My 20 day Eastern European & Turkey adventure plus Danube River cruise

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July 20th 2010
Published: July 20th 2010
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My Eastern European & Turkey adventure from April 8-27, 2010 included 4 days & 3 nights in Budapest, Hungary, followed by a 7 night AMA Waterways Danube River ship cruise on the beautiful Amadagio with stops & visits in: Mohacs, Villany & Pecs, Hungary; Vukovar & Ovcara, Croatia; Novi Sad & Belgrade, Serbia; the “Iron Gates” and narrow passageways between Transylvania & Bulgaria; Vidin & Belogradchik, Bulgaria; Giurgiu & Bucharest, Romania; and finally Rousse, Bulgaria.

My travels concluded with five spectacular nights in Istanbul, Turkey at the 5 star Conrad Hotel and a 2 night stay in the amazing Cappadocia, Turkey region.

NOTE: Be sure to check my photos that accompany this blog and travelogue Also, I will be amending this travelblog over the coming weeks as I re-discover more of my notes and items from my experiences. Please feel free to contact me: should you have any specific questions about my trip or wish to discuss how I can help you do a similar trip.

Day 1, Thursday, April 8, 2010 (Tampa-New York City-Trans-Atlantic Ocean flight)

A 5:30 a.m. alarm to get to the Tampa Int’l airport for a 9 a.m. Jet Blue flight to New York’s JFK airport. This was the easy part of the early journey. A 4+ hour layover and then a 4:30 PM flight from JFK to Istanbul, Turkey on a Turkish Airlines A-330 could have been better had I received the promised AISLE seat, not a middle seat L. Almost 10 hours airborne with a movie, some reading and few winks and arrival on Friday morning in Istanbul did not come too soon.

Day 2, Friday, April 9 (Istanbul-Budapest, Hungary)

Arrival at Atakurk Airport at 9:30 a.m. meant nearly 2 hours clearing passport control to gather my luggage because (the short version) I had to buy a $20 Tourist Visa to get my luggage outside the transit zone so that I could make my connecting 5 p.m. Malev (Hungarian Air) flight to Budapest, Hungary. So, despite the extended delay, I still had 6 hours of airport wait time and all I wanted was a place to sleep. (but it did not happen there). Weather in both Istanbul & Budapest was mild and dry.

The Malev flight to Budapest was both quick (2 hours) and pleasant and after a 5 minute passport control check, I picked up my luggage and it was a 30 minute (and 22 Euros) taxi ride to the beautiful 5 star Corinthia Hotel in Budapest where my 6:30 p.m. check-in was a breeze-- and my much wanted/needed bath awaited. Then a quick stroll of the immediate area, quaint but delicious dinner and a quick check of some nightclubs on the famous and active Andrassy Avenue meant an early night for me and much needed sleep. Being an executive club level guest, I had access to complimentary items like food and drinks, internet, etc.—well worth the extra $$ on the room rate. (Thank you BD & N).

Day 3, Saturday, April 10 (Budapest)

Since most citywide shops close early on Saturday for the weekend, I decided after a great (included) breakfast buffet @ the Corinthia that I would check some nearby places for various items. The weather was much cool (17 C/62 F) but sunny and I really enjoyed a locals marketplace that I found on my own where I did both some souvenir and grocery shopping in a place I thought was an abandoned building! J I noticed that the money exchange rate was about 1,000 HUF(Hungarian Florints) to $5.00 US. I did the necessary ATM withdrawal and was set.

The city was abuzz for Election Day scheduled for Sunday and the country, according to my primary guide, told me the conservative movement was building power while the Socialist party was losing it. Also many factors were similar to the USA like 10-11% unemployment, high gasoline prices, and complaints about pending new taxes.

