You fly to Budapest from where a coach will take you to the ship, moored in this beautiful city. The dedicated crew will be on hand to welcome you on board and help you settle into your well appointed and spacious cabin. The ship remains moored overnight, so watch dusk descend on this spectacular city as you enjoy your first dinner on board.
One of the most thrilling aspects of a cruise is waking up somewhere new, and there’s a real sense of excitement as we explore lands unknown to many until the Iron Curtain lifted. Hungary itself has so much to offer; situated at a crossroads in central Europe, it’s a mesmerising blend of European and Ottoman influences, rich in culture and history. Our adventure begins this morning when we arrive in Kalocsa, a city whose 1,000-year-old lore swirls with tales of warlike bishops, saintly kings, rampaging Ottomans and Magyar heroes. Among its fine buildings you’ll discover an impressive Baroque cathedral and the grand Archbishop’s Palace, with its Ceremonial Hall displaying a replica of the Hungarian holy crown. You can choose to enjoy a walking tour of the town seeing the sights plus the fascinating Paprika Museum; the region is one of the biggest producers of the seasoning that’s an essential part of Hungarian cuisine – goulash being a famous example. There are many types and strengths of ‘red gold’, but the best variety is said to come from here, due to its rich colour and robust flavour. Alternatively we take the short drive to a paprika house on the outskirts of the town to learn more about its production before continuing on a scenic drive into the Puszta, Hungary’s Great Plain, a hauntingly atmospheric prairie whose spirit is burnt into the Magyar soul. Stretching as far as the eye can see, it is home to villages seemingly frozen in time, while Hungarian grey cattle, spiral-horned sheep and buffalo graze on its pastures. The Puszta is also famed for its horses, and we visit an equestrian farm to watch a performance by some of the region’s most skilled riders. You’ll have the opportunity to take a horse-drawn carriage ride and experience this unique wilderness from a different perspective.
We return to the ship for lunch as our elegant vessel seamlessly glides away from her mooring. Later we’ll drive to the delightful city of Pécs, one of the many gems waiting to be discovered on this cruise, and it’s all the more engaging because so few have heard of it. It’s a wonderful cultural and artistic mélange reflecting the many peoples who, over time, have held sway in this region. Nestling against the verdant slopes of the Mecsek mountains, its almost Mediterranean climate yields a fertile harvest of fruits and almonds. This afternoon as we tour the rambling streets, discover a 4th-century Christian mausoleum – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – as well as a former mosque turned into a Catholic church, the ruins of Turkish baths, the magnificent cathedral and the Zsolnay Porcelain Museum. Later we return to our ship for a welcome drink with the Captain in the lounge before descending the elegant staircase to the restaurant for a special Welcome Dinner.
This morning we arrive in historic Belgrade. The only European capital to be sited at the confluence of two rivers, the city has been fought over numerous times through the centuries; during World War II the city suffered heavy shelling, and in more recent times, faced months of devastating NATO airstrikes during the Kosovo War. Despite its tragic past, it’s still a delightful city to explore, discovering delicate Art Nouveau facades amongst the stark concrete towers of the Communist era. Spectacularly sited overlooking both rivers is the Kalemegdan Park with its magnificent fortress, symbol of the Serbian capital. Originally built by the Celts and expanded by the Romans, the fortress has survived numerous invasions and its history is detailed in the military museum. We enjoy a guided tour, seeing all the main sights including the cathedral, Republic Square and the famous Prince Michael Street with its wealth of fine 19th-century buildings, some still brandishing the scars of more recent conflicts. After lunch, the rest of the day is free for you to explore this fascinating capital, still one of the least visited in Europe. Wander the old town’s lattice of winding streets or the interesting bohemian quarter, pausing to take stock over a welcome drink in one of the grand coffee houses and enjoy a spot of people-watching.
As evening draws in, relax with a cool crisp glass on the Sun Deck on board, before heading to the ship’s restaurant for the culinary delights of this evening.
