I was given the opportunity to take a three night river cruise onboard AmaPrima with AmaWaterways between Serbia and Budapest in June 2014. AmaWaterways offer luxury cruises throughout Europe, Africa, Myanmar and Vietnam and Cambodia. In a recent poll the Berlitz guide of the top river cruise ships in Europe AmaWaterways filled the top 11 positions and AmaPrima took the coveted number one spot.
Myself and Emma left home on a rainy Saturday morning at 1am, after just a couple of hours sleep. However, we were far too excited to be concerned by our lack of sleep and made it to Gatwick with plenty of time to spare before our 6am flight. To save some pennies we were changing at Zurich before flying on to Belgrade. Flying with Swiss Air was a very enjoyable experience. Even though our flight was only just over an hour and a half we were given a complimentary snack for breakfast of a yummy croissant, as well as a little chocolate football to celebrate the World Cup. On top of that we had more legroom than I’ve ever seen on a plane and very friendly flight attendants. As we descended into Zurich the Alps provided a magnificent backdrop and I truly felt our adventure had begun.
Zurich is easily the nicest airport I have been to and the three hours between flights flew past, as we chatted excitedly and took advantage of the free internet and charging points. Zurich airport is immaculate, has top class facilities, large windows so you can watch the planes as they take off and land and because it isn’t a major touristy type place it is extremely quiet…. Bliss!
Jumping onboard our second Swiss Air flight of the day we were in Belgrade in less than two hours, arriving around 2pm. Because we’d only taken hand luggage we were straight through customs and were greeted the second we stepped into the arrivals hall by our driver. The taxi ride to the ship was quick and we had a good nose out the windows at Belgrade as we passed through. It was rather as I expected it to be, rather grey and with a mixture of modern and historic buildings, rather like London, but smaller.
As we arrived at the port we stopped at customs where a rather grim faced looking customs officer took our passports and looked rather unimpressed at our attempts to make him crack a smile. We waited as various other officers came to inspect our documents and stare at us with great suspicion. Fortunately, our ships cruise director, Dragan, suddenly swooped in from nowhere and within minutes we were safely through customs and stepping onboard the magnificent ship AmaPrima.
Our friend Natalie was already onboard along with her sister-on-law Daisy and met us at the reception desk. Within moments we were being shown to our cabin and told there would be some lunch waiting for us in the library when we were ready. Not wanting to unpack we had a quick inspection of our room and then made our way to the library where a bowl of hot consommé and club sandwiches awaited us. Natalie told us there was a free coach into the city centre leaving in 15 minutes if we wanted to explore Belgrade, so we quickly wolfed down our sandwiches and headed out eager to explore.
A quick 10 minute coach journey later we were in the City Centre exploring the streets. Belgrade wasn’t the most picturesque city I have ever visited, but it was friendly and from what we saw also good value. Whilst the official currency of Serbia is the Dinar we had no problems paying in Euros. In fact we visited three countries during our cruise, none of which had the Euro and we only ever were refused them once. Emma picked up a lovely bracelet from the indoor market and we indulged in a delicious ice cream, part of our deal to buy an ice cream in every country we visited. An enjoyable two hours later we jumped back on the bus and made our way back to the ship, ready for a well-earned rest before dinner.
We settled back into our room where we had a read of our itinerary over the next few days and unpacked before dressing for dinner. We had been worried that on a 5* cruise ship such as this, we would need to be dressed up for every evening, but we were surprised at how casual the other guests were and we almost felt overdressed in our nice dresses. On our first night Natalie had booked us one of the private rooms in the restaurant to break us in gently, and get us used to our surrounding. Hotel manager Stephen joined us for dinner and we quickly found nothing was too much for the staff. Every single meal I ate onboard was a spectacular masterpiece from start to finish and I didn’t find a single element of any meal which wasn’t better than anything I had ever eaten. Back on earth I am not usually a big meat eater, but having been tipped off the steak was to die for, I quickly jumped on it when I spotted in on the menu. It was cooked to absolute perfection and every mouthful simply dissolved in my mouth.
After three delicious courses we headed to the lounge to watch the entertainment of traditional Serbian dancing. Eight dancers kept us entertained with their high energy dancing and I found myself on my feet applauding as they reached their finale. A truly great show of entertainment.
Onboard the ship there was a fairly even split of Brits, Americans, Canadians and Australians so everyone was English speaking. Most passengers were of the older generation and quickly retired to their beds after the entertainment, but the younger passengers on board stayed up either in the bar or heading into Belgrade. The ship wasn’t set to sail until 11pm so many guests headed into the city. With our sleep deprivation catching up on us we opted to stay in the ships lounge for a nightcap (well diet coke in my case) before hitting our mattresses.
The next morning we awoke enthusiastic for the day ahead and headed to breakfast to discover we had arrived in Novi Sad. We had a choice of tours to pick from and Emma and I opted for the walking tour in Novi Sad. The best thing about AmaWaterways, other than the food, is that all the excursions are included and there are plenty to pick from. This is generally a feature of most top of the range river cruise lines. As Natalie headed off on a bike tour on one of the ships bikes we were met by our guide and off the went. We were provided with headphones and were able to hear our guide at all times which was a brilliant facility. It meant we weren’t straining to hear and could wander slightly from the group to take photos without missing anything that was being explained.
Novi Sad was a lovely city with wide pedestrianised streets filled with restaurants with sitting out areas, and some beautiful ornate buildings and churches. We understood most of the architecture was 19th Century or newer as the city had been virtually detroyed during the 1848 revolution and had suffered heavy damage in the 1999 Kosovo war. We wandered through the streets before arriving in the main square, Liberty Square, where a large stage had been set up. Our guide told us there had been a fundraising concert the night before to raise money for the victims of the recent flooding in Serbia and Croatia. We wandered through the rest of the city, before meeting up with a coach and taking the winding road up to the Petrovaradin Fortress which offered us spectacular views over the city. Before long it was time to head back to the ship for lunch of steak sandwich and chips, and to sail onwards to Croatia.
We had a five hour cruise to our next destination at Ilok and as the sun was shining we grabbed a drink from the bar and headed up to the sundeck. As if planned (it wasn’t despite what our cruise director said!) a plane appeared in the sky above us and performed tricks overhead. I expect he was practicing for an air show or similar, but it made for quite spectacular entertainment as we departed Serbia! We enjoyed the sunshine and took a dip in the ships pool whilst absorbing the amazing scenery around us. We watched, impressed, as two very keen American ladies did endless laps of the ships walking track through the afternoon, they later joked that it was only so they could indulge more at dinner. The ship does also feature a modest, but well stocked, fitness room, which you can use at your leisure, however with views this good why bother! We passed lots of little waterfront villages with pretty churches and somewhere along the way we passed into Croatia without even knowing it. I vowed to purchase a decent camera following this trip, as I wish I could have gotten better pictures as we floated through.
Presently we arrived at Ilok alongside a pretty pub with a large garden, where our coaches were waiting to take us on our next excursions. Daisy and Emma opted for the wine-tasting experience, but being a non-drinker I opted for the Vukovar Yugoslav Civil War tour and Natalie kindly offered to come and keep me company.
I didn’t really remember a great deal about the fighting that took place in Croatia and Serbia during the early 1990’s as I was still quite young, but I do remember it being on television and my Mum talking about how sad it was, so I was interested to learn more.
Firstly we travelled to the Ovcara Memorial, a shrine to the 264 people killed in the Vukovar massacre in 1991 by Serbian Militants. As we entered the dimly lit circular hangar, which stands on the same farm where the massacre took place, we could see the names and faces of the 263 men and 1 woman shining out from the walls. In the centre of the room stood an eternal flame with the names of the victims spiraling down into it. It was a very touching scene and everyone remained quiet whilst in the room. Back outside into the daylight we were duly taken in to our next destination, The Vukovar Cemetery.
At the Vukovar Memorial Cemetery we saw the graves of the victims of the massacre, as well as those of many soldiers who lost their lives during Croatia’s struggle for independence. I didn’t take any photos here as I didn’t feel it at all appropriate, this was a place for memory and reflection, not a tourist attraction. There were many families tending the graves of their fallen loved ones as we walked through the cemetery and I thought to take photos would be quite disrespectful. We came to a field filled with white crosses. Our guide explained there were 938, one for every homeland War Victim. It was really quite a dramatic and devastating scene.
Getting back on the bus there was quite a feeling of melancholy among the group. We then drove to Vukovar city with our guide pointing out various sites as we went. We drove through the city before being dropped off to walk the last leg of our excursion back to the river, to meet the AmaPrima which all this time had been heading up river without us.
As we walked through Vukovar it struck me how much newer the buildings were than what we had seen previously in other cities. Of course this was largely because the city had been virtually raised to the ground during the war and then been rebuilt. The older buildings that we did see had clear evidence of bomb damage and bullet holes in the walls.
We noticed that there were mosquitoes everywhere at all our locations today. Our guide explained that the recent flooding, combined with high temperatures had provided perfect mosquito breeding conditions. This meant the population was much larger than normal. Fortunately I had put repellent on, but poor Natalie was virtually being chased round these locations by these mini vampires, baying for her blood! She had already received a few nasty bites before Emma and I had joined the voyage, and some of them were rather nasty. Fortunately the Australian group had their own medic with them, the very lovely Dr. Dave, who got the appropriate medication and checked on her regularly.
