The Danube

Not surprisingly, Duck Holiday loves a river and the Danube is truly magnificent. It is the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga) and flows through ten countries (for those wishing to name all of them and not wanting a ‘spoiler’, these are listed below this article).

The Danube begins its winding way across Central and Eastern Europe in the Black Forest, at Donauschigen (Donau is the German name for the river). The trek takes it all the way to the Black Sea, its terminus being the town of Sulina in Romania. During its journey, it passes through four capital cities, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade.

Vienna is, of course, synonymous with the Danube because of the Blue Danube Waltz (1876) of Johann Strauss. Do not, however, be fooled into thinking that the river that runs around the edge of the city centre is the Danube itself. This is, in fact, the Danube Canal (Donaukanal), one of many tentacles of the main river, which runs to the eastern side of the city, but is reached easily by tram or U-bahn.

The canal, not the river

The canal, not the river

From Vienna, it is a short hop to Bratislava. Indeed, the two cities are the closest neighbouring capitals in Europe. The Danube divides the city, with the historic Old Town on the northern side and the newer housing districts to the south.

Heavy traffic at Bratislava

Heavy traffic at Bratislava

Six bridges cross the river, with the most prominent being the ‘UFO Bridge’, with its alien spaceship appearance and café perched at the top. The much older railway bridge once carried trams that chugged all the way to Vienna.

UFO sighting

UFO sighting

There are plenty of boat trips to be had and you can even stay – as did Duck Holiday – in a ‘botel’. Small bars dot the riverbank and many of these little pubs sell very cheap beer, not the worst way to spend a warm summer evening.

River, sunshine, bar - what's not to like?

River, sunshine, bar – what’s not to like?

The river wends its way down to Hungary and forms the divide between the Buda and Pest parts of the capital. On the Buda side, the Royal Palace overlooks the river and the gloriously Gothic Parliament building can be seen far below on the opposite bank.

The view of Parliament

The view of Parliament

To the north of Budapest is the famous Danube Bend, where Rome built garrisons and where the historic towns of Esztergom and Visegrád were constructed in later years. The former was the home of Christianity in Hungary and is still the seat of the country’s archbishop. Visegrád, on the narrowest part of the Danube, was the home of Hungarian royalty and the largely-reconstructed Royal Palace sits on a hill above the river.

Duck Holiday and friends take a break

Duck Holiday and friends take a break

Onwards to Serbia, where the Danube meets another imposing river, the Sava, in Belgrade. Fortresses and rivers form a natural partnership, and here the imposing Kalemegdan Fortress stands above the point where the two great rivers collide and the Danube presses on eastwards.

Duck Holiday scales the fortress

Duck Holiday scales the fortress

Danube at Belgrade

Danube at Belgrade

The Danube reaches a suitably spectacular conclusion in the shape of the Danube Delta. Most of this area is located in Romania, with its more northerly parts in Ukraine. The area is a designated World Heritage Site and it is not difficult to see why. More than 300 species of birds have been identified, making it one of the most important wildlife habitats in Europe.

For human travellers, there are plenty of boat excursions and scenic walks to be had all along the river’s trail. For the more energetic, there is the Danube Bike Trail, taking in a mind-boggling 2,875 kilometres. This is recommended only to the fittest of the fit, those with steel hawsers for legs. The rest of us can find plenty of enjoyment from boat trips, gentle strolls and refreshments at the plethora of restaurants and bars that line the river.

* Countries through which the Danube flows: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

Bratislava – Street Art and Style

Sometimes, you hear the view espoused that Bratislava is a kind of poor man’s Prague, a pale imitation of the real thing. Yes, it’s quite nice, but Prague is the place you really want to visit. Bratislava is okay for a few hours, they’ll tell you, but nothing more than that.

This view is not only lazy, but plain wrong. For one thing, Bratislava is nearer to Vienna than it is to the Czech capital, the two cities being Europe’s closest capitals. For another, and more important factor, Bratislava has its own distinct character, with a few delightful quirks that give it an individual style.

