Saturday, May 27, 2017

Palace of Parliament
The last stop on our Gems of Southeastern Europe river cruise was Bucharest, Romania, a little over an hour’s bus ride from Giurgiu on the Danube.  So, we bade farewell to the river and headed to the country’s center of government.   Although communists took power here in 1947, it was under President Nicolae Ceausescu that Romania steered its own course, refusing to 
On the Parliament balcony
participate in the Warsaw Pact.  (It joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.)  This didn’t mean

Ceausescu didn’t have his own ambitions.  The Palace of Parliament is considered his masterpiece architectural contribution and was named the largest and most expensive civilian administrative building in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records.  It boasts twelve stories above ground and another eight below.  He apparently intended the building to house ministries, Communist Party offices, and official apartments, but that dream disappeared with his subsequent demise and the fall of the party.  Now it houses the senate and parliament, but tours and special events help supplement the enormous funds required to maintain the building’s pomp.  Bart Connor and Nadia Comaneci held their wedding receptions in one of the most opulent halls.  Another interesting fact:  everyone must go through required passport control just to enter the building.Also in Bucharest we bundled up and visited the outdoor National Village Museum, an unusual assortment of traditional dwellings, churches, and other buildings found throughout the regions of Romania in years past.  Before departing Bucharest for Transylvania, we passed Revolution Square; the country’s own “triumphal arch” built in 1936 on Ceausescu’s own Champs Elysees ; and the former secret police headquarters that has kept its original design as a reminder of the secret police work, but touts modern glass upper stories showing that the country was moving forward with democracy.

View from Cantacuzino Castle
The plains outside Bucharest quickly gave way to the hills leading up to Transylvania, and fog soon obscured higher elevations of what were surely majestic views.  En route to Dracula’s digs, we stopped to tour Cantacuzino Castle in Busteni.   Built in 1911 by the castle’s namesake, Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino, aka the “Nababul” because of his enormous wealth, the structure features only the best in oak, Carrara marble, Italian ceramics, and mosaics.  The main attraction, however, is the gallery of murals painted on Cordoba leather of twelve prominent members of the family.

One of Bran's narrow stairways
Then it was on to the highlight of our land extension, Bran Castle, home of Count Vlad Dracul, fictionalized by author Bram Stoker in his classic Count Dracula.  Actually, the man wasn’t the blood-sucking villain portrayed in the movies; rather, he simply had a novel way of protecting his revered region from invaders: he impaled them; hence, his nickname Vlad the Impaler.  The castle itself is quite the place—lots of elevations, steep stairs, displays of reproduction costumes and weapons, and incredible views in all directions that almost make up for the cold, biting winds often greeting those who venture to a balcony to see them.  Tourism has made its mark now, with special parties offered at Halloween/All Saints’ Day and more kitschy souvenirs than you can count.  Worth the visit, though?  Absolutely!  The castle was ahead of its time with ceramic heaters and other conveniences.
Ben, Angie, Lynn, Alex
As I’ve mentioned before, Ben and I have now sailed on nine river cruises with AmaWaterways.  We actually began with them when the company was still fledgling after its co-owner Rudi Schreiner left his management position at another leading river cruise line to create what he envisioned a river cruise company should look like.  Now AMA consistently wins the highest awards and accolades from the travel community and continually improves its ships and experiences.  Also from the beginning, Ben has booked our groups with the young woman who headed the group department and who has become a close friend over the years.  Angie Avalos happens to be a native Romanian (now living in Southern California), and she vowed that if we ever sailed this part of the Danube she’d meet us there to show us her country.
Angie's Romanian Family

And so it came to pass that this delightful, charming redhead met us at Dracula’s Castle to escort us around the land of her birth.  Ben, Angie and I said goodbye to our friends and traveling companions and drove in her cousin’s car to a small village above Rasnov in Transylvania to spend the night at the home of some of her relatives.  What delightful, friendly people!  Plum brandy is the national drink, and the home brew came out in force along with lots of traditional food, and interspersed with a sharing of family photos and English and Romanian lessons. 
Bran Castle View

We made the tourist rounds in and around Rasnov first and then Brasov, Angie’s hometown.  We visited Valea Cetatii Cave near the Rasnov citadel (not yet at top tourism standards, but nice—especially, we understand, during weekly classical music concerts) and Rasnov Fortress located on a steep cliff above the town.  The fortress is dotted with numerous small shops and
Gheorghe and Angie
 demonstration/reenactment studios to enhance visitor experiences.  Wouldn’t you know we’d run into an old friend of Angie’s, Gheorghe Samoila, who delighted in a photo session with her and laden Ben and me down with tourist information about his reenactment performances.
Brasov is a beautifully quaint city, and the hotel Angie had found for us was conveniently located right in the middle of the Council Square.  A top tourist destination itself, the city is home to the first Romanian school; the famous 600 year-old Black Church; stunning Saint Nicolae Church; an impressive synagogue; the most beautiful covered bridge I’d ever seen; and Tampa Mountain (though "hill" to the locals) that we reached via cable car for views (on a clear day, no less) of the plains below.  We fell in love with this little city.
Lovely Brasov, Romania
Our last stop in Transylvania was to the mind-boggling Peles Castle near Sinaia, built by Carol I, the first Romanian King, in 1874 to serve as a summer residence of the royal family.  Constructed in the German new-Renaissance style, this stunning castle is filled with some of the finest examples of European art, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows, and Cordoba leather covered walls found anywhere.  Each of the 160 rooms bears of theme beautifully carried out and with modern conveniences inviable at the time, from the first elevator in Europe to a double organ between two concert rooms .  It was the first castle on the
continent with full electrical power and one of the few with central heating.  Thanks to Angie, we were given a private tour of the upstairs rooms.  It will remain one of the most elegant castles we’ve ever seen.  We spent the night in Sinaia, a lovely ski resort town, and Angie and I left Ben behind (okay, so it was cold and drizzling rain) and walked to the Sinaia Monastery where a visiting choir broke into song while we were inside a chapel.  A perfect way to end the trip.
Heartfelt thanks to our friend Angie and her colleague Alex Stan who made this very special time in Romania possible.  Before tourism takes too great a hold on this country, go and enjoy her beauty.

With our Cruise Manager Peter Whitehead
To conclude this travel piece I must give another huge shout to both our cruise directors, Matyas Keresztes on our first Danube itinerary and Peter Whitehead on the second.  As usual, food and service onboard were excellent, and the AmaSonata sailed like a charm—a beautiful ship.  Ama contracts with some of the best local tour guides available and adds special touches to excursions whenever possible.  Admittedly, passport control between some countries was more stringent than usual on the lower Danube, but the ship’s staff ensured smooth transitions in all situations.

Our Southeastern Gems Group!
We look forward to our next AmaWaterways cruise to Bordeaux in 2018!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Southeastern Europe River Cruise--I'm Back!

I admit it.  I’ve been a terrible blogger the last three years.   We sold our cruise franchise to our friend and partner Susan Pretkus-Combs, bought a new house and moved, got Ben through some months-long medical issues, and (mainly) I simply didn’t put the blog at a priority.  Since my last blog, however, we’ve still covered some amazing territory:  the Galapagos Islands on the Celebrity Xpedition; Scotland, Wales, the English Lake District, Ireland, and Northern Ireland on a Globus Celtic Highlights tour; a Princess cruise down the Pacific Coast to Mexico; and a couple of great trips with our military friends to Branson, MO, and the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky including visits to Churchill Downs and sites in the Louisville area.

Blue Footed Boobie
May I just focus for a moment on the Galapagos cruise and say that if you love wildlife and nature enjoy casual, truly all-inclusive cruising with outstanding naturalists, go to those islands with Celebrity.  It will be a highlight of your travels.  As a matter of fact, Celebrity now sails three ships to the Galapagos, offering more opportunities, competitive pricing, and oftentimes additional incentives to book.  If you’d like more information, be sure to contact Susan.
There are many ways to visit the British Isles, of course, but as
Cliffs of Mohr Citadel
much as I love cruising I wanted to really see more of these beautiful countries than a cruise could provide.  Globus did a wonderful job on the two-week guided tour, and we put in some serious mileage visiting all the highlights, from attending the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and kissing the Blarney Stone to touring the Ring of Kerry and Giant Cliffs of Mohr.  Magical.  We even visited the Beatles museum in Liverpool and fell in love with the English Lake District.  To see Tattoo, remember that you must travel during the month of August and make sure tickets to the event are included in your cruise or tour package.

Last fall we returned to our favorite river cruise company, AmaWaterways, to visit the only leg of the Danube we’d not
Passau--St. Stevens Cathedral
previously sailed—southeastern Europe.  Ben and I decided to fly over a week early to repeat the Vilshofen (Germany)-to-Budapest route we’d sailed twice before, once in the summer and the other for the Christmas markets that I blogged about then.  This time we arrived in Munich on the last day of Octoberfest and sailed by ourselves with a wonderful crew, revisiting some favorite spots and catching some new sites as well.  This time in Passau, I hiked up to Passau Castle which provided beautiful views of Germany and Austria in the distance, as well as the city itself.  I couldn’t resist entering St. Steven’s Cathedral again to see the world’s largest cathedral organ.  No concert this time (we were treated to one on our previous stop there), but did hear someone practicing.  We chose the excursion to the quaint village of Chesky Krumlov from Linz.  Karoly Vary remains our favorite of the quaint villages, but this was a jewel, too.

Once in Budapest, 26 friends and clients joined us for our adventure to these Danube- bordering, formerly communist countries.  To sweeten our cruise even more, AMA had assigned one of our favorite cruise directors, Peter Whitehead, to this sailing—and what a knowledgeable, entertaining and delightful person he is! 

This Gems of Southeast Europe itinerary took us from Budapest and Vilany, Hungary; Vukovar-Ilok, Croatia; Novi Sad and Belgrade, Serbia; through the Iron Gates of Romania; to Vidin, Bulgaria; and finally to Rousse or Giurgiu, Bulgaria where we disembarked for our tour extension to Bucharest and Transylvania, Romania.

Our first port was Mohacs, where we boarded buses for a city tour of Pecs, an hour’s drive from the port.  We learned that Mohacs was one of Hungary’s most important cities, for it was there that the Hungarian army was once defeated by the Turks.  Pecs is the 2010 European Capital of Culture and is the center of the region’s agricultural industry. Besides the clever statue of Franz Liszt outside a window, Pecs also lays claim to the Cella Septichora, an ancient Roman burial ground that was fascinating.  The afternoon’s program included a trip to the Villany Wine Region and sampling of local varieties.

Our next stop in Vukovar offered one of the most interesting and
poignant tours:  to the Vukovar Yugoslav Civil War memorial and cemetery honoring the Croatian civilians and prisoners of war massacred by Serb paramilitaries and Yugoslav People’s Army in 1991.  One man was buried beside his sons—all killed in battle.  A small museum commemorates the lives lost through stories and photos.

In Novi Sad, we visited Petrovardin Fortress overlooking the Danube that dates back to 1692, although archaeologists have found remains of earlier fortifications from the Paleolithic Age.  Novi Sad itself was almost destroyed during the 1848 revolution and further devastated by NATO bombardment during the Kosovo War of 1999.  Today, however, the city is a key financial center and the second largest city in Serbia.   

Confluence of Danube and Sava Rivers
Belgrade was a pleasant surprise on our itinerary.  With the help of our intelligent and witty guide, we saw the histories of these once warring neighboring countries weave together over the centuries and came to appreciate the diverse and often competing generational views in play.  He recommended a historical novel called The Bridge on the Drina that I can now recommend to anyone wishing to better understand the tumultuous histories of these war-torn countries.  As part of our guided tour we visited Kalemegdan Fortress, a citadel providing a beautiful panorama of the of the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, and St. Sava temple, the Balkans'
 biggest (and the world’s second largest) Orthodox church.  Work on the interior of this temple has been interrupted numerous times over the years rendering it still unfinished, but it remains a magnificent structure.

Our afternoon in Belgrade brought options: Tito’s memorial tour, brandy tasting, and a guided bike tour.  Ben and I chose the Tito tour (the other tours received high marks, too), which included Tito’s mausoleum and the Museum of Yugoslav History (also called the May 25 Museum).  Befitting the man’s size, the tomb is gigantic and is located in the House of Flowers botanical display.  In the museum are not only artifacts, state gifts to Tito, and military relics,

but also a display of Youth Batons that celebrated Youth Day, which in turn also celebrated Tito’s birthday.  In the weeks preceding the event, youth ran a relay around the country and ceremonially present the batons they carried to Tito. The man was not without an ego.

We were all on edge about the weather forecast for the following
day’s highlight of the cruise: cruising the Iron Gates.  Would the clouds hold off? Would the wind prevent deck viewing?   Well, the sky dawned perfectly clear, but oh was that wind cold. 

Nevertheless, we bundled up to inhale the crisp air and soak in the sight of this dramatic gorge on the Danube that forms part of the boundary between Serbia and Romania. The name actually refers not only to this gorge itself and the series of gorges along this part of the river, but also to the largest hydro-power dam and reservoir system on the Danube.  We sailed through The Great Kazan, the most famous and narrowest gorge
Mracuna Monastery
where the Roman emperor Trajan had a suspension road built preceding his conquest of Dacia.  On one side of the river is a plaque commemorating Trajan; on the other is a likeness of Decebalus, the defeated Dacian opponent, intricately carved into the rocks.  We also sailed past the small but beautiful and still-active Romanian Mracuna Monastery, built on the spot of an original point of observation and shipping management on the Danube.  The original monastery was built in 1523, but the present is a 20th century construction.

Play at Baba Vida Fortress
Our final cruising day took us to Vidin, Bulgaria, where most of us headed to Belogradchik and the Baba Vida fortress, though some folks opted by a pastry and yogurt making tour or a bike tour.  The big draw in Belogradchik is a series of giant rock formations that have been shaped over millions of years in the Stara Planina Mountains.  We had to do with photos of said formations, though, because they were completely enveloped in fog.  We did climb up part way, but there were no views to be had that day.  Baba Vida was kinder to us and we enjoyed exploring the best preserved medieval stone fortress in Bulgaria.  After the original Roman citadael was in ruins, the fortress was built atop during the 10th and 14th centuries.  We were even treated with a short historical play with actors in costume.

The AmaSonata stopped first in Rouse, Bulgaria and then in Giurgiu, Romania for disembarkation.  Some in our group selected the tour to Veliko Tarnovo, often referred to as the City of the Tsars, for a day visiting the Tsaravets palaces and churches, lunch at a hotel and sightseeing along the way.  The city is a candidate for European Capital of Culture in 2019.  Ben and I chose the walking tour of Rousse instead.  Rousse is known for its Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture and is often called Little Vienna.  It was a rainy day in Rousse, but I must say our visit to St. Paul of the Cross Cathedral on Sunday during worship was a moving way to end the cruise.  Guests were welcome, and even locals came and went while we were there.  Clink on this link to hear part of the moving service.

From here we headed to Bucharest to begin our cruise extension in Transylvania, Romania (including Count Dracula’s castle) and then a personal tour of her country by our AmaWaterways friend and native Romanian.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Emilia Romagna-Post 2

The beginnings of Parmesan cheese
Two solid masses form per vat
Mention the city of Parma, Italy, and food immediately comes to mind—Parmesan cheese and Parma ham, that is!  Our first destination was to one of several authorized Parmigiana Reggiana plants in the Emilia Romagna region...and the cheese wheel cannot bear the official “Parmigiana Reggiana” stamp imprinted unless it IS produced in this region and moreover passes various inspections levied during the production process.  We watched as workers turned the result of two days of milking into 36 wheels of cheese that evolved through coagulation from large masses of cheese product floating in huge vats, to balls formed in sack cloth and suspended over the vats for shaping.  Each ball weighs about 75 pounds!  The final shape takes place in heavy round disks in which the almost-wheel is turned over and pressed down for one day before moving to the next step:  a 21-day float in water saturated with salt. Over the course of another month or so, codes and stamps are imprinted and the wheels are taken to a huge room filled with shelves and shelves of other cheese wheels (many tons worth!) to age at least a year. Then come the final inspectors who use their trusty metal hammers to tap each wheel to ensure there are no bubbles inside.  Only then is the final stamp applied.  The actual number of months each wheel is finally aged is reflected on it, with 24 months being the max.  Young cheese is milkier and more flexible; older cheese tastes less milky, is a bit sharper, and has a more grainy texture.  The older the cheese, of course, the pricier.  The shop at the factory sold most all age levels, and there was plenty of it available for sampling and purchasing, which we did. 

Inspectors stamping approval
On a hill south of Parma and its surroundings stands the Castello di Torrechiara, one of a series of well preserved castles located between the Po River and the Apennine Mountains.  Torrechiara is probably the best preserved of them and lies virtually unchanged since its construction in the 15th century.  The castle’s four rectangular towers (torre) make it quite a prominent and imposing structure and offer stunning views of the countryside.  Inside, the artwork is interesting, if not beautiful, with so called “grotesque” frescoes of fantasy scenes like naked acrobats performing impossible stunts while riding lions.   

Next up on our schedule that day was a visit to a prosciutto factory, home of the famous Parma hams that come from the back legs of 9 month old pigs only.  Over 50,000 hams are sold per year after they age a minimum of one year, with two years being even better.  We had never seen so many hams hanging to cure in one place!  After a lunch of (of course) Parma ham and cheese, we toured the historical center of Parma, including the Farnese Theater and Baptistery.  

Ferrara Cathedral
The city of Ferrara proved a pleasant surprise the following day.  We toured the Estense Castle, an imposing fortress inside the city itself with drawbridges over a real moat and towers dating back to the twelfth century.  Built by Niccolo II d’Este in response to a dangerous revolt, the castle still stands as a symbol of the famous House of Este dynasty.  Even more impressive to me, however, was the cathedral in the city that also dates to the twelfth century, particularly the facade.  The mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles, both pink and white marble and terracotta construction, and scenes from the New Testament combine to make it one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
Our final day of touring took us to Mantua for a historical walking tour followed by a lovely luncheon boat tour along the river and lake of the city.  It was the artwork inside the Palazzo Ducale that caught everyone’s eyes—literally.  Watch the pointing arm of a woman in one of the paintings as you walk the length of the gallery, and the arm will follow you!   

Sauro, Lynn, Orietta, Ben
Perhaps the most fun for us that day was sharing it with Ben’s Italian relatives, Orietta and Sauro Brunelli, who drove up from Ancona.  We first met Orietta’s family back in 1972 while stationed in Aviano and have maintained contact over the years.  With our substandard Italian but with help from others in our group who spoke the language much better, we all had a grand time! 

There is so much to treasure in this beautiful country.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit, please seize it; if not, however, I hope these small glimpses into Italia bella will send a little joy your way.