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Central Europe along the Danube River

It is the ultimate European river, as well as one of the longest in the world. It is majestic. It flows with languor and shapes the landscapes, both urban and rural, which follow its twists and turns.

It originates in Germany and crosses Austria, skims the Czech Republic, makes a detour through Slovakia, divides Hungary and Croatia, irrigates Belgrade in Serbia and once crossed the famous Iron Gates, now serves as a border between Romania and Bulgaria. It waters four capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade.

We traveled this river from the Black Sea to its confluent with the Inn and Ilz rivers in Germany, following its meanders. We were dazzled by idyllic little villages that are sprinkled out over awesome landscapes as well as by unforgettable cities.

Let yourself be soothed by the charm of this memorable itinerary through Central Europe.

Bucharest, Romania 

Nicknamed “Little Paris” for its huge boulevards bordered by trees, Bucharest has a lovely city centre with sprawling parks and green spaces, imposing public buildings and palaces in many architectural styles including more contemporary glass and steel buildings. An arch, a replica of Paris’ famous Arc de Triomphe, reinforces the comparison between the two cities. 

It’s worth visiting the Stavropoleos Church on the hill, with elegant columns and medallions on its façade. An Orthodox place of worship built in 1724, the church suffered from earthquakes, but during its reconstruction the Brâncovenesc style was maintained with the addition of some interesting Byzantine elements.

It’s also worth visiting the Romanian Athenaeum, an impressive neoclassical building that is a palace of classical music that is recognized for the perfection of its acoustics. With an immense dome, a giant fresco on the circular wall of the concert hall that depicts important moments in Romanian history, an imposing main entrance that opens on an immense circular patio, the building seats 700 music lovers. It’s interesting to note that it seems the city’s inhabitants have truly adopted the hall, since a portion of the construction was financed by a public fund that invites every citizen to donate one leu.

The country’s history, which was under a totalitarian Communist regime under Nicolae Ceausescu, is omnipresent everywhere.

First, it is quite impossible to miss two gargantuan ventures built under Ceausescu: the monumental People’s Palace, now known as the Palace of the Parliament, and the Unification Boulevard, a colossal thoroughfare in central Bucharest, larger than the Champs-Élysées and Europe’s longest avenue.

Revolution Square houses the building of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party, from which Ceausescu give his last speech before fleeing by helicopter in 1989; another stone in the city’s history. The square was at the heart of the popular revolt that led to the end of the regime. It is now a public square with modern sculptures, as well as a place of memorial with a monument bearing the names of all the citizens killed by soldiers during this popular revolt.

But even memories of a bitter period in history won’t last very long in Bucharest, where one shouldn’t forget that the word Bucar means “joy”. Such joy quickly comes back to life with the national aperitif, tuica (a plum eau-de-vie with 40% alcohol)!


After docking in Roussé, the “city of music” where 70% of its residents regularly attend operas or concerts - which is how it earned this reputation - we head towards the former capital of the country, Veliko Tarnovo.

A fortified royal city from the 12th century, built on the Pre-Balkan Hills with the Yantra River at its foot, located in a region that was occupied by the Turks for five centuries, Veliko Tarnovo is one of the loveliest Bulgarian villages with a medieval cachet, churches and monasteries.

Nearby, set on a high plateau, the historic village of Arbanassi welcomes us for a visit to one of its seven temples that were constructed, widened and decorated from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the 18th: its most famous is the Nativity of Christ Church.

A very low building, constructed barely above the surface of the ground in stone, without a bell tower and very modest-looking on the outside, its inside is rather striking because of its walls that are literally covered with frescoes. Painted over a period of one hundred years following the various phases of construction, extension or reconstruction of the church, they form the richest iconographic ensemble in the country with hundreds of scenes and a few thousands characters. Many scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and other characters from the Old and New Testaments are illustrated alternately in colors and brightly gilded.

