As Edmonds-based travel guru Rick Steves likes to say, travel expands both your understanding of the world and your outlook on life. We couldn’t agree more after completing an 18-day River Cruise this past fall on the Danube in Europe, sailing from approximately Bucharest, Romania to Munich, Germany.
We’d never done anything quite like this before, so we had some trepidation about the trip: would we survive the 10-hour flight from Seattle to Amsterdam and the subsequent connecting flight to Bucharest? Would we get through customs and meet up with our party without incident in the Bucharest airport? Would our fellow travelers be super seniors, or people like us, who, for the time being anyways, are still active and mobile?
All these questions raced through our minds as we hopped aboard a bus taking us to our hotel in Bucharest, the capital of the former Communist country of Romania, after nearly 20 hours in transit. Suffice to say everything went swimmingly except for the water level of the Danube, located many miles to the south, across Romania’s picturesque steppe country.
Because of low water on the Danube, we had to spend the first two days of our voyage in Bucharest before departing by bus to our boat. But it was time well spent.
Bucharest is a modern city, with a mix of incredible architecture, gleaned from a number by-gone eras. There are hundreds of beautiful old churches, sitting adjacent to apartments and commercial buildings right out of the Communist era. Romania was part of the Soviet Union for 45 years before the strong man, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, were executed on Christmas Day in 1989, and the country became Democratic.
The city has lots parks and hip areas with neat restaurants and nightclubs as well as the Palace of the Parliament, one of the largest buildings in the world, rivaling the size of the Pentagon. We stayed in the Athenian Palace Hotel, a beautifully restored 100-year-old structure that strikes a chord like a John le Carre novel. It’s famous for being a place – during the Communist era and before – where the Gestapo used to spy on guests from the world over. Evidently, every room was bugged at one time or another, and besides the Dwyers, some celebrity guests have also stayed there over the years, including the likes of Putin, Lady Gaga, The Rolling Stones, and Hollywood actors like Ethan Hawke. A very interesting place, to say the least.
As we plied down the Danube aboard the Avalon View, a river cruiser similar in size and shape to the more recognizable Viking cruise line, we had some wonderful, little adventures including more stops in Romania, and in Bulgaria, another former Communist country.
Everywhere we traveled we saw remnants of the Communist era: the aforementioned old apartment buildings in need of repair, abandoned homes (left behind when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, leaving many of these countries’ economies in a shambles and their citizens without jobs as Communism crumbled), along with huge government buildings once filled with bureaucrats and now half empty, and so on.
But there were also some very interesting sights to be seen, such as the Arbanassi castle and the Veliko Tarnovo church, located in a fortress like setting in the Bulgarian town of the same name. Maybe the most intriguing area we visited in this stretch of our journey was Belogradchik rocks, part of a monastery and fortress that resembled the Hoodoos you see at Bryce National Park or Joshua Tree. There were lots of rock formations that remind visitors of animals and people, including one that some folks swear looks like former President Donald Trump.
After spending a day in the small Bulgarian town of Vidin, which had an amazing synagogue and some spectacular World War I statuary, our trip continued along the mighty Danube through some impressive locks and the Iron Gate gorge, a narrow stretch of river where the Baltic mountains to the south nearly touch the Carpathian range to the north. It’s the narrowest spot on the nearly 1,800-mile-long river.
Once in Serbia, we toured a fascinating museum that is very near the site of an anthropological dig where human remains were found dating back more than 12,000 years. The museum also included some equally grand artwork that these ancients made, along with tools and other interesting artifacts. It’s not known how long this seemingly advanced civilization lived there, or where they disappeared to. A head-scratcher, for sure, and one of anthropology’s on-going mysteries!
Later that same day, we took in the Golubac Fortress, also in Serbia, where we scrambled up turrets and eyed coats of armor, swords, full-on armored mannequins, cannons and other equipment used to defend this enormous castle that dates back to the 15th century and beyond. It was quite an amazing site, especially at night.
We then sailed to Belgrade, Serbia’s capital and biggest city. We landed on what turned out to be a national holiday (Oct. 23) when in 1944 the city was liberated from the Nazis by Soviet forces. Of course, Serbia became a Soviet satellite state, and eventually gave rise to the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and the Balkan war, where war crimes and genocide took place in the late 1990s. But that’s a story for another day.
