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Destination Review: Take the Road (River) Less Traveled


Most people who take a cruise on the Danube sail the upper portion of the river from Budapest, Hungary to Regensburg, Germany. Not us. We decided to take the river less traveled and cruised the lower Danube from the Black Sea to Budapest. Our voyage took us through five countries in ten days. Most of the countries are members of the EU, but not all. Two are Schengen states but not the other three. All five used different currencies, only one of which was the Euro, and of course, each country had their own language. But through all of that…we only had to unpack once!


We again chose Avalon Waterways for this cruise…we were impressed last year with the layout of their ships, their service, and the quality of the tours they provided through their land-based partner Globus Tours. Everything about this cruise reinforced what we liked about Avalon. Our ship was the Avalon Passion with a passenger capacity of 166 guests, about 25% bigger than the ship we cruised aboard last year, but with the same general deck plan. I won’t repeat a description of the ship…Janet posted a video tour on facebook, and you can see my write-up from last year’s cruise.


River cruising is a unique form of touring that is completely different from cruising on the ocean. If you are used to ocean cruises, it would be beneficial for you to have a better understanding of those differences lest you book a river cruise and wind up disappointed, and that’s the point of this article. If you want details on where we went and what we saw, hop over to our social media pages…we posted prolifically.


Each river cruise has a different personality. Last year when we toured the Mosel it was all about breathtaking scenery and glitzy castles. This year, on the lower Danube, it was all about history, a mix of medieval history and more modern communist history, though still with plenty of castles and some very nice scenery. Each river, and each portion of longer rivers like the Danube, offer their own unique experience.


The Landscape


Our itinerary was a peek behind the former Iron Curtain, beginning in Romania and traveling up the Danube through Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia before ending in Hungary. I hadn’t given much thought to the scenery before the cruise. I suppose I assumed it would be similar to the landscape we cruised through on the Mosel last year with steeply sloping hills and terraced vineyards around every oxbow turn. It wasn’t. For the most part, if I’m being honest, the landscape was pretty uniform. Not exactly boring, but it was nothing like the Mosel. It probably didn’t help that large portions of the lower Danube River experienced flooding rains during the two weeks prior to our cruise, and the water level was still quite high throughout our cruise. It made for muddy water with lots of floating debris, mostly logs and trees, carried along by the swifter than usual current.


The lower Danube is wide with flat riverbanks on either side. There was only one stretch of the river that came close to being as scenic as we experienced last year on the Mosel River and that was the Iron Gates Gorge. The river narrows dramatically through the gorge, resulting in strong currents and dangerous eddies that makes that portion of the Danube unnavigable for much of the year. That changed after 1977 when Romania and Serbia teamed up on a joint project to build a dam and hydroelectric power plant across the river where it flowed out of the Iron Gates Gorge. The dam created a Lake upstream, with a water level 130 feet higher than downstream of the dam. It effectively tamed the wild currents and eddies through the gorge, making the river safe for cruising year-round. A two-lock system built into the dam allows marine traffic to traverse the height difference between the river below the dam and the Danube Lake above. The Danube Lake now provides breathtaking scenery with tree and brush covered cliffs soaring several hundred feet from the river throughout the Iron Gates Gorge. That scenery didn’t last long…after we passed through the gorge the river widened back out and the landscape once again turned flat, but it was nice while it lasted.


Entertainment


The entertainment aboard a river cruise ship is nothing like what you find on an ocean cruise ship. No Vegas style revues or Broadway shows. On a river cruise, entertainment is all about enrichment. Think of it as a night at the local library with guest lecturers talking about the flora and fauna, history and culture of the area you are cruising through. For our cruise we had two guest speakers both of whom addressed life under Communist rule, and two music groups, one contemporary and a Bulgarian Folk Troupe.


The aft lounge has a supply of board games as well as a small library, and on our previous cruise it was a quiet place to read a book or get out your laptop. For this cruise it was occupied most of the time by a rather large group of Taiwanese guests who took it over and used it as their own club space. I will say they played the most intense mahjong games I’ve ever seen, and the gentlemen had good taste in cigars. One of this ship’s two smoking areas is just outside of the aft lounge at the back of the ship. The other smoking area is one deck above on the Sky Deck aft but that’s too windy to properly enjoy a cigar. So the aft lounge outdoor sitting nook became the defacto cigar lounge and nightly hangout for the Taiwanese men as they enjoyed their after dinner cigars. And me. I readily joined them, and though they didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak any Chinese, the language of a good cigar is universal. Between their supply of Cuban Cohibas and mine of Cuban style Nicaraguan cigars, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour each evening.


Food and Beverage Service


Meals on the Avalon Passion are all open seating at set hours. Between the main dining room and the bistro at the front of the main lounge, all guests could be easily accommodated at a single seating. The menu was a diner’s choice of a daily ala carte menu, or a buffet service, and the pace of service was relaxed without being slow. I got the sense the dining room staff for our cruise was fairly new, and not quite familiar with their stations. We often had to flag down a waiter to place a food or drink order, but once taken, our orders were promptly filled and the service was always friendly.


The quality of the food during breakfast and lunch service was just average, but the dinner dishes were creative and quite tasty. Each night a selection of local specialties was offered along with dishes more popular with westerners. Vegetarian dishes were offered at every meal, and the menu listed dishes that included the most common allergens, with each allergen (shellfish, nuts, gluten, dairy) specifically identified by dish. The staff checked in with the guests at each meal to see if anyone had specific food allergies as well. I will say portion sizes are not overly generous, which was fine by me. And if you wanted more, all you had to do was ask, and nobody walked away from dinner hungry. Room service is available, thought the menu was limited. We never ordered from it…with open seating, all meals are an opportunity to meet your fellow guest and that’s part of the attraction of river cruising.


Most evenings, and for some breakfasts and lunches, the front portion of the main lounge was converted to a bistro where a lite buffet service was set up. It offered more a casual setting for meals, with dishes presented from the main dining room menu in tapas style. For lunch, usually several times per cruise weather permitting, but only once for ours, the kitchen staff sets up a bar and grill on the Sky Deck and offers a more casual lunch service. They offer typical BBQ fare… hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, petit steaks along with the usual sides and fixings. It was a nice change of pace.


There is only one bar, in the main lounge, but it was well stocked with reasonable prices, and it was open from lunch through about 11PM. Avalon does not offer any beverage package for their river cruises. Instead they feature free beer, wine, and soft drinks at both lunch and dinner with no limit to the number of refills you can ask for during the mealtime hours. They also offer a 60-minute happy hour in the main lounge each night before dinner, with free beer, wine, soft drinks, and a selection of complimentary cocktails. Between the happy hour, the free wine and beer during meal service, and the well-stocked mini bar/fridge that was refreshed daily (with ala carte pricing), you really don’t need a beverage package. Premium wines were also available for purchase by the bottle, and guests were welcome to bring an unlimited supply of their own wines onboard, though there is a modest corkage fee if you want them opened in the public areas. Most guests who brought their own wine aboard, or purchase wine during one of the stops, avoided the corkage fee by opening their own bottles and bringing their glass of wine with them into the public areas.


Land Tours


The land portion of a river cruise is where the format really excels over an ocean cruise. Avalon offers a selection of guided tours at each destination for no additional cost, as well as more focused optional tours at select stops for an additional fee. Most of the docking sites on a river cruise are in the heart of the town visited, making self-exploration an attractive option. Avalon river ships carry a supply of touring bikes for guest use anytime the ship is docked, and they offered guided bike tours at several of our stops.


Several styles of land tours are available, and it is important to pay attention to what you sign up for lest you end up on a tour that isn’t what you expected. Avalon offers their Classic tours which usually involved a walking tour or bus transportation to local attractions with a focus on the history of the region. They also offer Discovery tours that emphasize the food, wine, and culture of the destinations visited, and Active tours which involve a guided power walk or bike ride through the towns we visited, led by the ship’s Activity Guide. The Activity Guide also offered daily yoga and exercise sessions each morning before breakfast.


The Itinerary


We opted for a pre-cruise extension that included two and a half days of touring in Romania, including an interesting journey into Transylvania. For me, that was the most interesting and satisfying portion of the trip, though several stops on the cruise were a close second. The cruise itself included several additional stops along the Danube in Romania and Bulgaria which were interesting, along with two stops in Croatia. Croatia is a destination best experienced away from the river, either through an ocean cruise along the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic, or by land, but the towns we visited were interesting and worth getting off the ship to explore.


The most scenic destinations we visited during the cruise had to be our stops in Serbia and Hungary. In Serbia our itinerary took us to the capital city of Beograd, where we had a guided tour in the morning. The city tour was just OK, mostly because Beograd is not all that much different from other European Capitals. It also suffered greatly during the region’s civil war in the 1990s. That evening we opted for an optional excursion, a traditional dinner in Beograd’s Bohemian Quarter. Dinner service opened with a shot of Rakija….Serbian plum brandy that was barrel strength. It was fun…how could it not be with a shot of 120 proof brandy to start things off! The food was served family style with an opening course of several local cheeses, peppers, and charcuterie styled meats. The entrée course was a platter full of different grilled meats which were delicious, though I’m sure I don’t want to know what was in them. I passed on dessert, but it looked amazing, some form of chocolate and cream cheese goodness. The meal was accompanied by traditional Serbian folk music from a group of musicians who went from table to table making sure everyone joined in the fun.


Our stop in Novi Sad, Serbia was probably the best destination for self-exploration. Novi Sad is a relatively large town with a picturesque pedestrian area within easy walking distance from the ship. It was one of the stops where we decided to skip the included tours and strike out on our own. We enjoyed strolling at our own pace through the farmer’s market, the town’s Freedom Square, and exploring the many cafes and bistros that line the streets of the old town area.


You can’t come to this part of the world without expecting to spend quite a bit of your time touring castles, fortresses, and churches, and we had plenty of that. But we also enjoyed more unique experiences, like a tour of the Lepenski Vir Archeological Museum. That tour discussed the impact of the dam Romania and Serbia built across the Danube River on the villages that were displaced by the formation of the Danube Lake upriver from the dam. It included a tour of Lepenski Vir where we learned about the surprising discovery of a Mesolithic (mid-Stone Age) settlement along the Danube’s banks that the dam would flood once completed. Serbian officials worked diligently to recover the artifacts which included an entire town, and even a few skeletons, that spanned over 1,000 years of human settlement in the same area. The Serbian government meticulously recovered the artifacts from the ancient settlement and put them on display, along with a mock-up of the original settlement, in the archeological museum. It was a fascinating excursion.


The cruise ended in Budapest, and we booked an optional one-night post-cruise stay that included a city tour. I’ve been to Budapest several times and I can tell you the views never get old. Budapest is an ancient city first settled by the Celts prior to 1 AD, and later occupied by the Romans, the Mongols, and the Ottomans before finally becoming co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire up to WWI.


The city is a combination of two towns that were located on opposite sides of the Danube River, Buda on the west of the river and Pest on the east. The Buda side of the city is hilly and features the first district, also known as the Castle District, which is where you’ll find Buda Castle. It is also home to the well-known Fisherman’s Bastion which give the best views cross river. The Fisherman’s Bastion is the best place to view and take pictures of the iconic and oft-photographed Hungarian Parliament building on the east or Pest side of the Danube. Most of the tourist hotels are located on the Pest side of the river where the land is flat.


The included tour got us to all the must-see tourist areas, to include Buda’s Castle District with it’s incredible cross-river views of the Hungarian Parliament building. We enjoyed strolling along the river on the Pest side of the city, stopping at local bistros for both lunch and dinner, and we also made it to the Central Market area which is a super-sized farmer’s market. We logged over six miles of walking through Budapest, and that was all after the included tour of the city.


Hits and Misses


As with any trip there were quite a few hits, and some misses. The itinerary was the biggest hit of the cruise, giving us a view of a part of Europe that eludes even well-traveled American tourists. The region is rich in history dating back to the Stone Age, but more so during medieval times. Eastern Europe has suffered more conquests and occupations than the rest of Europe, with the lower Danube River area serving far too often as a zone of conflict between the residents of the area and the conquering Astro-Hungarian Empire to the West, and the Ottoman Empire to the East. More recently, as the rest of Europe benefitted from post WWII reconstruction, much of Eastern Europe suffered under the oppressive yoke of communism. The opportunity to tour and learn about all of that history, and the reassuring picture we got of the region’s ongoing recovery now that they are 30 years removed from communist rule, was something I’ll always treasure.


Another hit was the crew. They were professional and helpful, and they seemed like genuinely nice people. Our Cruise Director Melinda was the most pleasant person who kept us in synch with the ship’s schedule through a 15-minute port talk each evening at the end of the happy hour. She also did an amazing job of ensuring the tour operations ran smoothly, no small task for an operation with so many moving parts. River cruises operate at the mercy of many outside forces…the weather, river lock schedules, docking berth availability, and much more…but Melinda handled it all so well that we never knew when glitches cropped up until after she already had everything smoothed out. We had a similar experience last year on our Mosel River cruise and it speaks highly of Avalon’s business practices.


Avalon’s policy of providing free sodas, beer, and wine during dinner, along with select cocktails during the happy hour was another hit. A river cruise is not like an ocean cruise where beverage packages encourage guests to drink themselves silly. Avalon treats its guests like adults, and all of the guests on our cruise behaved like responsible adults. It was a pleasant change from the ocean cruises we’ve taken lately where intoxicated guests behaving obnoxiously are far too common.


Now for the misses. Wifi service was spotty at best throughout much of the cruise. Whether service on that stretch of the Danube is truly as bad as we experienced, or the wifi system on the Avalon Passion needs improvement, I don’t know but it is something that needs attention. Much of the information about the daily schedule and meal menus was presented through Avalon’s app, and when you can’t access the app because of poor wifi performance, that’s a problem.


Another miss was Avalon’s approach to the tour group composition. Avalon organizes its land tours into group of about 20 people. On our cruise guests were allowed to self-select which group they toured with, which is a good thing. But even though the land tours were designed for groups of 20 guests, Avalon didn't put a limit on the size of any one group. As a result, we had some groups with fewer than 20 guests while others had 40. When you have 40 guests trying to make a bathroom break with limited public toilet facilities…well that doesn’t leave much time for touring. It is a problem that could have been easily avoided by cutting off group participation at 20 guests, but no limits were placed on any of our groups.


The age composition of our cruise was also problematic at times, but that’s common to all river cruise lines. You get a wide range of ages on river cruises, but they appeal most to older, retired travelers…they have the time, interest, and money that a river cruise requires. But many older guests also have mobility issues. The nature of river cruise land tours is such that anyone with mobility issues will struggle, and on our cruise they did. The streets in most of the areas we visited were made up of uneven cobblestones, the castles and fortresses required climbing many steep and narrow steps, and one tour in particular required a strenuous climb on slick rocks to reach a medieval Roman Citadel that towered several hundred feet over the base of the fortress. It was a great tour for me, I made it to the top without difficulty, but it was painful to watch some of our fellow guests as they struggled with the terrain and ultimately gave up trying, opting instead to sit around until the rest of the group finished the climb.


Conclusion


This was our second river cruise, and I have to say in spite of the few misses that you’ll encounter on any such adventure, there were many more hits. Janet and I enjoyed it very much. So much so that Janet is already planning our next river cruise. Without a doubt, river cruising is the best way to experience parts of Europe where a river forms a lifeline through the region. I did occasionally reach the point of questioning whether I could handle yet another castle or church tour, but then something new would catch my interest and I found myself staring yet again in open-mouthed wonder. I can’t wait for our next river experience!

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