A visit into the two villages also allowed us to drive between sunflower, corn and barley fields where storks eagerly take up residence on the top of a post or on a roof, and where one plant in particular is a must in every garden: a grapevine.


After visiting the former capital of Bulgaria, we are now in the current one, where 17% (1,500,000) of the country’s population lives. We are also told that 70% of the residents of Sofia have kept small country houses that date back to the Communist era.

Divided by wide boulevards with numerous public gardens and parks where sculptures and monuments compete with small, inviting cafes, museums and other places for cultural exchange, Sofia proudly plays an active role as a vibrant and lively capital.

The city also has a remarkable religious heritage. From one of the main arteries of the city centre, one glance is enough to see 4 examples of this heritage: a cathedral, a basilica, a mosque and a synagogue.

The most impressive religious building is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. One of the largest cathedrals in the Orthodox world, its Neo-Byzantine style with gold-plated domes and a crypt housing a museum containing the largest collection of icons in Europe, Alexander Nevsky is one of the most beautiful monuments in Sofia. A must-see!

The Saint Sofia Church, where the capital got its name, is built in red brick and is the second oldest church in Sofia. It was built as a church in the 6th century, was converted into a mosque and is now an Orthodox temple.

The Bania Bachi Mosque, built in the 16th century, is one of the oldest in Europe and the only functioning mosque in Sofia. It is remarkable for its large dome and minaret. The small Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, built in the 13th century with small plated-gold domes, is also a remarkable monument.

A stop at the National Archaeological Museum, occupying the building of one of the largest mosques in the city built in the 15th century, allows us to discover a few of the 55,000 artifacts, tombs and treasures, among which are the ancient Thrace jewels, known for their extreme refinement.

Through the Iron Gates

This is an exceptional day: our whole day will be devoted to navigating through what is called “The Iron Gates”. This is actually a gorge on the Danube, a kind of canyon that was dug 5 million years ago and constitutes a part of the border between Serbia and the north of Romania. It is also where the river separates the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and the Balkan Mountains in Serbia.

The Iron Gates gorge extends over 135 km, where the width of the river varies between 2 km and 100 meters. We cross two impressive locks: one is 34 meters deep with a length of 310 meters. Many legends are linked to this extraordinary leg of the river, known as the most difficult and dangerous, before the locks and dams were constructed.

On the Serbian bank, a Roman plaque carved in the stone is a reminder of the role played by the Roman emperor Trajan in the campaign against Thrace in the year 103 AD. On the Romanian bank, the head of Decebalus, Trajan’s opponent, is also carved in the stone of the mountain.

Mraconia, the first Orthodox church and monastery that we will see in Romania, the Veterani cavern and the Greben Rocks - known as the “Devil’s Rocks” before a spur of the Greben Mountains was blown out to open the channel - are other points of interest of this great day of navigation, where the clicks of our cameras were almost constant.

On the Serbian bank, a few little villages with their red roofs are nestled between mountains and lush vegetation, while the Romanian side offers a more industrial landscape.

It was a magnificent and sunny day, with the temperature around 26 degrees.

Belgrade, the White City

As soon as we arrive in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, we cannot miss - still visible on many buildings - traces of the bombings left by the 78-day Kosovo War in 1999. Several public buildings have indeed been left in their bombed states to serve as a memorial. In fact, because of its strategic geographic location over the centuries, Belgrade has experienced more than one hundred wars and has been razed to the ground 44 times.

Numerous parks and public and private gardens contribute toward making Belgrade greener. This is a positive legacy of Tito, who was an accomplished gardener. The gardens grow in the middle of the city, which has a rich and varied architecture, where skyscrapers rise to house the upper-middle class and affluent people still live in their white 2-story villas in the middle of the lush gardens.

We cross the animated Republic Square where the statue of Prince Mihailo stands proudly on his horse in front of the National Theater, built in the same design as the famous Scala in Milan. The prince is overshadowed today by giant, modern sculptures of superheroes, promoting the Fantastic Film Festival held in the city.

