From the summer 2012 issue of World of Cruising

Travelling To The Rhythm Of The River

Editor Simon Veness discovers the true style and character of river-cruising on the blissful River Duchess

It is often tempting to compare river-cruising to the ocean-going variety, and there are definite similarities between the two, in much the same way as Paul Gauguin and Andy Warhol were both artists.

That is to say, yes, the basic idea is the same, but, no, the end result is drastically different.

While modern sea cruises definitely have the mark of Warhol – highly graphic, dramatic and distinctly showy – the river-borne version is most assuredly Gauguin; lyrical, laid back and eschewing the artificial.

Put simply, river cruises are more real. And a Danube River voyage is possibly one of the most genuine of all, with a sense of passing through, not over, the land it both encompasses and divides.

In fact, after our destination-rich 12-day journey from Bucharest to Vienna in the company of Uniworld River Cruises and their recently-refurbished boutique bateau River Duchess, we felt the countries visited deserved their own story (see Pages 25-30).

Therefore what follows here is the classic onboard account, the tale of travelling on the Duchess in a manner and accomplishment that is light-years removed from the hustle-bustle of big-ship cruising, and all the better for it, thank you.

Just to start with, the scale of a river-cruise is wonderfully different, like a breath of fresh spring air after being cooped up indoors all winter. It invites a more leisurely appreciation of your surroundings and fellow travellers, an actual holiday as opposed to the ‘vacation experience’ of non-stop activities, events and shows.

Instead of 2,000-plus passengers, the capacity of a ship like the Duchess (and it most definitely is a ship, according to our wonderfully engaging German captain, not a ‘boat’), is only 134, thus ensuring elbow room is never at a premium.

With just one dining room – plus a small-scale alternative venue – only one lounge, a coffee bar, a tiny boutique, slim-line gym and massage facility, small library and the one upper, open deck, that is the full limit of the ship’s public areas and attractions. No casino, no show-lounge, no swimming pools, rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks or bowling alleys.

What you see here is absolutely what you get, and, with the exception of the daily destination lecture from our wonderful cruise manager, Christine, and a handful of visiting folkloric shows, the range of entertainment was also far more ‘feel the quality and not the width.’

Cabin-wise, things are also fairly compact. There is no such thing as an inside stateroom; everyone has a river view and the only real difference is between a picture window and a French balcony. Elbow-room is more limited here but even the standard cabin provided ample cupboard and drawer space while the bathroom – if not being a vehicle made for two – was perfectly well provided for one-person comfort and high-quality amenities.

Quality is very much the onboard watchword, too. From the basic cabin comforts to the main dining room and on to the service standards, everything had the touch of luxury style, with a highly personal flavour and an immensely personable ambience.

We soon got to know Jaroslav, the Slovakian hotel manager; Dimitar, our Bulgarian restaurant manager; Silvia, the Romanian purser; and her countrywoman Veronica, the housekeeper. All were fully imbued with the sense of gracious service and bonhomie normally associated only with the deluxe boutique hotels of Europe.

The German duo of Christine Bremberger and Michael Hofmann, our redoubtable skipper, were the very epitome of their country’s famed efficiency but the very opposite of the impersonal, humourless stereotype. Both played a big part in our cruise enjoyment and their knowledge of the region was immense.

They were also fundamental to the feeling of taking a journey with friends, rather than cruising with a group of strangers, engendering a country-house feel that encouraged amiable conversation and relaxed discourse, where a good part of the enjoyment was in swapping stories with like-minded and well-travelled fellow passengers.

True, the average age was definitely north of 60-plus, due in some part to this being late May and well outside the main holiday period, but, with no dedicated family facilities or youthful diversions, this is distinctly something for couples only and, possibly, those with slightly more sedentary sensibilities.

Which isn’t to say it encourages sloth or is largely an inactive experience. In fact, with a daily excursion always included, many of them with a strong walking quotient, it was borderline energetic at times, especially if you also took the opportunity to extend your touring under your own steam, taking advantage of the ship being docked virtually in the heart of every destination.

The inclusivity of the excursion programme was a big advantage and attraction, though, ensuring the highlights of each port of call were given a thorough investigation under the expert guidance of Christine and her series of local English-speaking experts, one for every city and coach tour.

