Silence came over the group, our pace slowed, there was a feeling of apprehension in the air. I was deep in Dracula country, about to enter the tiny church where the notorious vampire is said to be buried.
The man behind the name, Vlad Tepes, was a cruel prince, notorious for impaling fields full of people, and nailing men’s hats to their heads if they didn’t take them off when they met him. It felt spooky as I ducked my head to enter this 13th century tomb covered in frescoes. It was dark at first and cold. Would there be bats, I wondered? As my eyes adjusted to the candlelight, there laid into the stone floor, was the grave of one of history’s legends. Well, so they say. No one’s really sure if he’s actually there or not.
Bucharest, the capital of Romania, was the starting point of my 12-day sojourn along the Danube River, which by the way, isn’t blue! Once the meeting place of merchants from the Orient and Europe, this ancient city has had its fair share of upheavals and uprisings. Today, it’s a melting pot of old and new. I strolled through the Old City, where there are quaint cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants offering local delights such as goulash and fish stew.
Sightseeing the ancient townships of Russe and Arbanasi in Bulgaria completed another day. Ambling along cobblestoned laneways which date back to the 12th century, I peeked at unearthed frescoes, hidden for hundreds of years under black candle soot, watched the village women hand-stitch their intricate tablecloths and tasted €5000/kg ($A7050) rose oil.
The ship travelled the Danube River through black-soiled fertile land, dotted with villages, monasteries and castles to reach the Iron Gate, Europe’s most impressive river gorge. Comprising three very narrow gorges, it features stunning valleys, jagged cliffs, water up to 90m deep and the Romanian Carpathian Mountains on one side with the Serbian Balkans on the other.
We passed by forts, castle ruins, a church seemingly balanced on the water’s edge, before coming across a gigantic 40m-high rock sculpture of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia.
Over the next few days, I shopped in Serbia’s capital Belgrade, one of the oldest capital cities in Europe, enjoyed a home-cooked lunch in a Hungarian family home, rode a bike along country paths, indulged in wine and cheese tastings, visited a 14th century fortress, and best of all, I managed to score a traditional Hungarian stew recipe from a little old woman.
The final day saw the ship pull to a stop in the pearl of the Danube, Budapest. We moored opposite the magnificent Parliament building and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore. The day went quickly as I climbed Castle Hill, traversed the Chain Bridge and hit the shops along the pedestrian zone in the Old City.