Cruising on the stunning Danube Delta
As we set off down the narrow channels in small wooden boats with lush, impenetrable reeds towering on either side, it was hard to believe we were in Europe and not the Amazon. Only five days before we’d been in the elegant Austrian capital of Vienna, before sailing downstream on the river that inspired Johann Strauss to compose his famous waltz.
Most Danube cruises don’t venture much further than Slovakia and the Hungarian city of Budapest. The stretch of water where
Europe’s secondlongest river ends its epic 1,777-mile journey through 10 countries from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea is little known and much less explored.
In contrast to the manicured towns and villages lining the upstream banks, a cruise to the Danube Delta takes in dramatic, wild landscapes where wildlife far outnumbers the human population and fascinating cities once hidden from the world behind the Iron Curtain.
Our voyage was on Amadeus Brilliant
– part of the fleet of modern, comfortable vessels run by family-owned Amadeus River Cruises. Martina and Wolfgang Lüftner pioneered cruises to the Danube Delta when they launched their line more than 30 years ago. Today, it’s one of a few companies to sail through this extraordinary landscape, reached on cruises starting in Passau and, new for 2017, Vienna or Bucharest.
Each day we’d wake to new sights. The only major European river flowing from west to east, the Danube has long been a working river. As we sailed into Bulgaria, we shared the increasingly wide river with laden barges, some lashed two abreast and two in length and being slowly nudged along by tugs. Further on, the lower Danube is a natural boundary flanked by Serbia on one side and Romania on the other.
An unforgettable area is the Iron Gates, sandwiched between the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains to the north and south-western Balkan Mountains. At one time, this narrow gorge was a turbulent and perilous waterway, taking four days to navigate and claiming many cargo ships and lives en route. In 1972, a hydroelectric power plant and cavernous double lock was constructed and it took us just 90 minutes to pass through today’s tranquil waters.
It’s one of the scenic highlights, and we sat on the sundeck as we passed sheer gorge walls with a 140ft face of Decebalus, the last king of
ancient Dacia, carved into the rock. In one of the on-board talks we learn about the dam’s construction, which resulted in five villages and 17,000 people being relocated. Most evocative was the now-sunken island of Ada Kaleh, once a Turkish enclave with its own mosque and also, as a free port, a haven for smugglers.
Every day, there was a chance to embark on a shore excursion. Trips included the Romanian capital of Bucharest, dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’. Unprepossessing blocks of brutalist communistera flats gave way to magnificent tree-lined avenues built in the 1930s with a central Triumphal Arch.
On another day, we paddled in the Black Sea, visiting
‘In this wild wonderland, wildlife far outnumbers the human population’
Constanta, one of the oldest cities in Romania, it dates back to around 600BC and is the country’s largest port. Fine mansions and hotels were built in the 19th century under the orders of King Carol I, when it became the seaside playground of the elite. Most notable is the still magnificent Art Nouveau Casino Constanta – a waterfront landmark, now inhabited by gulls rather than gamblers after it became too expensive to maintain and closed in 1990.
The natural high spot was the Danube Delta, where our path was crossed by fishermen who rose before dawn to set out in one- and two-man boats to trawl the alluvial waters. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, the Delta is Europe’s largest wetland area and home to more than 300 species of birds, including the biggest population of white pelicans in Europe.
Our boat safari took us deep into this wild wonderland, across lakes filled with water chestnut leaves and tapering waterways sheltered by the world’s largest reedbed. Our guide slowed to allow us to watch the spectacle of hundreds of pelicans and cormorants fishing in unison over the water.
Back on board, the days were interspersed with delicious meals featuring speciality dishes from the countries we visited, port lectures, music from the resident duo and quizzes.
At night ,we’d usually end up in the lounge, swapping stories of our day’s adventures. And when you sail from the upper to the lower Danube, it might be one river, but both sections have very different tales to tell.
Travel in style on the Amadeus Brilliant
You can’t miss the 140ft rock carving of Decebalus,
last king of Dacia The Iron Gates, sandwiched between the Carpathian and
The Delta is home to the biggest population of white
pelicans in Europe
The Triumphal Arch in Bucharest – the ‘Paris of the East’