A new Danube: Departure to the east of Budapest to discover the wild side of this legendary river
The boat swayed as white tipped waves hit our hull before crashing onto the rocky shore. Nothing unusual about this on a cruise, but the vast expanse of choppy water I woke up to was not the sea.
I had never felt this kind of movement on a river cruise before, but this was one of the surprises on an adventure trip along the Lower Danube on the river trip to the Black Sea .
The Danube is a popular destination for river cruises, with the dazzling capitals Vienna and Budapest on its banks and pretty Cesky Krumlov and Salzburg within easy reach. Yet sailing east of Budapest, as the river crosses Serbia and forms the border between Bulgaria and Romania, takes you further and further off the beaten tourist track.
Caroline Hendrie has sailed along the Danube, winding through Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. She traveled aboard Uniworld’s luxurious SS Beatrice, pictured
The SS Beatrice underwent a bow-to-stern redesign that included her stretching a few feet to accommodate a grand staircase and a Murano glass chandelier
One of the suites aboard the SS Beatrice, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows so guests can admire the view from their beds
By the time we docked near the ten-tower Golubac fortress, emerging from the dark water, all was calm. Beginning in the Carpathian Mountains, the Kosava is a gusty wind that can lower the temperature to -30 ° C in winter and gather dust clouds in summer as it follows the Danube through the Iron Gates Gorge. to Belgrade. But it was spring and as the wind died down the river and the castle were bathed in sunshine.
Golubac Fortress has been around for 700 years and has been fought for centuries by Serbs, Magyars and Turks, due to its strategic position. As we gazed at its ramparts, the long, elegant white form of our riverboat, the SS Beatrice, slid on its way downstream.
This was our signal to board the coaches for the half hour drive along the right bank of the Danube to Lepenski Vir. A gentle riverside path past old-fashioned cottages led us to a huge glass and metal structure covering a prehistoric site.
The remains of a village, occupied between 9,000 and 6,000 BC, were excavated in the 1960s. And, like Abu Simbel in Egypt, every stone was moved to a higher place before the construction of a dam does submerge its original position under an artificial lake.
Stunning View: During her river journey, Caroline passed through the Golubac Fortress, which dates back 700 years. It has been fought for centuries by Serbs, Magyars and Turks, due to its strategic position
Another highlight was the sculpted head of King Decebalus, who fought the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, as the ship passed through the gorges of the Iron Gates.
There are burials, altars, rocks carved with faces and patterns, trapezoidal foundations of houses, pottery, jewelry and tools from the Mesolithic and early Neolithic times.
Like the original village, the door of each house faces a high granite ridge, with a roughly hewn trapezoidal outline on the opposite bank, probably of religious significance.
Joining our luxury floating hotel downstream, the afternoon was spent with a scenic cruise through the Iron Gates Gorge, cutting through the Carpathian and Balkan mountains.
We sat on the large upper deck listening to a commentary, triggered by GPS, through headphones as we cruised between cliffs towering to 1,600 feet.
Our eyes were directed to the left, towards an impending sculpture of a long-faced King Decebalus, who fought the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. How extraordinary that it was hewn in the rock on the instructions of a Romanian businessman and only completed in 2004.
SS Beatrice offers four dining options, all inspired by famous Austrian composers, including Mozart, pictured
The small Schubert Café serves Central European dishes such as sausage cutlets and chicken with paprika. Pictured is an example of one of the cleverly presented menu options
More difficult to spot on the Serbian side was truly the ancient Trajan’s Plate, carved to celebrate the completion of a delicate piece of the strategic Roman road in AD 100.
The SS renamed SS Beatrice stands for Super Ship, after a bow to stern redesign of the popular River Beatrice of the Uniworld fleet. This included stretching it a few feet to accommodate a grand staircase and a Murano glass chandelier.
The chicly decorated main salon, in light wood and French navy, has rows of antique Chinese vases and USB ports galore.
The small Schubert Cafe, an alternative to the main Mozart restaurant, serves Central European dishes such as sausage cutlet and paprika chicken.
A rich cultural program on board included a demonstration and tasting of Bulgarian yogurt, followed by folk dances by school children and a recital by Vox Medicalis Chorus, a choir of talented Romanian medical students.
Ancient Faith: Guests stopped at Ivanovo Monastery in Bulgaria, where 14th-century frescoes are remarkably well preserved
A statue at the Lepenski Vir archaeological site in Serbia
Everywhere we moored, a choice of excursions was offered (included in the rate). From Vidin in Bulgaria, I opted for a coach trip to the country of the red rock at the foot of the Balkan mountains near the Serbian border. After coffee at a Belogradchik hotel, it was time to explore the 200 million year old rock formations, whipped by wind and ice into curious shapes and a natural defense of the city since Roman times.
A brisk hike on trails and stairs took us through the gates of the 19th century fortress and up to its summit where lookouts could send early warnings of invaders for miles around. In Ruse in Bulgaria, there was a guided walk through its 19th century boulevards and squares which gave the city the nickname “Little Vienna”.
In the neighboring countryside, we walked to the Basarabovo Rock Monastery Church, founded in 1431 and still inhabited by monks. Then to Ivanovo Monastery, where the sound of frogs croaking in the river spread to our leafy path lined with blossoming plum trees to see remarkably well-preserved 14th century frescoes in caves.
Traveling on the SS Beatrice, waking up every day to a new adventure in a different place, with relaxing afternoons looking at the scenery, is a great way to visit these remote parts of Europe.
Unimonde (uniworld.com) offers ten-day cruises of Eastern European highlights from £ 3,009 per person including seven-night all-inclusive cruise, excursions, tips, hotel stay two nights in Bucharest and flights.