We were never short of options, and the addition of well-structured extra excursions – notably for evening concerts in Budapest and Vienna – ensured a superbly balanced ability to get under a country’s skin and afford the kind of full cultural experience this unhurried style of travel affords.

The daily routine of life aboard was also quickly established and absurdly easy to fall in line with. After a leisurely breakfast, we gathered each morning for the regular coach tour – or, occasionally, a walking version, and spent the next 3-5 hours absorbing the sights, sounds and, in some instances, the tastes of that country.

And, if there was an ever-so-slight feeling of ‘If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium’ with the regular amount of coach journeys and different languages, that was easily assuaged by the fact we returned to our water-going haven in far more relaxed mode than any land-borne tour.

Each re-embarkation was accompanied with glasses of fresh fruit juice and cold towels to ease away any travel fatigue, while those in need of more stimulation could take advantage of the complimentary self-service tea and coffee bar, where frothy cappuccinos and invigorating espressos were dispensed in appetising fashion.

After the obligatory lunch, the afternoon was often spent at leisure exploring on foot, with the aid of the excellent ship maps and expert local advice liberally dispensed by Christine and, on several occasions by Jaroslav or Captain Hofmann.

Dinner was usually preceded by the following day’s Destination Talk from our non-stop cruise manager, and the post-prandial practice was for drinks in the Blue Danube Lounge, accompanied either by one of the folk ensembles who came aboard in Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia, or just light music and dancing to resident keyboard-playing musician Sasho.

And so the journey continued, with long days of sight-seeing and amiable evenings in the Palace Restaurant, punctuated by animated conversations and historic insights along Uniworld’s ‘Imperial Capitals’ route, all set to the languid rhythm of the river and its eternal feeling of slow, steady progress.

Taking this Danube route from east to west, passing through the heart of the former Soviet Eastern Bloc to the home of the great Habsburg empire was, we felt, the ideal way to experience this literal ‘slice’ of Europe.

With the voyage ranging from the post-Ceausescu Romania and the country-poverty of Bulgaria through the rebuilding civil war world of the former Yugoslavia to the European Community-in-waiting economies of Hungary and Slovakia and finally the full modern Euro domain sensibilities of Austria, it was a journey of growing proportions, both literally and metaphorically.

The cities and their component parts were more substantial as we sailed upstream, and there was a greater sense of architectural grandeur in Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna than Bucharest, Belgrade and Vukovar.

The historical narrative was one of continuous fascination, however, from the Romans to the Ottomans and on to the Communist era, including the ability of nations to recover from the heavy yoke of invasion, occupation and governmental oppression.

And, whenever the weight of the misdeeds of the recent past threatened to become too brutal for mere holiday-going – witness the bullet and shell-pocked buildings of Croatia – the inherent welcoming and friendly nature of the people themselves served to restore the balance and underline the joys of travelling far from home.

Our fellow guests were largely American and Canadian, with a smattering of Australians and New Zealanders. British guests were thin on the ground but, with the growing influence of Titan Travel’s UK marketing muscle, this is likely to be addressed in the near future.

All in all, it added up to a true cosmopolitan experience aboard the most chic of vessels and in the most cultured of styles. And, while river-cruising is still far from the mass-market world of sea cruises, you can see why the likes of Uniworld are increasing capacity as much as possible.

If it truly is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, as Robert Louis Stevenson once suggested, a journey along the Danube is absolutely among the best there is.


Maiden Voyage: 2003

Refurbished: 2012

Length: 361ft

Beam: 37.5ft

Speed: 12 knots

Passengers: 134

Crew: 34

Passenger decks: 4

Registry: Netherlands

ITINERARIES: Uniworld’s Imperial Capitals Of Europe cruise-tour is available from Apr-Oct 2013, with prices from £3,643 per person (with a £750 saving for bookings by Sept 30), based on two sharing a Category 5 stateroom, including all flights, a 2-night pre-cruise stay in Istanbul, Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service, transfers and daily excursions.

MORE INFO: in the UK, call Titan on 0800 988 5867 or visit; in the US, call 1800 733 7820 or

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