Gary Buchanan sets sail on a Viking Eastern Danube cruise from Budapest to Bucharest and discovers intriguing architecture, landscapes and legends.

Peeking inside the former Iron Curtain is like turning back the clock, to reveal Magyar cowboys on the Great Hungarian Plain, and eerie Transylvanian castles evoking images of the legend of Dracula. Add to this unfading tapestry countless Ottoman treasures plus a hefty dose of Art Nouveau and Stalinist architecture – all to be revealed on a Viking Eastern Danube cruise.

I join Viking Idun in Budapest shortly before departure, when the Parliament Building is magnificently illuminated against the night sky. The Danube is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga but from a cruise perspective it is first amongst equals. Traditionally the majority of tourist sailings have focused on the upper Danube, west of Budapest, with fewer ships venturing along the river’s lower reaches east of the Hungarian capital; however, that’s all about to change. Viking is now offering an array of sailings on this less travelled, but no less spectacular, stretch of the river.

From the dawn of civilisation, the Danube has ranked among the world’s most storied rivers. Over the past two millennia it has seen the passage of Roman legions, crusading knights and all-conquering Ottomans. Full of eastern promise, the waterway flows through a rich mosaic of brooding medieval forts and pastoral villages. At strategic points along the watercourse cities flaunt their Belle Époque architecture while others are still shedding their gloomy neo-Stalinist tower-blocks. 

Heading south, we reach Kalocsa, Hungary’s capital of paprika. Here an organ recital in the 18th-century Assumption Cathedral provides a perfect overture to our cruise. The tour continues to the Bakod Puszta Equestrian Centre for a display of stunning horsemanship.

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The next day we arrive at Croatia’s Vukovar, which still bears the scars from the bombing during the wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991. We climb on board coaches bound for Osijek, the main city in Slavonia, north-east Croatia; it was rebuilt in Baroque style under Habsburg rule in the 17th century. After a walking tour of the fortified centre (the Tvrda), we head to the Holy Cross Church, where a young soprano gives a superb rendition of choral works including Ave Maria as a spiritual peace enveloped us. 

The music theme continues in the Serbian capital Belgrade, where a ‘behind-the-scenes tour’ of the National Theatre concludes with fantastic operatic arias performed by an accomplished soprano and tenor. Other tours head to the Bohemian and historic quarter of Skadarlija, as well as the mausoleum of Yugoslavia’s former leader Marshal Tito. This city of dramatic Art Nouveau buildings sitting side by side hideous concrete constructions reflects a history of Capitalism and Communism.  

The Upper Danube has the Wachau Valley, with its mosaic of orchards and vineyards, but the eastern Danube boasts a spectacular canyon. The Iron Gates are four narrow gorges that create an 83-mile stretch of waterway bounded by steep cliffs separating Serbia from Romania in the Carpathian Mountains. Highlights include the muscular, medieval Golubac Fortress and a giant rock sculpture of the 1st-century Dacian King Decebalus.

The captain of Viking Idun deftly navigates the two Djerdap locks of the Iron Gate Dam which smoothly lowered the vessel 63 feet to sea level. The day-long passage through the gorge and the lock transit proved a perfect opportunity to enjoy the fine views on the Sun Deck.

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The Danube flows through a region of multiple identities but the constantly changing waterway is a sight to behold. Lining the riverbanks are verdant light-green hills dotted with darker patches of trees; while in the foreground black cormorants sit hook-necked on tree stumps and barn swallows dart across the surface of the silvery-green ribbon of liquid history.

After a short drive from the forlorn Bulgarian port of Vidin, where life seems to exist only in analogue, we arrive at Belogradchik. Here a series of rock formations, the most dramatic of which are 300ft pinnacles in hues of red, due to their high iron content, and contorted by the elements into bizarre shapes. Nestling among the rocks is the Kaleto Fortress, a lofty lookout built by the Romans.

From the next port of Ruse, Viking offers a full-day tour to Veliko Târnovo, one of Bulgaria’s oldest towns situated in an amphitheatre of forested hills and known for its historic lanes and 19th-century buildings; as well as the village of Arbanassi, where churches are filled with numerous ancient frescoes. Instead I opt for a leisurely stroll around Ruse, Bulgaria’s most aristocratic city that has been dubbed ‘Little Vienna’ for its Baroque and neoclassical buildings. 

Bucolic Bohemia is a land of unpredictable skies and capricious history where the impact of recent conflict is evident. The Scandi-chic interior of Viking Idun is a refreshing counterpoint to millennia of history, with the Longship also offering an effortless way to slip unobtrusively into a corner of Europe that, until the fall of Communism 30 years ago, was the ‘other side’ of the Iron Curtain.

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Our cruise concludes on the Romanian banks of the Danube at Giurgiu – a stygian port if ever I saw one. From here Viking offers a two-night stay in Bucharest – a city overflowing with Belle Époque architecture and leafy boulevards. There’s also one of the greatest monuments to dictatorial excess, the People’s Palace. Built in the 1980s by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, it is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.

I join a small group who have taken advantage of Viking’s three-night extension trip to Transylvania, steeped in the legend of the fearsome Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), also known as Vlad Dracul, Prince of Wallachia. 

After a drive into the Carpathian Mountains we tour the Peles Castle, the summer residence of the Romanian Royal Family until 1947, visiting some of the 170 lavishly-furnished rooms. The next day we drive to Bran Castle, perched atop a 200-foot-high rock. This bastion of imposing towers and turrets is best known for the myth created around Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although Stoker never visited Transylvania, the Irish author relied on research and his vivid imagination to create the dark and intimidating stomping ground of Count Dracula.

We explore winding stairways that led through timbered rooms, many connected by underground passages, which house collections of furniture, weapons and armour dating from the 14th to the 19th centuries: a poignant finale to this cruise full of intrigue.  

Getting there

An 11-day Viking cruise departing from either Bucharest or Budapest starts from £1,945 per person, based on two sharing, for an 11-day cruise with seven guided tours calling at five countries. Price includes return flights from London and up to 14 regional airports, all onboard meals, quality wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, free wifi and an included shore excursion in almost every port. For more information go to vikingcruises.co.uk.

To read more Viking reviews, check out our Viking South Africa cruise review or our Viking Northern Lights cruise review.