For many, today will be one of the highlights of the cruise, as we leave the pancake plains behind and our passage through the magnificent Iron Gates Gorge commences. One of the most memorable stretches of the Danube, this is where the river cuts its mighty path between the mountain ranges’ towering cliffs, forming part of the boundary between Serbia and Romania. The ‘true’ Iron Gates is a single, narrow gorge but the name is given to an entire 83-mile stretch of spectacular gorges, where sheer limestone cliff faces plunge into the depths below. During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Serbian and Romanian governments built two hydroelectric power stations here. The dams raised the Danube’s water level by over 30 metres, and a number of historic towns and villages were obliterated during construction. Have your camera at the ready as we pass through the Great Kazan, meaning ‘cauldron’, where the river narrows to just 150 metres. As the captain skilfully steers us through, you will see the enormous sculpture of the face of Decebalus carved into the rock. Created in the 1990s, at over forty metres high, it is the largest rock relief in Europe.
As the afternoon sun sinks below the hazy horizon, thoughts turn to tonight’s dinner and what tempting choices lie in store. After dinner, retire to the lounge where the professional bar staff are on hand to serve your favourite digestif as you chat with newly made friends.
You awake in the Roman town of Nikopol and after breakfast we take a scenic drive across the Danubian Plain to Pleven. Surrounded by several thousand acres of green parks and forest, the town is famed for being the scene of a major battle during the Russo-Turkish War, during which the joint Russian and Romanian army took five months and four assaults to take the town. This proved to be one of the most decisive battles of the war, which paved the path to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the restoration of Bulgaria as a state, and the independence of Romania from the Ottomans. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of these events, the Pleven Panorama was opened in 1977, and tells the story of this tragic battle through a series of moving photographs and canvasses. We enjoy some free time here so perhaps visit one of the town’s museums or the St George Chapel Mausoleum, a memorial to the soldiers who were killed during the famous siege. Or simply wander the Old Town and enjoy the tranquillity of its pedestrian-only streets.
During lunch we slip our moorings for an afternoon’s cruising, so why not enjoy the invigorating river breeze up on the Sun Deck? It will soon be dinner time once again, so reconvene with your fellow travellers for an aperitif in the bar. We moor overnight in the little town of Oltenita.
Today we visit Bucharest with its wide, tree-lined boulevards and elegant belle-époque buildings. Its reputation for the high life in the 1900s earned it the nickname, ‘Little Paris’. Today the city is an eclectic mix – the faded grandeur of the classically beautiful municipal buildings, amongst the utilitarian architectural legacy left by decades of communist rule. One of the city’s landmarks is the Palace of the Parliament, a colossal and extravagant concrete creation, commissioned by the Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausecsu. Begun in 1984 and still unfinished, only 400 of the 1,100 rooms are used. It is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
On our guided tour, we see the palace and the city’s other main sights, such as the former royal palace and now the national art museum, the athenaeum with its impressive baroque cupola and remarkable acoustics, some superb Orthodox churches and squares, including Revolution Square, named after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. You will have time to explore this vibrant city under you own steam. Lunch is not included today, so seek out a cosy restaurant in the Old Town for a fortifying plate of traditional meatballs, generously spiced with garlic, dill and parsley; freshly stuffed bell peppers; or hearty soup soured with borscht.
We return to the ship with time to relax before dinner. Perhaps sink into a comfy armchair in the ship’s elegant lounge and watch the stunning scenery gliding by.
Overnight we have cruised towards the city of Tulcea, clinging to seven hills overlooking the river, and regarded as the gateway to the vast Danube Delta on the edge of the Black Sea. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Danube Delta is the second largest and best preserved in Europe, consisting of 2,200 square miles of rivers, marshes, tree-fringed lakes and reed islands, where nearly 3,500 animal and fish species, and 1,700 types of plant, call home. A bird-watcher’s paradise, the maze of canals bordered by willows and oaks, offers the perfect breeding ground for countless species. Millions of Egyptian white pelicans arrive here every spring to raise their young, whilst equal numbers of Arctic geese come here to escape the harsh Northern European winters. Keep an eye out for cormorants and white-tailed eagles.
