One of the things that surprised me most when I took my first river cruise along the Rhine River a year ago was the sheer number of ships on Europe's rivers.
Indeed, it didn't take long to understand that, yes, you need to be careful about closing your curtains because, when docked, you can suddenly find yourself staring into the cabin of another ship that has docked right next to yours.
Uniworld’s optional land extension to Bucharest is a must. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
That was the case at most stops, which was no big deal. But one of the things I did like most about my second European sailing, along the Lower Danube from Budapest to Bucharest, Romania, was the fact that during the entire trip, we never saw another cruise ship.
Granted, it was one of the first weeks of the season, but this less-traveled stretch of the Danube through Eastern Europe offers not only a more intimate experience but also a view of a very different Europe from that seen on most river cruises.
From medieval fortresses to former communist strongholds to ruins of the brutal war between Serbia and Croatia, the itinerary is one sailed by just two dozen or so of the hundreds of ships that ply Europe's waterways. One of those this year is Uniworld's just-renovated Beatrice, which I joined for its first post-remodeling voyage in April.
The ship itself is a treat. With its modern, sleek, yacht-style decor, Uniworld's renowned food and service and more spacious suite and minisuite options, I'd be happy sailing on it to just about anywhere.
A suite on Uniworld’s newly renovated Beatrice with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Hungarian Parliament.
We spent the first night in Budapest, a city that has something for everyone with its famed, spired Parliament Building that rises above the Danube to its thermal baths and its downtown market full of local handicrafts, food stands and restaurants.
After spending the night there, we followed what Uniworld describes as a "path forged by crusaders, kings and conquerors through Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria."
The beginning of the cruise runs through the waters that separate Serbia and Croatia, an area where the undeveloped shores are still dotted with minefields.
A close-up look at life in Croatia
While her husband and neighbors worked on replacing a chicken coop in the backyard, Isabella Petrijevcanin spread pictures of her kids and grandkids across the table on her covered porch in Osijek, Croatia. Read More
Our first stop was Vukovar, Croatia's biggest river port and a city that was largely destroyed by Serbian forces. While sobering, a highlight of the trip was an excursion to a home-hosted lunch in the nearby city of Osijek. Vukovar is slowly recovering but still feels largely abandoned. In its center stands the battle-scarred water tower that is one of the war's most famous symbols, having been hit hundreds of times by artillery.
Today, the tower is surrounded by scaffolding as crews work to install glass and lighting to create a monument to the pain and suffering caused by the brutal war.
The itinerary offers a mix of cities big and small, from the historical but large and cosmopolitan Serbian capital of Belgrade, known for its late-night party scene, to the small village of Golubac in Serbia near Golubac Fortress. Upon arriving in Golubac, the first cruise ship to ever dock there, we were greeted by a TV crew and small market where locals sold handmade blouses and tablecloths.
We also had a chance to explore the remarkable red rock formations in Vidin, Bulgaria, and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of sailing through the scenic Iron Gates gorge that separates Serbia and Romania.
The Beatrice sails through the scenic Iron Gates gorge that separates Serbia and Romania. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
One of the longest and most scenic gorges in Eastern Europe, the Iron Gates was known for its treacherous waters until two huge hydroelectric dams and locks built in the 1960s raised water levels and calmed the rapids.
Today, you can enjoy an easy afternoon passage, listening to both facts and lore of the region. There are also many sites, old and new, including Mraconia Monastery and a nearby a rock sculpture of the ancient Dacian king Decebalus along the Romanian shore.
On the Serbian side is a nearly 2,000-year-old rock inscription called the Tabula Traiana, which commemorates the completion of a military road built by the Rome's Emperor Trajan during the Second Dacian War.
A welcoming promenade in Ruse, a midsize city that offers a taste of everyday, modern Bulgaria. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
One of my favorite stops, besides Vukovar, was Ruse, a midsize city that offered a taste of everyday, modern Bulgaria. My friend and I decided to skip the guided excursions and chose instead to roam the long pedestrian park through the middle of the city.
We disembarked in Giurgiu, Romania, then joined the optional land extension to Bucharest, a must-see destination if you're in this part of Europe.
One could wander for hours just looking at the contrasting architecture of ancient churches and other historical buildings that survived a communist-era razing but are now tucked between — and even under — modern or ugly communist-era concrete, block-style structures.
Known as the Paris of Eastern Europe, there is endless sightseeing to be done here, from its museums and colossal "People's House" Parliament building to shopping, dining and exploring the hip and sometimes risque bar and restaurant scene in Old Town at the center of Bucharest.
The Parliament building is a destination in and of itself. The centerpiece of Nicolae Ceausescu's reconstruction program following an earthquake in the late 1970s, it is the largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
It became widely known as the People's House following the revolution in 1989 and today houses, in addition to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Communist Totalitarianism, the Museum of the Palace and an international conference center.
In addition to the many sites in Bucharest proper, Uniworld's optional excursions also include a Romanian countryside tour with visits to Ceausescu's mansion and the purported tomb of Vlad the Impaler.