The AmaPrima arrived right on schedule as we got back to the river. One thing to mention about river cruising is that you often find your ship rafted up against another. This means you are sometimes crossing another ships sundeck or through the ship to disembark. the result is that this type of voyage is not wheelchair friendly or suitable for those who struggle with stairs. The AmaPrima does have a lift to most levels, but this does not include the lower deck (the cheap seats…. where we were!) or the sun deck.
Back onboard and it was a quick change for dinner. We had booked into the intimate ‘Erlbenis’, the specialty Chef’s table restaurant, on the ship for dinner and had been promised something very special. Every course that was bought before us was more delicious than the last. We indulged in six courses of entree, starter, soup, fish, main course and dessert. Restaurants usually have me at dessert, but this one had me at every course from the delicious cauliflower soup, yes cauliflower… really!… to the main of melt in your mouth lamb cutlets I enjoyed every mouthful.
After finally eating our fill, chatting and enjoying the viewing of Croatia glistening outside the panoramic windows from the rear of the ship, we once again weaved our way to the bar where we were joined by some of our new friends we had made on our trip. We chatted with young American couple Aaron and Tricia who were living in Italy whilst serving in the military, but clearly ventured far and wide as often as they could. Another American couple Bob and Donna offered to show us around their suite, which was very exciting, and much nicer than our lowly lower deck cabin with portholes. Their large floor space and sweeping double veranda was positive luxury. In fact nearly all the staterooms onboard the AmaPrima feature double balconies… except ours, hahaha! We had been warned that we were in for an early wakeup call in the morning by Dragan, due to Hungarian customs requiring a face check upon entry to Hungary, so after a few dances with our friendly Australians travel companions we made our way to our beds.
Dragan hadn’t been over-exaggerating when at 6am he awoke us from our beds using the ships PA system and called us floor by floor to come through reception. The process was highly efficient and smooth. We walked into reception on one side, collected our passports, which were kept safely at reception throughout our trip, did a swift lap of the lounge where we arrived back the other side of reception, where a customs officer checked our faces against our passport and then handed the passport back to reception. Less than five minutes later we were back in our beds deciding whether to doze or get up. With the temptation of breakfast and Hungary beckoning to us from the window we decided to get up and see what adventures were to be found today. Over a nice breakfast of waffles, croissants and chocolate spread we took a look at our excursion options for the day. With Natalie and Daisy again opting for the bike tour Emma and I chose the walking tour of Pécs. Pécs is a city I had never even heard of before this trip, but I am always keen to explore strange new lands so we jumped off the ship where we were moored at Mohács and gathered by our waiting coach.
The drive to Pécs was around an hour but the scenery was wonderful as we drove through the countryside, past farmland and little villages, so the time flew by. We arrived in Pécs and our guide led us through the side streets and into the city centre. Our first stop was the Basilica of St. Peter. Our guide explained the history of the cathedral before leading us inside for a good look inside this magnificent building. Whilst looking like wallpaper the fascinating artwork and patterns were painted directly onto the walls and ceilings. I can only imagine how many year this took. Having been in the Sistine chapel this was much along the same lines and scale… but with a lot less tourists and it was free!
After leaving the cathedral we walked the short distance to the crypts where we were guided through the various tombs with the guide pointing out various points of symbology and differences between the tombs to illustrate who would have been interred there. It was very interesting, but involved a lot of steps and was not suitable for the less able in our group.
Heading now towards the main town square we passed along streets where we found railings upon railings covered with padlocks. Our guide explained these were traditional love locks as found in many cities in Europe and indeed the world. Many locks were inscribed or decorated with people’s names or just left plain. The guide said whilst it was traditional to throw the key in the river to ensure the bond of love could never be broken it was slightly harder in Pécs, which doesn’t have a major river like other cities do. He pointed out his lock, which he had placed with his girlfriend several years earlier and said he had taken his key all the way to New York to throw in a river.
Walking deeper into the city we saw fascinating statues, artwork and street markets. This was the first city on our trip which I had found a real desire to come back and visit one day. Entering the main square we found the Mosque of pasha Qaim the Victorius Synagogue, which unfortunately was closed for renovations, the city hall and a giant horse which was apparently there to promote an exhibition. The square was immaculate and looked like it has recently been renovated with modern lighting and landscape. A very cool place to sit and hang out and enjoy the city.
Our guide left us to explore the side streets of the main square ourselves for an hour or so, but not before pointing out an ice cream stall which had “the best ice cream in the world”. Emma and I took this as our cue to put this claim to the test and we weren’t disappointed… delicious! For anyone visiting Pécs the stall in question is on Király Street, just off the main square next to McDonalds. Ice creams in hand we continued down Király Street and were astounded by the beauty of this little street. There were beautiful buildings, boutique shops, small squares with fountains and we just soaked up the atmosphere. We truly found it amazing that such a beautiful city as this, with so much to see is so unknown to the rest of the world… a real hidden gem. Making our way back to the meeting point we chatted with Dr. Dave who told us about his ten children (!) back home in Australia and the ranch they lived on. He said while he was a GP back home he was lucky enough to be able to come along on trips such as these as a medic. You really do meet the most interesting people when you travel if you take the time to chat.
