If travel is about changing your perspective, nothing achieves this goal quite as effectively as following the familiar into the unknown. “It is in Vienna that the Danube first thinks of the Black Sea,” wrote Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy, and by following it eastward it soon becomes apparent that the great European capitals strung along its waters are nothing but a static backdrop to its timeless flow.
One of the easiest, and certainly the most comfortable, ways to follow the Danube is to book passage on a river cruise, which combines the poetry of travel with the shameless comfort of an all-inclusive resort. That is how I found myself at Handelskai, admiring the sharp bows and long, lithe bodies of the ships shimmering in the sunlight, reminiscent of a battery of barracuda.
While my two nights on the cruise were just enough to give me a taste, the 15-day round trip to the Danube Delta lets passengers enjoy nearly the entire length of the Danube, with regular stops to explore cities and national parks along the way.
On the move
My ship was the Nickovision, 135 meters long and only 11.45 m wide, which manages nonetheless to fit three restaurants, a saloon, a small fitness center and a spa inside its slender frame, as well as a sundeck and three floors of well-furnished rooms. It didn’t take long before I was completely sold on my new life of effortless travel, where one is always on the move without having to worry about accommodations or food, or even border crossings, which are all taken care of by the staff.
The cabins, decorated in various hues of dark blue and off-white but mercifully free of any nautical motifs, are comfortable without being ostentatious, with gorgeously soft duvets that make one briefly contemplate petty theft. Toward the evening, chocolate mints and the next day’s route magically appear on the freshly turned down bed. Combined with the soothing vibrations of the ship’s engine, sleeping here should be a prescribed treatment for insomnia.
As a 20-something traveling alone, I am clearly an interloper among the passengers, where the demographic tends toward retired German couples. Milan and Armin, the Serbian and Bosnian bartenders, are baffled to find me on board, but are quick to ply me with coffee and the occasional cocktail on the house (“You can’t not have a Hugo in Belgrade!”).
The Nickovision prides itself on the versatility of its three restaurants, and I soon adopted a corner table in the cozy Manhattan restaurant on the lower deck. The restaurant offers a delicious five-course dinner that was far more adventurous than I expected, with flavors careening around the globe with a kimchi starter, Malaysian bami goreng and mango sorbet.
Under the auspices of Aris, a young Jakartan waiter with a knack for sincere cordiality at ungodly hours, I spent my leisurely breakfasts at that same table, marinating my brain in coffee and enjoying the buttery croissants and perfect little mushroom omelettes.
We left Vienna in the evening, overtaking a cyclist as we passed the whitewashed Peace Pagoda and rows of colorful shipping containers at stacked like enormous Legos. Dammed by the power plant at Freudenau, the Danube dawdles just long enough to fool us into taking it for granted.
Once released from its strictures, it sighs with relief and flows wide and unencumbered through the floodplains of the Donau-Auen national park, a ribbon of alluvial forest that extends all the way to the Slovak border and is home to thousands of animal species.
Night has fallen by the time we reached Bratislava, its bridges mere strings of lights arching above us. In the city, there is noise and people and traffic, but on the river, it’s eerily quiet. Bratislava Castle looms above, ablaze in white light, facing the so-called UFO restaurant and observation platform; seeing the medieval fortress standoff against a flying saucer perched on a bridge leaves a deliciously surreal aftertaste.
The Flow of History
Once the northern boundary of the vast Roman Empire, the Danube’s central role as a medieval trade route eventually helped give rise to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (also known as the Danube Monarchy) while its lower part formed a crucial frontier with the Ottomans – a cultural boundary that still resonates today. Its 2,850 kilometers now string together 10 countries, often acting as a natural and political border.
Some of the river’s details remain remarkably murky, espite the Danube’s historic and geographic importance. The ambiguity of the Danube’s source, which resulted in a decades-long rivalry between Furtwangen and Donaueschingen, makes it one of the few rivers measured from the mouth, so that there’s a dramatic sense of countdown when following its course to its inevitable end.
Perhaps no other city showcases the Danube as proudly as Budapest, which puts its best foot forward along its UNESCO World Heritage-designated riverbanks. There is an undeniable sense of luxury in sitting comfortably while watching the Neo-Gothic House of Parliament and the art nouveau Gresham Palace slowly glide past the large windows, then turning around just in time to marvel at Buda Castle and wave farewell at the Liberty statue high atop the citadel.
The Danube takes on many different forms on its long journey, but in the endless plains of the Hungarian lowlands, the landscape becomes unapologetically monotone, the river wide and slow.
The cruise will stop in Bratislava and Budapest on the return trip, but I almost prefer staying on the water and only seeing them in passing, short interludes on the indefatigable journey eastward. Spend any length of time on a ship and the slight rocking motion and gentle thrumming of the engine are soon incorporated into the body, which takes comfort in being part of something so large and solid.
Where Two Rivers Meet
After 13 years on the river, Captain Badache knows the river and its many moods, its shallows and its currents. It passes by his home town of Galati in Romania, where he spends his free months. “We have a nice bar by the Danube there, but I always say ‘no, let’s go somewhere else, I don’t want to look at this river again,” he jokes.
He gets a short break in Belgrade, where our ship loops around the Great War Island – once a strategic point for both the defenders and conquerors of Belgrade, today an uninhabited nature reserve – and docks at the mouth of the Sava River, just below Kalamegdan. “Tonight we’ll party on the splavovi!” exclaims Milan, the Belgrade-born bartender.
The numerous splavovi (rafts) docked along the Sava and Danube are the heart of social life in Belgrade, housing restaurants, cafes and bars. The ones opposite the docks are notorious as the wildest party spots in Belgrade, serving up a heady mix of rakija and turbofolk. Excited at the promise of a big night out, Milan points out his favorite haunts through the window: Freestyler, River and Shake’n’Shake.
Belgrade itself has the slightly deflated air of a city that used to be the epicenter of a much larger country. Like most Balkan capitals, a long and conflicted history has left affluent modernity rubbing shoulders with crumbling poverty. From port, it’s just a short, lung-busting climb to the leafy cobblestone corner of Kosaniev Venac, the oldest part of town outside the fortress walls.
Not far from Belgrade fortress and the shopping high street Knez Mihailova, this nonetheless remains a quiet part of town, and a drink at Skica café is the perfect way to end the day. The sweeping views across the Sava toward New Belgrade and the once Habsburg-held Zemun are layered with history. Belgrade’s location at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube made it the site of a centuries-long power struggle between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, and we are sitting right at the edge of the empire looking upstream toward its heart.
But the Danube never stops, and never looks back. Still thinking of the Black Sea, it rushes forward to meet it.