Eastern Promises Upheld On A Viking River Cruise

4 May 2015

Europe is full of beautiful cities, but I reckon Budapest is best from the river. It rises like the Gothic set of an opera, all battlemented hillsides and spires, cupolas and elegant 19th-Century bridges in graceful iron.

Right on the riverfront, its fairy-tale parliament building is gorgeous. Across the water, hills are topped by a cathedral and palace, and flanked by promenades where visitors gaze. Below, my sleek white ship Viking Aegir awaits to take me on a marvellous journey south.

I’m eager to set sail, but two hotel nights at the start of Viking’s ‘Passage to Eastern Europe’ itinerary make sense. There’s reason to linger in gorgeous Budapest, with its leafy squares, grand Art Deco architecture and ornate cafes in which cream-topped coffee comes accompanied by improbable cakes.

An organised tour shows us the highlights, but I’m happy that ample free time allows street wandering, market plundering and the opportunity to get a feel for the city’s youthful buzz.

 View towards Pest from the Buda side of the Danube in Budapest, Hungary (image: Brian Johnston)

Setting Sail On A River Through History

The sun is setting on the Danube as we sail. While many river cruises sail the upper Danube through Germany and Austria, this trip is different, more adventurous, and has more dramatic scenery matched by an equally dramatic recent history. It takes us through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria to Romania, an ambitious journey made easy on Viking Aegir, one of Viking’s many Longship-class vessels.

It carries 190 passengers and features an unobtrusive decor of Scandinavian minimalism that creates an impressive sense of space. My cabin is stylish and comfortable and has some nice luxe touches, such as underfloor heating in the bathroom and L’Occitane shower products. It’s immaculately maintained with twice-daily service.

The ship’s staff is hardworking, but almost invariably friendly and enthusiastic and, as many are from Eastern Europe, it’s a good chance to ask about life in this fast-changing part of the world. I also learn more from on-board entertainment, which reinforces Viking’s educational ethos and presents local culture though lectures and musical and dance performances.

 A Viking Longship sailing through Budapest (image: Viking River Cruises)

Want to see the world? Float Your Boat: River Cruises Around The World

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Next morning, I fling back my cabin curtains and find we’re already in the Hungarian steppes. The Danube is slow, wide and flanked by farmland. Our shore excursion to Bakopuszta Equestrian Centre showcases the horsemanship of this legendary region, which gave us the word ‘hussar’ for cavalrymen. Later, we visit the little baroque town of Kalosca, with its yellow cathedral and archbishop’s palace.

Unlike many European river cruises, however, our journey isn’t so much about history as contemporary politics in a region of many upheavals. Next morning I’m eating breakfast as we dock at Vukovar in Croatia, a town heavily shelled – and still pockmarked – by the Serbian army in the 1990s. Our cheerful local guide Biljana, though not flinching from describing those events, is keen to point out how Vukovar is rebounding.

It’s the start of a fascinating float through the changes and challenges that have faced Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism. When we dock in Belgrade, we get another side to the story but the same feel for a region with new enthusiasm and energy.

 The riverfront in Belgrade, Serbia (image: Viking River Cruises)

The Serbian capital is graceful and elegant, full of lively restaurants and shops and in the throes of a boom. A vast cathedral is under construction and, although it still lacks interior decoration, impresses with its ambitious size.

The scenery becomes increasingly dramatic as we sail onwards. The 130 kilometres of limestone gorges known as the Iron Gates are the highlight. Orthodox chapels cling to the cliffs and mist swirls.

I take up a perch on the Aquavit Terrace on the ship’s bow. It provides an indoor-outdoor space for casual dining and is a grand spot to admire the passing scenery, though not the only one on this light-filled ship.

Viking Aegir’s sundeck stretches across the entire vessel, and the social hub of the Observation Lounge has floor-to-ceiling windows, as does the restaurant. Even when tucking into my tasty lunchtime salmon, I don’t miss a thing.

 Enjoying lunch on the Aquavit Terrace of Viking Aegir as it sails through Budapest (image: Viking River Cruises)

At the end of a spectacular day we reach the Bulgarian river town of Vidin, shabby and melancholy, with peeling Soviet-era apartment blocks and old folk in cafes. But Bulgaria has lovely landscapes of rich green backed by snow-capped peaks, and our shore excursion to Belogradchik fortress provides views of camera-clicking magnificence.

We also visit Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval capital, sitting on a curl of river in the mountains and topped by a crumbling fortress. Nearby, Arbanassi is a sixteenth-century Ottoman town of wooden houses, alpine air and monasteries.

Up ahead, Romania and a two-day visit to Bucharest await. It has been a marvellous journey to a part of the world many avoid, but which has proved both lovely and interesting.
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Brian Johnston

Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland,the UK and China, and now calls Sydney home. The widely-published freelance writer and author is a two-time Australian Travel Writer of the Year.