Six-Country Danube River Cruise Trip Report

Central and Eastern Europe

Amcan Travel takes a cruise down the River Danube from Vienna, Austria, to Giurgiu and Bucharest, Romania.

On a crisp fall morning, we left Seattle for our Danube River Cruise. Arriving in Vienna two days before the embarking day, we checked into the Suite Hotel next to our boarding dock. It is a very nice hotel with eccentric modern décor. Vienna Cards in hand, we started our adventure.

Our first stop was at Stephensdom (photo, Stephensdom), a grand and enormous Gothic cathedral right in the center of Vienna. It has impressive windows, carvings, paintings and chandeliers inside. We climbed the 343 spiraling steps the top of the South Tower (photo, Stephensdom tower). As the photos show, we found the church building under renovation, and the tower wrapped around by the construction structures, so the view is a bit limited. We managed some bird's-eye view of the city (photo, Vienna from above). Back on the ground, we relaxed in the plaza and watched local artists performing their tricks while concert ticket sellers dressed as Mozart circulate in the crowd. It is amazing to see one Mozart, but half a dozen of them aggressively peddling business seemed a bit odd.

We went to the famous 100-year-old restaurant Figlmuller just off the plaza to enjoy some traditional Austrian cuisine. The schnitzel is good and the garlic soup is divine. So was the sturm, a local new crop wine that is more like juice than wine. We stopped in for dessert at the legendary Fauenhuber Café (photo, Figlmuller plaque) where Beethoven is said to have been a regular. We enjoyed thick Vienna coffee and sachertorte. Back at the hotel, we thought we might stay up late to watch the US Presidential contest debate, but it got very late and we both passed out despite the strong coffee.

Saturday morning we started out early. After a quick hotel breakfast, we rode the metro to the Flea Market, a weekly affair recommended by the Lonely Planet tour book. We walked among aisles of old housewares, clothes, records and collectors' items, including a lovely 300-year-old violin (according to the maker's mark inside), its whole body elaborately carved into an art piece itself. Adjacent to the flea market is the fresh daily market with great looking fruits, fresh meats and vegetables, and all kinds of cheese and wine. At the end of the market, we were surprised to find ourselves at the very distinguished building (photo, Secession Building) which was home to the modern Austrian Renaissance. We took another short Metro ride to Schloss Schönbronn (photo, Schloss), the royal family's summer palace, the Austrian Versailles. We toured the luxurious apartments and gorgeous formal gardens (photo, gardens), We climbed to the monument at the top of a hill opposite the palace (photo, Gloriette), enjoyed a snack and took in the panorama view of the palace (photo, Schönbronn panorama). The palace grounds include a zoo, numerous fountains, and a maze that we happily got lost in. We ended at the court bakery where we had a piece of strudel and watched a demonstration of strudel making, the way it has been prepared for 300 years. We returned back to hotel, stopping on the way at the market where we each had a giant Vienna sausage and picked up some fruits, ripe tomatoes, cheese and kebabs. We took a little nap before setting out to enjoy the "Lange Nacht der Museen," a once-a-year event put on by 60 Vienna museums. You buy one ticket for unlimited access to all of them from 6pm to 1am. We choose this event over going to a classical concert. We got in some serious museum hopping during the next 6 hours, including the national art museum, the museum of contemporary art, the Leopold (which houses the world's best collection of Egon Schiele works) and the museum of ancient musical instruments. We also went to check out the Upper Belvedere Palace but found they are not part of the event. Oh, well!

Sunday was the day to board our cruise ship, the Caparti. We took a morning walk down to the nearby docks, looking for the boat. We found a nice young Serbian man named George stationed at the dock waiting to catch us, to let us know that the boarding dock moved further North (so our smart plan of staying close to the dock was a bust). We took his advice to get a taxi back to the hotel, gathered our bags, and continue to the new dock where we checked into our cabin before noon. We went back into the city (thank you, Vienna Card) and toured though the Hofburg Palace (photo, Hofburg) and a museum devoted to the beloved "Sisi," empress Elisabeth. We went to the Albertina Museum in the afternoon for a fabulous Ruben Show, where we saw over 100 examples of Ruben's work collected from various museums worldwide. We felt very lucky to see the master's many diversified works, not only the ones we were familiar with concerning Bible stories and serious looking kings and nobles, but also some nice landscape paintings and sensitive portraits of the artist's children. They are light and rosy, clearly reflecting the tender love of the artist. Exhausted and happy, we made our way back to our boat to officially start our cruise.

