The Unexplored Danube River, Explored

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The Danube River.
The Danube River.

Now, who would’ve thought that a Danube River cruise, heading into the mid-November approach of stormy weather, scheduled to tie up in many Eastern European ports with names no one has ever heard nor could pronounce, would be booked to capacity?

Well, never underestimate the new-found power and appeal of river cruising, for our Viking River Cruises’ 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe—including two nights at the Budapest Marriott Hotel before boarding the Viking Embla for a 7-night cruise from Budapest to Bucharest, and ending with a final night at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bucharest—was a sellout departure. And it’s a cruise that doesn’t disappoint.

What this 5-country itinerary—Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania—does do is deliver the most interesting river cruise this lucky-to-be-aboard guest has ever taken. The accent is not on culinary arts, or vineyards and wine tasting, or the upcoming Christmas markets. Rather, it’s all about getting acquainted with a handful of little-known countries—positioned on ancient trade routes from the Orient, still rich in natural wonders and historic treasures—that we think of as places of conflict and unrest since the breakup of the Soviet Union exactly 25 years ago.

“These are newly formed nations that most of us had pictured as drab, post-communist places,” says passenger Roger Bennorth from Bridgeport, CT. “But what we seem to be encountering are vibrant people working hard to make up for lost time: rebuilding their cities and rural farmlands; educating their children; enjoying new freedoms of religion; reconnecting with their cultural heritage. This cruise is an eye-opener for all on board, changing everyone’s preconception of this part of the world.”

Let’s be honest about cruising this sector of the Danube River. In general, east from Budapest, the river is no scenic beauty adorned with fairy tale castles. Rather you’re tripping along an important, historic waterway—the second longest in Europe—that gets you where you are going. That said, the cruise kicks off in Budapest, probably the most stunning city on the Danube. Viking Embla parks right across the river from the castle perched high on Buda Hill, within walking distance of the Chain Bridge and almost at the not-to-miss Central Market. Our first evening, the captain’s welcome-aboard surprise is a dazzling mini-cruise under the bridges and around the harbor for night views and photographs of Budapest aglow.

Consider from here on a handful of favorite excursions/onboard cultural activities that captured the specialness of our Passage to Eastern Europe itinerary.

+ Highlights in the Danube countryside included a day out into the great Hungarian plains—a.k.a. Puszta—where we spend time at a working farm and enjoy a truly dazzling performance of horsemanship by the fabled horsemen of the Puszta, csikos or cowboys who control vast herds of horses with the sound of their cracking whips. In Bulgaria, the 16th century Church of the Nativity in Arbanassi displays a magnificent treasure chest of paintings, frescoes and woodwork, and Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s former capital of the tsars, is a gem of a medieval town with fine craft shops lining the cobbled streets. An optional excursion in Hungary takes us to the village of Kovacica to mingle with the artisans who produce well-known naïve art, as well as hand-made violins.

+ The most singular scenic splendor is the Iron Gate Gorge, located in the Djerdap National Park at the point where the river narrows to just 500 ft. During Roman times (A.D. 103), Emperor Trajan ordered a bridge built to span the Danube, linking today’s river boundary between Romania and Serbia. While the bridge is history, the contemporary artifact is the 40-ft. stone head of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia, commissioned in the 20th century and commanding the cliff face of the gorge. We also passed through just two locks on our voyage, both here at Iron Gate.

+ People-to-people experiences are well integrated into this Viking cruise, under the simply amazing, smart and caring command of Romanian-born Violeta Crespin, program director; none of us will forget her inspiring talk on growing up in Eastern Europe. In Croatia, our home-hosted visit in the village of Bilje is welcoming, interesting and fun. Our small group is seated around a dining room table, set with tea, juice, wine and pastries, listening to hostess Bagaric Snjezana tell us about her life, including the special aspects of her mixed Catholic-Orthodox Church marriage. Hers is one of many homes participating in home hospitality, many including guestroom accommodations. On board, one of our treats is a Bulgarian Folkdance Troupe of high school kids, topped of with refreshments and questions about their lives, and theirs about ours. (To our chagrin, when questioned, not one of us could name a famous Bulgarian.) And aboard the ship is a multi-nationalities team of chefs; we meet them right in the kitchen as they prepare a bountiful feast of “Balkan Night” specialties: Serbian cevapcici, Croatian pljeskavica, Hungarian tarhonya and beef goulash, Romanian stuffed cabbage and peppers.

