Visitor attractions include the white walled Church of St Sava, the world’s second biggest Orthodox church. The religion demands that only human voices are allowed here – no organ music. Worshippers must stand during services, and because the church follows the Julian calendar, Christmas day is on January 7.
We go to Mount Avala, too, topped by the 204m Avala Communications Tower. The lift whizzes us up to the viewing platform so that we can see sweeping views of Belgrade.
The Iron Gates and King Decebalus
The next day is a full day sailing, commonplace on ocean cruises but unusual on river cruises. We pass through the Iron Gates, a gorge between Serbia and Romania. We sail past a convent, which is confusingly referred to as a ‘monastery’ – our guide tells us that in this region, all buildings which are workplaces and living quarters of monastics are called monasteries, though in this instance, it’s nuns who live here.
Then it’s all eyes on the gigantic head which is hewn in the rock face. It belongs to Rome’s enemy King Decebalus, carved for eternity into the limestone cliffs. At one point, he battled the Romans for freedom for Romania. The locks capture passengers’ attention too, this massive lock complex is the river’s largest.
The good thing about spending a whole day on the AmaSerena is the chance to enjoy the facilities – a heated pool on the top deck with swim up bar, small fitness centre and in room internet, films and music.
Sailing through Bulgaria’s Back-of-Beyond
But our journey isn’t over yet. The next morning, I am welcomed by sunshine and birdsong in Vidin, an off the beaten track Bulgarian town.
After breakfast, it’s time for the Belogradchik excursion. This village with an ancient fortress clings to the slopes of the Balkan Mountains. A steep walk over rocky ground takes us past amphitheatres of UNESCO listed rock formations with quirky names – the Madonna, the horseman, Adam and Eve, the cuckoo – incredible to think they are around 230 million years old.
Later that day we visit Rousse, sometimes written ‘Ruse’, a pretty town with fountains, flower-filled parks, pedestrianised shopping area and loving couples entwined on benches.
Sailing the Danube to Giurgiu, Romania
On the final day, the AmaSerena berths at Giurgiu in Romania. Those guests who have chosen a post-cruise stay are whisked to Bucharest with the option of a full-day excursion in Romania’s capital.
However, it’s time for me to head for the airport, so I only glimpse the city from the windows of my cab. The outskirts littered with Soviet-era apartment blocks give way to a somewhat faded grandeur, tree-lined avenues and a nod to French panache with a faux Arc de Triomphe. It’s pleasing to the eye.
And of course, no time to explore gives me a reason to return to this wilder, underrated part of the Danube, best seen from the comfort of a river cruise ship.
If You Go
AMA Waterways offer river cruises worldwide including several Danube itineraries. More information at www.amawaterways.com 1-800-626-0126
Author Bio: Gilly Pickup is an established freelance journalist, travel writer, photographer and author of six books. Gilly writes about destinations worldwide, specializing in city breaks, cruise, food and wine, arts & culture, heritage, wildlife, health/wellbeing and history. Her articles are published in national newspapers and magazines. She is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Follow her on twitter @Gilly_Pickup or @TravellingLady_ Websites www.gillypickup.co.uk and www.travellinglady.co.uk