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On the river: Budapest to the Black Sea

Taking a small-boat river cruise down the Danube takes in some of Europe’s most historic cities; just remember to get dressed before you open the curtains

On the river: Budapest to the Black Sea

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“This is fantastic,” murmurs my friend Steve to no one in particular — certainly not to me or to his wife Dianne, as we glide along the Danube on a balmy summer night. The three of us are aboard the Saga Holidays ship Regina Rheni II on a cruise from Budapest to the Black Sea, standing on the top deck trying to absorb the splendour of the illuminated Hungarian capital. Sometimes we strain our necks towards Habsburg-looking Buda, its castle shining resplendent on a hill; sometimes towards Pest, where the neo-gothic Parliament, with its slender acicular contours, monopolises our attention. Cameras and smartphones are useless at such low light so we’re left gadgetless with only our mind’s eyes to record the spectacle.

This is my first cruise — river or ocean — so Steve and Dianne are keen to fill me in on the differences I wouldn’t recognise anyway. I’m told that river cruises are smaller, friendlier and more manageable, while ocean cruises are destination-orientated. On the river you can look out of the window and watch the world go by. Indeed, as we’re passing through the small Hungarian town of Mohács the following morning, I carelessly open my cabin’s curtains while still in my underwear only to be confronted by the embarrassed chuckles of an amateur fisherman less than 10ft away. This feels more like a gentle train journey. Maybe that’s why the EU has dubbed the Danube, rather prosaically, ‘Pan-European transport corridor VII’.

Hungarians still say ‘more was lost in Mohács’ in resignation. It’s an aphorism meaning ‘worse things happen at sea’, because this is where the Hungarian Kingdom lost a decisive battle against the Turks in 1526, leading to 150-odd years of Ottoman occupation. Well, the town may be the seat of lingering national trauma, but today it’s as lifeless as the scarecrows standing in the surrounding rapeseed fields. It’s Sunday and everything is closed, so we’re all off to an equestrian extravaganza at the Bakod Horse Farm, showcasing the riding skills of the csikós, the mounted herdsmen of the Puszta, the Pannonian Steppe.

The hour-long spectacle features precision carriage riding and rodeo-like games starring the Kisber halfbloods: chestnut horses, trained to perfection. They don’t even flinch at the cracking of whips but sit on their hind legs like dogs or lie flat on the ground and let their riders use them as a mattress for a nap. The climax is a dazzling Puszta-ten, whereby a rider stands upright on two horses and commands eight more, tethered together, racing at full gallop. I’m sure every tour under the sun comes here, but it doesn’t make the show any less breathtaking. For once, numbers allow you to attend an event you wouldn’t be able to on your own.

That night we cross into Serbia; yet the Danube looks and feels the same, a reminder that borders are human constructs. The banks are thick with willows, poplars and the odd alder or oak, while the river smells of petrol and sewage, its colour caramel. Only near the coast, when the Danube widens up and the sky is reflected enough in the water, does it adopt a mirror-lake mode and the colour turns to its much-sung blue.

In Novi Sad, despite the looming presence of the fortress of Petrovaradin, nicknamed ‘the Gibraltar of the Danube’, the town has an Austrian, chocolate-box daintiness and a hard-to-miss youthful disposition. Music in Serbia seems to be still important as the focus of an alternative culture. There are posters everywhere advertising club nights and festivals: Lovefest, Music of the Spheres and, of course, the internationally famous Exit Fest that makes good use of the vast grounds of the Petrovaradin.

On to Serbia

Whereas Novi Sad embraces the Danube with embankments and open views, Belgrade retreats from it guardedly as befits a city that’s been razed more than 40 times. The banks come up steeply from the riverside and the only signs of life are the moored party boats blasting out music until early in the morning. Liliana, our local guide, takes us around the capital and works us with wry humour. (Typical aside: “How do you double the price of a Yugo? Fill it up with petrol.”) I suppose self-deprecation comes naturally to someone whose passport changed names five times in the last 20 years as Yugoslavia morphed into the Serb Republic. A final, late-night crapulous foray into town with Steve convinces me that, although Belgrade isn’t a city that wows with its beauty, it’s one you can enjoy living in.

By this time we all have our extended circles: for dinner, on deck, at the bar. A cruise is certainly a lazy way to travel and everyone on board loves it. “It’s a holiday where the hotel moves with you. You don’t have to pack up all the time,” says Paul from Bolton, who’s saved our team several times from ignominy in the nightly quizzes. Dianne has her own reasons: “You don’t need to think about food, shopping or cooking, even cracking an egg. The brain gradually empties itself of the usual daily tasks.”

Overeating is certainly part of the experience and I rapidly put on weight as my metabolism slows down to match the speed of the river. “On a cruise, you might not like your cabin, the other passengers or the weather, but when you don’t like the food, then everything feels terrible. It’s on the quality of the food that a cruise succeeds or fails,” Holger Friedemann, our German head chef, tells me wisely.

He’s spent a lifetime on riverboats and has much to consider: there are health hazards like the norovirus; there are coeliac sufferers and vegetarians to cater to; there are allergies to be accounted for that are minutely detailed next to every dish on our menus. What with all the preparation headaches, the fact that the food on board is excellent throughout appears to be an added bonus.

