Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Glorious Danube - Travelling The River

Continuing our epic river-cruise along the Danube on the River Duchess of Uniworld, travelling through eastern Europe...
Romania to Serbia, Part 1

Having detailed much so far about life on board, I thought I would take some time to provide a look at the destinations we are travelling through.

This is Uniworld’s ‘Imperial Capitals of Europe’ cruise, an 11-day glide through the heart of eastern Europe, from Romania to Austria, and taking in Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia in between, a huge slice of European history, culture, geography and architecture (plus food and wine!).

The basic idea is to use the riverboat as your ‘mobile home’ along the way, providing a comfortable and elegant mode of transport through these many different areas (like the old-fashioned coach tour but much more leisurely and relaxing).

Having flown in to Bucharest (the majority of he rest of the passengers arrived via Istanbul, where Uniworld had arranged a 3-day pre-cruise stay), we were immediately afforded a literal taste of Romanian culture with a healthy lunch at a big local restaurant.

That was followed by a full coach tour of the city, stopping en route to marvel at some of the architectural gems of the city, like Nicola Ceausescu’s massive Parliament building and the central square where the local people finally stood up to the vicious dictator in 1989.

From Buharest, we were whisked south to the town of Girgiu – and the River Duchess, the beautifully remodelled 132-passenger vessel that operates this voyage west to Vienna. Our first view of the mighty Danube – Europe’s second-longest river after the Volga in Russia – was also a memorable occasion, a huge stretch of inexorable east-flowing water, with Bulgaria on the south bank.

Our ‘welcome aboard’ was the first sign that this was to be a truly stylish and memorable journey, with the crew providing fresh fruit juice and cold towels to wash away any traces of the road, and a quick escort to our cabin.

That evening g we ‘set sail’ – all the way across the river to Ruse! OK, so not the biggest journey in the world but an introduction to another new country to us. Dinner that night was a pure delight, a genuine taste of Uniworld’s graceful cuisine, featuring local tastes but delivered in best continental style from an amazingly efficient galley. Portions are (happily) not large, but with a starter, soup course, main course and dessert, it is certainly sufficient for most appetites.

Next morning, it was up bright and early for breakfast and then off on an all-day coach excursion into the hinterland, destination the 16th and 17th century towns of Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanassi (the latter being a UNESCO World heritage site).

The weather was unremittingly grim, sadly, but the ship provided umbrellas and we were still able to enjoy some eye-catching sight-seeing, a walking tour of Arbanassi (including the 17th century merchant’s villa), a traditional lunch and a little shopping in Veliko Tarnovo with its array of local crafts.

Our longish journey back to the ship (which had moved up-river to Nikopol) took us through some of the poorest countryside in Bulgaria, and it was sobering to see such levels of near poverty  in this big rural area.

We sailed again that night – a bit further this time! – and awoke next day on one of the most evocative sections of the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria. Two mighty locks needed to be negotiated (the second, a double lock that took a full 90 minutes to pass through), providing plenty of visual stimulation, along with commentary from our Cruise Manager Christine.

The highlight, though, was saved for the final hour before dusk as we navigated the Iron Gates, the immense Danube gorge where the granite river walls soar more than 300ft above each side and narrow to just 160ft at one point. It makes for a stunning visual panorama, with our Duchess the only thing on the river in the fading brooding light and the sheer cliffs soaring on either side.

To be continued...