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Published: November 17th 2008
Budapest's Chain Bridge as seen from the Sun Deck as we departed
CRUISING THE EASTERN DANUBE 2008
The perfect way to experience Eastern Europe is from the river that runs through it. The Danube River is one of the world’s mightiest rivers—1,727 miles in length and over two miles wide in some areas. The second-longest river in Europe, it begins in Germany’s Black Forest and meanders through Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania before emptying into the Black Sea. Cruise lines have only recently expanded their itineraries to include these former Eastern Bloc countries—previously accessed only by spies during the Cold War! It was the perfect itinerary for our first river cruise.
We departed on Saturday, July 26, 2008, on Air France from Houston to Paris’ Charles DeGaulle Airport, where we had only a 55-minute layover before boarding another Air France jet to Budapest, Hungary. We enjoyed the delicious French food on the plane, but we were dreading going into CDG Airport because it is a very frightening thing to have a tight connection there. We’ve done it before, but it’s like playing Russian roulette!
The airport itself is gigantic, and the planes, for some reason, do not park at the jetways next to the gates;
Fields of sunflowers in Hungary
they park out in the hinterlands. It takes about 30 minutes after landing to empty the plane and get everyone into buses that will take you on a 15-minute adventure (crossing active runways) to terminal two, which is roughly the size of Switzerland. Once in the terminal, there are no signs anywhere, so you have no idea where to go or if you are even in the correct terminal. Asking directions is out of the question because no one knows or cares. They just want you to keep moving because you are now in a mass of people, shoulder-to-shoulder, where each one wants to go a different direction but doesn’t know which direction to go. Finally, after pushing and shoving, you reach the security checkpoint, where thousands of people funnel into one line that winds for what seems like miles, as one security scanner (out of about 10 that are not operational) slowly and methodically looks at every shoe, purse, laptop, cell phone, etc. that has been placed in one of only two trays. Finally, just as you are certain you are going to miss your plane, you break through security, hop on both feet into your shoes, and race
St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Pecs, Hungary
The entire interior of the church consists of handpainted frescoes.
for the gate. In this case, we made it…but barely and only because takeoff was delayed.
Our adventure continued in the Budapest airport after landing at noon, as we waited about an hour for a cab to take us to the river dock. Finally, at 2:30 in the afternoon, we boarded Europe’s newest ship, the luxurious Amadagio, a two-year-old vessel of the Amadeus Cruise Line of Los Angeles. Check-in was efficient and immediate, and we anxiously entered our cabin on the Violin deck: extra-spacious with a sitting area, floor-to-ceiling windows, French balcony, and a luxurious marble bath. What a welcoming sight!
We napped, read, and explored the ship, which we had almost to ourselves because most of the passengers, having boarded the ship as many as two weeks earlier, were on a shore excursion. We joined the cruise for the eight days it traveled Eastern Europe, but the entire itinerary was 31 days, beginning in Paris and ending in Istanbul.
Our first immersion into the ship’s 137-passenger “family” was at the Captain’s cocktail party at 6 p.m., where every lady received a beautiful red rose. (There were bud vases in each cabin specifically for this purpose!) Since
Wall of Padlocks
Hundreds of thousands of padlocks inscribed with lovers' names in Pecs
this was an English-speaking cruise, guests hailed from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Germany, Norway, and Ireland. Hungarian folk dancers entertained us from 6:30 to 7:15, followed by a beautifully-presented multi-course dinner with champagne and wine. After dinner, we moved to the Sun Deck for the majestic, illuminated sights of beautiful Budapest at night—both the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube--as the ship slipped away from its dock and made its way down the river. The temperature was about 72 degrees, an absolutely perfect evening to enjoy the brightly-lit, storybook view of the Chain Bridge, Parliament, the Royal Palace, Philharmonic Center, Elizabeth Bridge, the Citadel on Gellert Hill with its Statue of Liberty, the National Theater, and the Art Museum.