A stroll on Knez Mihailova, a wide pedestrian street with boutiques, modern glass and chrome buildings and older pale pink and while houses built in the 1800s for rich families, takes us to the end of the street where there is the immense Belgrade Fortress that dates back to the 3rd century B.C. Destroyed over and over and reconstructed on its medieval walls, it defiantly stands in the beautiful and largest park in the city, the Kalemegdan. The site offers a spectacular view over the city as well as of the two rivers that meet at its feet, the Sava and the Danube.

The Cathedral of Saint Sava is worth a detour. It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Its construction began in 1935 and it is yet to be completed, since it is financed only by the public. In a Serbo-Byzantine style, its dome with a huge cross and 4 bell towers can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. It can welcome 10,000 people standing – Orthodox churches seldom have seats – with a sober interior and white marble walls (the plan is to decorate them with mosaics). The Iconoclast, at the center of the sanctuary in gold, offers a stunning contrast with the neutral walls.

In the garden next to it stands another church, a small replica of Saint Sava, whose walls are covered in interesting frescoes.

In Croatia

As a matter of fact, now we are in Slavonia, in the eastern part of the country, in Vukovar.

From the boat, which is still far from the city, we can see the immense water tower of Vukovar – it holds 2,200 cubic meters of water - a true witness to a history of the place, which is still scarred by the bombings. A flag, hit more than 600 times during the Vukovar battle in 1991, is still proudly flying on the top of the tower.

Croatians and Serbians still live in the small city, which was almost flattened during the conflict and since rebuilt, but in separate neighborhoods. A living proof that it is possible to erase traces of this history from buildings, but the scars are more permanent in humans…

It is impossible to come to Vukovar without visiting the cemetery that commemorates one of the bloodiest episodes of the Yugoslav conflict. With its modern central monument in the form of a cross that can be seen from all sides, it celebrates the victims, regardless of their nationalities. Individual tombs and thousands of white crosses dedicated to non-identified victims also cover the commemorative site that is dedicated to the 4,000 victims of this war that lasted 87 days.

After this moving moment, we head towards Ilok, a charming medieval city, the most Eastern-style city in the country.

En route, wineries, corn, beet and wheat fields grow between small groups of pale colored houses that form a very bucolic landscape.

The best wines from Slavonia are grown here. Naturally, we don’t fail to taste a few along with some national dishes, in which paprika reigns: meat or fish paprika stew.

Memorable Budapest

I have to say that Budapest was one of the highlights of our trip. Cited as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Budapest certainly earns her surname of “Pearl of the Danube”.

First, for the view she revealed to us from the bridge of the boat upon our arrival in the heart of the city, since the Danube literally divides the city in two parts with Buda, the old city that was built in the Middle Ages on top of a wooded hill and Pest, in the plain, which is two times bigger, that is more industrious, cultural and energetic.

Next, for what we will discover in Buda and Pest, the city that had left us with a memory of the sad and gray city it was when we visited years ago, mostly due to buildings that were soiled with pollution. The city has since been through a vast renovation and cleaning program and today it is a sparkling and magnificent city.

It is also a city with 9 bridges, on the Danube of course, all different and offering as many points of view that can be appreciated from the boat.

With its 2 million residents, Budapest is home to 1/5th of the country’s population. With intense traffic through large arteries built in the 19th century, its wide range of architectural styles testify to its rich history and express wealth and the fertile imagination of the bourgeois of previous centuries, its extended public transportation network: buses, trams, trolleys, a metro, bike-share service and its free transport for individuals 65 and over, it is a vibrant city and rich in green areas.

Its night life is hectic, with 550 cafés dating to the 19th century, the most famous being Café New York, and the thirty or so bars, Simpla being the most well-known, operating in a rubble of buildings partially destroyed by the war, one of many reminders that 1 building in 4 was impacted by the war.