+ Consider two capital highs: The Serbian capital of Belgrade is a handsome city, simultaneously ornate and austere, ancient and modern. Its Kalemegdan Fortress embodies the history of Belgrade, as it has been fought over at least 115 times and razed to the ground 44. Although a vast fortified settlement occupied this site since Celtic times, the place we see today dates to the 18th century. Another major attraction is Sveti Sava, the largest Orthodox Church in the world. For time at leisure, we pick the not-to-miss Ethnographic Museum; the craft shop here is also excellent (note, no credit cards).

On the final day, we tour along the grand boulevards of Bucharest, visiting the National Village Museum with its open-air collection of dozens of homesteads, churches, mills and windmills

relocated from rural Romania. Another stop is a tour of the Palace of Parliament, the colossal centerpiece of Dictator Ceausescu’s megalomaniac vision; he demolished a quarter of the capital’s historic center to make room for the second largest administrative building in the world—after the Pentagon. Viking offers a post-tour in Romania, an add-on to be recommended.

the onboard life
The good-ship Embla proved indeed tailor-made for river cruising. The aspects I like best have to do with light. The public areas, the restaurant, the atrium-style lobby, the main Lounge flowing into the Aquavit Terrace and the informal restaurant, all have floor-to-ceiling windows. Further, every public area inside and out is separated by lightly-etched glass-door panels that keep interiors light and open automatically to let passengers move easily about. While we weren’t there at the sunniest time of year, it always seemed bright and pleasant on board the ship.

Ditto our Veranda stateroom, with a wall of sliding glass doors opening onto the two chairs and a table on the balcony making cabin space seem grander. And that room didn’t miss a beat in layout and furnishings: unbelievably comfortable beds and upgraded bedding, ample closet and drawer storage, sophisticated lighting and controls for setting room ambiance, large flat-screen TV, heated bathroom floors, excellent shower controls, quality bath amenities, and lots of outlets for charging electronics.

Only one thing seemed amiss on the Longship: no gym. In the presence of constant fine dining and the absence of vigorous excursions such as hiking and biking, some kind of exercise room would seem fitting.

This cruise seems to support the very recent trend in luxury travel towards longer, more immersive journeys, particularly among those travelers aged 60+. More than half of all passengers were sailing all the way from Amsterdam to Bucharest—a 23-day booking—aboard the same ship.

I lost count of how many passengers reported that they voted for the longer cruise to experience a different perspective on Europe; visit places mostly off-the-beaten-touring track; pack and unpack just once; not worry about sightseeing tours or making dinner reservations; and get a full vacation value from one airfare.

Additionally, our Passage to Eastern Europe cruise definitely draws the repeat traveler, and indeed almost all of our passengers are previous Viking River Cruises customers (who take advantage of early booking discounts). One night I am seated next to a woman taking her ninth Viking cruise, and of course she’s planning to be among the first on deck aboard the new seagoing 930-passenger Viking Star, debuting this spring. It’s a good bet that this passenger will take all the Scandinavia & Baltic, as well as Eastern and Western Mediterranean cruises.

viking update: ahoy, more longships
During 2015, Viking River Cruises will be adding 10 new 190-passenger Viking Longships to the company’s class of vessels that debuted in 2012; the new vessels will cruise on the Rhine/Main/Danube rivers network. Viking will also double its capacity on the Elbe River, adding two new vessels, the 98-passenger Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla; both will be smaller than the Longships in order to navigate the shallower waters of the Elbe, which runs between southeastern Germany and the Czech Republic.

Archived related articles
(available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
Venturing Through Bordeaux With Viking (May 2014)

contact information
Viking River Cruises: (800) 706-1483; vikingrivercruises.com or vikingrivercruises.com/my-trip/manage-my-trip/welcome-agents.html

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