Exploring River Cruising – What we liked, what not so much

River cruise ship danube budapest

Lately, when talking about travel, I hear a lot of people say “I want to go on a river cruise!” It has become a popular bucket list item. All the Viking River Cruise ads on Downton Abbey have put the idea of a river cruise into all of our heads. So, I thought, I have never been on a river cruise. I am a travel planner. It’s time to see what the hype is all about.

I recruited my friend Deb to go with me and then we booked a river cruise called The Black Sea Voyage, with AmaWaterways on the Ama Prima. Deb has never been to Europe before, I have many times, so I picked this because of the adventurous places it offered, not realizing until later that traveling to Eastern Europe wasn’t really going to give Deb that “Imperial European Cities” first impression. She said twice though “this exceeded my expectations” when we returned, so I guess I’ll believe her.

Anyway, I digress. We flew into Bucharest, Romania and then went to the port city of Rousse. First day we explored Bucharest. Then we moved up the Danube to the countries of Bulgaria, through the “Iron Gates” to Serbia, Croatia, and ended in Budapest. (The full Black Sea Voyage started in Istanbul and ended in Vienna with land portions you could add on. We just did the river part.) The drawbacks to visiting these less traveled places was that we had to take a motor coach to get to the cities for excursions. On river cruises visiting Western European cities you often just get off the ship and the city is right there. We experienced that in Budapest and it was really quite lovely. I can imagine how wonderful it is to see Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, etc. that way.

Here is our cruise map:
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I’ll start with first impressions. Having mainly experienced large ship cruising, this was VERY different. When we are trained to sell river cruises we are told, big ocean ships, you sell for the ship, river cruises you sell for the destination. The ship is small and intimate. The staterooms are small but well appointed. The Ama Prima was luxurious! Very beautifully decorated. It is more like being in a five star hotel than being on a cruise ship. It’s wonderful, you get to sail up the river in your five star hotel, never have to pack and repack, and you can see many wonderful sites and cities.

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We were welcomed onboard like we were regular customers. The staff showed us around, brought us to our room, introduced us to our housekeeper and then left us to get situated. There was a welcome reception in the lounge where you met the crew and Captain, your cruise director, drank champagne and learned what to expect, how meals, etc. were organized, how to prepare for excursions and of course safety. It was quite humorous sitting in a beautiful salon, sipping champagne and watching the crew demonstrate the life saving equipment. Big change from thousands of people lined up on deck waiting for announcements and instructions!

A typical day…

  1. Breakfast, a huge buffet, separate grill for eggs, specialty items, unbelievable pastries, champagne, mimosas. then grab your travel card and head for the buses.
  2. Go on the excursion you chose (all included by the way!) then return. The crew greets you with a warm cloth to wipe your face and a drink.
  3. Lunch, Deb called it the mystery menu.  The first day we went to lunch and there was a wonderful buffet.  So we made our selections and ate. About halfway through our waiter came over with the lunch menu. There were at least 3 courses to choose from every day. There was a pasta bar (fantastic pasta selection each day), and endless wine and beer. We had no idea that this mystery menu would appear. The second day we saved room. Oh and I forgot, at the end of lunch every day there was homemade ice cream and a sundae bar full of goodies to put on it.
  4. Then if there is another excursion you go out again. If not, you relax on the sun deck or in the pool.
  5. Tea time, more food, sandwiches, pastries, specialty coffees (available any time), tea, etc.
  6. Next you attend the “learning session” to learn about the next destination.  These were really quite educational and interesting.
  7. Get dressed, go to dinner. Five courses, endless wine and beer, unbelievable menu with lots of choices.
  8. Then local cultural entertainment from the place you just visited.
  9. Finally, go to bed and do it all again!

 

 

 

Here are some pictures from our many excursions and on board adventures.

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Bucharest, Romania. Beautiful city with gorgeous architecture in some part destroyed by Ceausescu and his ideas. This is the Palace of Parliament; extravagant and expensive project, never finished that he called “The People’s House.” It is considered the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.

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Bulgaria only has a few towns on the Danube due to perpetual flooding hundreds of years ago. The towns were quite rural.

On the upper Danube the saying is “another day another castle” on the lower Danube it is “another day, another fortress!” This is a magnificent fortress in Belogradshik, Bulgaria.  And yes, we climbed those stairs!

 

Through the “Iron Gates” which refers to the beautiful set of gorges where the Danube runs between the Carpathian and Balkan mountains.  It also refers to the huge locks and dam system used to control the Danube’s water flow.  The Danube here forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania.

 

Belgrade, Serbia, we visited the Church of Saint Sava which is a Serbian Orthodox church. It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world and ranks amongst the ten largest church buildings in the world. Plans to build the church began in 1894 and then construction began in 1935. After many wars which delayed construction it finally resumed in 1980. The church is still under construction today.

 

Deb went to visit the local family and learn to cook. I went to another fortress and then visited the town of Novi Sad, Serbia. It was a lovely city! I wish we had more time here. But off to Croatia – two countries in one day!

 

We chose the wine tasting tour in Croatia over the Civil War Tour.  But how do you experience this country without seeing the devastation war had caused.  This building in Vukovar was unique because someone goes regularly and plants flowers and plants in the blown out windows.  Hope!
Pecs, Hungary
Last full day on the cruise was spent in Pecs, Hungary.  The architecture and feel of this city was wonderful! There was a road race that day, which was fun to watch and a challenge for our tour guide to walk us through. The only bad thing that day was it was Sunday and no stores were open. I guess that’s a good thing too since I could have spent quite a bit there I think!

Things we loved:

Food and wine (the local wines each night were great!).
Crew and our wonderful cruise director.
Meeting a lot of people. River cruises are very social. There is open seating so you can sit with new people or people you met you really liked, you can even sit by yourself if you choose. By the end of the week, I would say we met most of the 150 or so people on board including crew.
Shower head – for a small shower they provided a rain shower and a normal shower with cord. It was really nice!
The couches on the sun deck. I fell asleep on them many an afternoon. The Captain’s wheelhouse was facing the couches. He probably said, “Here comes that blond woman again to fall asleep on the couch!”
Our bar server, Peter, he was a good sport, always smiling and joking with everyone.
Going through the Iron Gates.
The pastries Deb made when she visited a family in Serbia and took a cooking class.
We didn’t spend any money! A couple of cocktails, small souvenirs, gratuities, but otherwise everything was included and that was nice!

What we didn’t like as much:

Not enough “free” time in cities.
Our stateroom was very cozy. (We did choose the least expensive category though and you don’t spend much time there.)
The wine was so free flowing, clearly no expense spared. Deb thought they should offer just one cocktail per night to people who don’t drink wine at all. She had to purchase her cocktails although the pricing was VERY reasonable.
Too much time on motor coaches, but this was sort of the nature of the beast being that we were in Eastern Europe and had to get to cities.

Not much else to say. River cruising IS all that is cracked up to be! I want to do the Amsterdam Tulip cruise and the Christmas Market cruises next. Then maybe adventure to the Mekong Delta cruise.

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