Monday, July 28, began with a huge buffet breakfast as the Amadagio docked in Mohacs, Hungary, located on the great flat Hungarian plain known as the Puszta. Our shore excursion began at 8:30, so we each picked up an AudioVox, matched its color with one of the four guides, hopped into one of four tour busses, and began the one-hour drive to the university town of Pecs. The landscape consisted of active farmland, reminiscent of
The Mosque Church
The Mosque Church and sculptures on Szechenyi Square in Pecs
the area in which I grew up in Fayette County 50 years ago. The fields of sunflowers looked as if a golden tarp had been spread over the countryside of fertile plains drained by the Danube and bounded by rolling hills. As we approached Pecs, our tour guide, Gabriela, pointed out large pipes along the road carrying hot water to the town. The water is heated in environmentally-friendly power plants, and the thermal energy, in the form of hot water and steam, is piped to both households and industrial companies in Pecs for heating, hot water, and industrial processing.
Pecs is a hilly city, home to about 30,000 students, who attend one of Hungary’s oldest universities, dating back to the 1300’s. It is a popular place for tourists with its mild climate. Remnants from Roman times (350-400 AD) are on display throughout the city, which will be designated the European Capital of Culture in 2010. Archaeological finds date back 6,000 years.
Atop Szechenyi Square in the city centre is a beautiful place of worship that looks like a mosque because it was built by the Turks in the 1500’s. After the Turks were expelled from Pecs in 1686,
Wunderlich Wine Cellars
Villany Wine Region of Hungary
the mosque was taken over by the Jesuits, who restored it to Christian use. However, Quran quotations can still be seen on the walls.
An unusual local sight is the “wall of padlocks.” Thousands of lovers have engraved their names on padlocks, attached them to a metal gate, locked them, and thrown away the key. The tradition is that lovers who lock a padlock to these gates will find happiness with each other forever.
After a Hungarian lunch buffet on the ship, our afternoon excursion took us to Villany, home of Hungary’s oldest wine region. We visited the Wunderlich Wine Cellars, a huge enterprise with a half million bottles of wine output per year, combining 21st century technology with traditional winemaking principles. We toured the facility and tasted four of its wines.
Dinner this evening was a delicious Hungarian meal, and my favorites were “raznici,” a grilled meat skewer (pork tenderloin and chicken) with mushrooms and herbed butter, plus a baked curd and raisin pancake served with a Bourbon vanilla sauce for dessert. Hungarian wines complimented the fantastic meal. After dinner, the evening program onboard the vessel was a variety of local craftsmen and artists, who displayed
White Cross Memorial
Commemorating the defenders of Vukovar, Croatia, during the 3-month Serbian siege of 1991 when over 1,000 people died.
and practiced their crafts for us: wood carving, potting wheel, porcelain painting, and Marzipan artistry.
Tuesday’s breakfast was mouth-watering, as I had a banana pancake crepe folded over one-half of a melted banana. We had arrived in Vukovar, Croatia, overnight and since we were the fourth vessel to arrive, we had to walk through the atria of three other ships to get to the dock. It was a fine opportunity to get a glimpse of other tour companies’ vessels!
The tour of the city was both fascinating and demoralizing. Vukovar was totally destroyed by Serbian and Yugoslav bombs in 1991 when over 1,000 people were killed. The devastation was still evident, as nearly 50% of the homes and other buildings in the city still lay in rubble and ruins. Two of the most memorable sites we visited on our two-hour walking tour:
• Castle of Counts Eltz, a mighty castle dating back hundreds of years that was virtually destroyed by grenades and bombshells. It is in the process of being restored to its former splendor and currently houses the city’s art gallery and historical museum. Among the treasures in the museum was the Vucedol Dove, a lavishly engraved,
Fifty percent of the town was destroyed in the 1991 bombings. Some have been restored, while others still lay in ruins.
clay “bird-doll” figurine that dates back to 3,000 B.C. Human settlement in this area can be traced back to the Stone Age (4,500 B.C.).
• White Cross Memorial commemorating the defenders of Vukovar during the 3-month Serbian siege of 1991. The view across the Danube was beautiful and peaceful, but I couldn’t help feeling sad about the tragic history of this splendid city.
A delicious Croatian lunch awaited us at noon back at the Amadagio. Favorites of mine were the Croatian traditional lemon pie and the mussel/octopus salad. As the ship departed Vukovar, we enjoyed the picturesque scenery along the river as we dined and then relaxed on the sun deck until we arrived in Novi Sad (“New Field”), Serbia, around 3:30 pm.
