From Serbia to Romania, the “other end” of the Danube could be a completely different river, with barely another boat in sight. Nothing like the slick stretch that links Germany to Vienna, this half is the unpolished path of Eastern Europe, bound for the Black Sea. The River Cloud II ventures away from the pack to rarely visited ports and the continent’s largest wetlands, brimming with wildlife. For the 60 passengers on board, the common quest is for an alternative type of cruise. Our end-goal: Kilometre Zero on the brink of the Black Sea, the official start of the waterway.
Adventure first kicks in at Belgrade, capital of Serbia, where we disembark for a private concert at the Beli dvor (White Palace). It’s the former home of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito when the royal family was expelled following World War II, and the tour of the mansion, currently home to Crown Prince Alexander and his family, enthrals the passengers.
“I sat in the chair where Tito had his hair dyed!” exclaims an Australian man.
“I touched, literally touched, a Rembrandt in the prince’s study,” says another passenger.
Serbia also delivers impressive scenery at Djerdap Gorge, known as the Iron Gate. Here the river runs through the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains and the grand gateway is narrowest at Kazan, where the cliffs tower more than 300 metres high.
The natural splendours we see extend to the Danube Delta, an intricate network of waterways and lakes divided between the three main estuary channels of the Danube.
The area covers around 5700 square kilometres and with more than 5500 flora and fauna species, its biodiversity is surpassed only by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Archipelago in Ecuador. We take a smaller boat to explore the wetlands up close, spotting thousands of birds. The delta is home to more than 60 per cent of the world’s pygmy cormorants and 50 per cent of its red-breasted geese, as well as the largest number of white pelicans and Dalmatian pelicans in Europe.
This is also where we reach the Danube’s much-anticipated Kilometre Zero. When the ship sails past this significant site, we see an abandoned, rusty lighthouse marking the spot. Despite, or perhaps because of, its desolate location, it’s a moment of achievement for all onboard. There’s no fancy monument, no souvenir shop, but a lot of posing for photos on the top deck.
Arriving the next day in Harsova, Romania, we discover another landscape altogether, with grassy hills and fishermen in rowboats. We transfer by bus to find a whole new world – Constanta, founded around 600BC as a Greek trading colony. It’s Romania’s oldest living city and the Black Sea’s most vital port.
The Sea Cloud Cruises guide takes us around the National Museum, which houses one of the most important collections from the Roman era. Artefacts are displayed remarkably freely, not encased in glass or roped off from visitors (yet).
We walk around the town’s other historic monuments: Byzantine basilicas, ancient ruins and a century-old casino where the rich spent their summers pre-World War I. The day is wrapped up at Mamaia, a fashionable beach resort, with free time to swim in the Black Sea.
It’s these contrasting experiences that distinguish this itinerary from the usual European routes and the luxurious River Cloud II serves a satisfying taste of an indisputably different side of the Danube.