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Cruising The Danube

A river cruise covering four continental capitals highlighted the delights but also the dark side of modern Europe. Norman Wright was on board

Twilight crept up on the domes and roofs of Budapest and, as the clear blue sky darkened to star-studded midnight blue, thousands of lights on the bridges and classic buildings along the banks of the River Danube flickered on.

The boats that passed in both directions were also extensively lit by this time, and it was a romantic and exotic moment as our river cruiser slipped away from its mooring in the centre of the Hungarian capital and headed upstream bound forAmsterdam. Everyone on board was on the open deck as the captain steamed slowly, showing us the classic view from the guidebooks and those river cruise TV ads. Nothing beats being on deck for real, though, armed with a glass of champagne, feeling a gentle breeze as the evening cooled and hearing the soft slap of water on the bows.

Gradually, as our boat left the heart of Budapest in its wake, people began to head down to the bar where a Hungarian trio was striking up a stirring gypsy violin tune. Westayed on under the stars just enjoying seeing the now-dark banks slipping past and savouring the motion of the boat and the exciting smell of water and cooling countryside. It really did feel like the start of an adventure.

After spending the first night aboard in Budapest we had the whole day to explore before our dramatic dusk departure. A morning coach tour meant we saw all of the highlights of the newer city of Pest on the eastern side of the river and the medieval Buda on the western bank.From the heights of Castle Hill in Buda you get a great view of the city and the river. From the coach drop-off point the vista is across the city.

After a short walk up the cobbled street lined with souvenir shops (tasteful) you get to Matthias Church with its tiled roof of many colours. It is worth getting a ticket to walk along the ramparts of Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the church, as from there you get a fantastic view of the Danube as it curves under the Chain bridge and past the domed Parliament building. Further along Castle Hill is the Royal Palace, now the Hungarian national gallery and Budapest History Museum. From the bastion you can also see Gellért Hill with the enormous Liberty Monument.

For all those imposing domes and magnificence, the most moving sight along the Danube promenade are 60 pairs of shoes on the river’s edge.

Cast in iron, they are shoes from children, men and women from all walks of life and a memorial to victims of Second World War fascism. The Arrow Cross party in Hungary were supporters of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, collaborating in sending thousands of Jews and political opponents to the death camps.

They also forced citizens, mainly Jews they had rounded up, to remove their shoes and strip naked facing the river when they were shot in the back so they would fall in and their bodies be washed away.

It is an atrocity that most of us probably wouldn’t have comprehended before the recent round of executions in the Middle East. This simple memorial on the Pest bank near the Parliament Building gives you a jolt of horror that this sort of brutality could happen and is still continuing. There were further reminders later on.

Our first morning of cruising was through gentle countryside with Hungary on our left and Slovakia on the right.Just afterlunchwe came alongside at Bratislava, the cobblestoned capital of Slovakia. At every stop there was a tour included in our cruise price. Normally it was a walking tour as the boat was usually tied up right in the middle of each town. There were several coach tours. All of them were led by a local guide with commentary via your personal headset. There were some optional tours during the trip which cost extra; we only took a couple – a musical evening in Vienna and a Second World War tour of Nuremberg – as the inclusive tours were excellent.

River cruising took a similar format to ocean cruising.Therewas plenty of excellent food, house wine included, a cruise director kept everyone well briefed on the next day’s itinerary before dinner, and after dinnerthere was a variety of entertainment. The dress code was informal and relaxed, and because there were far fewer guests you got more time to enjoy their company.

The top deck was the place to watch the countryside drift by but it wasn’t always available. As we approached a low bridge, we all had to go below as the wheelhouse lowered itself and the boat cleared the bridge. At one stage the deck was closed for a couple of days. This is dictated by water levels and changes from trip to trip

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Have you been on a river cruise? What did you think to it? 

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