The welcome-aboard dinner was simple and pleasant. Our dining room accommodates about 40 people all together we can rotate with tablemates every meal. It seems that most of passengers are aged between 60-80 with a few exceptions. The ship was scheduled to depart Vienna on Monday. The cruise company had organized a city tour of Vienna, including a stop at the fascinating Hundertwasser House (photo, Hundertwasser House). We changed some cash into Euros, the only form of payment accepted on the ship, and in most of the countries we will be visiting. We looked around downtown on our own in the afternoon and visited the Butterfly Museum. After dinner on the ship, we attended a classical concert arranged by our tour company. The performance was good, though not outstanding, designed to appeal to a wide range of tourist tastes. We started sailing right after we got back to the boat. The Danube was at a higher than normal water level, so it was an adventure to sail under the low bridges through the city. The crew had to dismantle the command tower and some of us got on the sundeck at midnight. We ducked frequently when the bridges approached, some times just inches above our heads.

Tuesday morning we woke up in Bratislava, the lovely capital of Slovakia. We took a tour of the castle (photo, Bratislava Castle) above the river. We had just about an hour of free time to look around the city center (photo, Central Bratislava). Richard purchased a Pistalka (a small Slovakian fipple flute) from a local craft shop. We were sorry we didn't have a little more time to spend in the town. Tuesday afternoon was spent aboard Carpati, sailing down the Danube and enjoying a Romanian Wine testing on board. We teamed up with Ellie from New York and Harry from Chicago to score the wines. We tasted three white wines and three red ones, Harry very accurately recording our feedback in a point system. Our final vote perfectly matched with the official picking. After dinner, we enjoyed our first concert on the boat put on by our house band, Elvis and Friends. Elvis is a keyboard player who knows a million songs, classical themes, folksongs American pop, and more. He seems to be able to play any tune in any key. The "friends" are a violin player Vili, a woodwind player Adrian, and a beautiful singer who happens to be Mrs. Elvis. For the Tuesday evening concert, they dressed in traditional black and red Roma costumes and played a concert of "gypsy" music. We found it interesting that the tourist literature about the cruise hails them as the best "gypsy" band on the Danube. Talking to the musicians, it became clear that they do not care for the term. It seems "gypsy" is not considered a respectful name. In any case, their music is uniquely happy and sad at the same time, a real treat. Barbara headed back to our cabin and passed out immediately after the concert while Richard went again to the upper deck to watch the boat arrive into Budapest.

Wednesday schedule called for a full day touring Budapest, arranged by the cruise. The morning involved the obligatory tour of the city, including the flatter Pest side with Parliament Building and Heroes' Square, with statues representing the seven Magyar tribes (photo, Heroes' Square), who invaded and settled in the plains of the present Hungary in the 9th Century. We then cross one of the five bridges over the Danube to get to the hillier Buda side. In front of the Matthias Church and at the foot of the Liberty Statue, we got a full view of the beautiful city (photo, Pest across the Danube). After lunch, we set out for a tour of the National Art Gallery with two of our boat mates and our cruise ship guide Marina, a young red-headed Romanian woman. Marina guided us via tram and metro. The metro is the oldest in European continent. Though small, it is very clean and nice decorated, and all signals of departure/arrival are announced on the train with traditional Hungarian melodies on a loudspeaker. The museum of fine art (photo, Budapest Art Museum) houses Hungary's national collection of foreign artists. We were greeted by a pretty and very knowledgeable museum guide who gave us a focused, content-oriented tour emphasizing details about artistic styles, historical context, and commentary on selected works. Part of the museum was closing early to prepare for a fancy reception (photo, party preparations). We had plans for our own party, a Hungarian bash with goulash and entertainment hosted in a traditional Hungarian restaurant. The establishment appeared to cater exclusively to the tourist trade, at least for the night. Our group of Americans and Canadians were joined by a big Russian group and a bigger (and louder) Greek group. We had goulash soup, and a goulash main dish with beef cooked in heavy paprika sauce though it is not spicy hot. The entertainment included a band, singers and a dance troupe that made costume changes every other tune. The Russian and Greek tourists happily joined the dancing on the stage, too bad nobody from our shy group felt like jumping up.

After spending a whole day touring Budapest with our fellow tourists, we decided to take Thursday into our own hands and explore the city ourselves. We expected Metro pricing to work the same as elsewhere in Europe and the US, that a metro ticket allows change to another train as long as you are not out of the metro station underground, and indeed our tour manager confirmed our assumption. But, it doesn't work that way. We found out by getting caught in a Metro exit where five police were checking tickets and passes for every emerging train passenger. Our ticket was not sufficient for a journey with a line change. We were each fined on the spot, 10 Euros each, forty times the cost of the ticket that we should have known to buy. The police are as stiff and unsmiling as Buckingham palace guards, and of course had no patience for our plea. So in the end we paid our fine. It took a while to get the bad feelings out of our hearts and start to enjoy the beautiful Buda Palace.

