Moments after we start canoeing down the River Danube, drum beats pierce the previously tranquil air. Then the sound of cannon fire reverberates. There's no need for alarm, though. Our guide, Zsolt, who's sitting behind me, helping us steer, points his paddle at the source of the commotion: the lower castle of Visegrad. It was built in the Middle Ages as part of a chain of hill fortifications to defend this riverside town, which was briefly – from AD1325 to AD1405 – the seat of Hungarian kings.
Now the castle entertains visitors with quirky events such as the medieval knights tournament, in which characters in period costumes wield swords, shields, archers' bows and, as we've heard, cannons. Imagine Game of Thrones, Hungarian-style but with less bloodshed and more laughs.
Visegrad straddles the Danube Bend, a wide, gorgeous curve of the river about 40 kilometres downstream from Budapest. We call in here on our cruise with Avalon and have a choice of "complimentary" shore excursions. Fellow guests enjoy the medieval-themed fun at the castle while others go wine-tasting in the local vineyards or hiking in the Duna-Ipoly national park.
A group of us opt to canoe, seduced by the opportunity to stretch our muscles, carve our own passage along the Danube and work off the delightful food and drink we've had on board Envision, the newest in Avalon's sleek fleet of river vessels. We pass the ship as we paddle out of Visegrad, which is dominated by a 333 metre-high wooded hill, crowned by a ruined citadel.
Visegrad dwindled in importance after the royal capital returned to Buda (part of present-day Budapest) and was later occupied by Turkish invaders after a siege. Fewer than 2000 people now live in Visegrad, with more than double that number residing in Nagymaros, a town on the other side of the river, which catches the eye with its cute, red-roofed houses.
There's ample opportunity to admire the scenery as we paddle, because the Danube is remarkably calm this fine spring afternoon. Flowing through or along the borders of 10 countries between the Black Forest and the Black Sea, the river is 2850 kilometres long. We plan to cover about 13 kilometres of it in our long, sturdy canoes.
There are five of us per canoe, including Zsolt, who ensures everything goes smoothly and reveals snippets about the local nature and history. We're shown the foundations of an ancient Roman fortress on the riverbank, then told to look up at one of the plentiful willow trees. Sitting on a branch is a solitary heron. Soon after, eight of these graceful birds soar past with one of their flock struggling behind.
We have no such worries. Sometimes we all paddle in sync. Other times, when we fancy a rest, we just glide along, helped by the currents. We pass rustic Szentendre (St Andrew's) island, which stretches 31 kilometres, all the way to Budapest. A popular holiday retreat for Hungarians, it's dotted with woodland, villages, chalets and picnic and camping areas. We see a few fishermen and Zsolt tells us that in summer, when it can be 35 degrees, people like to cool down in the river, seated in their deck chairs. I won't be doing that today. It's 21 – and the water temperature is about 11 degrees.
After paddling down a narrow channel beside the island, past low-hanging trees and twisting branches, we emerge into the main river once more. In the distance is a scene that looks like something from a book of fairytales: all looming, rolling hills, blanketed in giant bits of broccoli (or so it seems) and sprinkled with quaint cottages (and possibly the hideaways of fairies and other mythical creatures).
It's so enchanting we almost don't notice that the weather has turned: the wind whips up, storm clouds appear and there's the pitter-patter of rain. It's not bad timing, mind, as our canoeing adventure comes to an end near a jetty by the shore. After two memorable hours on the river, we board minibuses and return to Visegrad and our ship, where afternoon tea and Hungarian cakes and pastries await.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Avalon Waterways and Globus.
Avalon Waterways' nine-day Active and Discovery on the Danube runs between Budapest and Linz, with Visegrad among the ports of call. It is priced from $2987 a person. See avalonwaterways.com.au
Emirates and Qatar Airways has flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Budapest via Dubai and Doha respectively. Flights and pre and post-cruise accommodation can be booked as part of an Avalon package. See qatarairways.com; emirates.com