Travels to the Danube with Great Rail Journeys
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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