On board the MS Vivaldi, belonging to the Strasbourg-based company CroisiEurope, we sailed up the Danube from its mouth on the Black Sea to Rousse in Austria. We crossed 8 countries (Romania,
We'll also be visiting 4 capital cities on this magnificent river (Bucharest, Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna). The first part of this journey takes us as far as Rousse in Bulgaria.
Our Danube journey begins at Constanta airport, on the shores of the Black Sea in south-east Romania. Three buses are waiting to take passengers to MS Vivaldi. The 5-anchor ship in the CroisiEurope fleet is moored at Tulcea, on the branch of the Danube of the same name. Given the state of the road, it will take us 2 hours to cover the 120 km that separate us from our embarkation point. We cross the Dobroudja region, home to one of Europe's largest wind farms, as well as the country's granary.
It's mid-October, the harvest is long over and the landscape is bare, featureless and monotonous. Only a few vines add colour to the countryside. "No geographical ecstasy," jokes my neighbour. We pass through the village of Babadag, home to a large Muslim gypsy population living in housing estates of "little palaces", in stark contrast to the shacks of the peasants.
Evening on board
In Tulcea, the streamlined silhouette of the MS Vivaldi appears. The liner, moored to a floating pontoon and surrounded by unflappable anglers, awaits its passengers.
A key gateway to the delta and its biosphere reserve, Tulcea is an industrial town, with a farmers' market, fishing tackle shops on every corner, ramshackle concrete buildings and potholed pavements. The bulbs of a church, hidden by buildings, are just worth a look.
We embark via a long gangway under the watchful eye of the sailors, who have already taken care of our luggage. The crew welcome us with refreshments and show us to our cabins. Everyone then gathered in the lounge-bar for a welcome speech by the purser, Beatrix Pinter, and a presentation of the crew. After a hearty and delicious dinner, we are treated to an evening of folklore which delights the whole group.
After a good night's sleep, we're off on a tour of the delta and its wildlife. The length of the Danube, some 2,850 km, is counted from the Sulina lighthouse (PK 0) on the Black Sea to the German town of Donaueschingen, where the Breg and Brigach rivers meet.
One of the worst gulags in the Soviet bloc
Three main arms, Chilia, Sulina and Saint-Georges, plus a complex network of secondary arms, irrigate the delta, which stretches 75 km from west to east and 150 km from north to south. The Sulina branch has been canalised to make it navigable and, above all, accessible to large ships from the Black Sea. This project was envisaged as early as the 19th century by the engineers of the European Danube Commission, set up by Europe in the aftermath of the Crimean War (1853-1856) and "responsible for the supervision of the river and the execution of the international treaties concerning it(4)", explained the writer and ambassador Paul Morand, a member of the Commission from 1938 to 1939. It was abandoned when a rail link between Cernavoda (the town at the junction of the canal) and Constanta was opened in 1860. Always postponed because of the wars, construction finally began in 1949, after the establishment of the Communist regime. "This canal has left an indelible mark on the Romanian people," says our guide. "Thousands of people died. Common law prisoners, soon joined by political prisoners and intellectuals labelled as enemies of the people, dug by sheer force of will, armed only with shovels and pickaxes. It was one of the worst gulags in the Soviet bloc. Stopped in 1953, work resumed under Ceausescu in 1973, always using opponents of the regime sentenced to forced labour. Finally, the "canal of death" (as it was nicknamed by Ion Carja, a former political prisoner who wrote a book recounting his years in the gulag) was inaugurated in 1987.
Europe's largest wetland
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, the delta forms a natural labyrinth, shared between Romania and Ukraine. "580,000 hectares of wetlands, over 5,000 plant species, more than 300 bird species, 45 fish species and one of the last remaining primary forests in Europe, the Letea floodplain forest, which covers 5,247 hectares", explains our Romanian guide. In addition, around a hundred species of birds choose the reed beds and pastures of the delta to overwinter or rest between 2 migrations. It is also the kingdom of the white pelican and especially the curled pelican, protected species threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, we won't be seeing any of them, as they have been returning to Africa since the end of September. Between the protective arms, a tangle of channels, lakes, marshes, canals, agricultural polders where cereals grow, sansouïres (regularly flooded areas covered with herbaceous plants) where small brown cows and sheep graze and wild horses gallop. It's a living landscape, changing with the seasonal whims of the river and intense alluvial activity; every year, the delta expands by 40 square metres. In fact, it is beginning to encroach on the Black Sea. "In 20 years, the small islands at the mouth of the river have become a peninsula: Romania is one of the few countries to expand every year," says our guide with pride. On the banks, fishing rods rest on driftwood forks. While waiting for the fish to bite, the fishermen grill schachlicks (large skewers of marinated meat) over a wood fire, cook potatoes under the ashes and empty cans of beer. Some have pitched tents to spend the weekend with their families.
Fishing is an important economic activity for the inhabitants of the delta. Carp, catfish, perch, pike and catfish are sold at markets and local cooperatives. What about sturgeon? "There are 3 species of sturgeon that swim upstream in the delta: the beluga, the osciètre and the sévruga," explains the guide. "Due to overfishing, it is strictly forbidden to catch them. You can't find caviar like you used to, but poaching is still going on...".
Sailing from Tulcea to Chiciu
As soon as we were back on board, the MS Vivaldi left Tulcea for a 359 km sail to Chiciu. Her average speed up the river is 14 km/h. This is a good time to get to know some of the passengers, enjoy the sun deck and the sunset lights, play a game of scrabble or take part in the quizzes devised by the entertainment team. The river is wide, almost motionless, bordered by a thick curtain of willows and poplars that prevents you from seeing beyond it.
