We were certainly enjoying our cruise up the Danube on Uniworld’s River Countess. The food was wonderful; the sites visited were interesting and life aboard was relaxing. This fifth day on the river, though, we passengers were wondering why the Captain had suddenly called a special meeting. Soon we found out- our cruise was over tomorrow, midway through the itinerary.
Thinking back, we had noticed that the water level had been rising, and we could see how the banks were overflowing into the trees along the shore. During the meeting, we were told that the Serbian government had halted river traffic because of flooding from heavy rains north. Authorities said it was no longer safe to travel; all vessels would be stopped for an estimated three days.
Our captain, Jord Zwall, was frustrated, of course, and when asked to describe what exactly was happening, he said it was like a small tsunami on the river, as if a wall of water was coming toward us that would lift the river level. He said he didn’t want to keep us here stranded in Belgrade. Accordingly, passengers would disembark the next day, and the remainder of our trip would be by bus. We would spend nights in hotels.
We had begun this Uniworld 16-day Eastern European Explorer trip in Bucharest. After two nights there, the 70 passengers would board the River Countess for the remainder of our journey. Countries visited besides Romania, would be Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria.
As it turned out, we did visit all the countries specified and saw most of the sites scheduled. Traveling by bus was not a circumstance we would have chosen, but as all seasoned travelers realize “stuff happens,” and plans have to be adjusted.
All countries on the tour, excepting Austria, had been formerly under Russian domination after World War II. With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, all became independent. Old borders were re-structured; some areas re-named. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was the stories guides told of the changes brought on by the new freedom in the countries and the comparisons they made about life before and after gaining freedom.
As explained to us, life for everyone is not necessarily better now. Under communism, lives were structured and basic needs were taken care of by the government – medical, housing – and, there was nearly full employment. Now, with capitalism, individuals are on their own, and some are having economic problems.
All eastern nations are now experiencing a rise in tourism. Consequently, we found most refreshingly not “touristy” – crowds were comparatively small and local people were welcoming and friendly. Each country spoke a different language but those dealing with tourists all had a good command of English.
Romania to Serbia
It was last June 7 when we arrived in Bucharest. The group of 70 booked for the cruise stayed in the Radisson Blu Hotel two nights before being driven the short distance to the port city of Giurgiu.
A highlight in Bucharest was a city tour which included a visit to the Parliament Palace. Built by the notoriusly despotic Communist Party leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, this colossal building is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
When construction started in 1984, Ceausescu intended it to be the government headquarters as well as his home. It was his fate to be killed before it was finished. Today, it houses Romania’s Parliament and serves as an international conference center, but many of the rooms are unoccupied .We toured the interior with its luxurious display of crystal chandeliers, mosaics, oak paneling, marble, gold leaf, stained-glass windows and floors covered in rich carpets.
Also memorable was the visit to Revolution Square in the heart of city. Anchoring the square is the former Communist Party Headquarters. This was where Ceausescu, during the Romanian revolution in 1989, looked out from the balcony and in disbelief saw multitudes of people who had turned against him. He fled and was captured a few hours later and killed.
Top-of-the-list of things to do outside Bucharest is a vist to Transylvania and Dracula’s Castle (Bran Castle, as officially known). On our day-long excursion, the lush countryside was ablaze with red poppies among a rainbow array of wild flowers. This was a positive benefit of the spring’s heavy rains.
The bus drove on into the densly wooded Carpathian Mountains and dropped down into the verdant Bran Valley where the castle stands against the hills. If it weren’t for the souvenir sellers greeting us, the castle-scene would have looked like one imagines from the movies. Nineteenth Century novelist Bram Stoker based the Dracula character on the infamous Vlad the Impaler who built the castle in the 15th Century as a fortress in his resistance to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. He got his nickname because of the cruel punishments imposed on his enemies. Now a national monument, the castle was filled with tourists, but its many secret passageways and concealed rooms impart a spooky aura. For vampire fans, the top floor is filled with paraphernalia from Dracula lore.
