The Danube diaries
On a slow and civilised river voyage from Budapest to Vienna
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