I spent Saturday night meeting up with some old travel friends who I’d be with on my upcoming Danube River cruise, and then I did some more exploring and noticed that the Budapest Clubs were VERY busy. The spa at the Corinthia was simply awesome too. J

Day 4, Sunday, April 11 (Budapest)

Today I awoke to sprinkles and a quite cool 15 C/58 F and more rain expected. It was also election day so the city was very busy and plenty of post-election parties were planned. I took a planned bus tour with friends to many of the local highlights of the area including the massive Heroes Square, Citadella fortress and castles overlooking the city and Danube River, famous Chain Bridge & Lion guards, a few museums, Opera house, the famous Szechenyi bathhouses, plus I saw lots of churches, statues, memorials and monuments. In addition, I spent part of a rainy day I also had the privilege of inspecting two major 5 star hotels---the Andrassy Hotel (a boutique hotel) and Le Meridien Hotel (on the pedestrian zone). Sunday brunch at the Le Meridien was outstanding.

I also had some travel projects to complete during my “down” time but not before I was given an insider’s tour and complimentary hosting of food and drinks in the gorgeous 5 star waterfront Marriott Hotel Presidential Suite overlooking the Danube and I caught my 1st glimpse of my river cruise ship—the AMA Waterways Amadagio--- docked across the river.

My night was capped off by a complimentary concert inside the Grand Ballroom of the Corinthia Hotel by a wonderful orchestra and conductor with two opera singers that sang movie & show tunes with enthusiasm and talent. Wow, what a fun filled day!

Day 5, Monday, April 12 (Budapest & Sventendre, Hungary)

The coldest day of my trip at 11 C/51F with a steady rain and I took a bus trip to the local medieval village of Sventendre which used to be a Roman army camp complete with Roman ruins being excavated right now. The walking was slightly difficult (and wet) on the cobblestone pathways and but the buildings and shops were nice. The prices were better here than in Budapest also.

Afterwards, it was a complimentary lunch in Budapest at the famous Onyx restaurant near the 5 star Kempinski Hotel which I also inspected and enjoyed more drinks and great food. Finally, it was embarkation time on the Buda side of the Danube River.

My AMA Waterways Amadagio river cruiseship was elegantly appointed and offered a very warm welcome upon arrival. Getting to know the layout of the ship was relatively easy compared to the 50+ regular-size cruiseships I have experienced before. The topdeck offered a great view of the riverfront buildings all lit up as we started to sail east and down the Danube River. The ship can easily be described as casual with a flair of elegance throughout from service to amenities. I was booked into Room 322 (the highest cabin level) near midship and I’m glad I did because those passengers on Deck 1 at water level did not have the French balconies or sliding glass doors that could access the outside world like I did and they butted up against the docks when we were in port.

Day 6, Tuesday, April 13 (Mohacs, Pecs and Villany, Hungary)

The day began by docking at the Mohacs port and then a transfer to busses for transport to both Pecs in the morning and Villany (wine country) in the afternoon.

Pecs was quite interesting as my tour consisted primarily of a relatively recent excavation of a Christian burial ceremony site. Pecs is also a 2010 European Culture City (the other two are Istanbul and a town in Germany) and lots of renovation work is ongoing in the town square.

Villany is the wine-growing region of the area and I did a visit to the fully operational Gere Winery which proved to be the highlight of the day with tastings of 8 (eight) different wines! Wow, was my group a little wild and crazy on the bus ride back to the ship—lol.

Day 7, Wednesday, April 14 (Vukovar & Ovcara, Croatia & Novi Sad, Serbia)

The day was split into two countries. The morning was in the war-torn towns of Vukovar and Ovcara, Croatia and the afternoon was in Novi Sad, Serbia. Weather was initially cool and windy but dry and later turned mild and dry. Probably 18-20C/65-70 F.

Vukovar was highlighted by visits to both a wartime civilian massacre museum (Ovcara) and of a memorial placed at the actual mass burial site nearby in a field. Later, a walk through town and the locals marketplace was a real eye-opener as many buildings still showed evidence from the war 15 years before.