A few worthwhile stops:

On the Pest side of the Danube: Heroes’ Square with the grave of the Unknown Soldier in the middle of imposing monuments and museums; the colossal Hungarian Parliament with its 96 meter high dome, which certainly marks the urban landscape of the city; its beautiful covered market with a roof of shiny yellow and green ceramics; the lovely and strange synagogue of Budapest, with its two minarets that mix Byzantine, Arab and Classical elements in a way that was unintended…

In Buda: the Buda Castle Quarter with a huge Castle, where churches, in particular the gracious Mathias Church and palaces with Gothic, Baroque or contemporary architecture combine to create a surprising unity.

And, not to be forgotten, another strong point of Budapest: it is a city of water among the largest in the world with hundreds of thermal springs. It is vital to visit at least one thermal bath. The atmosphere of grandeur of the huge Rococo Széchenyi Baths, version 1990, earned our preference! We enjoyed the pools and the baths, indoor and outdoor, hot and cold, bathing in an atmosphere that was almost worthy of Fellini himself!

As if this was not quite enough, when we were getting ready to sail at night out of the city that had already dazzled us, it succeeded in surprising us even more with a frenzy of lights and sounds and illuminated buildings on both sides of the river along with the voices of Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman in the background. Magical and memorable!

Towards Slovakia 

After navigating all morning, we reach Bratislava, the capital and largest city of Slovakia. Built on the foothills of the Small Carpates, it is also divided by the Danube. On the left bank, the old town is nestled at the foot of the castle hill, while on the right bank, a modern district sprawls.

Since we are attracted by a vast building that stands on its rocky piton, this fortress, the Cerveny Kamen Castle, will be our first visit. Built in the 13th century, it was completely reconstructed in a Renaissance style in the first half of the 16th century by a businessman who had earned his wealth from copper. It was one of the biggest producers and exporters of copper in the world. Enormous storerooms in the castle bear witness to the breadth of his trade. It is one of the most beautiful castles in the Small Carpathian Mountains, with a rich collection of furniture, tableware and works of art testifying to the prosperity and luxury of its owners. One can scarcely imagine living in such vast, luxurious and abundant apartments.

Back in the city centre, a long stroll gives us the opportunity to admire the abundance of museums, theaters and other cultural institutions of Bratislava, which is a friend to the arts.


Another night of sailing takes us to Vienna, Austria.

Naturally, the Ringstrasse in the 1st district, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, is where we will head first for a long stroll. One of the most beautiful boulevards in the world, it forms a ring around the historic center. It not only showcases marvels of its architecture, but also huge parks and monuments. The National Opera, the Imperial Palace, the University, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Parliament, the Rathaus, the Museum of Natural History and the City Hall with a square that welcomes a Music Film Festival throughout the summer, and its various monuments, such as Maria Theresa and Johann Strauss, leave us speechless.

The Museum Quarter (MQ), one of the tenth largest cultural centers in the world, occupies the ancient imperial stables and offers a diverse program of cultural events throughout the summer.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a landmark of Vienna with a south tower called “Steffl,” stands 137 meters tall – it’s possible to climb it – and has a richly colored, imposing roof that is covered with glazed tiles that form different mosaics. The Gothic and Romanesque style of the cathedral contrasts with its mostly Baroque neighborhood. Mozart was married here.

The pedestrian streets around the cathedral hold many treasures. We are happy to uncover the famous Demel Pastry, a supplier to the Imperial Court and the no less famous Café Sacher, an institution known worldwide for its Sachertorte. After all, in Vienna, one has to try the legendary Viennese cafes!

Our afternoon will be spent at the Schönbrunn Palace, a royal summer residence built in 1740-50s with the intention to overshadow Versailles with its beauty and dimension, 1,441 rooms and magnificent gardens designed as specified by empress Maria Theresa. The palace, an ochre color, witnessed numerous historical events: Maria Theresa lived there until she married Louis XVI; Mozart, at the age of 6, performed in front of the Court; Napoleon used it as his headquarters, his son died there and the last Hapsburg Emperor abdicated in Schönbrunn in 1918.