One way to enjoy a stay in central Bratislava without incurring too much expense is to stay on a boat. There are several ‘botels’ moored on the Danube and apart from being near the centre, the experience offers novelty value. Unless, of course, you happen to live on a boat.

One sight on the river that you can’t miss – in any sense – is the UFO Bridge. Its real title is the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising and though it looks rather 21st-century, it was, in fact, completed in 1972. You can go up to the top of the ‘spacecraft’ via a lift (unless you really want to walk up 430 steps) and have a coffee or a meal in the restaurant. From there, you get a fantastic view of the city and if you sit still for long enough, you find yourself looking at a different part because the place revolves (very slowly, thankfully). In the evenings, it becomes a nightclub.

The UFO

The UFO

Another place to provide a panoramic view is the castle, which affords a sight of the city of Bratislava, but of neighbouring Austria as well. Like many European castles, this one has undergone much rebuilding and restoration, resulting in a mix of styles from Gothic and Renaissance through to Baroque. The site houses the current Parliament building, a rather dismal grey box of concrete, and also the Museum of History and Music Museum.

Bratislava (duck cam view)

Bratislava (duck cam view)

One of the remaining parts of the medieval fortifications of the city is St. Michael’s Gate. The lovely Baroque tower houses a small museum and at the top, there is another wonderful viewing point. Bratislava does scenic views very well.

The Castle

The Castle

The street below the gate is, apparently, one of the most expensive in Europe and clearly designed for those with far too much money. Designer names abound on the shops and the restaurants are not for those of us looking for good value. A quick departure to a place of more modest ambition is required and there are plenty of those, even in the central parts of the city. It’s not hard to find somewhere to refuel for a fraction of the cost of the area around St Michael’s.

Something that costs nothing at all is an exploration of one of Bratislava’s endearing traits, street sculpture. A figure appears from a manhole in the street; a shady-looking paparazzo snaps passers-by outside a restaurant; a Napoleonic soldier leans nonchalantly on the back of a bench in the main square. In Hviezdoslav Square, you’ll also bump into a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, who was so complimentary about Bratislava that the favour was returned.

As you might expect, Slovakia is big on beer (one thing it does have in common with Prague). There are the usual international conglomerates and there is a fair amount of Czech beer to be found, but there is also a pleasing growth of micro-breweries and brew pubs. A good example of a proper, no-nonsense pub with its own brewery is Pivovarský Hostinec Richtár Jakub, which is near the university and which sells not only its own beer, but a range of guest beers from elsewhere.

There is no shortage of places to have a good drink and even in the central part of town, it doesn’t have to be expensive. One option, particularly in the summer, is to find a little bar down by the river and sit outside with a very cheap glass of beer while watching the evening sun go down.

Bratislava’s proximity to Vienna is reflected in the culture of music, theatre, opera and ballet. Just near the watching statue of Andersen, the ‘old’ National Theatre building in the Old Town is a glorious neo-Renaissance affair dating from the 1880s and the Austro-Hungarian days. Sadly, the use of this theatre is being overtaken by the ‘new’ National Theatre, which took more than twenty years to build and finally opened in 2007. Presumably, such a length of time was required to design and construct a building as hideous as this.

The main square

The main square

Mercifully, though, there is more to Bratislava than the odd hideous building. These things happen in any city and sometimes, buildings are so bad that they become attractions of their own. Bratislava’s sights, museums, restaurants, bars, parks and streets are a match for anywhere in Europe, all with the bonus of the magnificent Danube at its heart. Don’t for a minute believe all that stuff about Bratislava being merely Prague’s poorer little brother.

Bucharest – Europe’s Fragmented Capital

Patriarchal Palace

Patriarchal Palace

The Croatian visitor was clearly baffled. “Can you tell me,” he asked, “where the city centre is?” There wasn’t a simple answer, other than “There isn’t really a city centre. There’s a lot of city, but no centre to it.”

Thus is Bucharest. The great part of the blame for the fragmentation of the city lies with Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Romanian president for 22 years. Ceaucescu it was who commissioned the giant palace that he was never to see completed, an edifice so huge that much of Bucharest’s old centre had to be destroyed.