We visited some amazing places on our journey along the Danube, from small, quaint villages to big cities. We learned much about communism and its impact on countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia, as well as despots such as Ceausescu and Milosevic. The early history of this region is equally rich and fascinating, going back to the Celts, the Romans, the Ottoman Turks, the Habsburgs and other lesser-known invaders and usurpers – all of whom conquered these countries, divided them up, and, in many cases, enslaved their people or plundered their resources, or both.
The Catholic Church has a huge footprint here, and throughout all of Western Europe, in spite of wars, reformations and the emergence of Martin Luther, John Calvin and some Muslim influence. Not surprisingly, the churches, cathedrals and basilicas are amazing structures reminding us of Ken Follett’s book, “Pillars of the Earth.” But as previously mentioned, so too are the commercial buildings, palaces, castles, fortresses and government edifices – all equally amazing structures.
While we visited dozens of places on our cruise, from Novi Sad in Serbia to Vienna and Durnstein in Austria, the city that really sticks out for its architectural splendor, beauty and walk-ability is Budapest, in Hungary, especially Pest. The city is divided by the Danube, and the Pest side is the flatter region that contains much of the really interesting attractions, such as its big multi-story market and bazar that rivals the size and scale of our own Pike Place Market, spectacular bridges (especially at night), enormous Parliamentary buildings, and miles of pedestrian-only streets.
We lucked out as we left Budapest on a moonlit night that was truly magical. Our cameras couldn’t stop clicking away as we eyed the beautiful cityscape on our river cruiser’s handsome sun deck.
After nearly two days in Budapest, we anchored for a day in Bratislava, Slovakia. Slovakia is a country forged out of the southern half of the former country of Czechoslovakia (which was once part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.) The northern half is today’s Czech Republic. If you’re a fan of the Tour de France, you probably know that Slovakia is home to Peter Sagan, one of bike racing’s greatest competitors. Bratislava is an emerging former Communist city with low unemployment, modern, high-rise buildings and a reputation as the “Detroit of the European Union,” with its fast-growing automobile-making sector.
It also has a charming old town, with beautiful buildings, impressive statuary, churches and a castle located – where else – overlooking the town on a hill. One out-of-this-world feature in this small city was the UFO Tower, built atop a bridge stanchion, complete with a restaurant featuring pricey drinks. It reminded us a wee bit of the Space Needle, with its circular top and long curvy legs.
We awoke the next morning in Vienna. It was raining and raining hard, making the sightseeing tour a bit challenging. The highlight, though, was that evening when we attended a symphony concert in a beautiful Viennese Palace. The performance included not only great musicianship, but dancing and singing from ballet dancers and opera singers, all done in a rather laid back, humorous fashion.
While Vienna was fascinating and historic, perhaps the biggest surprise was the little village of Durnstein up river. The place looked like it could have been plucked off a Disney shooting lot from yesteryear, with a beautiful blue-colored steeple church, lovely homes, cute, little shops, and a castle that once held Richard the Lion Heart of England as a prisoner and was part of the 30-years war. Richard I, aka the Lion Heart, lived in the 11th century and was best known for battling Saladin during the Crusades. But obviously, he got around!
As we sailed towards Linz, also in Austria, we observed 1,000s upon 1,000s of acres of grapes being grown along the river’s banks climbing up to surrounding peaks. Almost every inch of toil able soil seemed to be cultivated by a mostly white grape variety. There is a quite a wine-making industry in Austria, and for that matter, in most countries we passed through. How they manage to harvest the grapes on those magnificent-looking slopes is anyone’s guess.
Before we wound up our trip in Vilsohofen, Germany (and took a bus to the Munich airport), we took in Linz, another beautiful historic city, where Mozart spent some time, and reportedly wrote a symphony in just two days for the Mayor, and a day or so later, in Passau, Germany. Both had breath-taking vistas from on high and gorgeous cobblestone streets for pedestrians only. We could go on, but you’re probably falling asleep, so we’ll just say, so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye… goodbye… goodbyeee!
For more information on European river cruises, check out https://www.avalonwaterways.com
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