After Belgrade, the Danube itself is the main event. Limestone cliffs rise up as the tree-line reaches the river shore, looking like a fjord without the glacial surface. We’re in the Kazan gorge making our way to the Iron Gates. This was a navigational nightmare in olden times, but a grandiose 1970s dam — a collaborative effort between Serbia and Romania — raised the level by around 100ft, easing the river passage. In the process it flooded 17 cities and villages, a large inhabited island plus a Roman road built by Emperor Trajan. His triumphant inscription, the Tabula Traiana dating from AD101, has been moved up to the river level on the Serbian side and is a popular destination for tourist speedboats. Its modern equivalent, completed in 2004, lies just upstream on the Romanian side — a gigantic rock sculpture of Decebalus, chief of the Dacians and Trajan’s worthy opponent, who eventually succumbed to the Roman legions.

Yet, despite the majesty of the surroundings, it’s hard to forget that the Serbian city of Tekija on our right or the Romanian city of Orșova on our left are all resettlements of people whose history was obliterated in the name of ‘progress’. When we reach the dam and follow a Ukrainian barge into a massive lock, we spot a monumental geoglyph on the mountain side: the name of the old Communist leader, Tito, above the now defunct Yugoslav flag. If you want to build a dam that will submerge cities and villages, it helps if you’re a dictator.

As we leave Serbia, the Danube once again becomes the border between two EU member states, Bulgaria and Romania. Unbridled, the river now stretches at will, forming islands and channels. “It takes special skills to drive a riverboat,” Captain Relu tells me in the wheelhouse. “In the sea, apart from some wind calculations, you can put a ship on autopilot. On a river you’re constantly on the lookout, making corrections for the mud, streams or sandbanks. The current washes the sand and continuously modifies the riverbed. The Danube is alive.”

Captain Relu is one of two captains on our vessel, each navigating six hours on/six hours off, for the river requires 24-hour vigilance. He’s Romanian but speaks to me in English and is also fluent in Russian and German. Despite the overwhelming use of English internationally, the official language for communication on the Danube is German until Mohács, and Russian from there to the Black Sea.

The river flows on

We reach Ruse in Bulgaria around lunchtime the following day. It’s hellishly hot, with the mercury hitting 36C, while the humidity is so high that, were we to boil an egg in the open, the steam would surely come down as rain in some other part of town. Steve, Dianne and I venture out to the centre of Ruse, built with open, unshaded spaces, convenient for parading tanks on Bulgarian National Day, but crippling in the summer for pedestrians without parasols.

Ruse must have looked better in the past with a number of beautiful but crumbling belle époque houses. Today, they alternate with Communist-era buildings, once imposing but now rendered unsightly with an abundance of air-conditioning condensers sprinkled on their brutalist facades. We persevere — I mean, will we ever come here again? — but eventually the relentless Ruse sun makes us cut short our walk and return to the comfort of our cabins.

That night our boat sails north, deeper into Romania. After breakfast we pass slowly through Galați, whose odd fin de siècle edifice is drowned within a cacophony of faceless apartment blocks. As far as the eye can see there are 50 shades of rust: abandoned ships, worn out warehouses and neglected cranes. Even the presence of shipyards doesn’t disguise the obvious fact that Galați is where barges go to die.

We fleetingly pass by the Moldovan town of Giurgiulești, whose riverfront measures just 1,000ft and is populated by stacks of shipping containers; the landlocked country tries to utilise its tiny river footprint as best as it can. We hit the Ukrainian border, its observation posts and armed guards an unfamiliar sight in 21st-century Europe. Finally, we moor at Tulcea, a city of boats, fishermen and sailors’ bars, a world of travel agencies and currency exchange offices. It sports a couple of old churches, a few museums, some 19th-century mansions and, I reckon, the world’s only neoclassical mosque. But, most importantly, it’s the gateway to the Danube Delta, an area of wetlands three times the size of Greater London and the highlight of our cruise.

Next morning, we’re off down to the southernmost arm of the delta to glimpse the Black Sea, which is still 60-odd miles away. The further we travel, the more the Danube’s essence is slowly diluted as fresh water turns brackish, harbouring hundreds of species of fish, from catfish to sturgeon. At the river mouth, we stand mute on deck recording the Danube’s death by inanely taking pictures of water flowing into water, while our boat does a U-turn to dock at the village of Sfântu Gheorghe. There we board a number of speedboats and steer through a channel parallel to the sea, hemmed in by walls of reeds and forests of willows. It feels vaguely like the Okavango Delta, minus the hippos.

Soon we start spotting the birds: a kingfisher perched on a branch; a blue heron wading in the shallows next to a glossy ibis. Marsh harriers and Caspian terns size us up. A moorhen is hiding in the reeds. A startled stork takes off. There are pelicans, too; they hunt in groups, attacking the fish when they panic. Ceaușescu, Romania’s Communist dictator, tried to exterminate the pelicans because they were competing with humans for the fish stocks. He even tried to drain the delta, but we know the river won that battle. Yes, the Danube is indeed alive; maybe not like me or you, or the cormorant nonchalantly drying its wings on that rock, but it’s alive like a deity is alive, making its presence felt through its power, for it’s capable of miracles and catastrophes, and, of course, deaths.

As we make our way back, the wake from the speedboats in front makes the tall reeds on either side of the channel nod up and down, as if they’re saying goodbye with a mute Mexican wave. Nature can turn you dewy-eyed when you least expect it.

Saga Holidays offers an all-inclusive, nine-night Contrasts of the Danube cruise from £1,699 per person including flights departing from Heathrow (regional flight options available). saga.co.uk/danube

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)