In the City of Music, one has to spend at least one night at the concert. We did this in a lovely building, the Kursalon, located along the river Vien, under a brilliant full moon…
In the same neighborhood, we admired a few examples of Art Nouveau architecture, notably some buildings designed by Otto Wagner, the most famous architect of the modern architectural movement.

Going back to the dock, we drive along the Prater, an immense recreation area with a famous Ferris wheel that has been illuminating the sky of Vienna since 1897.

It is certainly with regret that we leave the magnificent city, where we could have spent a few more days…

Crossing the Wachau

We continue our tour on the Danube by crossing the Wachau, a valley extending over 40 km with a rich history, architecture, 5,000 monuments and landscapes, listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2000.

Grapevines are cultivated on terraces with dry stone limestone walls. Three-quarters of the production is for white wine. Many producers offer tasting experiences. Look for a woven straw star at the door of an establishment: this means visitors are welcome for a tasting experience. Wine is accompanied by cold cuts.

A stop in Melk to visit the Baroque Benedictine Abbey and another one in Dürnstein is part of our schedule for that day.

Dürnstein is one of the most romantic places in the valley, with fortifications and a unique blue church that dates back to 1740. It is in this small, fortified city that King Leopold V kept Richard the Lionheart prisoner. In the middle of the wineries and apricot orchards, a tasting experience is in order. Known here by the name of “marillen” for the Spanish spouses of the Hapsburgs, the apricot is transformed into a delicious eau de vie with 40% alcohol. With 100,000 apricot trees, the area is unlikely to run out of it.

In South Bohemia  

Here, farming is the way of life. Through a green road strewn with fields intersected by small ponds in which carp are bred (it’s a traditional Christmas dish), we reach Cesky Krumlov, one of the loveliest cities in Bohemia, in the Czech Republic.

An imposing castle from the 12th century dominates the small city. Its round tower is the only element that evidences its medieval origin; most parts of the castle have been reconstructed in the Baroque and Rococo styles. Many trompe l’oeil paintings are used on walls to imitate stones and marble in order to simulate wealth.

At the foot of the castle, the small medieval town with a network of sinuous, narrow streets winding through small Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings has been a part of the UNESCO Heritage List since 1992. The Vitava crosses the town, a river where kayakers and canoes have a great time.

Restaurants, brasseries (after all, we are in Budweiser country – the real kind, not the American brand), boutiques, pancake houses and ice cream stores work side-by-side on streets that converge on a lovely main square. Many small inns with 4-5 rooms welcome the millions of visitors who converge on Cesky Krumlov each year. Here, no huge hotel or hotel chains are allowed!

The city has dedicated a museum to the famous painter Egon Schiele, who lived and painted here for 10 years and whose mother was born in town.


We begin the last stretch of our trip in Germany, leaving behind the Danube with a good dose of nostalgia.

We disembark in the beautiful region of Bavaria, one of the loveliest regions in the country with a natural environment dotted by mountains and lakes, where Munich, the regional capital, awaits.

Munich is the city where BMW and the AUDI are manufactured. These cars can be found in great number on the city’s large avenues, side by side with packs of bikers who speed along the wide cycling paths.

The inner city, which includes a City Hall, pedestrian streets and luxury boutiques, is very popular and for good reason: it is stunning. The new Town Hall on Marienplatz, as well as an impressive cathedral called the Frauenkirche that has powerful chimes that activate small figures, are particular attractions for huge crowds.

This is also the city for breweries. Beer, sausage and sauerkraut are served in abundance in imposing establishments that are able to serve hundreds of consumers, some for whom they even keep a personal mug under lock and key.