Novi Sad, just down river from Vukovar, was quite different and modern---in an 1800’s way. Here I saw remnants of war items like tanks and artillery but also modern buildings and a more modern way of life. Springtime was in the air with flowers everywhere also.

Day 8, Thursday, April 15 (Belgrade or Beograd, Serbia)

The morning began with a short bus ride to the old Kalemegden Fortress on the hill overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers where views were outstanding. Later a bus ride took me to the largest Orthodox Church in the world—St. Sava-- and past some former Yugoslavian military buildings that were on the wrong end of cruise missile strikes during the war.

Belgrade (Beograd), Serbia separates “Central” Europe from the Balkans and the money exchange rate was US $15 for 1,170 Serbian dinars—which stretched quite a bit.

We “lost” satellite TV and internet most of the day due to the atmospheric volcanic dust and ash over the Netherlands (which is the home base for AMA Waterways and their satellite).

It was here I was able to purchase a package of former Yugoslavian money bills from a vendor with the largest note being $500 BILLION dinars! It cost me US $3 J .

Day 9, Friday, April 16 (Cruising on the Danube through the Iron Gates to Vidin, Bulgaria)

We spent the night cruising downriver towards the famed “Iron Gates” which are a series of locks and narrow gorge passageways with rugged, tall and steep mountains on both sides of the Danube. The narrowest point was about 60 meters (200 feet wide) which was so different from the previous days where the river averaged 500-600 meters wide.

This was followed by a set of iron-gated locks to lower or raise boats not unlike the Panama Canal. The drop was at least 20 meters (60+ feet) each time and was an impressive sight.

The weather was quite cold and windy early in the morning but the sunshine erupted mid-morning and allowed for great viewing from the sun deck of the ship. Two highlights were a huge face carved into stone to commemorate a great Romanian leader, Trajan, and the other was a monument from 105-107 A.D. memorializing the building of a Roman “highway” along the Danube’s south bank. Most of the road is underwater now but parts are still visible. All of the was made possible by the Derdapska Power Station.

The day was spent as one of leisure although I did attend one excellent class and a great lecture from our cruise manager, Maddy, who spoke of growing up with communism in Romania.

Lunch was a choice of lighter and localized foods in the lounge and regular lunch fare in the main dining room.

Some interesting differences about AMA Waterways compared to other riverboats:

There is an area below the ship’s wheelhouse (bridge) that allows passengers viewing from either inside or outside the bow area.
There is a 4-person jacuzzi hot tub on the sun deck along with shaded seating areas with lounges and chairs, an over-sized chess set, and plenty of uncrowded viewing for the maximum 150 passengers.
Wine, beer and sodas are complimentary during dinner (and poured generously)
Wi-Fi Internet is free throughout the ship
My dinner choice tonight was again fresh fish. Of note is that AMA Waterways does not use frozen fish-only fresh fish. I would have to say that every dinner has been excellent thus far and an open seating policy makes it nice to change tables each night.

After docking in Vidin, there was after-dinner entertainment in the lounge with a troupe of 16 Bulgarian Folklore dancers and singers (ages 8-20) along with traditional Bulgarian musicians and they entertained for almost an hour. I was later invited into town but declined and called it an early night in preparation for an early morning excursion.

Day 10, Saturday, April 17 (Vidin, Bulgaria from overnight, followed by Belogradchik & then cruising to Giurgiu, Romania)

Some notes about Bulgaria and the Balkan Peninsula:

It has about 8 million people and the capital is Sofia
1 Lev = 1.45 US dollars
It is about 85% Bulgarian (Orthodox) & 10% Turks (Muslim)
A former communist country, it became democratic in 1990
Bulgaria has a nuclear power plant, has many mountains, & is a canola & rose oil exporter.
After breakfast, it was off to visit Vidin’s famous Baba Vida fortress and the weather was the best yet for the cruise—sunny, mild and dry and about 18/65 C. Vidin is not a tourist town and quite rustic, yet quaint and fun to explore.