It wasn’t just the palace, but the other stuff that went with it; the enormous grounds, the luxury flats near it, built for the party apparatchiks and the wide, tree-lined boulevard that leads to it. The whole area takes up a huge amount of space and churches, shops, houses and even a football stadium and monastery were razed to make room for it all.

That palace

That palace

The palace, despite its enormity, is not architecturally appalling, but the hideousness is more in what it stood for. This was megalomania at its most extreme and Bucharest continues to suffer from the dictator’s giant ego.

The result is that Bucharest is not the most picturesque of cities, but there is still plenty to see, although you might have to hunt around a bit. One thing to be aware of is that Bucharest does not expect tourists and as such, finding anything by way of information locally is not easy. Even fairly straightforward stuff like finding out when the airport bus runs becomes something you need to appoint a project manager for (in fact, the buses are very frequent and cost less than a couple of pounds).

This has positives and negatives. The place is not thronged with visitors, so there is not a huge choice of cafes, restaurants and bars. On the other hand, while these may take a little more finding, there are some decent places and they tend to be quite cheap. There’s a small area to the north-west of Unirii Square that is packed with faux Irish pubs, sports bars and similarly unimaginative offerings, but keeping them all in one area at least means it’s easy to avoid them.

Something definitely worth trying is Romanian wine, which doesn’t get exported much. It is not expensive, certainly by western standards, and red wine in particular is very good. Food tends towards the meaty – Romanians seem to enjoy large chunks of meat – and don’t be surprised to see all sorts of animal on the menu. One restaurant was serving ‘bear in mustard sauce’, though presumably not the whole bear.

Nothing should cost very much, whether it be food and drink or cultural activities. Bucharest is full of theatres, though all productions are in Romanian. Visitors, therefore, might prefer to visit the National Opera, which performs regularly. Tickets are very cheap, as they are for another favourite Romanian pastime, football. Bucharest has three major clubs, Steaua, Dinamo and Rapid, each with its own stadium. The Steaua versus Dinamo derby might not be the ideal fixture for those of a nervous disposition.

Something else guaranteed to make one jittery is the plethora of stray dogs. There are vast numbers in Bucharest and they have organised themselves into feral packs. These are dogs that were pets, but have been abandoned. The authorities claimed that they had not tackled the problem because public opinion was opposed to the destruction of the animals, though if people were so concerned, would they be there at all? It is, though a serious problem and walking past a group of 50 or 60 hungry dogs can certainly be a disconcerting experience. Recently, though, a small child was killed by stray dogs and this appears to have forced the government to do something at last. Certainly, something needs to happen, with reported figures of 65,000 dogs on the streets and more than 10,000 people treated for dog bites in the first eight months of 2013.

National Theatre

National Theatre

On a more uplifting note, while Bucharest may not be overloaded with museums, it has some interesting ones. The National Museum of Romanian History is a fine neoclassical building and is also well worth seeing inside. The highlight is a full-scale replica and frieze of Trajan’s Column, depicting the conflict between the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan and the Dacians, an early Romanian people, in the early second century.

The Peasant Museum is, perhaps, even better. It’s a large museum with thousands of exhibits and it’s also somewhere to buy a genuinely decent souvenir in the museum’s shop. There are regular, usually monthly, craft fairs held in the courtyard. The seemingly innumerable hand-painted Easter eggs catch the eye, but there is a lot more besides. The prices here can be a bit steeper, but the quality of the crafts is a great deal higher than the standard kind of tat sold in the average souvenir shop.

It’s almost impossible to visit Romania and not encounter Dracula in some form and indeed, Bucharest has a restaurant called Count Dracula, where a waiter makes intermittent appearances from a coffin. Meanwhile, on the Danube, relatives of Count Duckula paddle along, though they are more interested by the tasty Romanian black bread that is thrown to them than in vampirical ventures.

Duckula and friends

Duckula and friends

Bucharest might not be high on the wish lists of many tourists and it’s true that the city has been left as something of a patchwork quilt, but there is plenty there if you look for it and that is part of the fun of visiting a place. Now and then, there’s a pleasant surprise waiting.