Cruis­ing on the stun­ning Danube Delta

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Contents -

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

Balkan moun­tains

The Delta is home to the big­gest pop­u­la­tion of white

pel­i­cans in Europe

The Tri­umphal Arch in Bucharest – the ‘Paris of the East’

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