Heading south from Budapest to the Black Sea, Jeannine Williamson discovers the scenic wonders and wildlife along the lesser-known lower Danube
As our small safari boat nudged its way slowly through towering reed beds populated by neon blue dragonflies our guide turned off the motor and we drifted silently into a vast open expanse of water. Ahead, a flock of pelicans swooped and dived as they snapped up fish swimming close to the surface, filling the cavernous pouches beneath their beaks with the afternoon bounty.
It felt as if we were on safari deep in the Amazon, yet we were at the mouth of one of Europe’s most popular rivers that is best known for grand capital cities and inspiring a namesake waltz. With most Danube itineraries running from Vienna to Budapest, it’s understandable to think there’s not much to see south of the Hungarian capital.
Yet it really is a river of two very distinct halves; and as we sailed into Bulgaria and beyond we experienced breathtaking sights, including a glimpse of some of the last wild horses in mainland Europe and converging waters where the captain of Amadeus Brilliant announced we had reached “zero kilometres”, the navigational point where the Danube ends its epic 2,860km journey through 10 countries and flows out into the Black Sea.
It’s much quieter and more remote than the upper stretch of the Danube, where our cruise began in Passau. The sight of passengers waving from sleek vessels operated by various mainstream lines was soon replaced by gritty working barges and small wooden fishing boats. For days we didn’t see any other river cruise ships. Cities and villages lining the banks gave way to dense forests and there was a growing sense of adventure as we sailed on to Serbia and Romania, where the river forms a natural boundary between the two countries.
Although the lower Danube and its delta is a little-known destination, it has been on the radar of Austrian-owned Amadeus River Cruises since the line started more than 30 years ago. The cruises are now far more accessible to UK passengers since Amadeus partnered with Fred River Cruises, and agents can sell packages including flights. For clients who prefer not to fly, cruises are available through Great Rail Journeys.
Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus, said: “We were actually one of the first lines to establish cruising on the lower Danube. Many passengers think the Danube stops at Budapest, but there are amazing sights further south where the number of cruise vessels drops and the river is less crowded.
“It felt as if we were on safari deep in the Amazon…”
“We offer two options that include the Danube delta, there’s the 15-night Beautiful Blue Danube and nine-night 1,200 miles on the Beautiful Blue Danube. Both itineraries are perfect for clients that have already taken one of the classic Danube or Rhine cruises and are ready to look for something new. It’s an undiscovered part of Europe as far as many people are concerned and the Unesco-listed Danube Delta reserve boasts the third largest biodiversity in the world with over 5,500 species of flora and fauna, exceeded only by the Great Barrier Reef and the Galápagos archipelago.
“The itineraries combine some of the traditional capitals of Europe with highlights of the Balkans and the delta itself. We are the only company to offer sailings to point zero kilometres on the Danube and enable passengers to participate in a delta safari. Part of the itinerary is very exotic, yet it is still ‘close to home’.”
Agents should point out that on the lower Danube ships have to go through routine customs checks as they pass from country to country, which is not required on the upper reaches. Although this paperwork does not involve passengers directly, it can lead to delays. Excursions are never cut short, but timings can change so clients should be made aware of this in advance.
Any hold-ups on our cruise were easily offset by the overall experience, which brought new sights each day. Highlights included the incredible rock formations at the foothills of the Balkan Mountains at Belogradchik, the faded elegance of the Black Sea resort of Constanta with its beautiful yet crumbling casino, the unexpected magnificence of opulent architecture in the centre of Bucharest, the dramatic splendour of the Iron Gates gorge where a giant carving of a Dacian king dominates one of the soaring cliffs and the unforgettable spectacle of the nature-rich channels, swamps and lakes of the delta.
For clients that want to sail on the wild side, this less-travelled stretch of the Danube won’t disappoint.