East of Budapest the Danube changes dramatically. Not only do the riverboat Captains have to switch from German to Russian as they interact with the authorities, but also the rich feast of towns and villages crammed with ornate churches and grand buildings evaporate. It becomes a quieter, sparcer and less ornate experience. You leave behind the busy river, with many passenger and cargo boats, to drift almost alone through peaceful and quiet landscapes.
I did not expect my journey on the Danube towards Budapest from Bucharest (Romania) to be as different to the one I had done heading towards it from the other direction from Passau (Germany).
Sailing into Budapest on the last night of my Emerald Waterways “Enchantment of Eastern Europe” cruise felt like I was stepping out of a slow and calming environment and throwing myself back into a brightly lit and bustling world. The grand buildings and bridges, many reconstructed after the Second World War and restored post Communism, projected a wealth, gloss and sophistication that I had not experienced through my journey up until then. It was a jolt.
On other Danube river cruises I have been on, the ship and the cruising seemed to play a subservient role in the overall experience. However on this journey on the Emerald Dawn, this was not the case. More time was spent on the ship. We covered greater distances than similar cruises I have been on. Some guests, including me, occasionally chose to stay on the ship instead of going on tours. Relaxing in the warm summer weather, soaking up the calming scenery and atmosphere, as the ship travelled further along the river was extremely appealing. Enjoying the river while other guests were out on daytime excursions, before re-joining us further down stream, became acceptable. I did not feel as much pressure to always venture onto land.
The Emerald Dawn is a spacious ship with areas to unwind, including an enormous sun deck, the Horizon lounge, a front bow seating area and the glass-enclosed indoor swimming pool. It offered an alternative to sightseeing. Up to 40 of the 168 guests stayed on the ship instead of going on the included excursions some days.
The nature of excursions contributed to this too. As with most river cruises, one was included each day within the fare. However, there were less ornate churches, historic monasteries or grand houses to visit along this stretch of the Danube. In some parts, the riverside towns were wrecked and rebuilt after struggles that took place in the 1990s when Yugoslavia unravelled. The off-ship trips in this region tended to be lower key than others I have been on, such as visiting local craft stores, watching folk performances or visiting smaller countryside churches or buildings that had survived through the Communist era. Tours took on a more leisurely approach. Some guests told me they felt the trips lacked in content at times due to the more sparse nature of attractions, but I enjoyed soaking in insights into life during Communism and how the people are adapting to life afterwards. A common theme being that life in those days seemed less stressful and challenging.
Food on board was excellent. There was a buffet breakfast and lunch, while the evening meal consisted of four courses. Although most dined on each evening’s Chef recommendation, there was always a good choice of alternatives. For example, there were at least two starters (e.g. Salmon Roulade and Beetroot Carpaccio), two soups (e.g. Forest Mushroom Carpaccio and Fennel Essence), three main courses (like Sliced Veal Loin, Halibut Under Mustard Crust and Pancake Filled with Chanterelles) and finally at least four dessert options (such as After Eight Parfait, Banana Split, Fresh Fruit salad and International Cheese Selection). Menus and dishes were never repeated, except for four classic dishes available every night (Poached Salmon, Rump Steak, Grilled Chicken Breast and Caesar Salad). Wines, beer and soft drinks were included with meals, although they had to be purchased at other times. Drinks packages were on sale to help travellers budget and get better value. These included the “Emerald Extended” which offered consumption of the daily choice of wines, beer and soft drinks throughout the day for €9 per person per day, and the “Emerald Premium” (€19.90 per person per day) for any drinks on the ship’s menu.
Emerald Waterways is an English-speaking ship and so my fellow guests were mostly from the United Kingdom, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The age range was primarily over 60. It was mostly retired couples although there were a number of solo travellers. It is a premium line, akin to a four-plus star hotel on land, and only started sailing in 2014. Service and attention to detail by the crew was excellent and, with the high crew-to-passenger ratio, they quickly came to know my preferences and quirks and usually preempted me having to ask for my regular drinks.
The Emerald Dawn ship entered service in May 2015 and has a contemporary boutique-hotel style decor. I liked the look of the ship, although a few guests told me they preferred the more elaborate and glitzy decor of other lines and felt it had less of a “wow” factor. I liked the modernity. The cabin I was travelling in was a “Panorama Balcony Suite”, and to save space the balcony area with tables and chairs is within the room. The upper half of the floor-to-ceiling window could be lowered to let in fresh air and create an on-balcony ambience.
Watch my video tour of the Emerald dawn River Cruise Ship: click here
The trip was more relaxing and calm than other river cruises that I have been on. The greater time sailing along the river and the feeling that it was okay to occasionally stay on board to soak in the weather and environment added to this. While the excursions were less packed with sights than other regions I have cruised through, I appreciated that they enabled me to experience and interact with the local population and culture in the region. It was fascinating seeing this part of Europe, where its recent history has been traumatic and difficult at times. It was fantastic to be able to unwind and relax on this quiet and soothing stretch of the Danube while being so thoughtfully cared for by the Emerald crew – who every person I spoke to remarked were the most impressive part of the cruise for them. I enjoyed my experience immensely.
Highlights of the Danube Eastern Europe Cruise in Photographs
Alfatar Village Bulgaria
We visited a local school that Emerald Waterways supports and after a tour of the facilities the children performed local songs and dance for us. We then visited a traditional house where some elderly women held a short folk song show.
Veliko Turnovo Bulgaria
A walking tour of this ancient city took us to the Iron Bridge to see the Monument of Bulgarian Kings before visiting the Lion Gate.
Iron Gate I and II on Romania / Serbia Border
These two vast hydro-electric dams raised the level of the Danube by 34 metres which requires passing through locks.
Kazans on Romania / Serbia Border
This was the most scenic stretch of the Danube we cruised on passing though high mountains. There is a vast 178-foot high cliff carving of Decebalus, the last Dacian King who opposed Roman expansion and chose suicide over defeat. Building of the monument started in 1998 and took seven climber-sculptors seven years to complete.
We visited many sites in the Belgrade, the capital of Serbia on our half day tour. These included the fortress, Tito’s Memorial and the Saint Sava Church, which is the world’s largest Orthodox Church.
In this small village we visited the Folk House to see women working on traditional crafts before going to watch a Puszta Horse Show.
We sailed into Budapest at 9pm on our final night on board to see the magnificent buildings lit up.
Get more of my content from the trip, including videos, articles and photographs, at tipsfortravellers.com/emerald-waterways
Note: I travelled as a guest of Emerald Waterways on a 7-night Enchantment of Eastern Europe river cruise.The cruise operates in season between Budapest to Bucharest, and so the cruise can be done in either direction.
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