Tick off five countries in the heart of eastern Europe on a Danube river cruise, writes Kelly Ranson.
Regular visitors to Budapest will tell you that seeing the city by night, from the river, is a must. And if you don’t do it, you won’t see just how beautiful Budapest can be. Boy, they were not wrong.
Pull out the nicknames – Paris of the East, Pearl of the Danube – because it’s true, the spectacular view of the Hungarian parliament building glistening as you sail under the city’s numerous bridges takes some beating.
The experience was made even sweeter on board luxury river cruise line Uniworld’s refurbished SS Beatrice for its inaugural voyage along the Danube to Bucharest.
Budapest is already a popular European city to explore, and with plenty of culture and history, it would be a struggle to see it all in one day. Fortunately, it’s the starting (or finishing) point of SS Beatrice’s Highlights of Eastern Europe cruise, so guests have two days to see Budapest’s two sides – the hilly side is Buda, while the flat one is Pest.
Uniworld kicks off its city tour in Buda (as a side note, all excursions are included as part of the cruise package) with a stop at Matthias Church, perched at the top of Castle Hill, and there’s a chance to enjoy the city’s panorama from Fisherman’s Bastion. But to make like a local, take the walking tour that gets right into the heart of the city’s irresistible market halls and cafes. Think local honey, fresh fruits and spices aplenty.
“Budapest is already a popular European city to explore, and with plenty of culture and history, it would be a struggle to see it all in one day.”
With food in mind, the ship’s prime mooring in the city centre means the expansive Great Market Hall is just a short stroll away. Arouse the senses and check out the three floors of souvenirs, produce, fruit and veg. For street food at its best, this is the place to sample the local lángos, a calorific but yummy Hungarian fried bread.
Looking for a more leisurely day to start the cruise? Budapest sits on more than 120 hot springs, so an afternoon can be very well spent over at Szechenyi Baths in the city’s park.
Leaving country number one behind, SS Beatrice’s humorous Captain Jord Zwall says: “Once you leave Budapest, it’s as if Columbus fell off the world.”
And his description was spot-on. Within minutes of leaving the city, we sail past open fields and grass banks. By nightfall the only glimmer of light appears from bankside villages until our arrival in Croatia.
It’s worth noting – and mentioning to clients – that a morning wake-up call may come quite early, courtesy of Hungarian customs. On some sailings, officials need to see you face-to-face with your passport, usually around 5.30am!
“Our excursion took us past the town’s water tower, which remains standing despite receiving more than 260 hits during the war of independence.”
Eastern Croatia was severely hit during the conflicts of the 1990s, and in fact one town on the itinerary, Vukovar, offers a poignant reminder of its remarkable recovery. Our excursion took us past the town’s water tower, which remains standing despite receiving more than 260 hits during the war of independence.
Although there are still bullet-ridden buildings, the region is now very much about farms, vineyards and a more relaxed way of life. Uniworld’s excursions embrace the local lifestyle with lunch at a winery, dining with local fishermen and visiting an organic farm where the owners grind flour, make apple brandy and produce vinegar.
Belgrade has had a troubled past, and you have two very different ways to see it. Visit the Old Town and Kalemegdan Fortress, or opt for a more off-the-beaten-track bike ride through New Belgrade.
During our seven-mile cycle, there were stark reminders of the turbulent history, such as passing a fairground-turned-concentration camp and a derelict TV tower. It’s harrowing, but is juxtaposed with the charm of the Zemun area, which is set on the banks of the Danube and Sava rivers, where locals enjoy an afternoon walk or relax with a coffee in one of the many riverside cafes. Our local guide, Simon, said that while there are still many reminders of the city’s darker past, he now sees a bright future for a thriving capital.
“There were stark reminders of the turbulent history, such as passing a fairground-turned-concentration camp and a derelict TV tower.”
The midway point of the itinerary is made for lovers of scenic cruising. After a medieval welcome to the 14th-century Golubac Fortress, the afternoon is spent cruising Serbia’s Iron Gates on the narrow stretch of the Danube that separates Serbia and Romania. You can relax on deck and admire the gorges, while learning about local history.
Vidin and Ruse, Bulgaria
As the ship cruises on and ticks off country number four, Bulgaria, it’s time to see yet another terrain. Belogradchik is Bulgaria’s ‘Red Rock’ region, and it’s a must to hike around the impressive rock formations, which are more than 200 million years old.
Staying in Bulgaria, next up is Ruse with its Belle Epoque-style buildings. Excursions here include a walking tour of the city’s downtown area, a visit to a nature park to see where hermits once lived and a trip to a monastery. Within a two-hour bus ride of Ruse is Veliko Tarnovo, described as Bulgaria’s medieval capital thanks to its cobbled streets and Tsarevets Fortress, which has been masterfully restored.
The final stop is Romania’s beautiful city, Bucharest. After disembarking, you’ll bid farewell to SS Beatrice and the Danube and journey to the centre of the city (around an hour).
From its elegant, French-inspired architecture to echoes of communist rule, Bucharest offers a fascinating glimpse into the past. Post-cruise excursions include a city tour with a visit to the ‘People’s House’, the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
“After disembarking, you’ll bid farewell to SS Beatrice and the Danube and journey to the centre of the city.”
And following a final day or two of exploration, sit back with a coffee and reflect on an itinerary that mixes top-billed cities with lesser-known towns, on a journey through the rich history and culture of eastern Europe.
Uniworld’s Highlights of Eastern Europe cruise from Budapest to Bucharest starts at £2,999 per person for 10 days, including seven nights’ accommodation in a river-view stateroom plus two nights’ B&B and one lunch in Bucharest. All meals, unlimited beverages on board, onshore excursions, gratuities, port charges and transfers are included, for departures until October 8.
Tried and tested: SS Beatrice, Uniworld
The 152-passenger SS Beatrice was the first ship in the Uniworld fleet to be refitted to ‘Super Ship’ status, and its light wood panelling, blue and white decor and grand staircase, complete with a Murano chandelier, certainly add to the ‘floating boutique hotel’ feel it brands itself on.
“Mozart’s remains the main restaurant, serving regional dishes such as Hungarian fish soup and Balkan mezze platters or salami and local cheese.”
Uniworld has reworked the former Captain’s lounge and library to create two new dining areas, giving guests more choice. In the bow, Austrian-inspired Schubert’s offers sharing plates throughout the day, while second venue Max’s alternates between a steakhouse (€50 per person) and chef’s table cooking class (€95). Mozart’s remains the main restaurant, serving regional dishes such as Hungarian fish soup and Balkan mezze platters or salami and local cheese.
The lounge has been refreshed, with additional USB ports in all areas.
Finally, there are two new Royal Suites and a second Owner’s Suite. Connecting rooms have been added.
Uniworld president and chief executive Ellen Bettridge says: “Customers wanted more suites and new dining venues, which is exactly what we have given them with the Super Ships.”