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.

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