When most of us think of Europe, we picture frescoes, ruins and hot guys with accents. So, who knew you could get a dose of incredible nature on the Danube?
Most people take Danube cruises because of the sophisticated, world-class cities that line the river, like Vienna and Budapest. But there’s another great reason: just before the nearly 1,800-mile Danube reaches the Black Sea, it forms a delta that is among the world’s best: a preserve of rivers, canals, marshes, tree-fringed lakes and reed islands that is a wildlife enthusiast’s wet dream.
A cruise of what’s known as the “Lower Danube” gives you the best of both of these worlds: incredible history and glamourama palaces and cathedrals in cities like Budapest and Bucharest; then, just as you’re muttering, “If I see one more f***ing fresco…” your river cruise ship emerges into the Danube Delta, and you’ll swear you’re sailing Brazil’s famed Amazon river instead of the oh-so-sophisticated Danube.
Flanked by Serbia on one side and Romania on the other, this portion of the Danube that empties into the Black Sea is less traveled by cruise ships, so you’ll need to seek out the handful of cruises that offer it. (Brand g’s 2019 Budapest to Bucharest cruise features it.) But it’s worth the trouble for sights like the Iron Gates, a narrow gorge sandwiched between the Carpathian and Balkan mountains.
Once a perilous, clutch-your-pearls transit that took four days and claimed many lives, the Iron Gates today are a placid, lush chasm that can be traversed in 90 minutes thanks to a dam and a pair of cavernous locks. (Locks, incidentally, are a theme park ride experience on river cruise ships, as your ship sinks down into a manmade hole 50-100 feet deep before being raised back to sea level by rushing water.)
Another must-see sight in the delta is the island of Ada Kaleh, a Turkish enclave that was once a haven for smugglers, with a mosque, catacombs and twisting alleyways. It was submerged during the dam project, and its sudden abandonment gives it an ethereal, Pompeii-like quality.
The delta itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is best seen by boat safari. (These safaris are offered as an optional excursion on most cruises; Brand g includes this as part of our itinerary in the delta). There, expedition boats will carry you into this wild wonderland, through tapering waterways hosting the world’s largest reedbed, as well as Europe’s largest population of pelicans. Watch as hundreds of these large birds that look like they should be Disney characters (if you listen carefully, I’m pretty sure you can hear them talking like Eddie Murphy and Nathan Lane) fish in the teeming waters.
So, if you’re looking for more from your Danube experience than just castles and cobblestones, consider the Danube Delta on a Lower Danube cruise. Hey, it’s an opportunity to wear that sparkly Liza Minnelli jacket in Budapest and your butchest waders and flannel in the delta. It’s a fashion win-win.