What a charming town! A miniature version of Prague with its lovely mix of culture, charm, and sophistication, Novi Sad, Serbia, is compact and walkable, with most of its old buildings still intact. Time looks as if it has stopped, as your heart is captured by one beauty after another. Cafes and colorful buildings line the main pedestrian street, at the end of which is Liberty Square. Again, reminiscent of Prague, the square is bounded
Castle of Counts Eltz
Currently being restored after being destroyed by bombs and grenades, the castle is housing Vukovar's art gallery and history museum.
by the huge, neo-Gothic Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary, the City Hall built in 1894, 19th century hotels, and the statue of Svetozar Miletic, a former mayor of the town. We toured the inside of the 80-meter-tall church on our own and still had time to walk to the baroque, 18th century Orthodox Church of St. George and marvel at the 33 icons on the iconostasis (large screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave).
The tour continued across the river to the majestic, medieval Petrovaradin Fortress, built in the 13th century and known as the “Gibraltar of the Danube.” In a time of siege, the fortress could hold over 10,000 people plus another 6,000 in its 10 miles of underground tunnels. According to archeological research, human remains on the grounds date back to the Paleolithic Period (45,000 B.C.). The clock tower on the bastion is unique in that the clock’s big hand tells the hours while the small hand tells the minutes. This was done so the citizens of Novi Sad and the shippers traveling along on the Danube could see the time from a long distance. The view of the Danube and the city of Novi
This clay "bird" figurine dates back to 3.000 B.C. and was found near where the castle sits today.
Sad from the bastion was incredibly beautiful.
Another artistically-presented dinner awaited us after the tour at 7 p.m. The roast lamb was exceptional, as was the traditional Serbian dessert, cassata parfait with candied fruit, and the local Serbian wines. The program this evening was a lecture at 9:15 by a professor of history from Belgrade, Serbia, who gave us insight into the history of the region since World War I, which began in Serbia.
On Wednesday morning we docked in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, a city which has been destroyed 40 times in its long and bloody history! Belgrade, which means “white city,” was settled in the 4th century B.C. by Celts and today is a bustling city of 2 million inhabitants. Isadora, our tour guide, escorted us to the large stone fortress on a bluff surrounding the old part of the city. One of the largest fortifications of its kind, the Kalemegdan Fortress is probably best-known as the recipient of the first shot fired in World War I.
As we experienced the panoramic drive toward the fort, Isadora mentioned that unlike most other European countries, Serbia is not a big fan of soccer—probably because they
have had so many losing teams in the past. Instead, now the country has gone berserk over tennis. Apparently, several top-ranked tennis players in the world are Serbian, and locals are so passionate about the sport that they try to put a tennis court on every piece of unused land they can find. In this case, we found a most unusual spot for a court—the moat of the fortress! As we crossed the bridge to the fort, we looked down to see a tennis court lodged on the floor of the moat between the fortress wall and the outer wall.
Facing a daunting walk across the fortress grounds, Bill chose to sit by the entrance and read while the rest of us strode all the way to the edge of the bluff for a magnificent view of “New” Belgrade, which sits at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Thirty minutes later we traveled by bus back to the central part of the city, passing stark visible reminders of the 1999 airstrikes NATO delivered against Serbia in an attempt to make the government put an end to the civil war in Kosovo. Some buildings still stood with missing
View of the beautiful but sad city as we departed
windows, bent girders, and sections with no roof. We then had about an hour free to shop and people-watch along the fashionable pedestrian promenade in the heart of the city.
Our next stop was the largest active Orthodox temple in the world, the St. Sava Cathedral, which is still in the process of being built, using money gifted by Russia. The cross at the top of its central dome is the highest point in the city.
Lunch back on the Amadagio was a festival of pumpkin! The Serbs do amazing things with pumpkin, so I enjoyed the rucola ravioli with creamy pumpkin sauce (yummy) and the equally-yummy marinated pumpkin salad. Dessert was traditional Serbian poppyseed strudel, which was similar to what my mom makes.
In the afternoon, we shopped (I bought some lace from a local woman) and napped before enjoying a Serbian folklore dance show, followed by dinner. After dinner, we were treated to a program of classical music by a famous violinist, accompanied by his wife on the piano.
Thursday, July 31, 2008, marked a highlight of our cruise, as we were surrounded for over 12 hours by the most spectacular scenery to be
Overlooking Novi Sad, Serbia
found anywhere along the Danube river. The dramatic landscape was formed by a beautiful set of gorges, 84 miles in length, called the Iron Gates, through which the river flows between Serbia and Romania. With the Carpathian Mountains on one side and the Balkan Mountains on the other, the river at one point narrows to 150 meters with a depth of 53 meters. However, the oohs and aahs never stopped the entire day, as we relaxed on the sun deck or on the deck outside the lounge while taking in the breathtaking fairy-tale-like scenery, intricate rock details, and Europe’s tallest rock sculpture carved into the riverbank. An impressive man-made sight was the Iron Gate hydropower dam, through which we glided with the help of two very deep locks.
We toured the bridge with the captain mid-afternoon, all the while enjoying the picturesque panorama passing by. At 5 p.m., our cruise director Maddie gave a moving and informative talk about life under Ceausescu’s dictatorial regime in the 1960’s through the 80’s. She spoke about the rationing of food and how her mother got up at 4 a.m. every morning to stand in line for 3 hours to get the daily
Church of the Virgin Mary
Neo-gothic church on Liberty Square in Novi Sad
ration of bread—1/2 loaf per family. Once a year she stood in line for 8 hours to get two pounds of oranges—not for Christmas because there were no religious holidays—but for New Year’s Day. Only one forty-watt bulb was allowed per room in homes. Women were required to have as many children as possible, minimum of 5, so no birth control was allowed. Women had to submit to monthly gynecological examinations to make sure the rules were being followed. Families could not afford big families, and the results are well-known: unwanted children of the orphanages and horrific deaths from back street abortions. All privately-owned land was taken away by the dictator, and he moved everyone from villages to cities in small, cramped, block apartments to work in factories. No contact with the West was allowed, no one could leave the country, and no one could have a typewriter or even paper for fear that they might write to someone and expose the tyranny. Families lived in constant fear that the secret police would show up and arrest the father, putting him to work at hard labor, and possibly never seeing him again. Finally in 1989, people near the border who
had been receiving radio broadcasts from Yugoslavia and Hungary organized a bloody revolution that resulted in the public execution by firing squad of Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day on national television.
Dinner was followed by our arrival in Vidin, Bulgaria, where a group of children performed folklore dances. Some passengers (including myself) joined in the fun and learned some of the dance steps.
The next day--Friday, August 1, 2008--after breakfast, we boarded our buses for a 5-hour tour of the frontier-town of Vidin and the nearby countryside. Although it has a sort of “riverside flair,” Vidin is a very off-the-beaten-path place and is certainly not yet developed for mass tourism. This made it all the more interesting since we had the opportunity to glimpse the “real Bulgaria.” We drove about an hour through rolling hills and farmland with crops mainly of sunflowers, climbing the last 20 minutes to Belgradchik (“small white town”). The picturesque town is nestled in the photogenic Stara Planina Mountains, where a fairy-tale forest of gigantic rock formations was shaped by nature over 230 million years ago when the region was at the bottom of a sea. These unique rocky obelisks are tinted
View from Kalemegdan Fortress, recipient of the first shot of World War I
in red and randomly scattered across the green hills. Some resemble figures of humans, animals,or plants, each with a name: “The Madonna,” “the stone wedding,” the mushrooms,” “the monks,” the horsemen,” “Adam and Eve,” etc.
The village has a majestic fortress atop a hill, an ancient stronghold dating back to the third century AD. Some of our group walked to the top of the daunting structure, but the rest of us stayed at the base and enjoyed the wine and crackers served by locals dressed in folk costumes.
Our next stop was the medieval, stone Bada Vida Fortress, built between the 10th and 14th centuries, which sits guard over the Danube. We enjoyed a colorful theatrical performance on the history of Bulgaria in its outdoor theater.
We arrived back at the ship around 1:30 for a late lunch. My favorite dishes were the Schopska salad (grated Bulgarian cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, root vegetables) and Bulgarian baklava. The remainder of the afternoon was spent relaxing gloriously in our cabin with the balcony door open as we leisurely cruised, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of nature in harmony along the river. In the evening, the Captain’s cocktail
party closed out another wonderful day.
Our final full day on the cruise was a very long one. We docked at Giurgiu, Romania, early in the morning and at 8 a.m. we boarded the buses for a one hour drive to the nation’s capital and largest city, Bucharest. We saw horse-drawn buggies side-by-side on the highway with BMW’s and Audis as we approached the city, vividly exposing the contrast between the rich and poor.
The city itself presented contrasts with its eclectic architecture and buildings that ranged from old-and-dilapidated to old-and-renovated to new. In the period between the two World Wars, the city's elegant architecture and the sophistication of its elite earned Bucharest the nickname of the "Little Paris of the East." It even has its own Arch of Triumph, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A major part of Bucharest's architecture, however, is made up of buildings constructed during the Communist era, replacing the historical architecture with "more efficient" high density, concrete apartment blocks. Many of these have been refurbished to improve the appearance of the city.
Our first stop was at a modern, four-story shopping mall downtown that was converted from a food
warehouse from Ceausescu’s time. After an hour of shopping, we visited an Orthodox Church and then enjoyed an authentic Romanian culinary experience at the Pescarus Restaurant, one of the finest restaurants in Bucharest located on the shore of beautiful Herastrau Lake. The tasty traditional Romanian cuisine was complemented by a lively atmosphere of Romanian folk music and dancers.
After lunch we paid a visit to the nearby Village Museum, one of the world’s most interesting open-air museums with a collection of over 300 century-old homes, windmills, churches, and structures from every region of the country. The oldest house dates back to the 17th century and was brought to the museum in pieces and re-assembled. The country’s rich tradition of folk architecture and art really came to life, and the relaxing walk made us forget we were in the middle of a city.
A tour of Romania’s most notorious building, the Palace of Parliament, was a fitting conclusion to our day in this sprawling, eclectic city. The Palace of Parliament is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and it was perhaps the most extravagant and expensive building project in history. One-fifth
Traditional Serbian folk shoes
of the city was demolished to make room for it. Its size epitomizes that for which Ceausescu aiming in the 1980’s— everything was built on an enormous scale; there are 1,100 rooms in this 12-story building. Ceausescu wanted the most lavish palace in the world for himself and his wife, so every square inch is marble--one million cubic yards of Romanian marble, plus 3,500 metric tons of crystal for the chandeliers. Although we only toured for an hour and saw perhaps 5% of the building, the outrageous extravagance was overwhelming.
20,000 workers toiled in 24-hour shifts, seven days a week, to build the Palace. To finance the project, Ceausescu had to take on enormous foreign debts. In order to repay these debts, he systematically starved the Romanian people, exporting all of the country's agricultural and industrial production as the standard of living in Romania sank to an all time low. Food-rationing and heating blackouts became everyday norms, and people lived in squalor and poverty as the Ceausescus themselves exhibited outrageous extravagance. Every step I took reminded me of the many who died of starvation because of this man and his megalomania.
We returned to the Amadagio at about 6:30
p.m., and after dinner we were faced with the always-sad task of packing. After good-byes to the friends we made, we turned in because we were disembarking at 3 a.m.! Our flight departed Bucharest at 6:50 a.m., and since there was a two-hour drive to the airport from the ship, we were picked up by a taxi at 3 a.m. All went smoothly, and we arrived at the airport in plenty of time. Our connection in Paris was not as tight this time, so we felt less harried and arrived back into Houston at 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon, August 3.
This cruise both surprised and delighted us. As avid cruisers, we are always on the lookout for exotic shores to explore, eager to add new ports to our collection of travel memories. This alluring and intriguing region has only recently emerged as a tourist destination for Westerners, but we highly recommend its beautiful and exotic ports of call. Furthermore, there is a lot to be said for river cruising. In this part of the world especially, rivers are ancient highways that offer unencumbered approaches and dramatic views. Riverboats are always in sight of land, offering more scenery for the
money and making more stops, allowing for greater sightseeing opportunities than the huge ocean liners. The boats are much smaller, but the food is even better! If you don’t need the nonstop action of casinos and nightclubs, the historical and cultural travel experience of a river cruise can exceed your expectations!
Tot: 1.781s; Tpl: 0.081s; cc: 14; qc: 69; dbt: 0.0404s; 1; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 4;
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