We climbed the stairs up the south side of Buda hill to the old fortress wall, and wandered down to the Buda Palace. In the west wing of the palace, the Ludwig Museum has some fun and interesting modern art in their collection, including a couple of late period Picassos. We took our time enjoying some very contemporary video and multi-media works. The east wing of the palace houses the Hungarian National Gallery, home to a comprehensive history of Hungarian art from medieval times to the present. Alas, arriving at 1:00pm, we found it had closed that day at noon for "technical reasons." Perhaps this was not our lucky day. Dejected, we looked for a local café for some sweet comfort and we found it. Good, rich Hungarian pastries and cakes with strong coffee at Miro Café.

Having got our fill of the Buda side of the city, we got back on the metro and headed back over to Pest side, stopping at the Parliament to see it up close. We paid our respects at the monuments honoring hundreds of people who were killed during the 1956 anti-USSR movement. Finally we strolled down the Andrassy Street, stopping in at some local shops. Barbara found a Hungarian cookbook in English at a bookstore. We bought the obligatory paprika at the Grant Market on the way back to our boat. After dinner, we took an evening walk along the Vaci Avenue. It seems that Budapest doesn't have a very lively nightlife scene. Except a few restaurants and cafes, most of the shops closed at 7pm on this pedestrian only shopping street. Our boat departed dock just after 11pm, sailing back through the whole city one last time before turning south so everybody can enjoy the fabulous nighttime view of this beautiful city.

Friday morning we stopped at a small town of Kalocsa (photo, Kalocsa train station). We visited the Paprika Museum and learned all about this most important Hungarian export. We went to the local Cathedral to enjoy a lovely concert of organ music, and took a walk around the tiny town center for a while, back to boat before noon. In the afternoon we decided to give the optional Puszta Rodeo Show a miss. Instead, Barbara took a little nap while Richard practiced a bit on his clarinet. When there was a knock on the door of the cabin, we feared someone might have a complaint about the sound. But instead it was the clarinetist/saxophonist of the on-board band, named Adrian, accompanied by the boat receptionist. They heard the music from the hallway and wanted to find out what it was. Though musician Adrian does not speak much English, music is a good enough common language. Soon, he went back to get his sax and clarinet and we had an impromptu jam session in our cabin.

After dinner, we attended our second concert on board, the theme is classical music. The band played a few popular pieces by Mozart, Schubert and Strauss. Surprisingly, Elvis played a piano solo that is quite nice and refreshing.

Saturday morning was an opportunity to sleep in a little, because most of the day was to be spent sailing. After a late breakfast, the tour manager gave a talk and moderated a lively discussion concerning the politics of the Balkan region we are sailing through. Our guide Voyin has a personal perspective on Yugoslavian and Serbian history and culture, having lived his entire life with his family in Belgrade. After lunch, Richard played more music with his new friend Adrian in the bar, while Barbara joined the boat tour. The boat is over 40 years old, with a powerful and noisy Russian engine (photo, Carpati engine room). The boat is only 80 meters long and 14 meters wide, but the engine seems powerful enough to drive a carrier. Our cabin, in the middle of three decks, has two windows, one in the sleeping quarter and one in the bathroom. It's very compact, identical to a first class train compartment with two beds. We carefully studied details about the cruise before coming, so we knew what we were paying for. But it was apparently something of a surprise for many of our shipmates. The cabin bathrooms are so small there is no room for an enclosed shower stall, just a showerhead on the wall next to the toilet. But it is a unique ship, offering the lower Danube tour for a price half that of its fancier competitors. What the boat seems to lack is made up nicely by the superb service staff including Romanian crew, doctor, on-board Roma ("gypsy") band and three Serbian tour guides. They are truly wonderful people, willing to go the extra mile to make you happy. We understand they have been sailing up and down the Danube for six months, and this is their last sail of the year. After the boat tour, we went back to the bar for afternoon tea, complete with musical entertainment by Adrian and Richard (photo, multi-cultural music). Saturday night, we were treated to a Brahms concert by our house band.

Sunday was our day to see Belgrade. The city tour included a drive past several bombed-out building sites (photo, former Belgrade Chinese Embassy). We saw locals jogging, walking their dogs, going to church. It is hard to believe that barely five years ago this was a war zone being bombed nonstop for 78 days and nights. In the city, the Turkish architectural influences are seen everywhere, though the majority of Serbs are Eastern Orthodox. The region has seen centuries of intense fighting among Turks, Romans and various tribes. We visited a monastery outside the city, which for the 700 years has been a sanctuary for Christians. The chapel is adorned inside and out with beautiful paintings. Our local guide sang an unaccompanied prayer underneath the dome where Jesus looks down on us from the ceiling.

