Rising deep in the Black Forest mountains, the meandering Danube forges an easterly course, cutting across no fewer than ten countries on its inexorable path towards the Black Sea. This fabled waterway is a cultural lifeline and vital shipping route; it's also been a creative and political hotspot for millennia.
And herein lays the attraction of the eastern Danube for anyone interested in modern-day geopolitics and Balkan history. It's also an excellent option for those who've experienced the storied upper reaches of the Danube to expand their horizons eastwards along Europe's second longest river, so much of which was hidden behind the Iron Curtain.
I joined one of Viking River Cruises' Longships in Budapest as part of an 11-day 'Passage to Eastern Europe' cruise tour. Following a two-night stay and with the illuminated façades of some of the Hungarian capital's most iconic buildings bathing the Danube in an ethereal golden light, Viking Idun began her voyage to the Black Sea.
In Kalocsa's baroque 18th century Assumption Cathedral an organ recital provided a perfect overture to our cruise. The tour continued across the Great Hungarian Plain to the Bakodpustza Equestrian Centre for a spectacle of skilled horsemanship.
The following day we arrived in Croatia. At Vukovar the included excursion headed to the baroque gem of Osijek. After an amble around the fortified Tvrda, a soprano gave a superb rendition of sacred choral works in the Holy Cross Church as a reverent peace enveloped the audience of latter-day Vikings.
The music theme continued in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, which lies at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Here I joined an optional 'behind the scenes tour' of the National Theatre which concluded with operatic arias performed by an accomplished soprano and tenor. It's wise to take the ship's tours in Serbia and Bulgaria as all writing is in Cyrillic.
Separating Serbia from Romania, the Iron Gates are four narrow gorges that create an 83-mile stretch of waterway bounded by steep cliffs. I had my camera ready as we sailed past a giant rock sculpture of King Decebalus; later our captain deftly navigated the Djerdap locks of the Iron Gate Dam, lowering the vessel 63 feet to sea level.
The Danube flows through a constantly changing bucolic tableau. The riverbanks stretch upwards towards sage-green hills interspersed with darker patches of trees; in the foreground black cormorants sit on tree stumps unperturbed by barn swallows darting across the surface of this silvery ribbon of liquid history.
Natural hues were replaced by monochrome at the forlorn Bulgarian port of Vidin; here a tour took me to Belogradchik where formidable rock pinnacles rise above the Kaleto Fortress, a lofty lookout built by the Romans. From Ruse a whole-day tour visited Veliko Târnovo, one of Bulgaria's oldest towns, known for its historic lanes and 19th century buildings; as well as the village of Arbanassi, where ancient frescoes adorn tiny churches.
After seven nights on the Danube, the cruise concluded at Giurgiu, however the cruise-tour also included a two-night exploration of Bucharest - a vibrant city overflowing with Belle Époque architecture.
Highlights of a three-night post-cruise extension trip to Transylvania were Peles Castle and Bran Castle - a bastion of imposing towers and turrets best known for inspiring the myth of Bram Stoker's Dracula.