At Baba Vida I saw an old catapult, old Roman 1st century sandstone citadel structures, a fantastic 25 minute historical play in the 1,000 year old amphitheater there. Afterwards, I bought another refrigerator magnet (my board has close to 500 of them) and it was off for a 1 hour bus ride to historic Belogradchik.

Arriving in the Balkan mountainous area of Belogradchik, my group stopped at the 4 star Hotel OS Xomev where refreshments and coffee were served along with spectacular views of the gigantic rock formations and snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance.

The fortress built within these rocks dates back to 200 A.D. and the climb up to the top where the Bulgarian Flag flies is challenging but the panoramic views of the snow-covered Balkans and surrounding city, farmland and mountains is well worth it.

The trip back was uneventful and after lunch, we cruised downstream heading to Romania.

Tonight was the Captain’s Gala Dinner which began with a champagne xxxxtail party for crew and passengers in the lounge followed by a grand dinner with special dishes and even Baked Alaska dessert.

I did draw some extra attention with my special “elegant” look tonight and lots of people complimented me on my special style and great attitude of life and laughter.

Day 11, Sunday, April 18 (Giurgiu & Bucharest “The Paris of the East”, Romania)

Arrival after cruising all night in Giurgiu set me up for a bus trip to Romania’s capitol city-Bucharest, about 1 hour bus ride from the port.

We drove through the town of Giurgiu and saw the infamous statue/memorial to Vlad the Impaler, the original Dracula and then did a countryside tour through 2,000 year old battlefields into the city.

A short stop at a mall for ATM & restroom break and it was off to the Parliament Building (Palace) in the center of town and where I learned why Bucharest is called the “Paris of the East”. The main boulevard is one meter longer and two meters wider than the Champs de Elyse and the Parliament building was bigger and more ornate than Versailles. In fact, the Parliament Building has 1,000 rooms (only 400 occupied) and is the 2nd largest building in the world (behind the USA’s Pentagon). All I can say is WOW. I understand why the people revolted and executed their leader over this and other issues.

Also, the city was honoring all of its hemophiliacs by turning all the city fountains into flows and sprays of bright red colors. Very unique.

Then it was off to lunch on a lakefront restaurant where we were all entertained by a troupe of dancers and a great small band playing both American and Romanian music.

Finally, we went to an outdoor museum of former Romanian life from the past few centuries with houses, buildings and artifacts.

Upon return to the ship, we cruised about 15 minutes across the Danube to the Bulgarian side and the port of Rousse where a final dinner, farewell to some new and old friends and disembarkation preparation which included packing for the bus ride to Istanbul, paying gratuities, finalizing the cruise bill, etc.

Plus, I helped a few passengers stuck in Europe and unable to fly back to the USA and Canada due to the closure of so many airports and cancellation of so many flights from the volcanic ash of the Iceland eruption. I made some suggestions to some less-experienced travelers and offered any help I could. It was off to bed early as wake up was 5:30 in preparation for departure at 6:30 a.m. Goodbye Amadagio. J

Day 12, Monday, April 19 (Rousse, Bulgaria, end of cruise/start of bus trip to Istanbul)

The day started early at 5:30 a.m. with a wake-up and breakfast, the loading of luggage for the 38 of us heading to Istanbul through the Balkans and Bulgarian countryside starting at 7 a.m.

A few stops along the way were nice breaks from the bus ride and included a chance to experience “Happy Girls”--which in Bulgaria translated into the local “Hooters” restaurant and truck stop and interesting enough---I bought an 80% cacao chocolate bar for $3 and saw an energy drink called “Cocaine”. J

The lowlight of the trip was the almost 3 hours it took to cross the border from Bulgaria into Turkey. We passed miles of stopped trucks and cars and went right to the border and with some luck (and who knows what else), we cleared all passport control and customs and did not have to empty our luggage but we did have to be visually matched to our passports by officials.

