Danube cruise and bike trip lets visitors roll on the river

An Amaprima passenger gets ready for the guided bike tour through Novi Sad, Serbia. (Terri Colby/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By TERRI COLBY | CHICAGO TRIBUNE Published: June 2, 2016

Our cruise ship docked on the banks of the Danube in late afternoon, at the historic city of Novi Sad, Serbia. We were three days into a Danube cruise, and a city tour was next on the itinerary. But for my husband and me and perhaps 15 other hardy passengers, there was no coach bus waiting on shore.

Instead, we climbed the gangplank and found two enthusiastic guides and a row of blue bicycles.

We had chosen this cruise on AmaWaterways specifically because it offered bicycle excursions on an itinerary that started in Vienna, stopped in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, and finished a few miles south of Bucharest, Romania. Cycling seemed like a change from the usual cruise-excursion transport — more intimate than a bus but covering more ground than a walking tour.

I was concerned about my stamina — I’m an occasional cyclist, at best — Ama told us the rides would be of reasonable length and leisurely in pace. Our ship, the AmaPrima, carried its own fleet of easy-to-ride bicycles with upright handlebars, reasonably comfy seats and both coaster and hand brakes.

We probably wouldn’t have chosen this day for cycling; surprisingly in the upper 90s in September. But there was a breeze off the Danube, and the shadows of afternoon were growing longer. With one guide in front and the other in the rear, we set off, a ragged file of blue bicycles steered by people who clearly were not locals.

Our route took us along the Danube’s banks to the campus of the University of Novi Sad, then to a riverside beach crowded with bathers, all along flat, vehicle-free bicycle paths and campus lanes. A 10-minute ride, a stop for some commentary from our guides, then back on the bikes. From the campus, we headed toward the historic center down one of the city’s main boulevards, which, thankfully, had a wide pedestrian-and-cycle lane running alongside.

At the beach, we learned that the former communist regime frowned on skimpy bathing suits. Next to a row of dreary-looking communist-era apartment towers, we learned that the flats are now prized for their spacious rooms and thick walls. Outside the Serbian National Theatre, we got a quick lesson in the Cyrillic alphabet. On a picturesque square, we learned that some of the upper-floor apartment windows were designed so old folks could easily snoop on the young people socializing below.

Navigating the twisting pedestrian lanes of the old city was the most challenging part of the ride, but after another 20 minutes, we were back at the ship in plenty of time for a drink before dinner. The ride was perhaps 5 or 6 miles in all.

The 164-passenger AmaPrima was a fine place to relax. Our cabin was spacious for river cruising, with a queen-size bed, two chairs, a fairly roomy bathroom and a small veranda.

The meals, featuring wines from the countries we passed through, were excellent, and casual dress was the rule.

Some of the bike tours emphasized easy riding over sightseeing. In Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, the cycle group avoided the busy central city and rode along the Danube, with a beer stop en route. For the majority of passengers who weren’t interested in cycling in the heat, other excursion options were offered. In Novi Sad, we could have taken a walking tour of the city; elsewhere, a winery visit and a cooking lesson in a local home were options.

Our last bicycle jaunt, in the small city of Vidin, Bulgaria, was about 12 miles along city streets and country roads that were mostly empty on a Saturday — and more taxing, because of the distance and the heat. I needed a break before the halfway point, and one of our guides kindly stayed with me when I pulled off at a shady spot along the road. The rest of the group turned around a mile or so later, and the guides quickly agreed that we needed a stop for cold drinks before riding back to the ship.

This brings up a tip for happy cycling: Tell your guide what you want or need — if you need to slow down or take a break, if you need a drink, if you see something interesting and want to stop and investigate further. They likely have a prescribed route and schedule but usually can make changes if you ask.

An example: On our way back to the ship at Vidin, we rode into a shady park toward an ancient fortress, Baba Vida, on the riverbank, and we asked for time to explore. Some of the group inspected the souvenir stands outside, while others spent half an hour photographing and climbing ramparts and towers that had been built, besieged and rebuilt over a span of 1,000 years.

A little over two hours after leaving, we were again within sight of the ship. We rode down the riverside park’s walkways under an archway of tall trees, past cafes and strolling families. We hurried down the gangplank into the ship for a welcome blast of air conditioning. Crew members greeted us with cold hand towels and cold drinks.

We both needed showers, but we had earned our dessert.


Biking and river cruising

AmaWaterways (www.amawaterways.com) offers a 2016 cruise similar to the one we took last year, with rates starting at $3,199 per person for the cruise. But if I had it to do over again, I would add the land portion, with two nights in Vienna at the start and three nights in Istanbul at the end, starting at $4,699 per person. Airfare is not included.

If biking is your intent, keep in mind that Ama has bikes on board that you can use during any of the cruise stops, even if there is no bike tour scheduled. Also, our trip in very early September ended up being too hot for us to want to do very much biking, so consider other times of year if you think that will be an issue for you.

Outside the 10th Century Baba Vida fortress during a bike tour in Vidin, Bulgaria. (Terri Colby/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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