A party and late lunch was arranged at a local farm. The head of the house is a 70-old Serb whose daughters, their husbands and their children all lay out traditional dishes and home made plum brandy. Local musicians played traditional tunes and dances. It was quite a big party, everybody eating, drinking and dancing. During the bus trip back to the boat, our Romanian crew who came with us started singing and we all piled on, singing all the way back to the boat. The entertainment after Sunday's dinner was provided a very young, energetic and talented Serb troupe. Dressed in very impressive customs, they gave an equally impressive performance. During the break, beautiful locally made sweaters were shown on the stage and immediately went on sale on the spot. We had to try very hard to resist the temptation.

Monday we sailed along the border between Bulgaria and Romania. Shortly after lunch, we passed the magnificent Iron Gate (photo, Iron Gate Gorge). The day was windy but not too cold, so we spent time on the top deck enjoying the views (photo, Iron Gate Rock Sculpture). In the afternoon we stopped at the Romanian city of Turnu Severin. We toured the fascinating museum, and were then let free for an hour. Most of us went into the newly opened supermarket to change money and shop. Apparently, the market is so new and grand, families come to visit the store as an attraction, little kids ride on escalators for fun. Barbara got some facial cream by the renowned Dr. Anna of Romania at a super price. We walked around the market a bit and saw a lot of small mom and pop shops struggling to compete with the brightly lit new giant market. In a couple of years we worry they won't survive.

Tuesday's stop on the river was in a small Bulgarian town called Vidin. We took a walking tour over the town. Passing through a very children-friendly riverbank park, we saw a falling down Synagogue in ruins, a Turkish Mosque, and an Orthodox church all co-existing on the same block. The mosque features a heart (instead of the traditional crescent moon) on top of its spire. We learned that it was done by the Turkish ruler at the time of the construction, because he wanted to be a friendly ruler toward all inhabitants. The heart asserted his independence from the Ottoman capital and showed respect for local customs in the one gesture.

The evening, our last on the boat, was a big long party. Starting with a shot of vodka for everyone, we all dressed up for our captain's gala dinner, and ended with dance in the bar. Our Captain Luca gave a great slapstick dance performance with various members of the party, crew, and staff. It was hilarious, completely opposite from his normal official personality.

Wednesday morning we disembarked early to board the bus to Bucharest. We drove first to the Palace of Parliament (photo, Ceausescu's "House of the People"). It is the second largest building in the world, second only to the U.S. Pentagon. We trooped through the allowed areas, oohing and aahing at all the fantastic marble and crystal, velvet curtains with gold and silver thread hand-embroidered by nuns. The palace is constructed with 100% Romanian materials and labor. Understandably, the Romanian people have mixed feelings about the palace. Maybe a few hundred years later, it will be loved as their Louvre or Parthanon as a national treasure.

After the Bucharest city tour, passengers were split into three groups, Some were taking the "Dracula Extension" tour to Brasov, some were headed to the airport to catch flights home, and some stayed in Bucharest on their own like us. We booked two nights at Sofitel Hotel near the Herestrau Park. After checking into the hotel, we started our own city tour on foot. Bucharest is a beautiful city, justly called the Paris of East Europe. We walked past the mini-Arch of Triumph (photo, Bucharest's arch), and took the metro to the Victory Square. We walked down past Revolution Square to University Square and enjoyed the lively downtown scene. We had some yummy cake/crepe with delicious Romania coffee at the best coffee shop in town. From there we took the Metro to Stefan Cel and met with three other couples from the cruise ship to have a fine dinner at La Mama. We stuffed ourselves with a delicious Romanian feast including wines for less than $10 per person.

Thursday morning our musician friend Adrian came to our hotel in the morning with his oldest daughter's boyfriend, who spoke a bit of English and has a car. Johnny drove us all over town in search of traditional Romanian flutes. With Adrian's help, we found a nice nai (like panxiao or zampoña) and a Romanian caval. We find it sad that most music stores are jammed with electric guitars and drums, but not much traditional music instruments. We invited all Adrian's family to dinner, Adrian and Sylvia had three beautiful children and they seem to be such a happy family we are so glad we get to know them. We ate at the Johann Strauss Restaurant where live music was provided by a band that is apparently all close to Adrian. We enjoyed some nice Danube fish and other traditional dishes there, a perfect meal to end our 17-day trip.