Our group of friends has taken two holidays this year on SAGA’s new river cruiser Spirit of the Danube. The first was in April 2022 when we boarded the ship for a week exploring the waterways of Holland, including a canal cruise around Amsterdam, the beautiful Keukenhof gardens and the amazing ‘Operation Market Garden’ museum in Arnhem. The ship was brand new, with this trip only its second voyage so there were a few snagging issues (a nearby cabin door fell off and the room safes initially stubbornly refused to accept our chosen codes) but these hiccups were more entertaining than worrying, soon sorted and we very much enjoyed our cruise.
So much so, that we booked for a cruise later in the year from Budapest to the Black Sea. Unfortunately our travel date of 12th June was during the peak of the problems being experienced by the aviation industry with cancelled flights, delays and lost luggage a daily occurrence for the unfortunate traveller. Our flight from Heathrow took off on time and we just made our very short transit connection at Vienna airport. Regrettably six of our suitcases did not make the journey with us to Budapest which meant lots of form-filling at the airport on arrival and a great deal of work for the SAGA reps on the ship to try to retrieve our lost luggage before the boat sailed the next day. Fortunately their endeavours were successful and the last suitcase arrived about ten minutes before the boat sailed. This was a great relief to me as it was my case.
Once on board, the food, cabins, drinks, entertainment and excursions were all as excellent as we recalled from our previous trip and the delightful crew could not do enough for their guests. We were offered delicious meals three times a day and in between, just in case we got peckish, morning coffee and biscuits, afternoon tea with sandwiches and scrumptious cakes, with late evening snacks in the lounge were always available. The ship is decorated in restful pastel colours and the cabins very well-appointed, with excellent air-conditioning, hot showers at any time and comfortable beds you can sink into after an enjoyable day on board or exploring the towns and villages we visited.
During our voyage we toured Budapest, Belgrade, Rousse, Mohacs and also lesser-known attractions including the Lazar Equestrian Centre, the lovely baroque palace of Godollo and the medieval town of Veliko Tarnovo before reluctantly leaving the ship for a four-day sojourn in Varna and Burgas on the Black Sea coast.
Exploring these two attractive cities was delightful as they have some very impressive baroque architecture, a legacy of the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were also interesting Roman sites to visit, including the second-largest complex of Roman baths in Europe – of course our own historic complex in Bath takes pole position.
The hotels we stayed in were also impressive at first sight with acres of marble floors, glittering chandeliers, faux Louis XIV furniture and Olympic size swimming pools amid palm trees. Unfortunately the reality was less enticing. At the first hotel our shower leaked so badly we spent most of our time mopping the bathroom floor and at the second the shower was a death trap with shiny marble floors and no handholds.
The bedlinen was past its prime and the towels had definitely seen better days. Nor were there flannels provided; a request to reception for these resulted in the delivery of a packet of Q-tips and a second appeal, this time to housekeeping, produced a shower cap. Obviously there was a language difficulty here but even our local SAGA guide failed to produce the goods and returned with a small hand-towel. How Bulgarians wash themselves continues to be a mystery. Top tip: if visiting the country be sure to take your own flannel.
The set menu for dinner at both hotels was unappetising to say the least, with the starter always a plate of shredded lettuce (nothing else, no tomatoes or other salad items) and the main course invariably chicken which was either undercooked or incinerated. This was particularly disappointing after the wonderful cuisine we had enjoyed on the Spirit of the Danube. However, we consoled ourselves with the thought that at least we were probably losing some of the excess pounds gained by possible overindulgence on board.
Being British we could probably have risen above these problems but the lack of kettles in our rooms at the second hotel was not well received as the SAGA brochure definitely suggested that these would be available. A delegation to reception succeeded in obtaining kettles but no cups, teabags or milk. Cups and teabags eventually appeared but a request for milk was greeted with a demand to all guests for payment of two Bulgarian lev (£1). Violent insurrection was only narrowly avoided by the local guide going to the nearby supermarket and buying cartons of milk. Either milk is very expensive in Bulgaria or the travel company’s advance recce team has failed to stress to Bulgarian hotel management the importance to the British of a proper cup of tea.
The flight home was disappointing: chaos still reigned at European airports and our delayed incoming flight from Varna, combined with the very short transit connection time at Vienna (25 minutes) meant that not only did we miss our connection and were delayed for more than three hours but 19 suitcases did not arrive at Heathrow. The pandemonium and confusion on our arrival at Terminal 2, with thousands of suitcases strewn around the luggage belt area, undoubtedly contributed to this but Austrian Airlines really needs to review its transit timings. My suitcase was once again amongst the missing and this time took 19 days to make its way home.
But none of this really ruined our holiday as we are phlegmatic by nature (except when denied a proper cup of tea!) and so looked back at our wonderful cruise down the Danube, the interesting places we had seen and the lovely Black Sea resorts and remembered how much we had enjoyed our trip.