Margaret Turton takes a river cruise laced with spies, revolution and royalty.
The lower Danube has the features of a great thriller: spies, intrigue, revolution and royalty, including the Prince of Wallachia, known as Vlad the Impaler. Centuries of exceptional goings-on provoked just the right level of suspense and superstition to persuade Romania's president Traian Basescu to wear purple to ward off evil, while the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu even employed his own witch.
Astonishing, but let's consider the merits of the scenery. Lower Danube vistas are different from those upstream. Steep limestone cliffs and densely wooded gorges give the riverbanks a rugged character. Man-made changes to what were wild stretches of the river tamed its course, shifting the flow so significantly you can almost touch a crenellated battlement or the walls of an ancient monastery as you cruise along.
Our journey begins in Romania's capital, Bucharest, which lies on the Wallachian Plain between the Danube and the Carpathian foothills, once a lucrative trade route between the East and West.
Here, the Athenee Palace Hotel (now Athenee Palace Hilton Bucharest) set a sinister tone in the early stages of World War II when Romania was a neutral kingdom and dispossessed aristocrats and wealthy refugees poured in as German forces advanced eastward.
Allied and Axis powers were equally represented in these grand marble halls and guests greeted one another with suspicion and gossip. It's said that in a particular spot in the lobby the acoustics allowed a whispered conversation to be overheard in the furthest corner. Eavesdropping continued through the communist era. Rooms were bugged until Ceausescu's harsh dictatorship ended with the 1989 revolution that led to his overthrow and execution.
Now all is calm in Bucharest and backdrops such as this hotel - where all the action took place in American journalist R. G. Waldeck's novel Athene Palace - survive.
Olivia Manning's semi-autobiographical Balkan Trilogy inspired the BBC television series Fortunes of War starring a young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Although the Bucharest scenes could not be shot in Romania under Ceausescu's regime, today we're discovering the real backdrops.
Next to the Athenee Palace, the former Royal Palace has opened as the National Museum of Art. Both buildings front Revolution Square, the site of the major upheavals.
The former headquarters of Posta Romana (the national post office) on Calea Victoriei is now the National Museum of Romanian History, where the country's national treasures - including vast hoards of gold objects - are displayed.
Yet another Balkan Trilogy backdrop, Cismigiu Garden, retains its old-world atmosphere. And then there's the monumental Arc de Triomphe lookalike on a boulevard longer than the Champs-Elysees.
To these now add Ceausescu's contribution to the capital - the new Palace of the Parliament, a structure so gigantically proportioned that our guide swears that no one has managed to accurately estimate how many thousands of rooms it holds.
We leave Bucharest with an impression of a pre-war city so stylish it was called the Paris of the East but with visions of a brutal post-war era.
The port, Oltenita, is about 55 kilometres from Bucharest. From here, the Viking Primadonna cruises the lower Danube in both directions, carrying 148 passengers in comfort on an 11-day tour of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary.
We set sail for the Danube's southern banks and Bulgaria. The first stop is the mediaeval royal city of Veliko Tarnovo followed by a meal among the fortress-like structures of its neighbour, Arbanasi. Here, Eastern influence mingles exotically with Bulgaria's imperial architecture, a legacy of the Ottoman Turks, who occupied Bulgaria for 500 years and were dispatched only after losing a 19th-century war with Russia.
Sailing towards Bulgaria's border with Serbia we wake up in Vidin, known for the Baba Vida fortress, built between the 10th and 13th centuries and splendidly intact.
From here we take a day trip to climb the heights of another impressive fort on the Balkan Mountains range. Belogradchik sits atop a rock massif. Wind whistling, sheer drops below, it appears impregnable. Dating from Roman times, it was used as recently as a Serbian-Bulgarian war in 1885.
We continue cruising, passing a 2000-year-old marble plaque on the Serbian side of the Danube commemorating Roman emperor Trajan's march across these lands. A rock-hewn likeness of his opponent, Decebalus, the king of Dacia (now Transylvania), commands equal attention on the wooded slopes of the opposite bank, part of Romania.
Now the Danube is flanked by two national parks and the towering cliffs of Iron Gate gorge. Two new ship locks and a dam smooth the rapids. The dam raises the Danube and sends it rolling right up to the battlements of Serbia's Golubac fortress, giving passengers a surprisingly close encounter from the comfort of their balcony.
We pass ancient ruins and monasteries before disembarking at Kostolac to explore Viminacium, the capital of a Roman province and rather generously described as the Balkan Pompeii. Interesting as Viminacium's excavations may be, they best illustrate the limits of an overstretched empire. Here Rome's outpost was polished off by Huns - and a final assault by 20th-century thermal power plants.
The next morning we arrive in Serbia's capital, Belgrade. Mysterious and sinister under the grip of socialist dictators Tito and Milosevic socialist - and foreboding in Agatha Christie's novel Murder on the Orient Express - Belgrade is today a stylish and exciting city, rushing to make up for lost time.
Having seen off Romans, Huns, Goths and Avars, it was coveted by two new superpowers - the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Turks - and was occupied and influenced by both forces at various stages.
In Croatia, the same striking mix of cultures is apparent when exploring the former free royal city of Osijek, which shifted from the grip of the Ottoman Turks to the Austrian Hapsburgs in 1687.
Anyone who's interested in filling any gaps in their historical knowledge can attend informal lectures on board. And there's ample opportunity to experience the regional cuisine and wines in Viking Primadonna's dining room.
Expert horsemanship is on display on our excursion from Kalocsa on the Great Hungarian Plain, where hardy horse herders with a penchant for activities involving physical risk practise the skills of their Magyar ancestors.
The final port is the Hungarian capital, Budapest. We moor beside the Chain Bridge, the ideal spot to illustrate what this lovely city has to offer.
Among the highlights is the fanciful architecture of Fisherman's Bastion, its seven turrets representing the seven Magyar tribes that rode into Hungary in 896.
Heroes Square in City Park commemorates a thousand years of Hungary's existence with equestrian statues of the seven Magyar chieftains and 14 statues of Hungarian kings and commanders. And there's 800-year-old Buda Castle and Matthias Church, converted to a mosque in the Ottoman era, now beautifully restored in neo-gothic style.
Hungary's Christian king, Matthias, was appalled by the activities of his contemporary, the Prince of Wallachia (aka Vlad), but both did battle with the Turks. Vlad's passion for impaling his enemies built a formidable reputation that would morph into Bram Stoker's character, Dracula.
The Irish writer's novel has never been out of print since it was published in 1897. Count Dracula - stylish but menacing, as he dashes around in white tie and tails - has somehow come to symbolise the lower Danube region.
Margaret Turton travelled courtesy of Viking River Cruises and Hilton.
Turkish Airlines (TK) has a fare to Bucharest for about $2400 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. You fly Qantas to Singapore (8hr), then to Istanbul with TK (12hr), then to Bucharest (85min).
Viking's 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe cruise-tour costs from $2999 a person, twin share. An extra three-night Transylvania and Black Sea tour costs $1000 a person, twin share. Phone 1800 829 138, see vikingrivercruises.com.au.