During our two nights on the town, we found a very good restaurant, La Mamma, known for its authentic Romanian food. (Side note: Romanians speak a “Romance” language, having much in common with French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. We recognized many phrases such as “bona sera” which means “good evening” in Italian. In other countries, a Slavic language was spoken.)
We told our waiter we wanted something ethnic. On his advice, we ordered cabbage rolls (“sarmale”), accompanied by the traditional corn meal mush (“mamaliga”) with delicious fresh beets as a side dish. The meal cost around $30, with drinks, coffee and dessert. We liked our selection so much we ordered it both nights.
After Bucharest, we boarded our ship, River Countess. Having read that this ship was voted the best river cruise ship afloat, we were very excited but ; never disappointed Not only were the accommodations well planned and elegant, but the entire ship was tastefully decorated from the spacious lounge in the front of the ship to the dining room at the back, whether set for a buffet at breakfast and lunch or for table service at dinner.
And, what service it was – from the maitre’d who greeted us at the door to the servers who poured carefully selected wines to accompany each course from executive chef Minko Stanev. Of the countless cruises we’ve taken, the dining experience on this ship was among the very best.
Next morning, we sailed to the other side of the river to Rousse, Bulgaria, and immediately got on a bus for a day-long excursion to the Black Sea resort town, Varna. After eating lunch, we walked along the beach with some of us going into the 70-degree water. It felt very pleasant on a hot day. The beach could have been on the French Riviera — colorful umbrellas everywhere and droves of sunbathers, with many women topless. Our next two days of sight-seeing in Bulgaria proved to be among the most memorable of the trip. We started with a trip to Velko Turnova, the site of the medieval Tsarevits castle with its surrounding wall seemingly to continue into the valley below. The imposing castle was a fortress and royal palace from 1185 to 1393.
We went on to Zarbassi which attracts visitors world wide to its ancient orthodox churches, dating back to the 1500s. Particularly striking was Christ Nativity Church, its walls and ceiling be-decked with brilliant frescoes and icons. Not noticeably faded over the ages, they vividly portray the rewards of heaven and the perils of hell. A bit later we went to the church of St. George and heard a blissful concert by a church chorus.
Last day in Bulgaria was particularly memorable with visits to Baba Vidin Fortress and the Belogradchik Rocks. Located on the western slopes of the Balkan mountains, the rocks are a group of bizarrely shaped sandstone, limestone and conglomerate formations. They vary in color from red to gray to yellow; some 600 feet in height. Many have fantastic shapes and are associated with local legends and named for people or objects they are thought to resemble.
The unique thing is the rocks are incorporated as part of the fortress which was built during the Roman Empire and captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1396. The walls are over six-feet thick and 39-feet high. .
Many of us took the path leading to the tallest section of the rock fortress. It was not easy – 200 steps in 102-degree heat. Sweating and panting, I wondered, half-way up, what I was doing here but persevered on.
During the last day aboard ship, we were enthralled as we sailed to Serbia through the Iron Gates, comprised of an 80-mile sequence of gorges cutting through the Carpathian Mountains. It is rated among the most dramatic natural displays of beauty in Europe. Prior to 1972, when the Iron Gate Dam was constructed, a trip along this stretch could be hazardous. Now two locks raised our boat to dam level, and we were on our way until high water stopped us later that day.
From Serbia to Vienna
Before disembarking, we spent two days on excursions in Serbia’s historic capital, Belgrade. First was to the Kalemegdan Fortress, located on top a cliff-like ridge, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Here we saw reminders of Serbia’s Roman and Medieval past. The spot also marks the founding in the 3rd century BC by the Celts who had defeated the previous Thracian conquerors. Most of the area is now a park.
In recent decades, Serbia was a part of Yugoslavia. When the Soviets left, the area was eventually divided into three countries, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. This division made few happy and, under the influence of ruthless Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic, war broke out between the three. The bloody dispute was settled in the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, Peace Agreement. Subsequently Milosevik was arrested for war crimes and died in prison in 2000 while under trial.
