Here I am again, practicing my alliteration. When I began this story, I had planned on writing a longer story about the Danube, but decided to just relate a few facts and sights you might find interesting. The Danube could be the source of dozens of stories, but I’ll try to limit this to a small part of that great river.
First, the Danube is only called the ‘Danube’ in English literature. The ten countries that it flows through all have their own name for it, none of them Danube, and at no place (that I know of) is it blue. It is the second longest river in Europe (after the Volga), running over 2850 km from its source in the Black Forest in Germany through ten countries and over thirty cities to empty into the Black Sea at the Danube Delta in Romania. It provides drainage from another ten countries as well.
First, Diana and I are definitely not “cruisers”. Cruising has it’s good features, and is perfect for some people, but I find it too restrictive, not enough flexibility. No matter where you go, there are too many things along the way that I would want to explore further. But when we looked at the chance to take a river cruise from Vienna, all the way down to the Black Sea, it sounded like a perfect way to try ‘cruising’, and an interesting way to get to Romania, one of our favourite places. I remember the KD ferry trips on the Rhine, which stop at every village, so you can get off for a wine festival or harvest festival, or just go to the local Gasthof or pub for some lunch and a drink, or even stay for a day or so and catch the ferry the next time it comes along, and continue on up or down the river.
We thought the Danube cruise might be something like this, stopping at some village to see some sights, or go for lunch. Not So! This was our first disappointment with River cruising. The ships are so long, they are limited where they can dock, and when they do, it is far away from the village or city we would want to visit, so they have to arrange for several large tour buses to meet the ship, and transport us all to whatever sight is on the itinerary.
Our ship was the ‘Avalon Imagery’, a 443 foot ship with 81 staterooms and 4 suites. When we booked the cruise, we decided to take the ‘cheap seats’ or as some call it, ‘steerage’.
These are the cheapest cabins, down low in the ship, with just a couple of large portholes to look out of, pretty much right at water level. This worked out fine for us as most of the time you are either topside enjoying the fresh air and the view, or ashore somewhere on a tour. As it turned out, we were the lucky ones, as our cabin stayed nice and cool during the hot weather we had on the trip, whereas the expensive cabins and suites up top had large windows and glass doors, allowing the sun to shine in and raise the temperature like an oven. Every cabin on the ship had the same level of heating or cooling, so we were quite comfortable and did not miss the ‘greenhouse effect’ of the expensive cabins. That said, the trip is an amazing experience! I must say, they do have it planned nicely, doing a lot of the slow, boring parts of the river by cruising during the night.
On this cruise, we met the ship in Vienna, Austria, and began almost in the middle of the city and headed out into the main channel of the Danube. To get there, we had to pass under a few very low bridges
I was a little concerned about this until I noticed that the entire pilot house of the ship is collapsible, dropping the height down to a reasonable level to clear under the bridges. There really is not much clearance as you can almost reach up and touch the bridges as we pass under them. Once past all the bridges, they raise the pilot house up once again to provide the crew with unobstructed views of the river. A very clever feature of these river ships, essential because of the changing levels of the river from season to season, or from year to year. Another feature of these ships is that the entire pilot house section of the ship can be disconnected from the rest of the ship, or the ‘hotel section’, enabling major changes or repairs to be done if required.
Starting in Vienna, Austria, it travels through several counties on the way to the Black Sea. Interesting excursions were available at most of these locations, with English speaking tour guides and time to do some shopping for souvenirs. Each country and each city has its own attractions. For instance, the paprika centre of Kalocsa, just outside of Budapest, was a great place to learn about this delicious spice and purchase variations of hot, smokey or sweet paprika. Bulgaria was a delightful surprise, because everywhere we went, they handed out souvenirs of little glass vials of rose perfume from the roses they grow in Bulgaria. The vials were encased in an attractive wooden holder to protect it.
Bulgaria is the world’s largest producer of ‘attar of rose’, the powerful potion made from roses. Everywhere we went, we were handed little gifts and samples of rose scents and perfumes, right down until we reached Varna, on the shores of the Black Sea.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about this trip, but I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys cruising and wants to experience a little of several countries and see things not easily available in other types of tours.
For instance, the “Iron Gates”, an 84 mile long gorge, one of Europe’s most impressive. It forms part of the border between Romania to the north and Serbia to the south. It is called Porțile de Fier in Romanian and Ђердапска клисура (Đerdapska klisura) in Serbian. It is a point where the river has carved a narrow passagway between the Southern Carpathian Mountains and the foothills of the Balkan mountains. This used to be a notoriously dangerous part of the river until 1972, when they built a hydroelectric dam and raised the level of the river 110 feet. It is now much easier for ships to navigate the river through this area.
Part way through this gorge is a huge carving of a face on one side of the river. It is a statue of Decebalus, a Dacian King, who lived from 87 to 106 AD, and was famous for fighting three wars against the Romans. In the end, he killed himself, not allowing the Romans to capture him. The statue is the largest sculpture carved into the rock in Europe. It is 40 metres high (over 130 feet), needed 12 sculptors and one million dollars to finish it. They began in 1994 and finished in 2004.
Under the face, carved into the stone is the inscription, in Latin, “DECEBALUS REX – DRAGAN FECIT, which means “King Decebalus – He made“.
The Danube is a busy super-highway transporting people and goods thousands of kilometres though multiple countries. As we cruised along, we watched many work boats, barges of coal, steel, scrap metal and wood.
One long barge we spotted was carrying a huge load of logs, much longer that our ship, destined to be turned into lumber, no doubt
Periodically, a long hydrofoil ship would pass us full speed, its long legs extended to stand on its water-skis, skimming over the water. Much faster for those in a hurry.
In total, the cruise was enjoyable. Once we reached the Black Sea, they transported us back a few kilometres to Bucharest, Romania. From this beautiful city, we began another great adventure to see the sights of Romania!