Speaking of sausage, do you know why the Bavarian sausage is the size of a finger? They had to fit through the keyholes on the doors of establishments that had to respect opening hour regulations and which, of course, wanted to secretly and illegally supply their loyal clients.

Füssen and a world-known castle

On our way to Stuttgart, we stop at another fabulous site, home to not one but two castles!

The first, the Hohenschwangau, is less known. It was owned by King Ludwig II, the father, and the other, the most famous of the country, the Neuschwanstein Castle, was built under the orders of King Ludwig II himself in the 19th century. The first stone was laid in 1869 and Ludwig moved there in 1884. Unfortunately, the king enjoyed it only four months before being removed from the throne and found drowned with his psychiatrist three days later. It is still an unexplained death.

The castle, in a Romanesque Revival style, is built on a high peak that offers a view over the valley and the Tyrol Mountains. This castle inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and even became the logo for Disney Studios.

More than 1 million visitors crowd its entrance every year to admire the romantic scenery and to visit some of the 200 rooms of the castle that are open to the public.


Our next stop is in another small town from the 12th century built inside thick walls. Rothenberg has kept its medieval distinction, with a large main square that is dominated by a huge city hall with an animated clock, narrow streets, timber-frame houses and a beautiful church.

Despite the amount of tourists it attracts, the town still seems to be from another century. Here there are no huge hotels, only B&Bs or guesthouses (where air conditioning seems to be a rather rare commodity). But even though we were there in the middle of a heat wave with distressing 40 degrees, we still appreciated this little gem of a city that says it all!

Back to the present

After this trip back in history, our last day was spent in Frankfurt where cranes are everywhere, relentlessly demolishing and replacing buildings that don’t seem that old with very modern skyscrapers that compete with one another in beauty and height. It’s quite a contrast offered by this thriving city, the 5th largest in Germany, that houses no less than 225 banks with historical sites that we explored during the last days!

In sum

This cruise on the Danube on board the M/S Arosa Riva was a pure delight. The boat has comfortable cabins and caring staff and can accommodate 200 passengers in a hospitable setting, with fine cuisine that is ably led by an Italian chef. We feasted on a variety of dishes served on board, as well as those offered during our stopovers in different regions and cities.

We also loved the itinerary that included travel most of the time at night so that we could reach our destinations, the regional capitals and other sites of interest, in the early morning. It is quite pleasant to dock in the middle of a city, such as Budapest, and to be able to leave the boat and explore it by foot. No need to pack up the suitcase every day!

Plus, the nights were spent rocked to sleep by the waves, and the fabulous and changing landscapes as we sailed. It was a sheer joy and definitely an experience to be repeated!

Christiane Théberge

This trip was taken with a Voyages Traditours group.  

Note: The low water levels of the Danube did not affect our cruise, but these days it seems that river cruises are often affected to various degrees. Changes in itineraries, transport by bus or even cancellations are increasing. We would advise consulting the web sites of cruise operators to monitor this situation, which might change with heavy rainfall.


Stravropoleos Church, Bucharest

People's Palace, Bucharest

Revolution Square, Bucharest

Vekiko Tarnovo, Bulgaria


Russian Church of St. Nicholas, Sofia

Navigation through the Iron Gates

Head of Decebalus

Mraconia Church

Building with traces of bombing, Belgrade

Belgrade Fortress and the Kalemegdan

Cathedral of Saint Sava, Belgrade

Water tower in Vukovar

Commemorative cemetery

Heroes' Square, Budapest

Parliement, Budapest

Széchenyi Baths, Budapest

Budapest by night

Cerveny Kamen Castle

Arrival in Vienna

St.Stephen's Cathedral

Vienna University

Valley of the Wachau

Wineries in the Wachau

Abbey in Melk

Blue church in Durnstein

Cesky Krumlov

Tower, Cesky Krumlov Castle



Frauenkirche's chimes

 Neuschwanstein Castle













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