A new Danube: embark east of Budapest to discover the wild side of this legendary river
The boat swayed as white-tipped waves slapped our hull before smashing 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 it was one of the surprises of 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 the pretty Cesky Krumlov and Salzburg close by. 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 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 which 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. Starting from the Carpathians, the Kosava is a flood wind that can lower the temperature to -30 ° C in winter and accumulate dust clouds in summer as it follows the Danube and passes through the Iron Gates Gorge to in 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 battlements, the long, elegant white form of our riverboat, the SS Beatrice, slid 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 BC 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 it. ‘a dam submerges its original position under an artificial lake.
Imposing sight: During her river voyage, Caroline passed by the fortress of Golubac, which dates back 700 years. It has been fought for centuries by Serbs, Magyars and Turks, due to its strategic position
The sculpted head of King Decebalus, who fought the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, was another highlight as the ship sailed through the gorges of the Iron Gates.
There are burial plots, altars, rocks carved with faces and patterns, trapezoidal foundations of houses, pottery, jewelry and tools from the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods.
Like the original village, the door of each house faces a high granite peak, with a roughly hewn trapezoidal outline on the opposite bank, probably of religious importance.
Reaching our luxury floating hotel downstream, the afternoon passed with a scenic cruise through the Iron Gates Gorge, crossing 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 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 carved in 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 Schubert’s small cafe serves Central European dishes such as sausage schnitzel and paprika chicken. In the photo an example of one of the menu options presented with art
The hardest to spot on the Serbian side was the actual Trajan’s Plate, carved to celebrate the completion of a delicate stretch of 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 in 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 blue, has rows of antique Chinese vases and USB ports galore.
The small Schubert Café, an alternative to the main Mozart restaurant, serves Central European dishes such as sausage schnitzel and paprika chicken.
A rich cultural program on board included a demonstration and tasting of Bulgarian yogurt, which was followed by folk dances by schoolchildren and a recital by Vox Medicalis Chorus, a talented Romanian student choir.
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 Red Rock Country in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains near the Serbian border. After a 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 quick hike up the 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, Bulgaria, a guided walk through its 19th century boulevards and squares gave the city the nickname “Little Vienna”.
In the neighboring countryside, we walked to the Church of the Basarabovo Rock Monastery, established in 1431 and still inhabited by monks. Then to Ivanovo Monastery, where the sound of croaking frogs in the river led to our leafy path lined with blossoming plum trees to see remarkably well-preserved 14th century frescoes in caves.
Traveling aboard the SS Beatrice, waking up every day to a new adventure in a different place, with relaxing afternoons watching the scenery, is a great way to visit these remote parts of Europe.
Uniworld (uniworld.com) offers ten-day cruises to the highlights of Eastern Europe from £ 3,009 per person, including seven-night all-inclusive cruise, excursions, gratuities, two hotel nights in Bucharest and thefts.