After lunch, we depart the ship to take an excursion on smaller boats into the very heart of this inspirational and tranquil place. Our guide helps to point out some of the fascinating flora and fauna, a colourful kingfisher or a darting catfish beneath the water’s glassy surface.
As dusk begins to fall on this magical landscape, we slip our moorings once again. Enjoy another delicious dinner and then take to the deck to soak up the heady evening air, reflecting on what has been a very special day.
Today we have begun our return passage but there is still so much to discover. Up on deck hold on to your hat, as this area is well known for its windy weather, and windmills here were once a common sight. Watch the rocky shoreline drift by and the occasional ruined fortress still standing proud. We depart for the ancient city of Constanta, described by the Roman poet Ovid as ‘the end of the world’. Situated at the crossroads of several trade routes, it became a thriving commercial centre during Roman times and still is today. When the Main-Danube Canal opened in 1992, the inland waterways linking Rotterdam and Constanta created the shortest navigable route between the North and Black Seas. Constanta’s history dates back over 2,500 years – originally known as Tomis, it is said that Jason landed here with the Argonauts after finding the Golden Fleece. Numerous remains from Greek and Roman times are on display in the city’s archaeological and mosaic museums. The latter houses the largest and best-preserved Roman mosaic in the world, an astonishing 850 square metres. The city’s landmark is Constanta’s Art Nouveau casino, at the very edge of the Black Sea. The Romanian king Carol I had hoped that its construction would transform the city into a bathing resort for the elite, something that never quite transpired. There is free time to explore so perhaps visit one of the museums or simply enjoy the sea air with a portside walk.
Crossing the border into Bulgaria, we arrive in the attractive city of Rousse, known as ‘Little Vienna’ with its wealth of fine 19th-century buildings. A scenic drive brings us to Veliko Tarnovo, the ‘City of the Tsars’, spectacularly sited on the Yantra River, its Old Town clustered on three hills. On Tsarevets Hill stands the remains of the once impregnable fortress with the Tsar’s and Patriarch’s palaces, and the mighty cathedral. Much of the city was destroyed by the invading Ottoman troops, but in the 19th century, the town once again became an important commercial trading centre. Tucked away are tiny workshops, where you can watch copper pots being beaten or wooden utensils skilfully carved. It is delightful to wander here, keeping an eye out for interesting souvenirs and admiring the lovely mansion houses whilst soaking up the atmosphere.
We head to the little village of Arbanassi, set high on a plateau. During Ottoman times, the village became a commercial centre for traders and their caravans, crammed with wares bound for places as distant as Italy, Russia and even India. Perhaps visit one of the richly ornamented mansion houses of the period, with their fortress-like stone walls or the unassuming Church of the Nativity with its surprisingly spectacular frescoes. We end the day with a visit to the rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, a fascinating complex of churches, chapels and monasteries dating back to the 12th century with their remarkable 14th century frescoes.
Why not take that second cup of coffee up on deck and soak up the spectacular open spaces of this breathtaking landscape? Its seemingly endless patchwork of greens stretches into the distance under a vast sky. At the foothills of the Balkans, thick woods of fragrant pine and silver fir cling to the banks, forming a hazy outline on the distant horizon. After lunch we moor in Vidin, home to the Baba Vidin, the only entirely preserved medieval fortress in the country.
From here, we drive into this rugged wilderness and suddenly the horizon is dotted with huge sandstone cliffs, in a spectrum of orange-reds and yellows, eroded into huge, bizarre shapes. These are the Belogradchik Rocks; unique and dramatic, they cover an area of 90 square kilometres, some reaching as high as 200 metres. Many of these gigantic natural sculptures are named after people or objects they are thought to resemble, whilst others are associated with colourful legends.
We return to the ship for another excellent dinner. Later on, why not catch up with your fellow companions? Perhaps have a drink or two in the lounge, whilst the resident pianist plays a soothing melody.
