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A day in the life of a Saga Danube cruise


Breakfast is at 07.30 (earlier if you want a cup of tea in the lounge) and the dining room is busy. Most passengers seem to know the form and are filling bowls with cereal and fruit, and loading scrambled egg with hashbrowns and bacon onto huge plates. The food is excellent. Tea is the usual washout – teabags added to sub-boiling water – disappointing for a holiday targeted at the Brits.

On deck it’s sunny with a fresh breeze. Pete and I indulge ourselves in a game of giant chess, moving our pieces forward in steady, strategic (we hope) formations. Pete’s sudden exultation at taking my queen is dampened on realising that he has mistaken his bishop for a pawn. We leave the pieces poised but intact, to go ashore.

Ken takes the coach tour to Heroes Square (Pest) and the Palace (Buda) but I go my own way, having spent several days exploring the city the previous year. I walk southwards along the river bank and am surprised to find that the walkway extends well beyond the port frontage, where a dozen or so river cruise ships lie hawsered to the bank. The port road bends inland but the walkway continues for a couple of kilometres past three bridges downriver from the city centre. I wonder how I had missed it in last year’s explorations. I pass attractive small parks and play areas, fine new buildings, and train and tram lines running south. Just beyond the third bridge there is an abandoned quay with rusting bollards and boarded-up offices, which must once have played an active part in the industry of the river. But once again there is no sign of possible means of travelling down river, except for the Danube Cycleway path bending inland from the abandoned wharf.

The ship is deserted on my return and I venture into the pool on deck. It is very cold, and not even ‘all right when you get in’. Fortunately the air is warm and the deckchairs are comfortable. Carolyn very kindly brings me coffee and biscuits on deck. She is embracing the spirit of on-board life.

Lunch is excellent, our safe has been repaired and I settle down with Heikell’s River Guide before getting underway.

I am slightly unnerved as we make way upstream for some way, past the great buildings and sights of Budapest, and wonder if we have got on the wrong cruise. Reassuringly the ship makes a grand turn above Margiszgeti island and heads back downstream, southwards towards Serbia. We are on our way.

My plan is to follow our progress with the help of Heikell’s excellent river guide, a little dated now from 1991 but still invaluable. But just as I get settled we are called for a lifesaving demonstration in the lounge. It’s mostly about how to put on your lifejacket. I don’t care to think about what would happen if the vessel were involved in a very bad collision and took on much water, given its shallow draught and top-heavy structure. Nor do I like to think about how many of the passengers could possibly cope in such a situation. But then again given their intrepid spirit, I might be surprised. And fortunately the risk is very low.

No sooner is the lifesaving routine over, than we are entertained by a ‘cocktail demonstration’ from the bar, led by the Head Barman and Leonard, one of the Saga staff. Leonard is a born raconteur and showman, and describes each drink in loving detail, while the former pours arcs of martini, gin, brandy, slivovic and whatever else into tumblers, shaking them up to produce an elegant blue/green/yellow concoction for Leonard to taste. It’s a good show. And the drinks are delicious.

By the time I resume ‘navigating’, it is time for more drinks on deck, the four of us round one of the more sheltered tables. The air is cool but there is a delightful early evening sun, and we celebrate our journey – we are heading for the Black Sea.

We have been warned that there may be some delay as we clear Hungarian Customs at Mohacs, some 200km downstream from Budapest. We may be held up by boats travelling ahead. Curiously, although I note that we seem to be travelling at a good pace – about 20kph – Mohacs never seems to materialise, despite our scheduled arrival at 18.00. After another excellent dinner, the evening wears on. There is a strange tension aboard. Given that passengers will have to present themselves with their passports to the Customs officials, they are not sure whether to stay up or retire. It is 23.00 by the time we get to Mohacs and there is another boat still at the pier, to which we come alongside.

We are told it will be some time yet. Most passengers have now disappeared to their cabins. I stay up, curious to observe proceedings – or the lack of them. But nothing happens. Ken has long gone to our cabin and I eventually join him. We sleep fitfully.

Book coverAt 01.30 the speakers suddenly call for passengers to be on deck with their passports. If older people are often characterised by grumpiness, these passengers are hiding it well. But trooping down the aisles and shuffling down the steps, the crowd definitely look sullen, possibly on the brink of something more serious. My attempt to lighten the atmosphere with yellow shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Marx and the words ‘I told you it would come to this’ raises a flicker of appreciation from Leonard and some of his colleagues, but otherwise falls on stony ground – perhaps fortunately given the seriousness of the Hungarian Customs operation.

Why Hungarian Customs make such a shenanigans at Mohacs is not at all clear. Perhaps it is something to do with the catastrophic defeat the Hungarians suffered here at the hands of the Turks in 1526, ushering in the Ottoman Empire for the next 150 years …

Whatever the reason, we all lose a lot of sleep that night.

The endless river: 1640 kilometres from Budapest to the Black Sea

Extracted from Slow Boats to Europe by Trevo Cherrett. Order your copy here.

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