Back in the EU again!
104 passengers and a multi-national crew of 35 breathed a collective sigh of relief as we rejoined the EU after a relatively easy ride (or should I say sail) through the border controls between Serbia and Hungary. It was the eleventh day of our 14-day river cruise with Shearings aboard the MS Serenade 2 and the Hungarian city of Pecs beckoned. We set off with our tour guide in the direction of some very loud music. I was thrilled to learn it was Pecs Carnival and, for once, we arrived on time for an unscheduled event. Crazily dressed groups and smart marching bands were amassing in the city square as organizers attempted to impose some order. I had plenty of time to visit the gloriously clean loos in the modern Tourist Office and nab pole position to photograph the entire parade. Whilst it wasn’t exactly up to Notting Hill standards, the youthful enthusiasm of the colourfully-dressed participants was utterly infectious. Amazingly, we even had time to visit some of the historic sites before piling back onto the coach for our return to the ship.
Sailing on into Budapest we were greeted by the magnificent sight of the Parliament Buildings as we moored near the poignant Jewish shoes memorial. 60 pairs of iron shoes line the riverbank commemorating the Jews ordered to remove their shoes before being shot and their bodies thrown into the Danube. As we set off for our coach tour of the city we soon discovered that most of Budapest was shut – that is the streets were cordoned off for a massive festival celebrating 60 years since the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. A hastily revised itinerary took us up into the hills on the Buda side of the city (the Pest side is flat) to the Fisherman’s Bastion where we enjoyed free time to explore and take in the far-reaching views.
After lunch on board the ship, we had free time to explore the city. I set off to enjoy the open-air exhibition that included a section of the Berlin Wall and hundreds of stall displaying local produce. A lively local rock band was belting out music from one end of the famous Andrassy Avenue, a world heritage site over 2 km long lined with mansions, embassies, shops, museums. At the other end of the Avenue, Heroes Park was completely closed off in preparation for a ticket-only horse race. After 8 miles of exploration I decided this city was definitely worthy of a second visit. The ship beckoned and there was an opportunity for an evening tour of ‘Illuminated Budapest’, taking in an organ concert and a glass of champagne.
Our penultimate cruise stop was Bratislava, a small capital city with a quirky sense of humour, After a bone-shaking tour in the toy train to visit the castle, some of us continued on a walking tour of the old town with our guide, spotting some of the amusing statues and shop fronts. The weather had turned with temperatures dropping from the 30s to the chilly teens with a biting cold wind that took some of our group, still sporting shorts and tee-shirts, somewhat unawares.
As our tour had been delayed by an hour while passing through locks, we did not have much free time to explore before returning to the ship to sail the final stretch to Passau. We passed through the picturesque Wachau Valley, stopping off at the fabulous Melk Abbey on the way. After some stretches of uninspiring scenery on the lower Danube it was lovely to see hills covered in vineyards and dotted with fairytale castles. The Abbey, towering above the Danube on its rocky outcrop was a stunning sight. A coach took us up a winding road to the entrance and after the guided tour we had free time with the option to make our own way back down through the pretty village. One disappointment was the ban on photography inside the Abbey, strictly enforced by our guide. Fortunately, books and post cards on sale in the gift shop provided lasting mementos of the spectacular interior.
As we approached our last night on board, most of us were ready for home. Prior to the Captain’s dinner we got to meet all the ship’s crew and Gill, the cruise manager, explained the tipping system. We had already tipped crew who had looked after us so well, but this was a chance to ensure the services of all the staff were rewarded. Coordinating the pickup of the various groups the following morning was managed well. The strong current had slowed down the ship but everyone met their allocated coaches in good time. All-in-all this river cruise had been a memorable experience and a great, relatively stress-free way to visit so many fascinating European towns and cities.
We are sorry to advise that the Specialist Leisure Group, which includes Shearings, entered administration on 22 May 2020. If you have booked a holiday with Shearings, or you have any questions please visit the Shearings website.