Back on the coach and back to the ship we killed time chatting in the lounge, taking advantage of the free wi-fi, as it was now drizzling slightly outside. That evening it was the Captain’s Gala Farewell Dinner and we were told this was an opportunity to dress up. Dressed in our finest we headed to the bar for cocktail reception (well orange juice in my case!). Presently our Captain came over the microphone and to welcome all of the ships staff to the lounge and introduced everyone individually, slightly disconcerting when you consider the ship was moving at this point… err who’s driving this thing! Every crew member was given rapturous applause and looked genuinely excited and happy to be part of the final night celebrations. They danced and waved as we clapped. Finally everyone had been thanked and Dragan announced dinner was served if we headed downstairs to the restaurant.
The Captains dinner was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with four delicious courses and we had been promised a surprise ending. After the main course was ended the sound of the Radetzky Marsch came over the speakers and the kitchen and wait staff paraded through the restaurant waving sparklers and holding our dessert high above their heads. This was one of my all-time favourite desserts of baked alaska so I was thrilled. Each plate was finished with the final touch of a profiterole swan and AmaPrima written in chocolate sauce… a masterpiece!
After dinner we made our way up to the lounge where we enjoyed dancing to Miklos on his piano. We did quite a good job of getting the other guests up on the dance floor and stopping them going to bed too early, as it was the last night and we had a fab time dancing with our new friends. As the wee small hours approached we fell into bed as the ship went full steam ahead through the night to Budapest.
We had set our alarms early (6am) for our final day as our transfer was picking us up at 9am and we wanted to attempt to see at least some of Budapest before leaving. We grabbed a quick breakfast and then jumped back onto land for a quick hour scout round. Natalie knew of an indoor market close to where we were docked and after a fast hike up and down the riverbank for photo opportunities we headed to the market and managed to have a nose round. There were exotic looking food stalls which we were itching to buy from but not sure if we could take the wares through customs in our hand luggage, so we resisted temptation.
Back on the ship our transfer arrived to take us to the airport and we got another look at Budapest from the taxi. It was a shame we didn’t get to see more of Budapest, particularity the iconic parliament buildings, but hopefully one day I’ll return to see it again properly. Annoyingly when we arrived at the airport we discovered our flight was an hour delayed so we could have had more time, but that’s travel I guess!
Budapest is a substantial airport, with good facilities and we enjoyed a sandwich and bought some souvenirs. We were slightly nervous as we were again changing flights and were wary if the flight was delayed further we could risk missing our connection. Fortunately, it wasn’t delayed further and we were landing in Bruges with about 45 minutes to make our connection. Unfortunately it was in a different terminal building so we really had to hot foot it to be on time. This is where we were very glad we only had hand luggage! Arriving with just minutes before boarding began we were rather out of breathe! Bizarrely though we were then shepherded onto buses and driven back to the original terminal where we boarded a plane at the gate next to the one we had just got off! We had to laugh though as we were just relieved to have made our connection and still on a high from our amazing trip.
Landing back safely in England we headed home in the sunshine with smiles on our faces and planning where we wanted to visit next. I can honestly say I had visited three countries which probably wouldn’t have even been in my top ten of destinations to visit, and I had enjoyed every single one and bought back some great memories.
Don’t be on a diet… I ate steak three times in as many days onboard this voyage, which is probably more times than I’ve eaten it in the entire rest of my life. European ice cream is far superior to what we have in the UK, so indulge while you can. Don’t be afraid to try something new. I would never eat cauliflower soup at home, but I did here and it was an absolute revelation!
Bring your brolley… European weather is unpredictable, particularly the further north you go, and you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. Fortunately our ship provided umbrellas in every cabin and we didn’t get much more than a touch of drizzle… be prepared though!
Check the currency! It is easy to assume when travelling in Europe that the Euro will be the currency. We cruised through three countries and none of them had the Euro. Fortunately other European countries are much more receptive to accepting than Euro than we are in the UK, and we had didn’t really have any problems, other than one supermarket where I was able to use my card instead. Having said that practically everything was included with our time on the ship and all we really needed to pay for were souvenirs and the odd drink onboard outside of meal times. There is a small salon and treatment room onboard the ship, which obviously incur additional payments.
Always have mosquito repellent on hand, even when you don’t expect to need it! You never know when those dastardly bugs will launch an air strike against you! River cruises don’t generally have medical facilities on board, we were lucky on this occasion that Dr. Dave was onboard. Insect bites can turn nasty quickly so prevention is always easier than cure.
If you want a real hidden European Gem visit Pécs. It was my favourite destination of the trip and one I honestly hope I get to see again.