We are in a low-water period: in places, the water is only 40 cm shallower than the draught. "When you reach 20 cm below the draught, navigation is prohibited," explains Commander Adam Balazs, his eyes riveted to the depth sounder.
Shortly before Galati, you approach Moldavia. The river then bends at right angles, heading south. Galati is an industrial town, home to the port authority and a succession of shipyards. In the middle of the river, a spit of sand is home to a colony of seagulls basking in the warm early autumn sunshine. There are 133 passengers on board, including 101 French and around ten Japanese. At around 6am each morning, the Japanese passengers gather on the sun deck for a Qi Gong session. But that doesn't stop them enjoying the good food and, above all, the French wines served on board. "More and more of them are coming on our cruises; they love the French art of living," says Sarah, the head waitress.
Day 3 is devoted to visiting Bucharest. Access to the city centre is complicated: not only is the Romanian capital one of the most congested cities in the world, but the organisation of a marathon makes our driver's task even more complex. After winding its way between greyish flat blocks dating from the Communist era, the bus finally arrives at the National Conservatory of Housing, also known as the Dimitrie Gusti Museum.
Spread over 14 hectares, this park is home to dozens of traditional houses representative of Romania's regions. We will have just enough time to discover some of the most beautiful, as well as to lose and find a Japanese passenger, before having lunch in a typical restaurant for tourists.
In the afternoon, the city tour continues on foot. In rue Lipscani, we enter a magnificent Art Deco bookshop that has just been renovated. Carturesti Carusel is reputed to be the most beautiful bookshop in Europe, and we think it's no exaggeration.
We stop off at the small Orthodox church of the Stavropoleos monastery, whose walls are covered in beautiful frescoes. Before leaving Bucharest, we pass Ceausescu's huge palace (or House of the People), known as "tortul" by the locals. Only one part is occupied by institutions (Senate, Chamber of Deputies and Constitutional Court)," explains the guide. Over 70 % of the building is empty. To build this place, entire neighbourhoods, churches and a monastery had to be demolished and 50,000 people moved to the outskirts. So much suffering to satisfy the delusions of one man! Then we see an Orthodox cathedral under construction, for which the municipality has spent 270 million, while so many buildings are threatening to fall into ruin! In short, the city is a motley mix of concrete blocks ("workers' storage rooms", as our guide describes them, borrowing an expression from the Communist era), splendours of Wallachian architecture and megalomaniac buildings born of the madness of Romania's last dictator.
At the end of the day, we rejoin the passengers who have stayed on the boat in Giurgiu. The Vivaldi crosses the river to Roussé, a small Bulgarian town on the right bank. The Friendship Bridge links the 2 towns. Built on Stalin's initiative and inaugurated in 1954 after his death, until 2013 it was the only bridge linking Romania and Bulgaria.
We meet in the lounge-bar for a musical aperitif hosted by a Hungarian pianist, followed by dinner and an evening of Bulgarian folklore. I talk to a young Belgian couple who have cycled some 2,500 km from Brussels to Tulcea, where they boarded their bikes. "We're taking a rest and discovering the Danube valley from the water: we chose to make the return journey by boat to Linz and continue by train," says the young man. However, the cruiser-cyclists take advantage of the stopovers to get on their bikes, as the excursion prices are "too high for their pockets".
Saint Dimitryi Basarbovski rock monastery
After a very quiet night on the boat at the quayside, we set off at 8am by coach to visit the rock monastery of Saint Dimitryi Basarbovski, in the village of Basarbovo, around ten kilometres from Roussé. Built into the rock, the building is an important place of pilgrimage for the Orthodox. It is dedicated to a thaumaturgist and healer who lived there between the 17th and 18th centuries. After climbing 48 steep steps carved into the rock, you reach a cavity where the saint slept. After his death, the monk, whose body was rot-proof, was buried in the village church. During the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774, his relics were transferred to the church of St-Constantin and St-Helena in Bucharest, where they remain today.
In the recently rebuilt chapel, a large miraculous icon of the saint with a piece of the relics is still venerated by the faithful.
Rousse: pastel shades and rose water
Back to Rousse. Bulgaria's 5th-largest city is charming and pretty. Candy-pink, pistachio-green and chick-yellow facades from the Ottoman period alternate with a few more recent buildings. We admire the Revenue Building, on the roof of which a winged Mercury, protector of bankers and symbol of commerce, keeps watch. Built in 1902, this building is now a theatre. Just to the right is a magnificent building constructed in 1897 in rococo style. It was the first private hotel in Bulgaria. As we stroll along, the guide points out that the streets have been paved with Saint Raphaël stone, brought in by ship from the Dramont quarries in Var. Before returning to the boat, she points out a shop where you can buy essence of Damascus rose, a world-famous Bulgarian speciality.
During our visits, the Vivaldi sailed some fifty kilometres to Svishtov to collect all the cruise passengers. She then set off again for a 48-hour sail to the Iron Gates, the second part of our journey.
See the cruise : https://www.croisieurope.com/croisiere/mer-noire-danube-bleu-classique#cruise
The MS Vivaldi is one of a select group of ships belonging to the CroisiEurope river cruise company that have been awarded a 5-anchor classification. A guarantee of quality for cruisers who choose this ship to cruise the waters of the Rhine and the Danube.
The ship has a capacity of 176 passengers in 88 cabins spread over 3 decks. This liner has a cabin for disabled passengers. Each cabin is air-conditioned and equipped with satellite TV, radio, safe, hairdryer, shower and WC. It has a 176-seat saloon with dance floor, a bar with TV, video and terrace, a 176-seat dining room, a large sun deck with deckchairs, a shop and a lift?
Text and Photos Brigitte Postel