I went on a 17-day, 6-country river cruise, and found out why they’re so popular

There’s a climactic moment on every long journey. You’ll recognise it as that turning point when the fresh memories are behind you and ahead lies the promise of home. That crescendo came for me when the heavy, industrial gates of Romania’s Agigea lock started to heave open, simultaneously revealing the expansive harbour at Constanta and setting a flock of seagulls aflutter into the hazy dawn.

After a two-week river cruise along the meandering Danube, watching baroque capitals morph into forest-lined wetlands alive with birdsong, I had finally reached the Black Sea.

River cruises are not usually this long – they typically last a week to 10 days, with geography being the limiting factor. But globally, extended river journeys have been surging in popularity, with a flurry of new weeks-long holidays launched this year. The longest by far is a seven-week sojourn aboard the MV Ganga Vilas, sailing the Ganges between India and Bangladesh. My journey – Viking’s Capitals of Eastern Europe cruise-tour – is far more modest.

The cruise ends at Constanta in Romania (Photo: Cojocea Mircea Alexandru/Getty Images)
The cruise ends at Constanta in Romania (Photo: Cojocea Mircea Alexandru/Getty Images)

Comparatively short at 17 days, it’s a romp through the six fascinating countries down-river from the Austrian capital Vienna (through Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania) before finishing on dry land with two days in Bucharest. Compared to traditional cruises, you get more stops and more time in each one. Such has been its popularity that I had to change my travel plans several times because the dates I wanted kept selling out.

Value for money is a part of it. With the lowest fare just shy of £4,700pp, it’s certainly not cheap. But for that you get two weeks’ all-inclusive cruising with Wi-Fi and tips covered, two nights’ B&B in a five-star hotel in Bucharest, all transfers and return flights to London.

Setting it apart from an expensive hotel stay are the complimentary excursions in every port, with knowledgeable guides chaperoning bus and walking tours that feature intimate concerts, museum visits and a taste of the local food.

Most of my fellow travellers were retirees from the US. “On a one-week cruise, the demographic is much younger,” says Pablo Moles, programme director for my ship, Viking Rinda. “But most people can’t get the time off work for a long trip like this.” It’s true. I only managed to “take the time off” because I could work remotely – and judging by the number of laptops I spotted on the 190-passenger ship, I wasn’t alone.

Everyone had picked the cruise for a different reason though. Eric and Sally from North Carolina are veteran cruisers who have already ticked off the Amazon and Antarctica. This journey ticked three boxes: it was a great deal, departed at a convenient time and visited destinations they hadn’t been to before.

For Ed and Sally from Colorado, this was only their second cruise. Their previous trip covered the Danube upstream from Vienna, so this allowed them to see the rest of the river.

Desiree from Michigan had been travelling solo pretty much non-stop for the past few years as a tribute to her husband – they had been planning to travel together after retirement, but tragically he passed away just months before that could happen.

The length of the Danube means that the cruise can sail for more than two weeks, from Austria (pictured) to the Black Sea (Photo: Supplied)
The length of the Danube means that the cruise can sail for more than two weeks, from Austria (pictured) to the Black Sea (Photo: Supplied)

What caught my eye was the chance to visit big hitters like Vienna and Budapest as well as corners of Europe that were less familiar to me – places that would otherwise require multiple flights and long bus journeys to reach.

Vukovar in Croatia is one such place. Almost as far from the Dalmatian coast as you can get, on the border with Serbia, this city isn’t normally on the tourist trail – but its recent history is both enticing and heartbreaking.

In August 1991, the city came under siege during the Croatian War of Independence, and for almost three months it was bombarded by neighbouring Serbs until it was overrun. Some 90 per cent of the city was destroyed and more than 20,000 residents were exiled. Today, a water tower pockmarked by artillery stands as a reminder of the war, while a bombed-out house perennially overflowing with flowers serves as a memorial for those who lost their lives.

Vukovar water tower stands as a symbolic reminder of the war (Photo: Sandra Leidholdt/Getty Images)
Vukovar water tower stands as a symbolic reminder of the war (Photo: Sandra Leidholdt/Getty Images)

There’s also Donji Milanovac, a sleepy Serbian town with fewer than 2,500 residents. In summer, the population swells with hikers destined for Djerdap National Park, where forested trails lead to viewpoints overlooking the fjord-like Iron Gate, the narrowest point on the Danube. Nearby is Lepenski Vir, an archeological site showing evidence of an urban settlement dating back to 9000BC, the earliest in Europe.

One thing I didn’t expect was that life on board was surprisingly hectic. After the near-daily excursions, there were guest lectures from experts and performances from local bands and dance troops. And after dinner, musical quizzes and game shows.

All too soon, the ship was passing through the Agigea lock, swapping the calm of the river for the gentle sway of the sea. As I stood on the top deck of the ship, watching the slow transition, it struck me that this long journey had turned out to be a whirlwind romance that had swept me off my feet. I wasn’t ready for it to end.

Viking’s 17-day Capitals of Eastern Europe cruise starts from £4,695pp on an all-inclusive basis. The next departure is 17 March, 2024. The price includes 12 guided excursions, Wi-Fi on board, all tips, flights and transfers.