The Danube diaries

On a slow and civilised river voy­age from Bu­dapest to Vi­enna

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

A SUM­MER’S af­ter­noon in Bu­dapest and all is right on the river. River Cloud II sails in a loop past the im­pos­ing Hun­gar­ian par­lia­ment; with its spires, col­umns and curlicues, the tremen­dous build­ing looks like an or­na­mented wed­ding cake.

Our heads swivel from one Danube bank to the other, be­tween low-ly­ing, tourist-thronged Pest and the high for­ti­fi­ca­tions and forested hills of Buda.

We sail as se­date and re­gal as a swan un­der bridges and past trees that bow to the wa­ter’s edge, their low branches and feath­ery leaves dip­ping and trail­ing. Larch, fir, spruce, beech and alder — or so I guess. There def­i­nitely are pines and the breeze car­ries the cleansing, al­most an­ti­sep­tic tang of their nee­dles. As we round a bend, our wash causes a small boat to rock; the fish­er­man aboard beams and doffs his cap. He looks so happy and tanned I’d swear he’s swal­lowed the sun. Widewinged white birds fly in for­ma­tion like an hon­our guard above River Cloud II, our float­ing home for the next eight nights.

What’s not to love about river cruis­ing in Europe? It’s my first such jour­ney and barely an hour out of Bu­dapest I am hooked. On the rooftop sun deck, pas­sen­gers lounge in teak steamer chairs as the scenery passes like an un­fold­ing con­certina of pretty post­cards. Tall and hand­some waiter Sebastian is cir­cu­lat­ing with a tray of drinks. There is the con­stant prospect of cake.

Some­where down be­low, chef de cui­sine Mathias Leis­chnig from Liepzig and his brigade are prep­ping din­ner, turn­ing out small mir­a­cles in a gal­ley kitchen the size of a pantry. On­board en­ter­tainer Geza is chang­ing into a din­ner suit to take his place at the Stein­way grand pi­ano in the lounge bar.

The Ger­man-op­er­ated 88-pas­sen­ger River Cloud II is one of the small­est cruis­ers on Europe’s wa­ter­ways and has the long, low nau­ti­cal lines and brass fit­tings of a proper river ves­sel. It sits 3.65m above the wa­ter line, is 103m long and 9.8m wide; its max­i­mum speed is 10.5 knots, or less than 20km/h. On em­barka­tion day in Bu­dapest, our taxi driver can’t eas­ily find it. ‘‘Very small,’’ he con­cludes when we fi­nally pitch up at the gang­way. He sounds dis­ap­pointed for us; we are thrilled.

You could never call River Cloud II an apart­ment block afloat; in­stead, you might imag­ine you are aboard a pri­vate char­ter and, at the very least, you would ac­knowl­edge that ser­vice is per­son­alised and highly ef­fi­cient. There is not a speck of dust or a flaw in the or­gan­i­sa­tion and de­liv­ery of meals and lec­tures and guided shore ex­cur­sions, from which pas­sen­gers are wel­comed back on board with chilled tow­els and juice.

This is river cruis­ing for grown-ups, for sea­soned and of­ten schol­arly trav­ellers who know Bel­grade from Bratislava and care about the dif­fer­ence. Cul­ture is im­por­tant; so is his­tory, con­flict, con­text and the process of tran­si­tion in the Balkans. Lo­cal guides are cho­sen for their deep knowl­edge; groups of pas­sen­gers are di­vided into English and Ger­man speak­ers. We pal up with a well-known his­tory pro­fes­sor from Mel­bourne and her sci­en­tist hus­band, an au­thor­ity on the ecol­ogy of fresh­wa­ter ecosys­tems. They are the very best of com­pany.

There is plenty of op­por­tu­nity, too, just to kick back and re­lax on board and not feel the tini­est bit guilty. River Cloud II was built in 2001 and in­tended for cruis­ing on Italy’s River Po, hence the Vene­tian paint­ings, the arched cathe­dral-like win­dows, the gold taps and the slightly gilded faux-palazzo in­te­ri­ors. But nav­i­ga­tion proved tricky on the Po and so River Cloud II was re­de­ployed to the Danube five years later.

There are two decks of cab­ins, with the best (big­ger win­dows, no stairs) be­ing the Panoramic cat­e­gory on the up­per Prom­e­nade Deck, where the restau­rant, re­cep­tion and lounge bar are lo­cated. Aside from size and lo­ca­tion, cabin fea­tures are iden­ti­cal, in­clud­ing a small but well-planned en­suite, tele­vi­sion with satel­lite chan­nels and DVD player, ad­justable air-con­di­tion­ing, qual­ity bed­ding, cream-painted fur­ni­ture, com­pli­men­tary mini-bar stocked with your choice of soft drinks, am­ple stor­age and a colour scheme of scar­let and gold.

The boat’s so-called ho­tel di­rec­tor, Elis­a­beth Vo­gel, says the com­po­si­tion of na­tion­al­i­ties changes each voy­age, oc­ca­sion­ally fam­i­lies and friends bulk-book as a housep­a­rty, but usu­ally there are Aus­tralians aboard (three cou­ples in our case). She tells me 40 Aus­tralian doc­tors and phar­ma­cists once cruised as a group and when a Ger­man pas­sen­ger be­came un­well and rang the front desk for as­sis­tance, the re­cep­tion­ist was able to ask pre­cisely what kind of medico she needed.

No one seems the slight­est bit wob­bly on our tour, how­ever. Mostly we gather on the sun deck and the Aus­tralians (iden­ti­fi­able by our broad-brimmed hats and cover-up tops) in­stantly ap­pre­ci­ate how Euro­peans wor­ship the sum­mer, which has been short this year and truly wel­come af­ter the Danube flooded in June.

Away from the cities, the now com­pli­ant river be­comes greener, more swimmable. Lit­tle boats are pulled up on sandy shores hemmed by Hansel and Gre­tel forests. Cabin cruis­ers and speed­boats zip past, fly­ing striped flags that change from the red, white and green of Hun­gary to the red, blue and white of Ser­bia, to the white, blue and red of Slo­vakia. Sim­i­lar colours, enig­matic em­blems (Ser­bia’s flag still car­ries the crown), shared con­flicts, col­lec­tive his­tory, worlds of dif­fer­ence.

Our un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of this re­gion of Europe is en­hanced dur­ing talks by on­board lec­turer Ger­rit Aust on the Austro-Hun­gar­ian monar­chies and the march of those Ot­toman Turks, for­ever knock­ing on the back door of cen­tral Europe.

Stand­out mo­ments? On our first shore visit in Novi Sad, Ser­bia’s sec­ond-big­gest city, we are driven to the Or­tho­dox monastery of Krusedol on Fruska Gora moun­tain, past lin­den trees and vine­yards of sweet white grapes and road­side stacks of hon­ey­dew mel­ons, seem­ingly there for the tak­ing. The monastery chapel has 16th-cen­tury mu­rals on ceil­ings, walls and pil­lars, and icons ga­lore; it is like be­ing in­side a jew­el­box.

Next day, in Donji Mi­lanovac, there’s no tour and pas­sen­gers wan­der ashore in the sun. There are watermelons for sale along river­side prom­e­nades, gar­dens of apri­cot-coloured roses and women in scooped-neck peas­ant blouses sell­ing fine needle­work in the square.

It is san­dals-and-short-sleeves weather in th­ese Danube set­tle­ments, with the sun up at 5am, down by 8pm. We are in the ‘‘cake coun­tries’’ and re­sis­tance is fu­tile; there are fruit- stud­ded loaves, sour cherry strudels, meringues with creamy tops shaped as a bishop’s mitre and, I swear, muesli you could eat as a pud­ding.

Cen­tral Europe in high sum­mer is all stone fruit sold by the bas­ket and the plea­sure of open-air cafes; el­der­flower and green ap­ple ice creams sold in crackly cones; bul­bous church spires gleam­ing golden; tourists on bi­cy­cles; and fields full of sun­flow­ers.

On old farm­houses I of­ten spy the great dis­or­der­li­ness of stork’s nests perched on chim­neys like pre­pos­ter­ous gar­den-party hats.

But day three seals it for me. Af­ter our morn­ing stroll in Donji Mi­lanovac, we cruise through the Danube’s Iron Gate, a gorge that’s just a few hun­dred me­tres wide at Kazan, its nar­row­est point. We are lunch­ing on the

Clock­wise fro above, River on the Danub Bu­dapest view from the sun River Cloud I and the boat p out of Bel­grad

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