The Lower Danube: Bucharest to Budapest

The stone church at Snagov Monastery, in Romania, dates from the 15th century. It sits on a small lake island that has held a church since the 11 th century.
The stone church at Snagov Monastery, in Romania, dates from the 15th century. It sits on a small lake island that has held a church since the 11 th century.

Despite the familiar credit card labels pasted on shop doors and ATMs, none of my American cards worked in modern Bucharest, Romania. Across the Danube River, in Bulgaria, crumbling factories and houses remain eerily empty more than 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Up the river toward Hungary, Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade is bustling with thriving businesses that sit next door to jagged metal and concrete hulks of bombed out buildings from war with NATO in 1999. “We call them tourist attractions,” said a resident.

If you cruise the Lower Danube River between Bucharest and Budapest, be prepared for such incongruousness.

The Lower Danube, traversed in both directions by several river cruise companies, and sometimes in combination with the Upper Danube through Germany and Austria, is a highly rewarding trip. The journey is revealing, not only during the typically fascinating cultural and religious tours about what this part of Eastern Europe once was, but also as a lesson to Westerners about what it is today.

In disparate communities with unnatural borders, some ancient religious, cultural and political animosities still simmer, stirred by largely dysfunctional governments. Daily, older residents shrug their shoulders in resignation, counting their blessings, while many younger ones count their pennies as they continue to hope to migrate northwest.

Oh, that’s because of the government corruption.

Frequent answer by tour guides and locals

“Oh, that’s because of the government corruption” was the answer by the region’s locals and tour guides to many questions by my traveling group on the new 182-passenger river vessel, Emerald Dawn.

I had booked the river cruise on Emerald Waterways mostly for the cities and historic sites: Bucharest, less to see Nicolae Ceausescu’s palatial government extravagance, which is almost as big as the Pentagon, than for a tour to the Snagov Monastery’s 15th-century Romanian Orthodox Church and its wall of icons (Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for Count Dracula, probably is not buried here, but he is remembered); Bulgaria, once a Euro-Asia breadbasket and always a strategic war chess piece, to visit the old tsars’ clifftop town of Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanassi; the Danube’s narrows for the so-called Iron Gate and riverside castle ruins through the lush Carpathians; and various churches and fortresses along the path to the majesty of Budapest, Hungary.

The itinerary includes Bulgaria, once a Euro-Asia breadbasket and always a strategic war chess piece, where passengers can visit the old tsars’ clifftop town of Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanassi.

As we floated up the Danube on an ancient river that has carried great gobs of refuges, merchants and armies through the centuries, we were well fed and hand-held, in the modern tradition of river vessels such as the Emerald Dawn — on this ship with the bonus of an indoor swimming pool that converts to a cinema at night. Learned guides and lecturers explained a part of the world that has been at war, hot or cold, for hundreds of years.

The cruise director shared stories of her own childhood, haunting tales of growing up in Romania when Ceausescu was in charge, and the government quizzed children about their parents’ activities to spy on them.

On some river cruise itineraries, such as this one designed by Emerald Waterways, meet-the-people possibilities lead to conversations with residents who may provide new understandings about their lives. These are all the more meaningful in southeastern Europe as the news churns out emotional stories about the thousands of refugees moving northwest from the Middle East through Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. Travelers may also discover that many southeastern Europeans feel no connection or power to influence political happenings in their own countries, and they are quite interested in opinions about what is happening in the United States, especially in a U.S. presidential election year.

On a shore excursion near Osijek, Croatia, we split into groups of six to eight; each group would visit a house in the countryside for a home-cooked lunch, which was a highlight of the voyage.

My group met Rejna Tkalcevic, 38, who lives with her young daughter in a small, concrete house on a one-lane road. Inside, a table was set for seven, including Rejna, who served and ate with us.

We began with a small glass of brandy ( homemade, with cherries) and soup from her garden (broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and herbs, mixed in a blender). She said this was one of about a dozen lunches she had made for passengers on river cruises — meatloaf, leafy salad, potatoes, cherry and gooseberry strudel, homemade red and white wine.

Her story was as rich as the lunch. This house had belonged to her family until the bloody, devastating war with Serbia in the early 1990s, after Croatia had declared independence. In the war, her father had been severely wounded by a Serb soldier. The family fled, leaving all their household goods after a Serbian family arrived to take over the house.

Six years later, the war over, Rejna and her family returned, and got their house back from the Serbian family. Now Rejna and family live in a community with Croatian people and Serbs.

“I have made friends with Serbs,” she said. “We eat together, we laugh together. I go to Serbia to shop. An important lesson from my mother was that I can hate the man who nearly killed my father. But we do not know who he is, and we cannot hate a whole country.

“Besides,” she asked with a smile, “if I hated all the Serbs, where would I go to shop?”

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of