New Routes to Cruise in Europe – the Blue Danube All the Way to the East

from Balkan Traveller

Southeast of Budapest, one of the mightiest European rivers carries you down to the somewhat shabby, but vastly unexplored world of Balkan historical and architectural heritage sites

If you’ve seen Emir Kosturica’s film Black Cat, White Cat, you’ll surely remember the scene of the German cruise ship – the enormous, brightly-lit vessel that floats elegantly over the water to the sound of the Viennese waltz, passing by – unaware of and untouched by – the chaotic, dirty and underdog existence of the film’s main shady Balkan characters. Their traffic on the Danube, in contrast, consists mainly of smuggling activities on dilapidated motor boats or floating around, using the inside of old truck tyres.

These images could be used as a metaphor for the state of cruise tourism along the Danube. While it has strong and well-established traditions in Western and Central Europe, sailing along the Balkans section of the river – not without traditions itself, was hampered by several decades of communism, the subsequent transition period and the Yugoslav Wars.

For a long time, because of the torn-down bridges near Novi Sad, cruise ships on the Danube sailed only between Passau in Germany and Budapest in Hungary.

With the recent boom in the popularity of cruise tourism, however, new ports of call are being sought out. In the last few years, stops along the Balkans section of the Danube, as far as its delta, have begun to be incorporated on cruise routes, giving tourists access to undiscovered places and a new viewpoint of more familiar destinations in Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria.

The Danube is the EU’s longest and Europe’s second longest river, after the Volga. It starts out in Germany’s Black Forest and, nearly 3,000 kilometers further to the East, it flows into the Black Sea.

The river passes through ten countries, including Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine, and a cruise along its length affords the opportunity to view not only several glorious and well-known cities – like Vienna and Budapest, but also numerous historical and natural sites further to the East.

Whether as part of a broader European route or a shorter trip limited to the region, the Balkans section of the river offers many wonderful, yet still not widely popular, stops. Those include several natural sites that could be observed from aboard the ship, a number of notable port towns and destinations that lie within easy reach of the harbours.

Croatia

Sailing down Croatia is like travelling back in time, into the neat world of provincial Central Europe from a century and a half ago. Golden rolling hills, occasionally adorned by modest castles and more often – by tidy villages, could be seen beyond the marshes in the back waters of the Danube.

Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Croatian kingdom was granted nominal autonomy, but its development remained at great extend defined by that of the rest of Austro-Hungary. Clear traces of this bond can be seen all along Croatia’s Danube shores, from Vukovar to the Serbian border.

The port town Vukovar – located at the confluence of the Vuka River into the Danube, contains numerous beautiful eighteenth-century and Baroque buildings. Many of them were seriously damaged during the 1990s Yugoslav wars, but the place is gradually regaining its quiet splendour and turning into an ideal place for a dolce-far-niente type of travelling.

Further to the East, Croatia’s national park Kopački Rit, one of Europe’s largest natural marshes and home to many bird species, including heron, storks, wild duck, and even rare falcons and eagles, is a must stop for bird-watchers.

The last port before the border with Sebia is Ilok, which was once among Slavonia’s important trade centres and now boosts a number of notable historical sites. Situated on a hill, the town offers one of the best views over the Danube that you will meet on your way to the delta.

Ilok is one of the many Balkan towns in the region which – having been aspired and acquired by a number of nations in the past, is known under several different names. Croats have preserved the German version of the name (Illok), though they dropped one of the l’s, while Hungarians call it Újlak and the Turks – Uyluk, with a stress on the second syllable.

The town lies more or less as far as the Gothic architectural style penetrated South-East Europe. At the end of the sixteenth century, only about five per cent of the local population was Christian, while the rest was Muslim. Later the Franciscans took over and now here, at the border between cultures and civilizations, one can observe how the medieval European spirit blended with that of the Orient.

One of the notable buildings in Ilok is the Church of St. John of Capistrano. The famous Franciscan insisted to be buried there, as he considered the fortress of Ilok to be of extreme importance.

Serbia

Across the border, the landscape does not change dramatically straight away, but gradually one starts feeling the somewhat moodier spirit and the essential Balkans’ appeal.

In Serbia, the two Danube ports at Novi Sad and Belgrade draw visitors with their cultural, historical and shopping attractions.

