Sailing on the Danube

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After an eight-hour flight on Delta Airlines – where we had the best meal we ever had in business class – we got to our first destination on our Viking cruise up the Danube River right on time to meet our guide. The big advantage of a tour is the ease of traveling in a country where few people speak English. Although we had taken a river cruise before, this was our first with Viking.
The ship that was to be our home was about an hour’s drive on a bus. When we excitedly walked the gangplank to our room I was very disappointed. Although we had reserved a room with a balcony I must report the room was a tiny 150-square-feet and the floor-to-ceiling glass wall led to a narrow outdoor space. Some boats have a window wall with a sliding door called a French balcony with no “walk-out.” Ours had a bench and room for a chair.
Maybe I’m spoiled, because I do like a spacious room, but this ship had no larger one. The sold- out ship holds about 148 people from around the world. With open seating for all meals we spoke with guests from as far away as Bangkok, Spain and Toronto to cities all over the U.S.
The three meals a day and friendly, accommodating staff made the trip comfortable.
Our first stop was to Bucharest in Romania. We stayed at a hotel in the heart of the city before we went to the ship the next day. It gave us a chance to walk through the city that has a history that dates back to 1492. Romania became an independent state in 1877 and is now a democracy after being both a communist state and a dictatorship. Their feared and hated dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, left his mark in murdering masses of people but also by building, at enormous hardship and cost – the largest government building in Europe – the Palace of Parliament. Ironically, he was despised partly because he displaced and condemned thousands of homes and people to be able to build what many consider a monstrosity of a building. He and his wife were executed by a firing squad.
Walking through this massive marble building completed after Ceausescu was murdered, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the gilt rooms and stunning wide marble staircases. From the gold leaf ceilings and walls to the marble floors and walls and enormous rugs, everything was made in Romania. But the cost of running the building is so high that as we walked through several rooms where the lights were out, the guide admitted, “We can’t afford to be to be part of the European Union.” Years ago it was considered the “Paris of the East.” It hopes to return to its former glory days.
I did a little shopping in a village where they rebuilt and relocated old wooden churches. Although no one spoke English I negotiated with the friendly craftspeople for a hand-crafted doll and mask, all made in Romania!
A claim to fame for Romania is Transylvania, in the western province of the country. Yes, this is where the fictitious Count Dracula was supposed to call home. It’s become a tourist attraction where mountains and castles and picturesque villages attract a steady flow of the curious. With vampires so “in” right now, it’s no wonder the sites are so popular with foreigners. The area is home to Romania’s largest gypsy population.
Leaving from Bucharest, our cruise ship continued on the Danube, docking in Bulgaria. What’s amazing to me is that the two countries, Romania and Bulgaria, sit opposite each other only a quarter of a mile apart in most parts, almost like New York and New Jersey. They are building two more bridges adding to the only one now operating to encourage trade and tourism. The new government in Bulgaria promised to build new highways connecting the country and improve the cracked roads running through parts of the nation.
The seven million Bulgarian people are now struggling to enter the European market as a parliamentary democracy. Only time will tell if this oldest surviving state in Europe will make a better life for its citizens.
I climbed 250 steps through the Belogradchik Rocks to reach the peak of an amazing hilltop Kaleto fortress built on the protected location. Each enormous rock has been given names because they look like their namesakes. I’m sure I saw an elephant’s head in one and two figures kissing in another. It’s a remarkable site that I didn’t find in my Fodor’s tour book.
In the afternoon our chef took a group of us on a walking tour of the local market. He showed us giant deep red tomatoes sold in each booth. So I asked him how he decides among the wares of the 50 vendors. “Oh,” he said, “I squeeze them then check the price.”
The town has a small air-conditioned mall and it’s where I found a Wi-Fi connection to send my column. No one spoke English, although I’m told it’s taught in all the schools, so I was grateful that two young tour guides from the ship escorted me to the mall and helped me find the street back to the ship. What a relief, in the 100 degree heat, not to fear getting lost.
Back to the ship and off to Serbia, traveling through the Iron Gate and locks to enable navigation through this part of the Danube River.
Tuesday began by stopping to get through immigration for the ships and an hour to shop at the stalls set up along the river banks. I noticed that the embroidered and crocheted tablecloths were one of a kind, whereas when we were on the Volga River in Russia, the vendors had multiple packages of their handicrafts. In the meantime we had a chance to relax on board and enjoy the shorelines of Serbia on one side of the Danube and Romania on the other.