This morning’s cruising brings us once again to the natural dramatic splendour of the Iron Gates Gorge, at the heart of Serbia’s Djerdap National Park. The gorge was cut out of the Carpathian mountain range over millions of years as the Danube drained the Pannonian Sea. Amongst the park’s thick forests of ancient oak, hazel and beech lies a rich preserve of game, deer and wild boar. Mountain goats roam the rocky cliffs of Djerdap Kazan, whilst bears, wolves, foxes and wild cats wander the dense woodland. Keep an eye out for eagles and falcons, too. Enjoy the splendour of this magnificent stretch of the river from a sun lounger on deck, or watch the seamless scene changes of this river spectacle unfold through the panoramic windows in the ship’s elegant lounge.
This afternoon we moor in Donji Milanovac and take the short drive to visit Lepenski Vir, one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe, dating as far back as 9500 BC. The site consists of a series of Mesolithic villages located on a high terrace overlooking the Danube. The wooden houses were laid out in a fan shape and used one of the first types of concrete as their foundations! The floors were made of sandstone, often covered with limestone plaster and even decorated with red and white pigments. Our guided tour will reveal more about this fascinating place and how these ancient people lived.
The numerous fortresses along the banks of the Danube are reminders that the area has been fought over for centuries and this morning, we pass one of the most impressive – the medieval Smederevo Fortress, spectacularly located at the water’s edge. After a lazy day we moor in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, in the shadow of the Fruska Gora mountain, its gentle fertile slopes terraced with lush vineyards. The climate and the proximity to the Danube make this region ideal for wine production, particularly Italian Riesling, but there are many others produced here including the only original dessert wine, Bermet, an Italian vermouth-like wine with a unique aromatic sweetness. Enjoy a guided tour of this vibrant city, which flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming known as the ‘Athens of Serbia’. See its Old Town hall on the impressive main square, flanked by lovely 19th-century architecture, its ancient castle and synagogue. Towering over it all is the mighty Petrovaradin Fortress with its complex system of underground tunnels. The minute and hour hands of its iconic clock face are reversed, supposedly so that fishermen could still tell the time at a distance! You can learn more about the fortress and its turbulent history at the museum on site.
We are moored here this evening, so why not enjoy an after-dinner stroll and take in the relaxed ambience of this lovely city?
Today we have crossed into Croatia and during breakfast we moor in Vukovar, the country’s largest river port, located at the confluence of the Danube and Vuka rivers. Vukovar boasted a prosperous manufacturing industry and a picturesque baroque centre until the tragic events of the civil war unfolded, and the city was almost completely destroyed. Renovation to restore the city to its former glory is still very much ongoing.
Here, we enjoy a guided tour, seeing all the main sights and learning about its tumultuous past. Later we drive to the historic city of Osijek, with its three centres hugging the banks of the River Drava. We have a guided tour of the Old Town – behind its thick stone walls lie a magnificent market square, lined by elegant public buildings with pastel-coloured facades. In the Upper City you will see the neo-Gothic cathedral, its red-brick spire soaring above the rooftops. Much of Osijek has been restored, but some buildings still bear the scars of the fighting.
This evening we cross the border into Hungary once again, as the chef presents tonight’s appetising menu.
As the gentle pastoral landscapes slip by, Budapest’s brooding skyline comes into view once more. This imperial capital is a collage of palatial buildings, grand domes, and attractive Baroque churches with soaring spires straddling the Danube’s mighty banks. From Roman ruins to Ottoman Turkish baths and elegant Art Nouveau facades, the eclectic mix of architectural styles reflects the city’s varied history with numerous foreign powers ruling here over the centuries. We enjoy a guided tour exploring both sides of this lovely city, seeing all the main sights including the iconic Parliament Building, the National Gallery with its huge collection of Hungarian masterpieces, and the Matthias Church with its intricate rose windows. The rest of the day is at leisure. Perhaps head back to the Castle District to wander and take in the panoramic views, or explore one of the city’s many museums and galleries.
This evening the Captain’s Dinner will take place, with a superb menu reflecting the countries and regions we have visited. As the sun sets on this magnificent city, retire to the bar with your fellow travellers to reflect on all you have seen during this exceptional cruise.
Today at the appropriate time you return to the airport for your return flight.