Novi Sad, also called the Serbian Athens in the past, was once Serbia’s biggest town and a centre of the nation’s political life when the country’s territory was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Due to the heavy damage from Serbia’s struggle for independence, the town’s historical centre is dominated by nineteenth-century buildings which boast evidence of the town’s multi-religious past – a synagogue in the Art Nouveau style, Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and a mosque.

One of the remarkable remains visible from the Danube is the Petrovaradin Fortress – an impressive medieval structure built by the city’s founder Đurađ Branković in 1430, which overlooks the river from a nearby hill.

Belgrade, on the way down, offers two memorable experiences in one: a great Balkan city and the splendid view of two great rivers – Sava and Danube – coming together.

East of Belgrade things begin to have a more Balkan feel. The towns get smaller and shabbier, and poorer houses could be observed on the shores between them. But here is where the river steps out with a wilder beauty.

The Đerdap National Park further down on the river’s banks contains the Đerdap gorge, better known as the Iron Gate gorge, which forms part of the boundary between Serbia and Romania.

Romania and Bulgaria

Here you enter the wildest and least exploited part of Danube. The river flows for her last 500 kilometres before reaching the Black Sea in a majestic delta that covers most of the Romanian sea coast and part of the Ukrainian one.

Green islands, marshes, and deserted shores will surround you most of the time, and yet a number of towns that are gradually waking up in slow revival, will make your sailing through this area a rich cultural experience as well.

Below the Iron Gates, the Romanian port town Turnu Severin is the site of archaeological excavations from Roman times, including the Trajan’s Bridge built in 103AD. The bridge, which was the largest in the Empire, consisted of 12 arches supported by stone pillars, but only two of them are now visible at low water.

In Vidin, Bulgaria’s westernmost river port, the Baba Vida Fortress dominates the landscape. This is one of the hidden gems of Bulgaria – a town that was important in history and is quite pleasant today yet remains detached from the rest of the country due to its remoteness and the lack of a road that connects it to Europe.

Vidin’s main charms lay in its broad green park on the Danube, a beach under the red walls of the fortress, several fish restaurants on boats in the river, a well-preserved mosque and Orthodox churches and the romantic ruins of a derelict synagogue.

From there, Belogradchik – with its fantastical rock formations, is only a short distance away.

Further to the East lie the port cities of Ruse on the southern bank of the river and Giurgiu, on the opposite bank. Most luxurious cruise ships make a stop at Ruse, Bulgaria’s largest city on the river, which boasts the Pantheon of National Revival Heroes, the Opera House and many notable museums and churches, where the spirit of its erstwhile grandeur can still be felt.

On the left bank Giurgiu – an industrial centre during the Socialist era, is also trying to attract cruisers with a facelift of its historical heritage. Established in the fourteenth century by silk and velvet merchants from Genoa, it has retained some important ruins until today, such as the Giurgiu Fortress on the Danube’s banks.

And even if the town is not a primary attraction, it offers easy access to nearby destinations, such as Drakula’s castle and the capital Bucharest.

The last port before the Danube flows into the Black Sea is the town of Tulca, in Romania’s Dobrogea region. A significant minority in the town consists of the Lipovan Russians.

From Tulcea, it is 72 kilometres down the Sulina arm of the Danube, one of the three arms into which the river branches at its end. This area, known as the Danube Delta, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and large parts of it are protected, as it houses unique plant and animal species.

Here is where your path will cross the Via Pontiki, the pan-European route of migrating birds which starts in Northern Europe, passes by the Ukraine’s Black Sea shore and continues all the way down into Turkey.

The Danube Delta’s wetlands are crucial for migratory bird flocks, which include a number of rare and endangered species, such as Pygmy Cormorant.

Cruising down to the delta offers not only the chance to see the unique environment, but also to witness the majestic end of the 2,850 kilometre path of Europe’s second largest river, as it flows into the Black Sea. A white, foamy line forms in the spot where the fresh Danube’s water gets swallowed up by the sea’s salty waves.

The experience is stunning – not simply because of nature’s splendour but also, to a large extent, because of the discrepancy between expectations and reality. Having seen the Central European magnificence of the river as it flows through Vienna and Budapest, one expects an equally stately end. Europe once planned to make this area a formal portal into the continent. But here, in one of the least inhabited spots on the Old Continent, the urban greatness is substituted by nature’s awe-inspiring grandeur: the Danube ends with an untamed, out-of-time feeling of stillness.
Text by Ekaterina Petrova | Photographs by Lode Desmet and Albena Shkodrova

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