Wide flows the central Danube. Too wide to be easily bridged and beset by unpredictable currents, the great river has for millennia separated Mitteleuropa from the Balkan Peninsula, a moat barring trade and integration. On its northern bank, Romanians speak a romance language, written in Latin characters, that hovers just above the horizon of comprehension to French, Italian and Spanish speakers. On the southern bank, the Bulgarian tongue prevails, recorded in Cyrillic script that for most western Europeans seems as impenetrable as the palisades of the High Balkan range.
A Roman bridge linking what is now Romania with Bulgaria collapsed in the fourth century and from then until another was built 1954, there was no crossing. This summer saw the opening of only the second link between the countries across the Danube, a 2km, €245m bridge between Vidin in Bulgaria and the Romanian city of Calafat. Engineers working on the project, now grandly christened the New Europe Bridge, resorted to a third language, English, to communicate with the precision required for the millemetrical convergence of rails and highway. These will link not only Bulgaria and Romania but will also facilitate exports from Greece, while offering an enticing new touring route south from Italy.
There is, however, a third, more reflective, mode of exploration of this unfamiliar region. For centuries the central Danube proved as much foe as friend to armies and merchants seeking passage through territory that was topographically and politically hostile. Powerful currents, fogbound narrows and treacherous rapids rendered navigation so hazardous that vessels surviving the voyage were often sold for firewood rather than risk the return passage. Until as recently as 1973, locomotives on the bank were required to haul barges through the gorges. Only the opening of hydroelectric dams in 1972 and 1984 calmed the waters, albeit at the expense of 17,000 villagers displaced and an environmental debacle that has prevented sturgeon from reaching their spawning grounds upstream.
Aboard the river cruiser Viking Aegir bound for Budapest, Captain Gyula Horváth points to a buoy straining in the current. It marks the site of a sunken mosque. This was once the island of Ada Kaleh, an outpost of Turks stranded by the receding tide of the Ottoman Empire. The young Patrick Leigh Fermor came here in 1934, recording his visit in Between the Woods and the Water, but the island was submerged by the hydroelectric project in 1970. Long since pounded to rubble by boulders cannoning along the riverbed, the minaret is no longer a hazard to navigation.
Like all Danube craft, from fishing dinghy to tugboat, the Aegir is flat-bottomed, drawing only 1.7 metres. But unlike almost every other vessel hereabout, it is unashamedly luxurious – Aegir was launched earlier this year, one of 16 state-of-the-art “Longships” run by the Viking cruise line. Making almost 11 knots against a six-knot current in the navigation channel, there is barely a hint of vibration from the hybrid engines.
On my voyage, I see only two other river cruisers: one Russian, the other Hungarian. Neither has the private balconies of Aegir’s elegant cabins, nor are they likely to have its WiFi connections. But if the possibilities of river cruising have now been expanded with comfort and catering worthy of a five-star hotel, the sense of adventure remains. We enjoy privileged access to historic sites too remote to be incorporated into any but the most arduous land tour. With just 95 cabins, this is cruising on a scale more intimate than seagoing vessels offer. The average passenger is also more active and younger (the youngest being just 12). Given that we will be ascending Belogradchik, a natural mountain fortress in Bulgaria defended by Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, this is probably just as well.
Our trip had begun in Bucharest, unexpectedly appealing in a melancholy way with its crumbling neoclassical buildings. The Gallic inspiration for what was once celebrated as “Little Paris” is evident in broad boulevards radiating from Place Charles de Gaulle – which our guide described as “named after the great French revolutionary” – an attribution that might have surprised the conservative general. The square was originally named Piata (meaning “marketplace”) Jianu, after local folk hero Iancu Jianu. It was renamed Piata Adolf Hitler in 1940; followed, in 1948, by Piata Generalissim IV Stalin, in honour of the country’s “liberation” by the Red Army.
Just off it is the outdoor Village Museum, where traditional houses from Transylvania (complete with anti-vampire features) and other regions have been reassembled beside a lake. Chickens scratch the dirt, the property of the peasants periodically imported to lend authenticity.