The highlight of the trip was a stop for late (but wonderful) lunch in Edirne—the home of oil wrestling and tulips (they originated in Turkey, not Holland). While there, I saw the largest mosque in the area and the largest I had seen to date.

Arrival at the 5-star Conrad Hotel in Istanbul at 7:30 p.m. was a welcome relief and after a quick check-in and room inspection, I headed to the famed Taksim Square for a real Turkish dinner with friends plus some sightseeing and window shopping despite the late hour Very nice time.

The taxi ride was 20 minutes and cost 8.5 Turkish Lira (about US $5).

Day 13, Tuesday, April 20 (Istanbul, Turkey)

A beautiful but chilly day in Istanbul and I attended some various travel and tourism seminars and had my only “taxi” issue of the entire trip where a hired (legal) taxi driver started off with an inflated meter that resulted in a 70 Turkish Lira cost for a return trip that originally cost me 25 TL. My cohorts and I set him straight. J

The evening was capped by a very “over-the-top” dinner with about 12 delegates, VIP’s, the US Ambassador to Turkey and the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and all in the transformed underground Binbirdirek Cisterns built in the 5th Century and the 224 columns, each 14 to 15 meters tall, are made of marble from nearby Marmara Island.

Day 14, Wednesday, April 21 (Istanbul, Turkey)

This turned out to be a major work-day for me with limited activities other than some localized outings for food and fresh air. Plus it was a chance to catch up on some sleep.

The night however, was highlighted by an VIP event at the 5-star Four Seasons Bosporus on the waterfront which included some great fun times with friends and new networking partners. Plus---I was mistaken for an actress and celebrity on more than one occasion by guests at the venue and I must have had 100+ photos taken with people. It was fun and the food and wine were outstanding. I was invited to a new, dynamic Istanbul nightclub but the early evening activities (that went into late, late evening) wore me out.

Day 15, Thursday, April 22 (Istanbul, Turkey)

The morning started early with a tour of the classical essentials of Istanbul and included a bus ride to the Hagia Sophia across the Galata Bridge to the old city and what a picturesque day. My guide, Kemal, was both funny and informative.

The Sophia museum was built in 4th, 5th and 6th centuries as a Christian church but later became a mosque and in 1923 became a museum. The vast interior, the high and huge dome and ornate works of art and architecture were amazing. Photos can’t do it justice.

This was the 2nd time in my trip that I was in a building that depicted both Christian and Islam under the same roof.

Then it was off to the Underground Cisterns where I saw the famed pillar foundations formed into sleeping and upside down Medusa’s. This was not as large as the cisterns I had dinner in previously but they were fast and had water remaining plus fish in the water.

Finally it was time to visit the 500+ year old Grand Bazaar where I picked up some Turkish Delight candies for a friend (NL) and a few other things for family and friends. It was SO BIG and you can easily get “lost” in the maze of aisles containing everything you can imagine from local to international items It is the largest in the world with over 4,000 shops and stores.

After that, it was a return to the new city and some sightseeing and late lunch near the Conrad Hotel and I found some side and back streets that had many items I had not seen @ the Bazaar. I really enjoyed my sidewalk lunch so I could people watch and enjoy some Turkish cuisine along with locals.

Some a quick workout on an outdoor park fitness center and then packing up back at the hotel, some internet travel project work, and a dinner atop the Conrad’s Summit rooftop Lounge & restaurant for some sunset photos and wind-down from the day.

Day 16, Friday, April 23 (Istanbul, Turkey and Cappadocia, Turkey)

An early morning wake-up call and very fast taxi (140 kph at times because it was a national holiday and very few cars on the roads) got me to the Ataturk Airport for my morning flight to Kayseri & in central Turkey via Turkish Airlines and then onto Cappadocia via bus. The aerial view of the snow-covered volcano-mountain near the airport was stunning.

