THE DANUBE

Uni­world’s SS Beatrice ex­plores the river less trav­elled, from Bu­dapest to Bucharest

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For more than half a cen­tury, the Royal Com­pound of Ser­bia was known as the ‘for­bid­den city’. It wasn’t un­til 2002, when Crown Prince Alexan­der opened the doors to vis­i­tors for the first time, that its beauty could truly be ap­pre­ci­ated.

One of the most spec­tac­u­lar sec­tions, in­con­gru­ously, is the base­ment, di­vided into in­di­vid­ual spa­ces in­clud­ing the first pri­vate cin­ema (a pi­ano be­hind the screen used to ac­com­pany silent films), a bil­liards room and the ‘whis­per­ing room’, where a wa­ter foun­tain would be turned on to mask con­fi­den­tial con­ver­sa­tions. With its fairy­tale mo­tifs, ar­chi­tec­tural flour­ishes and dimmed red and green light­ing, it’s un­like any ‘base­ment’ I’ve seen.

The Crown Prince was born in ex­ile in Lon­don’s Clar­idge’s Ho­tel, but has done so much for his home­land since he was al­lowed to re­turn to Bel­grade in 2001, our guide ex­plains while lead­ing us through the Royal Palace. As we are sip­ping wine at the end of the tour, we’re in­vited out onto the palace steps, where Crown Prince Alexan­der and Crown Princess Kather­ine join us to share sto­ries about their coun­try and their lives.

It’s not your av­er­age river cruise ex­cur­sion, but noth­ing about this trip has been av­er­age.

The river less trav­elled

While most Danube River cruises take place on the other side of Bu­dapest, trav­el­ling from the Hun­gar­ian cap­i­tal to Pas­sau, Ger­many or all the way up to Am­s­ter­dam, our Uni­world Bou­tique River Cruises itin­er­ary takes us the other way, to­wards the Black Sea.

From Bu­dapest, we cruise through Hun­gary, spend a day in Croa­tia and then con­tinue to Ser­bia, Bul­garia and Ro­ma­nia, vis­it­ing half of the 10 coun­tries the Danube flows through.

Along the way we cruise through the Iron Gates, the deep­est and nar­row­est sec­tion of the Danube. Here, the river be­comes a nar­row chan­nel be­tween

the Balkan and Carpathian Moun­tains, and we gaze up at al­most-ver­ti­cal cliffs be­long­ing to Ser­bia on one side and Ro­ma­nia on the other, be­fore do­ing a dou­ble-take at a huge face in the rocks.

The tallest rock sculp­ture in Europe, the Head of De­ce­bal is 40 me­tres high and shows the bearded face of the last king of the an­cient king­dom of Da­cia. It looks al­most myth­i­cal, as if it has been there since those an­cient times, but in re­al­ity it was carved at the turn of this cen­tury, from 1994 to 2004.

There are more high­lights to come. In the Bul­gar­ian vil­lage of Ar­banassi, I am over­whelmed by the beauty of a quar­tet as their voices fill a fres­coed chapel with the haunt­ing tones of Slavonic chants. On an af­ter-din­ner cruise in Bu­dapest, we soak up the il­lu­mi­nated neo-Gothic majesty of the Houses of Par­lia­ment, the lights on build­ings and bridges twin­kling. Dur­ing our two-day land ex­ten­sion in Bucharest, we tour both the vast, im­pos­ing Palace of the Par­lia­ment, or ‘Peo­ple’s House’, and Ceauşescu’s For­mer Res­i­dence, bet­ter known as the Dic­ta­tor’s House.

And then there is the ship her­self.

Beatrice re­vi­talised Af­ter un­der­go­ing a com­plete over­haul, the ship for­merly known as River Beatrice was re­launched in April as Uni­world’s lat­est Su­per Ship, SS Beatrice.

While she may have only grown a me­tre or two on the out­side thanks to a sleeker hull, on the inside SS Beatrice is al­most un­recog­nis­able. The beau­ti­ful white Mu­rano chan­de­lier may re­main – al­beit with blue shades rather than white – but al­most ev­ery­thing else has changed on the first of Uni­world’s fleet to be up­graded.

De­sign­ers from sis­ter brand, Red Car­na­tion Ho­tels, have cap­tured a light, bright feel­ing on board, with yacht-style light wood, and blue and white decor through­out the ship.

There are now four din­ing op­tions to choose from with Schu­bert’s, an 18-seat cafe at the bow of the ship, and Max’s at the stern, where guests can take part in cook­ing classes, plus the main restau­rant, Mozart’s, and Wolf­gang’s bar and lounge. Orig­i­nal art­works by Pi­casso and Alexan­der Calder hang in the pub­lic

spa­ces and hall­ways, along­side pieces by Mu­rano glass leg­end, Pino Sig­noretto.

Con­nec­tiv­ity has also been a pri­or­ity. In the lounge, USB ports can be found along­side the new hand-up­hol­stered so­fas and chairs so guests can recharge their de­vices, and these handy ports also ap­pear in the cab­ins. Hav­ing fallen in love with Uni­world’s beds on pre­vi­ous river cruises I am in a lit­tle piece of heaven as I sink back into a hand­made Savoir of Eng­land bed.

In the re­design, two 29-square-me­tre Grand Suites and a sec­ond 36-squareme­tre Owner’s/Royal Suite were added, re­duc­ing the ca­pac­ity from 156 to 152 pas­sen­gers. Con­nect­ing rooms have also been in­tro­duced for friends and fam­ily trav­el­ling to­gether.

Add an­other level of in­dul­gence to your trip at Seren­ity River Spa, where I dis­cov­ered the joys of a Ja­panese heated bam­boo mas­sage. Bam­boo sticks, hot basalt stones and Hi­malayan salt rocks are all op­tional in your mas­sage if you pre­fer some­thing more tra­di­tional.

While the ship her­self is stylish and sleek, she is el­e­vated to some­thing more than just a beau­ti­ful ves­sel by the peo­ple on board. Warm, friendly and an­tic­i­pat­ing our ev­ery need, the crew are the final touch. Mean­while, lo­cal guides along the way deepen our ex­pe­ri­ence by shar­ing per­sonal sto­ries from tur­bu­lent times. It’s both eye­open­ing and in­spir­ing to hear what they have lived through and their hopes for the fu­ture, and I hope I get a chance to see how that un­folds on an­other trip down this river some­day.

Travel file

SS Beatrice cruises the Danube and the Main, in­clud­ing the 10-day High­lights of East­ern Europe itin­er­ary be­tween April and Septem­ber 2019. uni­world.com

“It’s not your av­er­age river cruise ex­cur­sion, but noth­ing about this trip has been av­er­age.”

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SS Beatrice

01 Bu­dapest of­fers a his­toric back­drop for the start of a Uni­world voy­age 02 Cruis­ing past Gol­ubac Fortress, Ser­bia © Amanda Woods 03 The new stair­case aboard 04 The suites fea­ture hand­made Savoir of Eng­land beds. Images 01, 03 & 04 © Uni­world Bou­tique River Cruise Col­lec­tion 04

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