Later that day we went to the National Museum and saw a treasure trove of pieces excavated at the fort – sculptures, weapons, helmets and other items from ancient Rome, Greece and .Thrace The most valuable and impressive pieces are golden masks from the 6th century B.C.
Also very interesting was our stop at the memorial to Marshall Tito, leader of Yugoslavia. As president from 1943 to 1963, his government managed to keep the country the most independent in the Soviet Bloc. He is a well-loved hero, and his white marble grave sits in the center of an airy glass and stone pavilion. On exhibit is an interesting array of memorabilia from his era.
The following morning we boarded buses for a trip that would cross three borders – Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. The day was broken up by a delightful lunch in the home of a family in a village near Osijek, Croatia. (Actually several homes were chosen because of the size of the group.)
Speaking for our host family was a teenage daughter whose English was flawless. Her mother and younger sister could speak a little English, but she took the floor and had a delightful manner. She answered all our questions about Croatian life.
The meal was wonderful, especially the vegetable soup and fried chicken. Afterward, the daughter took us out back to see the family vegetable garden which led down to the Danube where kids regularly swam. We toured the old city part of Osijek before going on to Budapest, Hungary.
That evening we checked into our hotel on the Danube – right across from the Parliament Building. It was lit up at night. Just to right of it we had a view of the famous Chain Bridge, built in the early 19th Century to link the two parts of the city – Buda and Pest.
The city is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Europe. Regretfully we had only one full day which made us cram in some of the most obvious sites – a tour of Buda Castle with its fairy tale turrets; a brief look at magnificent St. Mathias Church; and a walk around the vast Heroes Square, with its carvings along massive walls of significant happenings in Hungarian history. .
Making a fortuitous decision, we chose an afternoon trip to Szentendre, a picturesque village with typical Hungarian arts and crafts on display. Most of our fellow tourists shopped along the cobble-stone streets. We decided, however, to take in a museum devoted to Margit Kovacs, highly-praised ceramicist. Most of her work was from mid 20th Century.
Featured is a collection of clay statuettes, pots, plates, wall plaques and tiled murals. Her art is varied but characterized by sensual flowing lines. Altogether, it turned out to be an eye-opening experience. We were sorry to hear that her pieces displayed (or even copies) were not for sale. (But if so, they surely would have been way over our budget.) **(picture of Kovacs’ art)
Our final day consisted of driving across neighboring Slovakia.. In 1993, two new countries were born – Slovakia and the Czech Republic, following the break up of Czechoslovakia.
At noon, we took a half-day break walking around the pleasant capital, Bratislava. The old city proved to be very compact and accessible. The narrow streets, quaint buildings and spacious squares made it look picture-book perfect.
As with many other places we had seen, a castle stands above the city; while Michael’s Gate Tower dominates the scene below. The tower served as a frontier post of the Roman Empire and now is the seat of government. The gate, marking the city entrance, was built in 1300, and in 1758 a striking baroque statue of St. Michael and the Dragon was placed on its top. **(picture IMG_0984 of Brataslavia)
Soon after starting our tour, we were surprised by seeing a bronze statue of American modern artist Andy Warhol. It turns out that his parents came from here. This was just the first of many whimsical life-size bronzes we would see.
Among these sculptures are a paparazzi peering round a corner ready to snap a photo and a French soldier, resembling Napoleon, leaning on a bench in the Main Square. Most popular, though, is a workman inconspicuously peeping out of a manhole. People were clustered around him to have their pictures taken.
We finished up this pleasant afternoon with a concert by a well known duo made up of the first violinist and piano-conductor of the national symphony orchestra.
That evening we had dinner at famous Marchfelder Hof to have a lavish dinner of Austrian specialties. Two days more in wonderful Vienna and our “cruise” was over. And, by the way, the River Countess, after a very speedy sail, made it to Vienna where the next group was ready to embark on a cruise from Vienna to Amsterdam.