A 1 hour bus ride to the Dedeman Hotel in Cappadocia was informative with my guide who told of the history of the area which reminded me so much of northern Nevada.

A quick pit stop @ the hotel and we were en route to the nearby Underground City in the village of Kaymakli and an underground trek of 24 meters into labyrinths of the caves once occupied by persecuted Christians. It was amazing and we even had time to shop at some of the tents adjacent to the cave entrance.

One final stop at Urgub for more cave homes built into the mountainside and in unusual rock formations complete with available camel rides (I’ve already done camel rides in both Dubai and Australia) and incredible panoramic views of the hillsides.

Finally, it was back to the hotel to freshen up, catch a sunset and a wonderful dinner buffet with 6 different entrees. Of note was the Christmas music playing both nights in the dining room (either they were early for 2010 or late for 2009).

Day 17, Saturday, April 24 (Cappadocia, Turkey)

The morning started with a buffet breakfast in the Panorama Room and then a bus ride to several stops including a genuine Turkish rug weaving and educational factory (check out my silk-worm photos) followed by a visit to a local ceramic and pottery factory and display store. Beautiful works in both locations.

I decided not to do the 4 a.m. wake-up for the balloon rides over Cappadocia but saw them the next morning on the drive to Kayseri.

A drive over the “Red River” and then onto lunch at the Restaurant served Turkish-style and finally to the famous Goreme Open Air Museum for a slightly strenuous walk into some incredible caves with 1000 year old frescos.

An unexpected stop was the well-known “‘Cave Hotel” built into a mountainside with its various levels, different rooms, spa and restaurants. Fantastic wine-tasting followed by a tour of the “hotel” and the spa—it was amazing.

Dinner back at the Dedeman Hotel and some quick packing closed out my long day.

Day 18, Sunday, April 25 (Cappadocia and Istanbul)

After breakfast I said my goodbyes to Cappadocia and it was off to the airport for a return to Istanbul for the night.

The flight was nice and uneventful but @ Ataturk Istanbul airport my luggage did not arrive and Turkish Airlines was unsure if it was there in Istanbul or if it was loaded onto the delayed JFK-New York flight just as I arrived in Istanbul. An unsuccessful search for an airport travelers aid station (very unusual) for a bargain hotel room for the night led me to their free internet station and that produced a last minute deal at a nearby Courtyard by Marriott where a shuttle ride was available and check-in turned into an executive suite upgrade where I was able to take a nap, watch some TV and enjoy dinner in their Mediterranean bistro with traveling friends who were also flying home the next day. Marriott provided me with a complimentary amenities/toiletries kit since my luggage was missing.

Day 19, Monday, April 26 (Istanbul, New York, Tampa, and home)

A 7 a.m. wake-up turned into a great complimentary breakfast and then another shuttle ride to the airport where a LONG line and 50 minute wait to get checked in still did not confirm whether my luggage was still in Istanbul or waiting for me in New York.

That was followed by a 30 minute wait going through passport control but then in “no-man’s land” I could do some final duty-free shopping and spend down my remaining Turkish Lira (still about 60 cents to the US Dollar).

A delayed departure ensued but finally it was westbound back across the “Big Pond” and home to the USA.

Arrival in New York’s JFK airport was uneventful fortunately and just enough time after clearing customs and passport control to catch a train to the Jet Blue Terminal for my flight.

My Jet Blue connecting flight back to Tampa was very nice and just over two hours.

And finally, my short ride home concluded a whirlwind trip of almost 3 weeks that will not soon be forgotten.

Day 20, Tuesday, April 27 (Home) J

Sleep in, sleep some more, read snail mail, sleep and catch up on all my websites, blogs, and photo uploadings. J Next trip to Jamaica is only a month away---Whew!

The Travel Slut
"Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere!"-Helen Gurley Brown


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