Five days earlier I’d been walking around the perfectly groomed Austrian capital, catching a glimpse of the Spanish Riding School’s famous Lipizzaner horses peeking over their stable doors and hearing snatches of the ordered three-beat waltz that echoed from music halls throughout the city.
Today all I can hear is the gentle lap of water as our small safari boat slowly navigates vast reed beds, whilst ahead a dense flock of hundreds of white pelicans fly low over the water in search of fish.
It seemed as if we had been transported to another continent, if not another world. Yet we were still on the blue Danube, exploring one of the river’s best kept secrets that is only revealed to river cruise passengers that venture beyond Budapest and Slovakia – the farthest outposts for the majority of sailings on Europe’s second longest river. We were discovering the many wonders of the little-known Danube Delta, the furthest point from where the river rises in Germany’s Black Forest and ends its winding 1,770-mile journey at the Black Sea.
We listened in amazement as our guide explained that giant sturgeons – fish that have existed since the time dinosaurs roamed the earth and can live to well over one hundred years – once swam 1,200 miles upstream from the delta to spawn in the section of the river around Vienna. Their epic passage has since been obstructed by poachers that have left sturgeon critically endangered in the wild, along with the construction of the pair of hydroelectric dams at the Iron Gates, the scenic 83-mile long stretch of the Danube separating Serbia on one side with Romania on the opposite bank.
Similarly, around five villages and 17,000 people were displaced to make way for the 1972 engineering project, most notably the Turkish island village of Ada Kaleh that was a free port and haven for smugglers and pirates who plied the once hazardous waters of the Lower Danube. Tamed by the dams, today it is a tranquil, peaceful waterway yet off the radar for the plethora of river vessels that sail the most popular stretch between Passau and Budapest.
One company that bucks the trend is Amadeus River Cruises, the Austrian family-owned line that was founded more than 30 years ago and pioneered Danube Delta sailings in those early days. It now partners with tour operators such as Great Rail Journeys, and after setting out from St Pancras we reached Passau and spent the first few days exploring the big-hitting capitals of Vienna and Budapest before sailing on to Belgrade and the lesser chartered waters leading to the Danube Delta.
Virtually overnight the number of cruise vessels on the river dropped dramatically and it became far less crowded. In fact we never saw another hotel boat all week. We shared the river with huge barges laden with cargo and village fishermen who rose before dawn and occasionally criss-crossed our path in small wooden boats as the sun rose over the still water and a fine gossamer mist shrouded the banks. This all added to the sense of excitement and feeling that we were really venturing off the beaten track, albeit with every creature comfort supplied on the 150-passenger Amadeus Brilliant.
The total journey encompassed eight countries and five capital cities, and each day brought new and often very contrasting sights and experiences.
Situated at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the Serbian capital of Belgrade has emerged from the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and transformed itself into a cool destination with a cultural old town and modern new town lined with designer shops. In the afternoon our excursion took us past endless fields of sunflowers to the extraordinary rock formations in the lower slopes of the Balkan Mountains at Belogradchik.
The next day brought the Romanian capital of Bucharest, where the harsh socialist blocks built during Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime are offset by a most unexpectedly beautiful architectural jamboree of grand French neo-classical, Art Deco and Bauhaus architecture, majestic boulevards and a triumphal arch that characterise the city’s ‘golden era’ between the world wars. These often jarring juxtapositions are part of the fascination of cities that for many years lay hidden to outside eyes behind the Iron Curtain.
During our free time in the city centre we stopped off at Caru’ cu Bere, a cavernous restaurant with a church-like interior of dark wood and stained glass windows. It was an atmospheric spot to sip refreshing home-made lemonade flavoured with honey and mint and try some indulgent Romanian doughnuts served with sweet cheese, sour cream and jam.
The following day heralded our arrival at “zero kilometres”, the point where the Danube reaches the Black Sea. A complimentary cocktail was served on the sun deck as we reached the milestone and Amadeus Brilliant briefly bobbed on the sea. That afternoon we headed out in the small safari boats into the breath-taking Danube Delta UNESCO Reserve, which boasts the third largest biodiversity in the world with over 5,500 species of flora and fauna and is exceeded only by the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos archipelago.
Each day’s adventures fuelled convivial discussions over tasty five-course dinners and afterwards in Amadeus Brilliant’s comfortable lounge. With a crew of 40, and carrying fewer passengers than some other vessels of the same size, the ship has a welcoming atmosphere with high levels of personal service. Selling to various English-speaking countries, the Amadeus ships have a cosmopolitan atmosphere and by the end of the cruise we’d made friends with interesting people from other countries.
On our downstream passage we’d sailed through the Iron Gates in darkness, so it was yet another wow factor moment as we marvelled at the vertical cliffs on our return journey, gathering on deck to take photos against the backdrop of the 140ft rock carving of the ancient Dacian king Decebalus.
It was yet another highlight of our cruise on the wild side that took us into the dramatic natural wonderland that showcases a very different side to the Danube.
Great Rail Journeys is running the 17-night Danube to the Black Sea itinerary on 10 April, 26 July and 5 August 2018. Prices start from £3,590 and include travel by first class rail and Eurostar standard premier, two nights in a four-star hotel, 15-night cruise including all meals and wine with lunch and dinner, five excursions and the option to book additional shore tours. Amadeus River Cruises offers the sailing on other dates plus 9 and 10 night itineraries to the delta.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys.