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Budapest-Bucharest: Cruising the Lower Danube River

River cruising to less-travelled Southeast Europe proves to harbour a treasure trove of gems

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In the aftermath of the Second World War, the former Soviet Union rapidly expanded its borders and its centralized domination of satellite states. This resulted in most of Southeast Europe effectively cloaked in mystery to Westerners — hidden behind the controlled walls of Communism. However, the yoke of the Soviet Union dismantled on December 26, 1991, after numerous protests and the disintegrating leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, a cruise on the lower Danube provides an opportunity to visit and explore many of these recovering economies along with their culture, cuisine, and natural heritage. AmaWaterway's AmaCerto covers five countries (Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania) while cruising the Lower Danube River.

The AmaCerto

Built in 2012, the 162-passenger AmaCerto offers 62 air-conditioned suites ranging from 226 square feet for the Deluxe Twin Balcony Suites to 452 sq/ft in the two spacious Owners Suite. All staterooms are outside accommodations that include a French balcony window with an outside veranda. Each has a private bathroom with a glass-door shower, hair dryer, and vanity area. An HD flat-panel TV, mini-fridge, bottled water replenished daily and a personal safe are included.

Meals are nothing short of culinary genius. As a member of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the exclusive international culinary society, AmaWaterways dishes are inspired by regional cuisine crafted with locally sourced ingredients, and paired with wines and beer. The main dining room features daily specials along with traditional fare, and is where I spent most meals. However, all guests should unequivocally take advantage of a complimentary night at The Chef's Table. (A reservation is required and can be made while on the ship). The 28-seat specialty restaurant features a tasting menu that's all about threes: three appetizers, three main courses and three desserts. Hand-selected regional wines are paired with each course.

The Land Experience

Land excursions usually include an active, regular, gentle and late-riser tour option along with complimentary headsets. Special interest tours generally focus on more in-depth experiences with wine and local cuisine.

While I immensely enjoyed all the included tours and onboard cultural immersions, there were, nevertheless, four that stood out for me: Budapest by day and night, especially the Hungarian Parliament Building and Budapest "Illumination Tour" at night, the "No Boundaries" opera duo from Serbia, cruising the scenic Iron Gates and visiting Bucharest and Dracula's castle in Romania.

On our first cruise night, Captain Marian Stemate treated us to an "Illumination Tour" of Budapest at night. The cruise was breathtaking even as it was profoundly surreal. I took many photos during that hour or so while meeting many of the onboard guests. Awe was the common denominator.

The talented duo of Branislava Podrumac (voice of an angel) and Milivoje Veljic (piano) were mesmerizing. Together they presented a musical operetta of "No Boundaries," a journey of great opera songs from around the world in various languages. The AmaCerto invited them onboard to stage the exclusive performance. I was spellbound for hours after their departure.

Cruising the Iron Gates was spectacular, and along the way we had the expert narration of this area's history, culture, and geography by our hard-working Program Director Florentin. (He was also known as the miracle-maker since he made things happen despite the odds.)

We first came across the ancient 13th century fort of Golubac. A walled fortress, it served as a station to assess tolls. Next came the huge though rudimentary face of King Decebalus, carved into the Romanian side of the Danube River. It celebrates the Romanian hero who fought many battles against the Romans.

Only six metres shorter than the Statue of Liberty, the 40-metre tall sculpture took 12 sculptors a total of 10 years to complete. Initially the face appears to be of antiquity, but the truth is it was completed in 2004 by a wealthy Romanian businessman. The tab? Over one million U.S. dollars.

I took advantage of booking a post-tour with AmaWaterways that included an overview of Bucharest. Besides walking Bucharest's Old Town, I ogled the Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world. (The only way to capture a photo of this behemoth building is by taking a panoramic or using a wide-angle lens.) My extension also included a full-day Transylvania excursion to the treasures of Peles Castles and the legendary Dracula's Castle, where massive crowds spelled delays.

My time in the lesser known countries of Southeast Europe was mesmerizing. And like a song whose melody envelops your brain, my memories of Southeastern Europe and its people will be a lifetime treasure.

For more information:

AmaWaterways / Tel. 1-800-626-0126

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