Bucharest’s highlight turns out to be the 1,000-room Palace of the People, erected by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu at a cost that reduced his country to penury. The world’s largest civilian administrative building, it is five times bigger than the palace of Versailles. If the marbled interior is of the soulless opulence to which Iron Curtain public architecture aspired, standing on the balcony from which the self-styled Colossus of the Carpathians and his illiterate wife harangued the populace still sends a shiver down the spine a quarter of a century on.
As we travel into the countryside, from the capital to the river port at Giurgiu, such echoes fall silent; Soviet-era apartment blocks give way to the simple wood and brick structures seen in the Village Museum. But if agricultural life here is played out in an early 20th-century landscape of hand-baling and elderly tractors, the sense of stepping back in time is greater on the Bulgarian side. While brigands are no longer a problem in the Balkan badlands – despite an outbreak of river piracy between 2010 and 2012 – in Bulgaria, drivers still risk encounters with horse-drawn carts commanding the crown of narrow roads. But then the country remains by some margin the poorest member of the European Union.
After a night on the Aegir, the third day of the trip offers an opportunity to visit Veliko Târnovo, a Bulgarian city built on hills 40 miles’ drive south of the river. A labyrinth of cobbled streets is dominated by the magnificently restored 12th-century Tsarevets fortress. In its grounds, women stroll arm-in-arm with uniformed officers, a scene that looks like it belongs in a Verdi opera. Were it not for Bulgaria’s knack for aligning itself with the losing side in wars, the town would be swamped by tourists and swanky hotels. Instead, the place where we take our Turkish coffee – part of the Ottoman legacy in local gastronomy – is the deck of a 1960s brutalist hotel overlooking a ravine.
Even higher in the wild mountainscape is the village of Arbanasi. Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christianity was tolerated here during the five centuries of Ottoman domination but no church could ascend higher than the lance borne by a Turkish cavalryman. Which is why the exterior of the 16th-century Church of the Nativity resembles a barn dug into a pit. Yet to step inside is to enter the rich world of Byzantium: every surface is frescoed with more than 2,000 scenes of apostles, martyrs and saints. It was conceived as a Bible for the illiterate, and is described by the Lonely Planet guidebook as akin to being inside a kaleidoscope. With the traditional cupola forbidden, a trompe l’oeil dome was painted on the floor as if it were a reflection. Elsewhere in Europe, there would be queues; here, we are the sole visitors.
Such is the nature of a land torn between hospitality and suspicion of strangers that it is still being discovered by mainstream tourism. Boutique hotels are opening in the capital Sofia, however, while the Rhodope Mountains are now home to Bulgaria’s first ultra-luxury rental-house-cum-sporting-lodge, Villa Gella.
On the fifth day, we pass Bulgaria’s border with Serbia, and see evidence of the Danube’s ancient strategic significance. Just above the waterline is the Tabula Traiana, a marble plaque on the cliff face which commemorates the Roman emperor Trajan’s construction of the first Danube bridge in 105AD. A monumental likeness of Rome’s enemy Decebalus, last of the Dacian kings, is carved into the rock face opposite.
Aegir would continue for another three days upstream to Budapest, to the more familiar, more frequently cruised, upper waters of the river. But I was due to disembark at Belgrade, content to have experienced a very different vision of Europe.
First though, come the Iron Gates. All hands are on deck to witness the navigation of the most dramatic – and dangerous – gorge in the Danube’s 2,860km length. As we pass Mraconia monastery, near the city of Orsova, a monk emerges to bless our voyage.
So narrow that only one vessel may enter at a time, the limestone walls of the Iron Gates rise 500 metres, the river bottom descending more than 150 metres. No instrument can accurately sound these depths through which titanic currents swirl. Navigation here is as much a matter of intuition and experience as science. In periods of rainfall, underground tributaries jet out into the main stream creating whirlpools.
“You learn to read the water,” Captain Horváth says. Little wonder that the builders of the new bridge consulted old river dogs as well as hydrographers. And with a sweep of his arm that embraces not just the river but both shores, the captain adds: “Nothing here can be completely measured or predicted.”
Julian Allason was a guest of Viking River Cruises, which offers a week’s cruise aboard the Viking Aegir, full-board, plus two nights at the Budapest Hilton and one at the Bucharest Hilton, with guided tours and flights from London, from £1,495