This July we took our first ever river cruise, with Avalon Waterways up the Danube from Bucharest to Budapest, aboard the Avalon Passion. We visited some new countries and destinations (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia) and some old ones (Croatia, and Hungary) aboard a beautiful, comfortable, and friendly ship. Unfortunately our cruise had some last minute changes due to the situation in Ukraine (no visiting the Danube Delta), and low water levels on the river (an extra day in Bucharest) but Avalon took care of all the arrangements to minimise any delays and issues.
We started with a night in Bucharest, dubbed the Paris of The East, with its wide boulevards, and classical buildings, most of which survived the communist era. The next day, we left for a short pre-cruise extension with a trip to Transylvania. This beautiful, atmospheric and mountainous region north of Bucharest, is home to forests, lakes, rivers, and historic towns. Located here is Bran Castle, the home of a certain Count Dracula! Staying in the lively and attractive city of Brasov, we visited the pretty town of Sinaia and the Peles Palace, before an evening exclusive visit to Bran Castle, even more atmospheric in the moonlight.
Returning to Bucharest for a night, we were treated to a visit to the private home of the Ceacescu’s, the former communist dictator and president of Romania. The house is a strange combination of spare and functional communist style in the public areas, and ornate, even gaudy style in the private areas (the gold-plated bathroom, classical mosaics in the indoor swimming pool and so on). A fascinating insight all the same. We also visited the parliament or People’s Palace, built by Ceacescu at a cost of millions of dollars while his people starved. A monstrous white elephant of a building but with interiors that were breathtaking in their size and décor.
Later that day, we drove south to board the Avalon Passion, to our very comfortable, fully equipped stateroom, and a lovely dinner on board during a very short sailing across the river to Bulgaria on the opposite bank! Our two ports in Bulgaria, Nikopol and Vidin, enabled us to visit Veliko Tarnavo (an ancient capital of Bulgaria, high on the banks of the Yantra river) and Arbanasi, a mediaeval village in the mountains, with it’s historic stone houses, and a beautiful church with well preserved and vividly coloured frescoes. Vidin, further up the river is a pleasant town, with classical-style buildings contrasting with the stark architecture of the communist era. Avalon includes excursions as part of its programme, but there are also opportunities to get off the ship and have a wander around at your leisure, to soak up the local atmosphere and observe everyday life in other cultures. A visit to the Baba Vida fortress on the banks of the Danube rounded off our stop at Vidin. Our final destination in Bulgaria, to the south of the Danube, was the Belgradochik Rocks, a series of rock formations on the western slopes of the Balkan mountains. Shaped by millions of years of weather into strange shapes, some of which are named according to their resemblance to animals or people!
Sailing further on up the Danube, we crossed the border into Serbia, to Donji Milanovic. From here, we visited the archeological site of Lepenski Vir – one of the largest and most significant Mesolithic and Neolithic archaeological sites in Europe, which was exposed and excavated from the banks of the Danube. A fascinating trip back in time! Back to the ship and sailing onwards, we passed the most famous sight on the Danube, the Iron Gates Gorge – through the impressive locks at the dam, and past the carved face of King Decebalus. This is the most beautiful part of the lower Danube, with the high cliffs of the gorge, revealing beautiful vistas at each turn. Later in the day, we arrived at Golubac, and were treated to an evening visit to the magnificent, and very well preserved fortress there. Back to the ship and for our overnight sailing to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.
After a city tour of Belgrade (including a visit to the St. Sava cathedral with its fabulous gold mosaic interiors), we sailed on to Novi Sad, where we took an afternoon hike up to the Petrovaradin Fortress for some great views across the Danube to the city. From here, we sailed on to Ilok in Croatia. We’ve visited coastal Croatia before, but never inland, and we were struck by how beautiful this area is, with its wooded hills, and vineyards flowing down to the river. We were treated to a visit to the Podrumi winery, where we tasted some lovely wines and some tasty Croatian snacks. This winery is famous for a certain customer, who purchased their dessert wines – none other than our late Queen Elizabeth II.
Leaving Croatia, we sailed on to Mohacs in Hungary and paid a visit to the beautiful city of Pecs. This city has fabulous buildings and the area around Széchenyi Square is especially beautiful. In Pecs Cathedral, after our guided tour, we were treated to a music recital by the cathedral organist.
Our final port of call (and our disembarkation point) was the Hungarian capital Budapest. We’ve visited Budapest before, but we had a morning to spare before our flight home. As the ship moored right in the centre of the city, we took the opportunity to walk along the riverside to Margaret Island, and around some of the lovely gardens there, before returning to the ship to collect our luggage and depart from the airport.
All in all, this was a busy but fantastic itinerary, to see some of the Balkans and countries we’d never visited before, getting a feel for the different cultures and histories. Cruising the Danube was a great way to do this, as you move effortlessly through the geography, in complete comfort. All excursions are well planned and executed with local guides, but there is still time to relax and enjoy the experience of just sailing a big river! The ship was well appointed, and the food was excellent, reflecting the different cuisines (and wines) from each region. All the small details were taken care of, and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Avalon, and this cruise to anyone who wants to experience a flavour of the Balkans in the easiest and most comfortable way possible.