The famous Blue Danube is a river of two halves when you reach the wild landscapes of the lesser-known Delta
It might only be 8:00am but waiters are handing out glasses of fizz on the sun deck while our captain steadies Amadeus Star in the current. Small waves lap against the side of the vessel as we raise our glasses to celebrate arriving at “zero nautical miles”, sharing the moment with some white pelicans – part of the largest flock in Europe – bobbing in the sea alongside. Afterwards we make our way down to breakfast a little unsteadily, which in some cases has more to do with the morning sharpener than the gentle rocking motion.
What makes the experience even more extraordinary is that we’re on a river boat, and a brand new one at that, which is taking us along one of Europe’s most popular rivers. Yet the landscape at the invisible line where the Danube Delta meets the Black Sea is a world removed from the refined waterway inextricably linked with a namesake waltz by Austrian composer Johann Strauss and its beauty parade capitals Vienna and Budapest.
Surrounded by a natural wilderness that’s home to the world’s largest reed bed, more than 325 species of birds such as eagles and vultures, 43 mammals and 136 species of fish including endangered wild sturgeon – a species more ancient than the dinosaur and poached to the brink of extinction – we were totally immersed in a dramatic region where wildlife far outnumbers the human population.
For anyone that has sailed on the undeniably beautiful upper stretches of the Danube – which we reach later – you’d be forgiven for thinking that not much lies beyond Budapest. We soon found this isn’t true as we embark on the itinerary from the Romanian capital of Bucharest to Vienna (a route which can also be sailed in reverse).
We spent our first night at the five-star InterContinental in Bucharest before a coach and walking tour of the city once known as the ‘Paris of the East’. It was certainly an eye-opener. Gloomy blocks of communist-era flats, many dating back to the chaos following Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule, gave way to an eclectic and jaw-droppingly impressive mix of grand buildings showcasing French neo-classical, Bauhaus and Art Deco architecture set on wide boulevards.
Afterwards a drive through vast, flat stretches of open countryside lined with fields upon fields of sunflowers takes us to our floating home for the rest of the stay, the 164-passenger Amadeus Star. Launched in April 2019, the four-deck vessel is the latest addition to the 15-strong fleet operated by Austrian-owned Amadeus River Cruises. And she’s certainly a star, with standout features including 12 suites with balconies, a walk-in wardrobe in every cabin and – new for the line – the addition of a stylish wine bar flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows.
The next day we reach the Delta, heralded by the sparkling morning reveille. We moor at Sfantu Gheorghe, one of three channels leading to the 3,000 square miles of waterways, lakes, forests, pastures and sand dunes that make up the UNESCO-listed Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. A thrilling safari boat excursion then takes us through dense reeds and wetland areas boasting the world’s third largest diversity, surpassed only by the Galapagos archipelago and Great Barrier Reef. Our guide stops the boat to allow us to watch the spectacle of hundreds of pelicans resting after a hearty breakfast. We learn how the elastic membrane beneath their beaks can hold 20 litres of water as they scoop up fish to neatly sift and swallow headfirst, often aided in their efforts by cormorants that disturb the lagoon to bring the catch to the surface.
The ensuring upstream journey is along wide stretches of river flanked by dense forests. We see only one other river boat during our entire time on the Lower Danube, which is Amadeus Star’s elder sibling Amadeus Brilliant. While most river lines ply the better-known stretch of the Upper Danube, Amadeus pioneered cruises to the point where Europe’s second longest waterway ends its 1,777-mile journey from its source in Germany’s Black Forest.
The only other craft sharing this part of the river with us are working barges, weighed down with cargo, and village fishermen who rise at dawn to head out in battered wooden boats.
Each day brings optional excursions, which can be purchased as a package depending on how much or how little you want to do. Constanta, one of Romania’s oldest cities, retains the faded elegance of the time it was the seaside playground of King Carol I and the country’s elite. The passing of time is most poignantly evident in the Art Nouveau casino where the glorious facade encloses a dilapidated interior that’s now home to gulls rather than gamblers.
During a full day on the river, Amadeus Star navigated the Iron Gates, where the once perilous narrow gorge took four days to traverse, claiming many cargo ships along the way. Today it has been tamed by two locks that have reduced the passage to 90 minutes. It is nevertheless exciting, and the sheer cliff walls include an imposing 140ft carving of the face of Decebalus, last king of the ancient Dracians. It’s sobering to learn how 17 villages, including the Turkish commune of Ada Kaleh, were flooded to make way for the dam, which also cut off the migration route for sturgeon that once embarked on an epic 1,200 mile journey to spawn near Vienna.
We travel onwards into Serbia where an excursion takes us to the ‘White City’ capital of Belgrade, which surfaced from the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s to become a vibrant metropolis. Amadeus Star was subject to border controls in the Balkan countries once hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Our unflappable cruise director Arno took care of all the red tape and paperwork, but it sometimes resulted in delays and we quickly learned to go with the flow. In fact, it added to the sense of adventure and feeling that we were a group of rather intrepid travellers. We never missed out as shore tours would always be rescheduled to accommodate any hold ups caused by over-zealous border personnel.
As the Amadeus Star sailed on to Budapest and Vienna there was a stand-out trip that took us across the Hungarian Great Plain of Puszta to a horse farm to see daring displays of equestrianism showcasing Magyar skills passed down through the centuries. It culminated with a team of ten galloping horses controlled by a rider with one foot on the hindquarters of the rear pair. It was breath-taking.
Nearing the conclusion of our own less hair-raising journey we feel privileged to have experienced our own remarkable voyage into the untamed landscapes of the Danube Delta along a river of two very distinct halves.
Fred.\ River Cruises
Tel: +44 (0)800 035 6411
Number of Facilities on Board: Restaurant, lounge bar, wine bar, spa, gym, hair salon, sun deck and free Wi-Fi.
Number of cabins: 82
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: The small and secluded al fresco deck area outside the wine bar at the back of the ship – furnished with sumptuous white sofas – is the best spot to enjoy a sundowner.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: Fred. River Cruises offers the 10-night 1200 Miles on the Beautiful Blue Danube itinerary combining a 9-night cruise with a one-night hotel stay in Bucharest. Fares for 2020 start from £2,099 including all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, flights and transfers. Excursion packages from £112.
*Offer during CLIA Cruise Month September 2019 – book any 2020 itinerary with Amadeus and receive a complimentary shore excursion package.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Fred. River Cruises and Jeannine Williamson