When he was reporting on the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, Martin Bell never dreamt he’d spend his retirement sailing down the Danube with British tourists. The former MP and BBC correspondent dipped his toe into the world of river cruising three years ago, and hasn’t looked back.
“River cruises attract people who have a historical interest and don’t just want to lie around in the sun,” he explains. “You stop in different towns and cities every day and that’s the charm of it. You’re beautifully looked after. The food is good, the bar is great and you get an interesting view wherever you go. There’s a great spirit of camaraderie because over a week or so you just about get to know everybody.”
River cruising is the fastest-growing sector of the UK market – the Rhine is currently the most popular choice, but the Danube is rapidly catching up. So far Bell has stuck to the southern end of the Danube, from Budapest to Bucharest (the last stretch is by coach, after disembarking in the Romanian city of Giurgiu) with Emerald Waterways. Alternatively, you can do a Danube cruise that starts in Austria, taking in Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava.
Which are Bell’s favourite stops? “Budapest has the most fantastic waterfront because you tend to berth right opposite the parliament building [pictured above]. The passengers embark in the evening and the captain takes them up and down the river, past the illuminations, before you head downstream.
“There’s only one day when you don’t stop: you go through a gorge called the Iron Gates on the border of Serbia and Romania, and that’s absolutely beautiful. But my favourite stopping- off place is a town called Vukovar in Croatia, which was completely demolished in November 1991 during the Croatian war. I was there when it fell after a three-month siege by the Serbs. A lot of European money has gone into rebuilding the old palaces and churches.”
He has two pieces of advice for river-cruising novices. The first is to do your homework. “I think you get more out of it if you study the history a bit before you go. The classic work is The Death of Yugoslavia [by Allan Little and Laura Silber, which accompanied a 1995 BBC documentary of the same name], and I happen to have written a book on it myself – In Harm’s Way, which is about the Bosnian War.”
And the second tip? “Some excursions are going to appeal more to you than others. Decide if you want to visit Hungary’s Paprika Museum, or if you don’t. I like to wander off and do my own thing. One of the secrets of cruising is knowing when not to get off the boat. I wrote one of my silly poems about it: