A DIFFERENT KIND OF DANUBE CRUISE
You could call it “the other Danube,” or the river less travelled. While river cruising is synonymous with ships sailing the River Danube, most of us picture passing through small Bavarian towns or sipping coffee in major cities like Vienna.
I’ve just returned from a very different kind of Danube river cruise: Viking River Cruises’ (vikingrivercruisescanada.com) 10-night Passage to Eastern Europe. One of Viking’s most immersive European itineraries, it begins with a one-night stay in Bucharest, Romania, and includes a two-night hotel stay in Budapest, Hungary. In between is an eight-day river cruise aboard one of the line’s sparkling new Viking Longships.
After getting on the beautiful, 190-guest Viking Embla just outside of Bucharest, we sailed for the Bulgarian towns of Russe and Vidin; Belgrade, Serbia; Osijek, Croatia; and Kalocsa, Hungary, before arriving in one of my favourite cities in Europe — Budapest.
We also spent a day of scenic cruising through a stretch of the Danube known as the Iron Gates. With temperatures soaring above 35 C, cold drinks on the Sun Deck were a must as we sailed through this mountainous, narrow passage that in many ways is almost reminiscent of Alaska’s Inside Passage — with fewer trees, of course.
Viking is all about immersive, authentic experiences ashore, and this itinerary really gave the company latitude to go all-out. In each port of call, Viking includes one or two complimentary shore excursions, supplemented by a small list of optional (and additional fee) tours.
Our first included tour was an all-day exploration of Bucharest that included a visit to the massive Palace of Parliament (the largest civilian building in the world), lunch at a local restaurant and time to explore the quaint Peasant’s Museum that highlights historical life in rural Romania.
Unlike the modernized Western Danube, this is Europe at its most raw. From war-torn Osijek — which still bears the scars of the hard-fought battle for Croatian independence that began in 1991 — to Bulgaria, the poorest member of the European Union, the ports of call on Viking’s Passage to Eastern Europe itinerary bring to life the events that we’ve all heard about, but rarely understand.
In Osijek, Viking pulls out all the stops with a half-day tour that includes small-group invitations to have coffee and cake with a local family at their home. These Home Hosted Visits are, in my opinion, one of Viking’s best and most authentic shore offerings. We were welcomed with coffee, cake and plenty of Croatian slivovitz, a plum brandy that’s sure to hit the throttle on your afternoon.
The other sleeper hit of this trip: Belgrade, Serbia. As fascinating as Budapest or Vienna, Belgrade is an incredible city filled with kind and generous people. I oriented myself with Viking’s City Tour (included) that struck a great balance between guided events and free time. I also took part in the line’s optional Behind the Scenes at the Serbian Opera tour which, for €39 per person, showcased Serbia’s vibrant, and affordable, arts scene. Front-row tickets for local performances start at just €6.
Of course, when I wasn’t ashore, I was very happy to be on board Viking Embla, one of Viking’s first Longships, built back in 2012.
After four years of service, she still sparkles, with brand-new carpeting throughout that only serves to highlight how well these Scandinavian-inspired ships have aged.
On board, you’ll find riverview, French-balcony and full stepout-balcony staterooms, along with a huge assortment of suites and mini-suites. My full balcony, Category B stateroom was perfect for a week, with plenty of storage space, heated bathroom floors and anti-fog mirrors, comfortable beds and new Freyja toiletries. I half-joke that Viking’s Longships are my home away from home.
If you’ve got more time, Viking also offers this journey as part of a longer, 23-day European Sojourn voyage that sails all the way to Amsterdam or reverse.
Viking's Passage to Eastern Europe, a river cruise, calls on off-the-beatenpath ports of call like Belgrade, Serbia.