An early start and efficient parking service from I Love Meet & Greet meant I was soon on my way to Budapest, Hungary’s capital, to board AmaSerena; it was to be my home for the week. This was my third visit to the Siamese-twin city of Buda and Pest but it never fails to impress. AmaSerena treated its guests to an evening river tour of the city to admire the beautifully lit buildings before we left this lovely city. The travel publishers, Berlitz, rate AMA’s ships as the best river cruise fleet in Europe and the cabin certainly lived up to expectations. It boasted two balconies, one to sit on and another ‘French’ balcony to let in more light and air. There was a large bathroom with more storage space than anyone could possibly use, and a shower with both an adjustable head and a huge overhead tropical rain shower. There was ample storage space in the cabin and a large screen Apple computer which also acted as the cabin’s TV. Free wifi internet access was available throughout the ship and the food and service of consistently high quality. The one week cruise on the lower Danube covers five countries, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, offering an interesting and often contrasting view on how these Central and Eastern European countries have developed since Soviet domination.
After an overnight cruise to the south of Hungary the ship moored at Mohacs from where I took a tour to Pecs, the 2010 European Capital of Culture. This elegant yet lively university city is home to a cathedral, bishop’s house and imposing synagogue. It also has recently discovered ruins that date back six thousand years. However, perhaps the most interesting structure is the Turkish-built former Pasha Gazi Kassim Mosque dating back to 16th century. It is now a Christian church but in an amazing example of cultural friendship the octagonal building is divided into two, one half mosque the other half parish church. A Christian cross and Turkish crescent adorn the roof. Overnight AmaSerena crossed into Croatia and I had the chance to visit the wine-making area around Ilok. The Romans originally established vineyards here, wines are of excellent quality and I was treated to a tour of the cellars before sampling a number of vintages. One, Traminac, was served at the Queen’s coronation and it is claimed the Palace still buys cases of this lovely wine.
After lunch AmaSerena crossed the border into Serbia and docked at the riverside town of Novi Sad. Its main claim to fame is the cFortress. Built high on a hill overlooking the river it was never conquered but is now home to artists and craftsmen. It is popular with tourists; visitors can take evening torch-lit tours of the tunnels originally used by defending soldiers. IThe city itself is pleasantly laid out with parks, fountains, a lovely cathedral and bishop’s house. Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, is a fascinating mix of old and new and I spent the next morning touring the fortress of Kalemegdan, again built on a hill to dominate the river in what is now the old town. The old fortress incongruously contains a small collection of WWII military vehicles. Behind the fortress is a large park, popular with families, and nearby a pedestrian area full of shops and cafes, a popular meeting place for locals. The following day was spent on board AmaSerena as it sailed through the ‘Iron Gates’, a set of gorges with Serbia on one side and Romania on the other. It’s home to a chapel, now used as a convent, and the friendly nuns were happy to come out onto their balcony and give is a cheery wave. Other landmarks included a huge rock-carved face of Decebalus, king of Dacia in the first century AD, and the Trajan Tablet, built to commemorate the completion of a Roman military road.
That evening we docked at Vidin, Bulgaria, and next morning I set off for Belogradchick in the Stara Planina mountains to view its famous mountain-top fortress. Despite its name it was not constructed as a military building but an observation point and the rock formation meant that there was little construction involved since nature provided the fortifications. On my return to Vidin I stopped off at the restored riverside fortress of Baba Vida where local amateur actors put on a short play about their history, much to the delight of the visitors. The final day found me in Rousse, known as Little Vienna because of its neo-Baroque architecture. The city is well laid out, lots of greenery, a large pedestrian area full of shops, bars and cafes, and a beautifully manicured central square with fountains and flower beds.
On the other side of the Danube opposite Rousse is Giurgiu in Romania, to where AmaSerena crossed that evening in preparation for the flight back from its capital, Bucharest. The bridge between Rousse and Giurgiu is the only bridge over the Danube linking Bulgaria and Romania, aptly named the Friendship Bridge. Much of the area I covered is still only slowly recovering from its communist past, civil wars and uprisings. It’s not yet a popular tourist area but in many ways so much more genuine than the commercialised coastal areas. What it does underline, however, is the value of being able to explore more remote parts of central and eastern Europe from the luxury base of a river cruise ship.
AMA Waterways 7 night Gems of Southeast Europe river cruises from Budapest to Giurgiu (or reverse) start from £1811pp for a river view stateroom. Price includes seven nights’ accommodation, all meals (with wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner), complimentary excursions and free wi-fi . Regional flights on request. Freephone 0800 320 2336 or visit www.amawaterways.co.uk I
Love Meet & Greet provides valet parking at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports. Prices for one week’s parking start from £105.95. For more details and to book please visit: www.ilovemeetandgreet.co.uk where you can also sign up to receive discount codes via email.