an evening Budapest Illuminations Cruise. We continue travelling overnight until we reach Mohacs in Hungary. From there the morning coach excursion is to the town of Pecs, originally a Roman wine-producing colony and an early Christian centre. The tour includes a visit
to the Christian Necropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A wine-tasting trip to the village of Villany is also on offer.
Each day there are around three optional tours – all included in the price and all graded according to their level of difficulty. There’s a selection of walking and coach tours, led by an English-speaking local guide or the cruise manager. Guests are informed of the days’ tours through daily port talks and a daily cruise newsletter. There’s usually a morning tour and further choices for the afternoon.
By day three we’ve reached Vukovar in Croatia, where guests can opt for morning tours: either a Yugoslav Civil War tour or (on a much less serious note) wine tasting in Ilok, before boarding again for the cruise to Serbia.
Our next stop is Novi Sad (the second city of Serbia), where we moor for a walking tour of the city, and at night we take a short coach journey to the Petrovaradin Fortress, with its quirky clock tower and labyrinth of underground tunnels. The next day we›re in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, for a walking tour. It was badly bombed in the 1990s by NATO, when many of its bridges were destroyed. Today, it’s a thriving modern city with a population of more than one million.
As we continue the cruise, the scenery changes from forests to farms. There are villages spread across the river banks – and the occasional sobering sights of war-damaged buildings.
Day five is a full day cruising. I take advantage of the sunny weather to sit on deck and enjoy the scenery. Today we cruise the Iron Gates, a narrow gorge offering stunning views. This stretch of the river became navigable after a hydraulic power plant was built there in 1971. Going through the Iron Gate National Park we cruise past a small picturesque church and an impressive rock sculpture, the 40-metre rock carving of Decebalus, the last prince of the Dracians (87-106).
There are also two lock gates to pass through. The first of the Derdap Locks is the largest; it has a 34-metre lift, and is 310-metres long and 30-metres wide. Not surprisingly it takes 90 minutes for boats to clear it. While we enjoy the beautiful scenery, the crew prepares a barbecue on the Sun Deck for lunch.
Today is also the ideal time to make use of AmaSonata’s facilities. On the sun deck, there›s a lovely swimming pool with a ‘swim-up’ bar and just enough space for very short lengths, but big enough so as not to be just a plunge pool. Other features and facilities include a fitness centre and spa;
complimentary ship-wide WiFi; and in-room internet, films and music. A fleet of bicycles is carried onboard for passengers to use on their own or on guided bike tours. The Main Lounge incorporates a bar, and is the venue for entertainment. There’s also a library and an all-day tea and coffee station.
AmaSonata, built in 2014, has 82 staterooms including four suites.
My 210 sq ft stateroom has a French balcony and an outside balcony, a large window, floor-to-ceiling mirror, desk/dressing table, internet access, flat-screen television, spacious wardrobe, safe, bathroom with shower, and a double bed. It’s more than comfortable and it’s great to have the outside balcony for a private outdoor space.
The quality of food is excellent, with interesting choices. All meals are included in the price for guests. Three-course evening meals are served in the Main Restaurant, with fine wines, soft drinks and beer included (outside of meal times, soft and alcoholic drinks are at an extra charge). Dining is on a free seating basis with no reservations. There are dishes from each country visited with locally sourced ingredients, and also regular choices served every day. On one evening of the cruise there’s a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs dinner. Guests can also book a meal at the Chef’s Table, a smaller restaurant offering a special tasting menu with its own private chef. Breakfasts and lunches are buffet style and served in the main restaurant. Afternoon tea is served in the Main Lounge.
By day six we reach the port of Vidin, Bulgaria and I opt for the excursion to Belogradchik (30 miles away by coach), a small town located in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains. This is one of the trip’s unexpected gems. On arrival, we take a 15-minute, easy hike to the top of the Belogradchik Fortress built into rocks. From the top, the view reveals beautiful russet sandstone rock formations covering a vast area. A spectacular sight and a real highlight for me.
By the penultimate day, we’re in Romania. I opt for the two-hour coach journey from the port through Romanian countryside to Bucharest. Here we visit the hideously opulent Palace of the Parliament, built by Ceausescu. It’s the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, with 1,100 rooms and six storeys. The next part of the tour is to an open-air museum showcasing Romanian village life, including buildings from the country’s three traditional regions (Wallachia, Moldova and Transylvania).
Here the cruise ends with guests disembarking on day eight from Rousse port. This is an ideal cruise to suggest to clients who have enjoyed other itineraries on the Danube but have never ventured this far south on the river. It will also suit new-to-cruise clients who enjoy history, culture and good food, and who are looking for something a bit out of the ordinary. Guests from the UK will be onboard alongside multiple nationalities; my cruise has mainly Brits, Americans and Mexicans. The crew, most of whom are from Eastern Europe, all speak English well.
I enjoy the variety of destinations we visit in a relatively short space of time, and because they are less familiar to me, I come away from the cruise with a new-found appreciation for the lesser-known Danube.
AmaWaterways’ Gems of Southeast Europe cruise costs from £2066 per person. Prices include flights and transfers, wines, beer and soft drinks with all meals, all shore excursions, bicycles and WiFi. Flights are available on request. 0800 520 2250